Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Sunday, August 28, 2011
THE REV. KNOW IT ALL’S “GUIDE TO READING THE BIBLE, THAT BIG BOOK ON THE COFFEE TABLE.” Part 13
WHOSE YOUR DADDY? MORE PROBLEMS WITH SCROLLS
When we read a modern book, we never worry that it’s not an exact copy of the original. The original may have typos, but who asks, “Is this an exact copy of the original?”
Not so with books before 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press. Before that, books, were all hand written in codex form (turnable pages) or on long scrolls of animal skins or papyrus. But, paper and animal skins decay and must be recopied. Put yourself in a time when there were no computers, Xerox machines, cell phones, printing presses, electric lights, central heating, or eye glasses.
Imagine that it is the year 600 and you are an underfed, overworked scribe, a slave, or after the fall of the Roman empire, a monk. Lets call you Brother Cuthbert the Near Sighted. You don’t get a lot of sleep, or a lot of food. You’re dying for a cup of coffee, but it hasn’t been invented yet. Water is usually bad, so the morning pick me up is beer or wine with a crust of stale bread for dunking.
By six in the morning you are sightly mellow. It’s cold. Your fingers are numb. His Grace, the Duke of Schmendrick, Lord of the Manor, wants a new copy of the Bible, in the original Greek and Hebrew, not your best subjects in school. There you are, in a cold, dark scriptorium (writing room) trying to read and copy the entire Bible by the light of an oil lamp. I bet you are going to make a mistake or two in the almost one million words in the Bible.
So it happens, that you leave out a whole section of the 8th chapter of the Book of Armaments. Well, the Lord of the Manor won’t notice anyway. He is illiterate. He has just bought a new coffee table anticipating the eventual discovery of coffee and needs something impressive to put on it. A year later, you are finished with what will become the famous Schmendrick Manuscript.
After you fall over dead in the scriptorium at the advanced age of 48, with you your goose quill pen clutched in your ink stained fingers, the Duke decides to give presents to his three lovely daughters, Berta, Gutrun and Brunhilda as they go off to their respective marriages to the royal houses of Lotharingia, Neustria and Franconia.
In their new homes, these fair maids, in their joy at having each bagged a monarch, begin to spend his money by endowing all the local monasteries with a copy of the Bibles with which their dear father, Duke Schmendrick had sent them off, never to see them again, much to his personal relief. (The girls were good eaters.)
So the Schmendrick Manuscript (circa 600AD) has made a lot of “baby” manuscripts, all of them missing a large chunk of the 8th chapter of the Book of Armaments. The original, 3rd century, more accurate Hebrew and Greek manuscript which you, Brother Cuthbert, mistakenly placed on the top shelf of the chapel broom closet where it has lain untouched until after the Second Vatican Council when a few walls were knocked out to make a combination Confessional Room and Yoga Center. And, Lo and Behold! There is an addition to the Hebrew text of the Book of Armaments that no one realized was there.
Most of the handwritten Hebrew texts don’t have this missing section, but this one does. Though it is the less common manuscript, it is still the better manuscript. This comes as no surprise to the Catholic Church, because the Latin Text has always had the extra section of the Book of Armaments. The Disputed Verses, as they are called in academic circles, were translated into Latin 300 years before Brother Cuthbert took to napping in the scriptorium, forgetting where he had left off copying.
Non-Catholic Bibles leave out the Disputed Verses because, for almost a thousand years no one knew about the better, older Hebrew manuscript hidden in the chapel broom closet, way back and toward the left, which has the missing lines. (This also explains the wandering ghost of an early medieval monk who walks the cloister at midnight muttering in broken Hebrew, as if looking for something he has misplaced. But I digress.....)
