Catholics and the Bible

The Catholic Church has a unique relationship with the Bible. After all, she wrote it, or large parts of it and decided finally what went in it. In this talk we will try to explore a little the complex relationship between faith and Scripture, to show that Scripture and Tradition are not opponents of one another, but work together to offer a total witness to God's work in the world, and we will try to see what this means for Catholics. 

Bible and handsFr. John Hemer is a Mill Hill Missionary originally from Liverpool. He lectures in Sacred Scripture at Allen Hall, The Westminster Diocesan Seminary in London, at Heythrop College and at Oscott College, the Birmingham Seminary. He holds a licentiate from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has worked as a missionary in Pakistan Uganda and Kenya and now gives lectures and retreats throughout Britain and in many other countries.


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We often hear the expression "he's lost the plot". In the history both of Israel and the Church losing the plot has been a continual danger, threat and even a temptation. In the middle of the 8th century BC some people in Israel were becoming very prosperous, it was boom time, and they assumed that their prosperity was a sign that God had blessed them and was pleased with them. Amos and prophets like him lifted up their voices to remind them that the reason they were prosperous was not God's favour, but the fact that they were ruthlessly exploiting the poor. They had lost the plot since one of the foundation stones of Israel was the understanding that God cares for the poor and the rest of us have a duty to look after them. So much of the work of those prophets is social and religious criticism which tried to stop Israel being just like the nations surrounding her.

In 587 Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and many of its people carried off into exile. It was for many the end of all their hopes and many gave belief in the Lord and concluded that the gods of Babylon had been victorious and all the promises God made about a glorious future were just so much wind. They were losing the plot and it was to stop this happening that Jeremiah and Ezekiel especially preached and wrote to assure them that God still had surprises up his sleeve for them. Although these prophets perceived it only dimly, they were setting the stage for the coming of Christ.

In the years following the return from exile in Babylon the people of Judah were trying to put back together their broken lives and under the inspiration of priests and prophets started to produce a coherent written account of who they were. It was during these years that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the foundation of Judaism and Christianity were finally put together and assumed the form they have today. And what jumps off every page is that it was only in God, with God, through God, for God, under God that they could make any sense of their lives. Hundreds of years of experience taught them that their identity as God's people was often fragile, was easily distorted by ideology, self-interest and even by misplaced religious enthusiasm. In order to keep the plot, holy memories and good intentions were not enough. Something had to be written down, and those writings had to assume a character that was binding and normative. In the five hundred years between the exile and the birth of Jesus those writings crystallised into what we now call the Old Testament (although, for the Jews it did not assume it's final form until some years after the fall of Jerusalem) and became the source of divine truth and inspiration, but also the touchstone of orthodoxy, or if you like, the way to keep the plot.

Through a similar but much quicker process the Early Church produced and ratified the twenty seven documents we now call the New Testament. One of the major concerns of the New Testament writers is precisely that people keep the plot. As early as 58 AD the Christians in Galatia seem to be losing the plot and imposing non-essentials on new gentile converts. Paul writes to put them back on the right track. The Christians in Corinth were religiously very enthusiastic, but also very divided and some seemed to treat Mass more as a social occasion.   Paul tells them off for getting drunk when they come to Mass. So easily even with enthusiasm people's faith could go of the rails.

By the end of the first century the author of 2 Peter clearly accords the writings of Paul the same status as the rest of Scripture. (2 Peter 3:15) The first few centuries of Christian history were, theologically speaking, the history of the struggle with heresy, in other words the struggle to establish the truth about Jesus, who he was, what he said and did and what he intended the future of his followers to be. The struggle to keep the plot. New, and to some, very attractive accounts of this were springing up all the time. The Gnostics attracted particularly spiritual sensitive people with their promise of secret knowledge and their affirmation that this messy material world in which we live had nothing to do with God. People today have huge problems with the Old Testament and all its violence and bloodshed in the name of God. Marcion solved that problem in the second century by throwing it away, by insisting that the God of Jesus had nothing to do with the angry bloodthirsty deity of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Ebionites and later the Arians would make things much simpler for everyone by denying the divinity of Christ. In these and many other ways the Church could have lost the plot and become something quite different, or more likely just died out as all these groups did. One huge factor which prevented this was that by the middle to late second century the Church decided on a body of writings which authentically expressed the truth of Christ as received through the apostles and by about 180 AD Tertullian was calling that collection the New Testament.