Bad manuscripts sometimes make lots of babies! Just because something is or isn’t in most manuscripts doesn’t mean it was in the oldest manuscripts. This is exactly the problem with Bibles like the King James Version and the Luther Bible. They depended on later, inferior manuscripts that the budding, over-excited scholars of the Renaissance rushed into print. We have access to better manuscripts now, and the Official Latin Text, called the Vulgate, has always been based on these better manuscripts.
Are you thoroughly confused? I hope so. So are most Biblical scholars. Once again, if you believe that all we have is the Bible, you are in big trouble. You must have tired long ago of my saying this, but without competent authority, it is impossible to determine what is truly Biblical.
God gave us the Bible and at the same time He gave us somebody to take care of the Bible. Someone has to be able to say that the phrase “faith alone” is in the letter of James, but not in the letter to the Romans, because there will always be some wise guy who comes along and tries to convince the world that the truth is otherwise. And, you guessed it, that someone given to us to safeguard the Gospel is none other than the Bishop of Rome, the Successor to St. Peter, known to friend and foe alike as,
Biblical principle # 12 The fact that the Bible has human errors in it only diminishes the truth of the Gospel if there is no other source of the Gospel than the Bible.
PS For the humor impaired: there is no Book of Armaments in the Bible. There is no Schmendrick Manuscript, but there used to be a Lotharingia, Neustria and Franconia.
PPS When I say gospel in this context I am not talking about Matthew, Mark Luke and John. I am talking about the whole wonderful story of God’s love for humanity, from Adam all the way to the present time. That love has a name: It is Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, whom you can get to know here and now, The Bible and the Church are His witnesses, and He is truly really fully present under the form of Bread and Wine in the Holy Eucharist. He wants to give you Life and Life more abundantly. Why not get to know Him and give a chance? It’s really very easy to start. Just stop, bow your head, close your eyes and ask Him to take charge of your life. It’s a prayer He is always ready and willing to answer.
I’m done now. Here are all Rev. Know-it-all’s principles for reading the Bible:
THE BIBLE EXISTS TO TEACH US GOD’S WAY OF DOING THINGS, HIS CHARACTER, HIS PRINCIPLES AND HIS PROMISES.
THE BIBLE IS NOT A BOOK. IT’S A LIBRARY.
YOU CAN’T BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY WITHOUT A COMPETENT TEACHING AUTHORITY TO HELP YOU.
THE BIBLE IS NOT A SELF INTERPRETING HISTORY BOOK. IT IS A COLLECTION OF BOOKS WRITTEN BY GOD FOR HUMAN BEINGS TO HELP US TO KNOW, LOVE AND SERVE GOD IN THIS WORLD AND TO BE HAPPY WITH HIM FOREVER.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE NUMBERS. HEAVEN HAS AN ARITHMETIC MORE MEANINGFUL THAN EARTH’S.
THE BIBLE DOESN’T EXIST TO TELL US THE FUTURE, OR GIVE US STOCK TIPS OR SATISFY OUR SCIENTIFIC CURIOSITY. IT EXISTS TO EQUIP US WITH THE THINGS NECESSARY FOR OUR SALVATION AND REDEMPTION.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO INTERPRET SCRIPTURE WITHOUT TRADITION.
MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE READING ABOUT BEFORE YOU DECIDE WHO YOU ARE READING ABOUT.
AS YOU READ THE BIBLE DON’T ASSUME YOU KNOW WHAT A WORD MEANS UNTIL YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS.
THE BIBLE IS ABOUT PEOPLE, NOT PLASTER SAINTS.
KNOW THE STORY BEFORE YOU READ THE BIBLE
- THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE ORIGINAL BIBLE
THE FACT THAT THE BIBLE HAS HUMAN ERRORS ONLY DIMINISHES THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL IF THERE IS NO OTHER SOURCE OF THE GOSPEL THAN THE BIBLE
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
THE REV. KNOW IT ALL’S “GUIDE TO READING THE BIBLE, THAT BIG BOOK ON THE COFFEE TABLE.” Part 12
ROLL OUT THE BIBLE, or THE SOLA SCRIPTURA POLKA
I have been saying for months now that the Bible isn’t a book. It’s a library. When someone asks me for the best translation of the Bible, the assumption behind the question is that there is an original Bible somewhere that can be translated. There is no such thing. This is a very difficult idea to wrap one’s mind around. In this present age, we can go to a text and look at the printed page and look at the author’s forward and look at the copyright, the date of printing, which edition our particular copy is and probably, if we were really worried about the whole thing we could ask to see the original author’s manuscript just to make sure our copy is the real deal. Then we would be pretty sure that we had the original version of the book.
There is no original Bible sitting on a dusty shelf in the Vatican basement. There are bits and pieces of sheepskin, copper, silver, stone and papyrus found in caves and tombs and ancient garbage dumps in the desert. As far as we know, we have not one piece of paper that was written on by Mark or Luke or Moses or anyone in that crowd. What we have are handwritten scrolls or pieces of scrolls that are copies of copies of copies of handwritten scrolls.
Let your imagination take you back to an age before junk mail or faxes or e-mail or newspapers or those annoying bits of paper stuck in your windshield wipers while in the store buying stuff wrapped in cheap paper. In the western world there were only two sources of flexible writing material. There was sheepskin, but a book might take a few dozen sheep, and that’s gonna cost ya. Less expensive, there was papyrus which came only from a weed growing in the swamps of northern Egypt. There were bits of broken pottery which the ancients used like post-it notes and there were tablets in wooden frames that were joined together like little books. They could be scraped clean and reused, but had only two small pages of writing space. There was stone, hard to write on and much harder to carry around in the fold of your toga.
For things that mattered papyrus (from which we get the word paper) was the cheapest, best way to record things. It didn’t last forever except in a desert climate, so for really important things, calf or sheepskin vellum was the way to go (expensive, but long lasting). The Jews used vellum for the scrolls on which they wrote their sacred texts and they still do. When the “books” of the Bible were written, no books, such as we know them, even existed. There were only scrolls, usually written on only one side. They were large and clumsy.
The scroll of Esther of which Luther said “I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist” is sometimes called the whole Megillah (reciting) because its whole scroll is read out loud in synagogues on the feast of Purim. I have heard the Torah, the five books of Moses, called the big megillah, because it is, well, big. If the first five books of the Bible were such a big, unwieldy scroll, imagine what it would have been like to put all 73 books of the Bible on one scroll. You would need a fork lift just to get it off the shelf.
Another problem is that the people didn’t read. They listened. Sacred books, in fact all books were publicly read. In the early Church there were ordained lectors whose job was to make sure the sacred scrolls were publicly read. Books were too Expensive for just anyone to own. These days, a Torah scroll costs between 25 and 60 thousand dollars. And we have lots of sheep and cows. Only the very richest could own their own personal scrolls.
Lets do the math. At say $40,000 for five books, we don’t want the most expensive, but we don’t want the cheapest either, what would the neighbors say? At $40,000 for five books, a Bible of 73 books would cost around six hundred thousand dollars!!!! Yes that’s $600,000!!! (A Protestant Bible would only cost $536,0000, so you might want to be a Baptist in this situation.) Do you get my point? When the Bible was written, THERE WAS NO SUCH THING AS A BIBLE!!!!
So, how did we get the Bible as we now have it? Remember the wax tablet in the two wooden frames? Somebody got the bright idea around 50-100AD to put papyrus or animal skin sheets in the frames instead of the wax. You could fit a lot of papyrus or even vellum between two boards and it was easier to schlepp around than a scroll and easier to find where you left off, you didn’t have to unroll things. And thus the book as we know it was born. It was called a codex, from the Latin word for a block of wood. That’s because it looked like a block of wood.