The Gnostic Gospels

Various other types of documents appeared in the second century which the Church rejected as being uncanonical. There were many so called 'apocryphal gospels', e.g. the Gospel of the Hebrews, The Gospel of the Nazoreans, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Peter to name just some.

The two characteristics of these Gnostic gospels are that they are dated much later than the four, and they are very often flights of fancy about Jesus. There were some 30 documents using the title 'Gospel'.

The Infancy gospel of Thomas is largely concerned with a record of miracles wrought by Jesus before He was 12 years of age (like making clay birds, and bringing them to life - something which reappears in the Qur'an).  They depict Jesus as an extraordinary but by no means a lovable child. Unlike the miracles of the canonical Gospels those recorded in this gospel are mainly of a destructive nature and are whimsical and puerile in character. It rather shocks one to read them as recorded of the Lord Jesus Christ. The child Jesus wields the power of the Godhead with a child's waywardness and petulance. Instead of being subject to His parents He is a serious trouble to them; and instead of growing in wisdom He is represented as forward, eager to teach his instructors, and to be omniscient from the beginning. The parents of one of the children whose death He had caused entreat Joseph, "[T]ake away that Jesus of thine from this place for he cannot dwell with us in this town; or at least teach him to bless and not to curse."

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of the sayings of Jesus, without any historical narrative. Such collections were fairly common in the ancient world and their lack of historical context is a claim to authenticity. (Compare Proverbs, Ecclesiaticus and Wisdom.) In other words, what the person has to say is so eminently pure wisdom that it is applicable in all places and all times, but only the initiate will really be able to grasp the meaning of what is being said. Some have tried to date it very early but it doesn't really stand up to secure dating before about 150 AD.

This proliferation of spurious literature forced the Catholic bishops to decide which books were bad and which were good. It was largely the bishops who decided this. Towards the end of the second century, the evidence points to the present canon (with some small local variations) being used throughout the Church both east and west. We see that many of the apocryphal gospels were just collections of sayings. Jesus is presented as a wisdom teacher. In other words had the Church adopted these gospels she would have lost the plot. This picture of Jesus is very popular among new age people today and it doesn't demand any commitment to belief in an historical figure.

The Emergence of a Clearly Defined Christian Canon.

In the second half of the fourth century various Greek bishops were moved to make lists of sacred books for their people. In 367 Cyril of Jerusalem makes a list identical to ours.  He has something of a problem with the Apocalypse, and while by about 300 this had gained acceptance in the west, there was to be a question over it in the east for much longer, and it was probably only in the sixth century that it gained universal acceptance there. The great St. Jerome who began his translation into Latin, the Vulgate, in 382, includes the 27 books of our New Testament. Pope Damasus gave his approval to this and the councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 were both in agreement on this. There is no further discussion or dispute in the western Church about the content of the New Testament.

The Bible is the Church's Book.

It has become clear from all this that the history of the Bible and the history of the Church are intimately bound together. The popular evangelical idea that in the beginning was the Bible and the Church then builds itself on that is historical nonsense. The Church has always maintained that the two sources of revelation are Scripture and Tradition. The reformation rejected the latter and said that only Scripture has authority since that is given by God. Tradition, they argued, is man-made, and therefore cannot have the same authority. But, the formation of scripture is a part of the Church's Tradition. When people say: "I don't need the Church or the bishops or the Pope to tell me what to believe: I only need the word of God," they make one obvious historical and theological howler. If there was no Church, we would never have the Bible. The Bishops were largely (but not only) the people who decided what the Bible is. The word of God is infallible, but it was only the Church that was able to recognise that. So by accepting some books as infallible guides to faith and rejecting others, the Church herself was acting infallibly. Rather than the idea of the Bible having been there from the beginning, fixed and immutable and the early Church simply obeying the word of Scripture, the picture is much more one of a dance, an intimate partnership between the Church and the Bible, both in movement, each having an influence on the other. Who wrote the Bible? The Jewish community and the Church. Whence does the Bible derive its authority? From God. How do we know this is true? Because the Church slowly recognised it or discerned it to be true. To put it another way: how do I know that the resurrection is true? Because the Bible tells me so. How do I know that the Bible is true?  Because the Church tells me so.

A Christian Understanding of the Old Testament

I once heard a Rabbi say how he will always be grateful to the Christians for having spread the insights of the Hebrew Bible throughout the whole world. He wasn't being ironic, just genuinely grateful. For many Christians the Old Testament is a sort of long, rambling and occasionally embarrassing introduction to the New Testament. I've often found giving talks on Scripture where people were asked to bring Bibles with them that they turned up with copies of the New Testamemt - the whole Bible is much too heavy to cart along and we won't really need it all anyway.