The codex was a big hit, especially with Christians who moved around a lot. Remember apostle means missionary. We read of St. Paul asking for his winter coat and his animal skins. “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (2) Tim. 4:13 Note that he says “especially the parchments,” not just the cheap papyrus scrolls. The codex made things easier and cheaper. You could write on both sides of the pages thus saving paper, and it was small and could be stuffed into the fold of your toga or your traveling bag. Still, the scroll remained the standard until around 300 AD.
Then a couple of big things happened. Constantine became emperor and a made Christianity legal. He commissioned a giant codex containing all the books of the Bible and had fifty of them made. Remember, this had to be done by hand, by bored drowsy professional scribes from the imperial bureaucracy writing on animal skins. That’s fifty large books!! At $600,000 a pop, that comes to about $30,000,000 (thirty million dollars)!
Pope Damasus in Rome seems to have done something similar at around the same time, but the idea of the Bible in book form as we know it seems to originate with Constantine in 331. We have two copies of the Bible from that time, one of which may be one of the original Constantinian editions. These are the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. They don’t quite agree. There are different spellings and varying texts between the two most ancient “Bibles” , the Sinaiticus has four books of Maccabees, and the Vaticanus has no Maccabees at all. I ask you , is that any way to run a business?
The first two Bibles don’t even agree with each other! The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered on a dusty shelf in a monastery in the Sinai desert where the Greek Orthodox monks were using bits of old scrolls as fuel to cook their lunches. The Codex Vaticanus actually was found on dusty old shelf somewhere in the Vatican sometime in the 1500's. No one knows where it came from. Thank heavens, old rectories, convents and religious houses tend not to throw old stuff out.
So what does this all mean? If you are looking for an original copy of the Bible there is no such thing. If you believe in Sola Scriptura ― Bible alone ― I would like you to tell me which Scriptura you believe in and why! Thank God I am a Catholic and that I know the Gospel has been personally and faithfully transmitted by the community of the Church and that the minor variations in an ancient text don’t change the truth at all. I, unlike the Sola Scriptura crowd don’t have to depend on some medieval monk or some imperial Roman bureaucrat falling asleep in the middle of copying a sentence in a dark cold scriptorium sometime in the dark ages. I have a living tradition to sustain me and not a dead letter.
Principle #12, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE ORIGINAL BIBLE
PS You’ll notice that in the Catholic Church, when we read from the text of Scripture we say “A reading from the Gospel of...” We don’t mention chapter and verse. That’s because we have been doing this since the days when we used scrolls in church. We have never gotten used to this new-fangled business of chapter and verse. Chapters didn’t happen until a few centuries after Christ and verses didn’t come into use until 1560. Give me that old time religion!
Friday, August 12, 2011
THE PERENNIAL QUESTION: WHY DID CATHOLICS ADD 7 BOOKS TO THE BIBLE? Part 11
Simple answer: the CATHOLICS added nothing ─ the truth is that the Protestants took seven books away.
Complicated answer: Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, whom you might know as St. Jerome was born in 347 AD in Slovenia (then called Dalmatia, in the future, now former Yugoslavia. Figure that out.) In 378 he was ordained for the diocese of (Greek speaking) Antioch in Syria. In 382 he went to Rome and started working for Pope Damasus. At the pope’s urging, he decided to update the old Latin version of the Bible into a “more modern, easy to read version in today’s Latin.” (Today being 382 AD) It was called the Vulgate or the “Bible for the Common Man.”
First he translated the Greek New Testament. Then he updated the version of the psalms contained in the Septuagint. (The Septuagint was the widely read Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, completed in Egypt in 132BC. At the time, all Christians accepted the Septuagint as THE Bible.) Jerome went on to translate the rest of the Old Testament from the Hebrew and Aramaic sources of the Septuagint. It turned out to be a project that took years. It contained all the books in the Bible by the first Christians, but there were always questions, so....
Pope Damasus I, St. Jerome’s patron, assembled the first list of books of the Bible at the Council of Rome (382AD). The process continued in North Africa. A series of Synods (meetings of bishops) were held in North Africa beginning in Hippo in 393, and ending with the Council of Carthage(419). The meetings took up the question of what were the inspired books and what were not. There was a basic agreement on the texts, but even then, 400 years after Christ, there was still a need to make a definitive list. The pope and the North African bishops drew up their list from those books then in use by the Church, particularly those read at Mass. Finally, the list was submitted to Pope Boniface (Damasus’ successor) and the other bishops for confirmation. The list is as follows:
“It was also decided that, apart from the Canonical Scriptures, nothing else is to be read in the Church, in the name of divine Scriptures. Canonical Scriptures are therefore the following:… Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, of Kings the four books, of Chronicles the two books, Job, Psalms, of Solomon five books, of the Prophets twelve books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, of Ezdra two books. Of the New Testament: Gospels four, Acts of the Apostles one book, fourteen epistles by Apostle Paul, two by Apostle Peter, three by Apostle John, one by Apostle Jacob (James), one by Apostle Judas, one Book of Revelations by John.
These were the 73 books that St. Jerome translated and called the Latin Vulgate. The Vulgate Bible was the definitive text of Scripture in Europe for 1,130 years. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Catholic Church maintained what was left of the unity and culture of the Roman Christian world. Europe fractured into a bedlam of languages, a sort of tower of babble, but the Church maintained a common language, a common culture, a common law and a common Bible, the Vulgate, that was both source and guide. The Church insisted that the Latin Vulgate be regarded as the official version, not to hide the Bible from the masses, but to make it available to the whole world. Everyone who could read, read Latin. It was the universal language of literate people. Books were as rare as Elvis sightings and people who could read were not much more common. In order to make the Bible available, it had to be in the closest thing to a common language that the western world then had ─ Latin. Even Constantinople the capital of the Greek speaking East spoke Latin as an official language until 610AD. So the Vulgate and its 73 books were accepted by all Christians as the canon of Scriptures, the big book on the coffee table, the Bible!!! Until.......
Fr. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. Many assume that the Church hid the Bible in an obscure ancient language and that Luther was the first to translate it into the common language. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There were perhaps 17 translations of the Bible into German before Luther. The question was which German? The little town whence came my ancestors had a version of German that is incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t grow up in that particular town. And the rest of us who speak standard German are utterly bewildered by a Bavarian who has had a beer or two. These early German translations were based on the Latin Vulgate, which in turn was based on reliable ancient manuscripts.
Luther may have published in the most standard central German, thereby creating modern high German, and he may have gone to Greek and Hebrew texts, but he went with later, less reliable manuscripts like the Textus Receptus. Jerome was only 300 years after the fact. He had access to the most ancient manuscripts. Luther had no such access.
Still worse, Luther didn’t really translate the Bible. He paraphrased and poeticized it. In John 11:35 we read in Greek “edakrusen ho Iesous” (in English “Jesus wept.”) Luther didn’t translate it that way. He wrote “Und Jesus gingen die Augen über,” “And Jesus' eyes overflowed." Poetic. Lovely. Heartfelt. A Really Bad Translation. Luther claimed he was just expressing things in the way that people really spoke.
Maybe they really spoke that way in 16th Century central Germany. We Germans love kitsch and schmalz. (German words that mean gaudy and greasy.) We like cute art like Hummels. I own one or two myself. And shmalz? That means we like to lay it on thick. Like butter. Or even goose grease on rye bread. Yum. So Luther gave the folks what he thought they wanted. It was certainly what he wanted.
The most egregious example of his failure to translate is Romans 3:28. Luther translated it “We hold, then, that man is justified without the works of the law but by faith alone.” The word "alone" does not appear in the Biblical text, but Luther insisted that the word "alone" was necessary in German and that was what Paul meant anyway. This German doesn’t need the word and if Paul had intended it he would have written it. Luther both needed it and intended it if his strange and novel theology were going to claim Biblical inspiration. Luther didn’t use the Vulgate in his efforts to translate the Bible, he went straight to the Greek and Hebrew texts then in use. It didn’t occur to him that things might have changed in the course of a thousand years.