The Church's understanding of the Old Testament is probably best illustrated by what happens on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. The disciples know their Bible, the Old Testament is the matrix by which they live and understand their lives. They have also over the previous three years been deeply moved by and involved with the man Jesus. They felt that he was the one they'd been waiting for; they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21) but they death of Jesus has destroyed those hopes. Jesus then gives them a scripture lesson. He goes through passages they were familiar with but helps them understand those passages in a new way. With this and the realization that Jesus is risen the Scriptures take on a completely new meaning for the disciples and the infant Church.

Not too surprisingly, as soon as the apostles start to preach after Pentecost they do so to their Jewish brethren in terms of the Old Testament. They are absolutely convinced that what has happened with Jesus is not so much predicted as prefigured and the Old Testament is littered with texts that show how God works and that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the best illustrations of the truth of those texts. A good example is Psalm 118:22: [T]he stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is quoted five times in the New Testament. It's not so much that the verse is a direct prediction of the passion and resurrection. It's that the Old Testament bears witness to the surprising, unexpected way God works. There is plenty to say that those rejected by people are the ones God often uses best. (The story of Joseph rejected by his brothers who becomes their rescuer from famine, the story of David, the youngest son who isn't even in the running to be king, to give just two examples). What was perceived by Israel, perhaps somewhat dimly, is made dazzlingly clear by the resurrection of Jesus. The Jews who become the first converts to Christianity do so, at least in part, because they realize that what the Apostles proclaim about Jesus is consistent with what their scriptures teach. It's not a natural progression, but it makes sense, given the resurrection. Obviously they are not just going to drop their scriptures.

Much more surprising is the fact that the gentile convert Luke who has, as far as we know, no Jewish background before his conversion totally immerses himself in the Jewish scriptures in order to give an account of Christ. Luke has come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the saviour, and he comes to that conclusion without any previous knowledge of Judaism. Yet in order to preach that truth to other gentiles Luke has recourse massively to the Old Testament. The same is true of John, who is a Jew but writing for a mixed Jewish- gentile audience who are immersed in Greek culture.  John is in some ways both the most Greek and the most Jewish of the gospels. We cannot fully appreciate one single chapter of John without a good knowledge of both cultures.

John starts his gospel with something very familiar to the Greeks, the concept of the Logos. In the Beginning was the Word. For Greeks who have never read Old Testament this makes perfect sense. In Greek Philosophy the Lord, Logos is the eternal principle of order in the universe. For some it was the mind of God, guiding, controlling & directing everything. Later it was considered to be the force by which God created and ordered the world. An intelligent Greek without the slightest knowledge of the Old Testament would grasp at once what John was on about.

But at the same time for Jews these same words had deep, multi-layered, resounding meaning. God's word is powerful and active. It gives life: Take all these words to heart... for the Law is your life and by its means you will live long..(Deuteronomy 32:46-47).  It can heal people.  He sent out his word and it cured them. (Ps. 107:20).  According to Psalm 119: [Y]our Word is my hope (81) Your word is planted firm in heaven (89) Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path (105) As your word unfolds it gives light and even the simple understand (130) If we equate God's word with his Law or commandments, which the Old Testament does, it is the most treasured thing there is (think of the joy of Jews dancing with the scrolls of the Law on the Feast of Shimchat Torah) In Genesis it is the agent of creation: And God said: "Let there be light" and there was light. John says: Through him all things came into being, a deeper reflection on what we are told in Genesis.

The point being that it is impossible to talk of Jesus without reference to the Old Testament.  Take away the Old Testament and you take away Jesus, or at least you take away any context for him. To imagine Jesus without reference to the Old Testament is to imagine Shakespeare or Churchill without any reference or acknowledgement of the existence of a country called England.

People often imagine the Old Testament to be a rather long and somewhat unnecessary introduction to the New Testament. Jesus could not be the man he was without the Old Testament. Try to imagine Christianity without the creation and fall stories of Genesis, without the ten commandments of Exodus, without the insistence on loving the one God of Deuteronomy, without the prophetic concern for justice, without the Old Testament's unparalleled concern for the victim, without the honest, gutsy prayer of the psalms. Try to imagine the Mass without the Passover.

The Liturgy

As Catholics we have the liturgy as a way of helping us live in scripture. In addition to the readings at Mass most of the prayers are either directly scriptural or draw on scriptural ideas and phrases. The greeting - the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ etc. Lord have mercy, Holy Holy, Our Father; Lamb of God, Lord I am not worthy; all these are direct scriptural quotes. Each of the eucharistic prayers, the prefaces, and the three presidential prayers all draw heavily on ideas taken from the Bible. The Mass is another way of abiding, of making our home in the scriptures.