He looked at the Masoretic text still used by Jews today and there he found seven books fewer than the Vulgate had. He made the assumption that they weren’t in the Hebrew Bible because they weren’t authentic. It never occurred to Fr. Luther that perhaps those of the House of Israel who did not accept Jesus as Messiah, might have left out books that were very popular with the first Christians. These books were certainly in common use at the time of Christ. In other words, Luther claimed that 16th century Jews were more inspired than 1st century Christians. That was just about the last compliment Luther paid the Jews. Luther rejected the Christian Scriptures of 419AD in favor of the Jewish text which was not finalized until around 900AD. Well done Martin! To it he added his own flair for the dramatic and his curious beliefs in faith alone and predestination.
Fr. Luther had a low view of the books of Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. He called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw,” “finding little in it that pointed to Christ and His saving work.” He also disliked the book of Revelation, saying that he could “in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.”
During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and his friends experimented with different lists of Bible books. In the end, the New Testament books stayed the same despite Luther’s attempts to downgrade James, Jude, and Revelation. He particularly disliked James. I suspect that the only appearance of the phrase “faith alone” appears in James. “A person is made righteous by works and NOT by faith alone.” (James 2:24) On this point Luther and St. James had differing opinions.
The Old Testament, however, was fair game. There were certain books included in the Septuagint, and thus in the first list of canonical books and the Vulgate, which were not included in the Jewish Bible. Protestants call them the Apocrypha, or hidden books, well named since Luther hid them from the world. He put them in between the Old and New Testaments saying, “These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read."
So there you have it. Luther’s translation of both Testaments was finally printed in 1534, turning seven books of the Old Testament into a footnote so unimportant that Protestantism eventually dropped them altogether. He put disclaimers in the New Testament that warned the reader that James and Revelation probably weren’t inspired. In the book of Revelation we read “For I testify to every man who hears the words of the prophecy of this book that anyone who adds to these things God will add the plagues that are written in this book on to him. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy God shall take away his part out of the book of life.” (Rev. 22:18-19 ) Let’s hope for Fr. Luther’s sake that God doesn’t apply this text to the addition of “alone” to Romans 3:28 or the convenient removal of seven books of the Old Testament.
Next Week, THE BIG MEGILLAH, or ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES
Friday, August 5, 2011
THE REV. KNOW IT ALL’S “GUIDE TO READING THE BIBLE, THAT BIG BOOK ON THE COFFEE TABLE.” Part 10
BEWARE OF GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (unless of course they remember to include the gift return receipt)
Once I heard a preacher loudly denouncing party spirit. He was quoting St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the fifth chapter “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing....”
Due to this particular preacher’s former way of life, when he heard “party spirit” in the same sentence as drunkenness and carousing, he immediately thought of good times he had enjoyed on many a long forgotten Saturday night. The words “party spirit” were a translation of the Greek word “haeresis” from which comes the English word “heresy.” It has to do with choice or taking sides in an argument, hence belonging to one particular party or another. It is about divisions in the body of Christ, and has nothing to do with beer and loud music.
You may hear a word in your own language that has a number of meanings that have nothing to do with what the Bible is saying. It is amazing how many things we think are in the Bible that aren’t! This particular preacher went on at length and at volume about the evils of having fun of any kind. He completely missed the point of the text and was in fact guilty of the exact thing against which the text was cautioning. He was pushing the agenda of the faction in his church that was opposed to public smiling.
We think the scriptures are clear in what they say, and they are. We are the ones who are unclear in the way we hear it. Things get muddled when translated into a language that is an ocean away and two thousand years removed from their original context. I can hear you throw up your hands in despair and say: “ I don’t speak first century Greek. I will never speak first century Greek! How then can I read the Bible?” The answer is simple: don’t read the Bible; study it.
So many people want to read the Bible so they can say “Been there, done that.” They want to know what the Bible says about their favorite vice or least favorite virtue… I cannot count the number of times someone has asked me to tell them exactly what the Bible says about divorce, or wealth or politics or the end times or, or, or, or.....!
They treat the Bible as some sort of law book, or science book, or worse still some kind of fire insurance that will tell them how much they can get away with and still not burn in hell. “Father, does the Bible say it’s a sin if...” or this is always good: “The Bible doesn’t exactly say that I have to ..., or that I can’t…” (fill in your favorite sin here) That attitude is part of the cancer that is “sola scriptura” (Bible alone). Luther was wrong about sola scriptura. The Bible never mentions “sola scriptura,” but does mention the “church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” (1Tim.3:15) Truth is not one verse or one line from the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit speaking through the Bible as handed down to us faithfully and clearly for two millennia.
The Bible isn’t a book that you read. It’s a world in which you are meant to live. It’s the story of a family of faith that you can join by means of the Sacraments. There is an easy way to start the life long journey of Bible study. It’s called Bible History. The best Bible History course I know at the present time is produced by Mr. Jeff Cavins of Minnesota. It’s called the “Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study.”
Jeff’s point is that before you get into the Bible with any kind of depth, you have to know the story that the Holy Spirit tells in the 73 books of the Bible. If you treat the Bible like a book and read it from cover to cover, you will probably stop somewhere in the book of Leviticus “From the fellowship offering he is to bring a sacrifice made to the Lord by fire. All the fat that covers the inner parts or is connected to them, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the covering of the liver, which he will remove with the kidneys.” (Leviticus 3:4-5)
Well, that is certainly is an inspiring text! I’m sure you’ve heard many sermons preached about those heart warming lines from Scripture. Even now, I feel a sermon coming on! Where was I? My very well educated and very saintly mother once tried to read the Bible cover to cover. She stopped when she got to the story of Lot and his daughters, picked up the phone and called me saying, “Do you have any idea what’s in this book!?!”
Mr. Cavins suggests that we start by reading and really learning the story told in 14 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, First Maccabees, Luke and Acts. From these books, one learns the story of the family of Jesus and the history of God’s people. Then you can go back and plug in the rest of the books.
For instance, the Book of Jeremiah fits into the very end of the Second Book of Kings about 600 years before Christ. It’s a very sad story, the tragic end of a 500 year old dynasty and the destruction of a country. You wouldn’t know this if you hadn’t first read the Books of the Kings, and you would probably just think that the reading from Jeremiah is another incomprehensible thing we hear at church which can provide time for a quick nap.
The Bible is an amazing collection of stories and commentaries on those stories. There is a reason it has been popular for a couple thousand years. If you don’t know the story, it makes no sense. Have you ever started a book in the middle or come into a movie when it’s half over? It makes no sense!
The Bible is not arranged in any chronological order, so most people think it is just a collection of odd tales and inscrutable sayings that mostly make no sense. Let me say it again: THE BIBLE IS NOT ARRANGED IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER. That goes for the New Testament also. We seem to think that the New Testament starts with the story of Jesus and ends with the end of the world, Matthew to Revelation.
Let me share a deep dark secret: the books of the Bible weren’t originally in book form. They were written on long rolls of paper called scrolls! Paper was very expensive, so they didn’t want to waste it. When there was room at the end of a scroll, they would put another book or story on the scroll, not because it was what happened next in the story, but because there was room for it on the scroll!!!! When you read the Bible you think that like modern books, people started writing at the beginning and finished at the end.