As well as the 'head-on' encounter with scripture there are also the more oblique or 'side-on' uses of it in the antiphons, which sadly are often left out but of course are meant to be sung as the accompaniment to something else going on. Take the midnight Mass for Christmas. The introit is a quote from Psalm 2. The Lord said to me you are my son; this day have I begotten you. The offertory comes from Psalm 95: 11-13 (this is also the responsorial psalm) Let the heavens be glad and earth rejoice before the face of the Lord for he comes.  Scholars would be quick to point out that these psalms and psalm 110 which is also used for the gradual and alleluia verse have nothing to do with the birth of Christ and in strict exegetical terms of course they are right. But for most of her history the Church has seen these texts as speaking to what we celebrate at Christmas. They don't tell the Christmas story as do the hymns we sing, but they comment on it obliquely and allow our thoughts to be formed by scripture.

The Bible's Rendering of God is Complex and Deep.

Living in Holland in the 1970's I belonged for a while to a liturgy group in a local parish. One of our tasks was to choose the readings for each Sunday. Sometimes we followed the lectionary, sometimes not. The reasoning was that often the readings are obscure and don't really speak to our present situation at all. (Which of us has not sat through the first reading at Mass totally baffled?) So we chose readings that were 'relevant'. It was the age of the theme Mass. You chose a theme and then chose readings to fit in with that theme. Sometimes you decided what you wanted to say and chose readings which said exactly that, and if a passage didn't fit exactly, then you edited it. It seemed to make far more sense to address issues that actually concerned people here and now in our parish rather than rely on choices made by committees a thousand miles away in Rome. What happened in practice was that a small selection of twenty or thirty scripture passages were continually used and re-cycled. That was partly because none of us even knew the contents of the Bible all that well, but was mainly because we chose the things we liked, that we agreed with and that we could understand. So never mind the Old Testament, huge parts of the gospel were never read, never any exorcisms, never anything about judgement and never anything about the end. Only the bits of St. Paul which we could easily understand (for many Catholics precious little) ever saw the light of day. In short, the God who was presented and worshipped in our liturgy was a God made in the image (roughly) or to the specifications of our group.

The point of a systematic reading of Scripture as our liturgy does it today, is that in the course of three years of Sundays you read just about all the New Testament and a great deal of the Old Testament. We all have our favourite passages which we love to hear, and there are things that baffle us, maybe things that shock and disgust us (although the most disturbing passages don't find their way into the lectionary). And all this is our God. There is much more to him than any of us could ever imagine. And if the Bible presents us with far more images and ideas about God than we can cope with or assimilate, then it's doing its job. It's reminding us that God is the Creator of all that is, infinitely greater and wiser than us. If we are looking for a book that will sum Him up for us in a few nice phrases, then we are looking for an idol. If the Bible is a window into the mind of God it must be complex in the extreme - complex but not complicated. In other words there is much much more to God than any of us can ever imagine - that's the complex bit, but nevertheless access to him is remarkably simple - that's the uncomplicated bit.  If God could create something as complex as the human body, as complex say as DNA, then we can't expect the book that tells us about Him and enables us to meet Him to be any simpler than that. Often people approach the Bible looking for something like the friendship book - a heart-warming collection of sayings and stories which will inspire and enlighten and comfort. That's largely what the Gnostic gospels are - collections of nice even challenging sayings by Jesus, but little more, and no scandal of the cross, and that's why the Early Church rejected them.

Many of us use the scriptures in the same way as we use our videos or our computers. We get the thing going, we get it to do the few tasks we require, and then ignore all its other functions. Those in the know say that most people use only a small fraction of their computers' capabilities. Our computers have many functions we don't even try to explore. We must not assume that our little knowledge is the whole programme. We can't learn or use everything but having fixed scriptures means that we pass on to the next generation all that we have used and loved but also those things that we haven't even begun to explore. To Christians of a certain age mention of the prophets conjures up the idea of the men who were there to prophesy the coming of Christ and virtually the only parts of the prophetic books they ever heard were those prophesies that we call 'messianic'. To Christians today involved in the justice and peace movement the prophets are much more about trenchant social criticism, the defence of the poor and the condemnation of idolatry which leads to injustice. There is always more to the scriptures than we think.

John Hemer, MHM

Faith Matters Series