Most people assume that the Gospels, (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John) were written first and then we have the Book of Acts and then Paul starts writing and it all ends up neatly with the Apocalypse which comes last because it’s about the end of the world. It’s not that simple. The oldest books in the New Testament aren’t the Gospels, they are some of the Epistles! Paul’s first letter to believers in the Greek town of Thessalonika was written around 52 AD! That’s about twenty years after the resurrection! In it Paul writes that Jesus had risen from the dead. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” (1 Thess.4:14) Those words were written well within the lives of those who witnessed the resurrection. Paul wasn’t making this stuff up. He really believed it and was writing this to people; some of whom may have seen it.
The Epistles were written in the following order: Thessalonians 52 AD, Corinthians 57 AD, Galatians 55-57 AD, Romans 57-58 AD, Ephesians 62 AD, Philippians 62 AD, Colossians 62 AD, Philemon 63 AD, Titus 64-65 AD and Timothy64-65 AD. These dates reflect the tradition that Paul was acquitted at his first trial, went on to Spain and then returned to Rome where he was re-arrested by the emperor Nero and was executed perhaps 64, 65 AD.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts seem to be a defense of Paul written before his trial in perhaps 62 AD. If this traditional chronology is true, St’ Paul’s Epistles contain the faith of the first thirty years of the Church. They have words like Eucharist, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, Liturgy, Baptism and so on. They recognize the unique role of St. Peter. They are recognizably the roots of the Church of today in its structure and its faith.
People assume that the Gospels were written as the source text and if they don’t find something there, they think it doesn’t go back to Jesus, so it doesn’t count. The Gospels were probably written from 55 to 70 AD, though scholars argue endlessly. Still, it seems indisputable that, in terms of their antiquity, the Epistles are as much the foundational texts of the Church as the Gospels. Certainly the story about Christ is older than the Epistles.
Dr. Peters of NYU points out that St. Paul had heard the Gospel stories before he wrote his Epistles and that some of the sayings of Jesus were memorized or even written down while Jesus was alive in the world, but it is clear that the writing down of the Gospel story is not far removed in time from either the life of Christ nor the writings of St. Paul. It is mostly the product of the 30 years immediately following Christ’s resurrection. All of the Gospels and Epistles were written by witnesses to the resurrection who gave their lives for the truths they had seen with their own eyes.
When you learn the chronology of the events of both Old and New Testaments, the story comes alive. It isn’t just a collection of sacred snippets and Bible bullets that can be used to justify your favorite sins or to harass your least favorite in-laws. You may not know the exact tense of the verb, but if you know the story, these wonderful words mean more and more each time you read them. It is an amazing story, a story that you can be part of.
“The Great Adventure” is a very Catholic way to study the Bible. Pope Benedict calls it canonical exegesis. (That’s Greek for interpreting the Bible as something written for a coherent purpose) The great Cathedrals of Europe are the same kind of Bible Study. When you visit the Cathedral of Chartres, perhaps the high point of gothic architecture, you can see the story of salvation carved in stone from Adam and Eve at the north door to the last judgment on the south door. You can walk around the Cathedral pointing to the stories of the Bible in a way that the simplest child can understand.
Most people don’t want the Bible told in the way that the simplest child can understand. They want to learn or even worse, to teach more sophisticated things. But you have to walk before you can run and crawl before you can walk. I have had great scholars read me the riot act for encouraging people to study the Bible as if it were really true. They find it simplistic, or even worse, fundamentalist! Some teachers delight in explaining to bewildered students that none of these stories are really history. They point out apparent inconsistencies that leave their students knowing nothing of the Bible except that it isn’t true.
Don’t start with an advanced course. Save that for later. I recommend you begin your study of the Bible with the assumption that it is a true story. When you’ve got the story down you can go back again and look at it more critically. With the help of two thousand years of tradition and real scholarship, you can decipher which stories are told poetically and which stories are told historically. Mr. Cavins is right. The Bible is a wonderful adventure, even if you can’t read ancient Greek.
Biblical principle #11 KNOW THE STORY BEFORE YOU READ THE BIBLE