In Year A of the liturgical season, the gospel readings at mass highlight Matthew, the first book in the New Testament as we find it now. Since the liturgy can present only short selections, an overview of the book itself and what is found in current scholarship about its background, the author and the meaning, can be helpful for a fuller understanding. Some of this will be taken up in the weekly notes I make available, but here is an overview. Continue reading A brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
‘In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate.’
Although we will be considering only the Hebrew and Christian Bible, I have taken these lines from the first words of the Qur’an, because as Pope Francis wrote in his Bull opening the Year of Mercy: ‘There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the church. It connects us with Judaism and Islam…. I trust that this year of Mercy will foster an encounter with these and other noble religious traditions.’ The Jubilee Year is one of openness to all. Continue reading Mercy in the Bible
On December 8 2015, Pope Francis opened the ‘Year of Mercy’. During this time, the mass readings have mostly been taken from the Gospel of St Luke, which fits very well with the Pope’s theme. Although God’s mercy is stressed throughout the Bible, it has a special emphasis in the third gospel. In the first chapter, Luke presents two ‘songs’, the first of Mary (‘The Magnificat’) in which she is aware of the blessing of God to her personally, but also ‘his mercy from generation after generation’. In the song of Zachary (‘The Benedictus’), he also recalls the past where ‘God showed mercy to our ancestors’ and looks forward to the ‘tender mercy of our God who from on high will bring the rising Sun [Jesus] to visit us….’ Continue reading Reading the Gospel of Luke in the ‘Year of Mercy’ 2015/2016
John is the only Gospel that does not have a year of its own; selections are heard in all three years, but especially in Year B. Mark is the shortest of the four, leaving more Sundays to be filled out. As Mark is now thought to be the first written, John is the last, and is a result of a long reflection on the events of Christ’s life and his teaching. There is evidence in the work suggesting it has been edited over a period of time, perhaps more than once. The characteristic style of the Gospel is found throughout and some speak of a ‘Johannine school’ or community sharing the ideas of the first writer. (The three Letters of John in the New Testament are in a different style, but have a similar vocabulary with the Gospel.)
Nicholas King comments: ‘As soon as you open John’s Gospel you are aware that you are breathing a different air from that which you encountered in Matthew, Mark and Luke…. My sense of it is that it is a journey into the mystery of who Jesus is, inviting us ever deeper, as the story unfolds.’ John repays careful study and prayerful reflection. ‘The reader will do well to remember that this is a very rich Gospel, whose meaning emerges slowly, over a lifetime of reading.’ Since we have short selections from the Gospel, I would urge you to find some time, maybe as part of Lent, to spend with this writer.
It is the one of the four that best shows Jesus as the Son of God existing from eternity – this is stressed in the opening words. Jesus shows a majesty in this Gospel with less emphasis on his humanity – in contrast with Mark who does not hesitate to show human limitations of Jesus during his ministry. The author always has the resurrected Christ in mind, and projects this back into the life of Jesus.
There is no clear agreement among scholars as to who ‘John’ was and where the Gospel was written. The early Church writers thought he was John the son of Zebedee, but there are reasons this seems unlikely. As it happens, that John is never named in the Gospel, although ‘sons of Zebedee’ are mentioned in the last chapter, which looks like an addition. A ‘John the Elder’ was also known in the early Church but we know little about him either.
One aspect of the Gospel is that it includes the reflections of the Evangelist, but since the Greek manuscripts do not have punctuation marks, it is sometimes a guess when the words of Jesus blend into that of the author. It is written with a limited vocabulary but in very good Greek. Certain words/ideas have prominence, such as light and darkness, life/eternal life. John speaks much of ‘Signs’ – and sees the miracles of Jesus as having significance for telling who he is. Jesus saying ‘I am’ is an expression rare in the other Gospels, but often appears in John, sometimes symbolically, (I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Bread of Life) but also as an absolute: ‘Before Abraham came to exist, I AM’. This picks the meaning of God’s special name in the Old Testament – ‘I am who I am’.
John makes much use of irony, often something will be said which is shown to have a deeper meaning. Misunderstanding is used frequently as a way of opening out Jesus’ teaching. In dialogues, the person will take the ‘ordinary’ meaning of a word (as Nicodemus on ‘being reborn’) and Jesus will then draw out the deeper meaning (as not from the mother’s womb but ‘born from above’).
Characters are well drawn, and John excels in dramatic scenes. Many of these are long, which makes them harder to use in a liturgical setting. Characters may have both a historic identity as well carry symbolic meanings. One of these is ‘the Mother of Jesus’ – who is never given the name Mary, but appears in two sections related to the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ glory. One character has caused much puzzlement: ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Various identities have been suggested, the earliest being John son of Zebedee, and more recent suggestions include a woman, Mary Magdalene. The ‘Beloved Disciple’ is the one who has the clearest vision about Jesus in the Gospel, and this shows the possiblity he/she represents the ‘ideal disciple’ and could be entirely symbolic. This disciple helps the reader penetrate more deeply into the meaning of Jesus’ identity and ministry.
Women have important roles in John, in addition to his Mother and Mary Magdalene, there is the unnamed Samaritan woman who carries on a theological discourse with Jesus at Jacob’s well (Chapter 4) and the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha also being led in dialogue to understand Jesus’ power (Chapter 11).
In John, Jesus speaks often in long ‘discourses’ explaining aspects of his life and the meaning of it. (The Bread of Life in Chapter 6 is one example.) There are two chapters at the Last Supper which give what might be called Jesus’ ‘last will and testament’. Because of the length and the complexity of these discourses, like the dramatic scenes they do not fit easily into the usual space of the liturgical gospels. An exception is the Passion and last days of Jesus life. John’s account is given ‘pride of place’ on Good Friday, and his resurrection stories feature in the readings of Easter time.
One problem in John is the use of the term ‘the Jews’ for Jesus’ opponents, where the other three gospels have the historical accuracy of ‘scribes, Pharisees and high priest.’ John treating ‘the Jews’ as separate from Jesus and his disciples has come into the gospel from the later time when the Christians had separated from the synagogue and when there was opposition felt on both sides. Of course Jesus and his disciples were ethnically Jews as much as the temple authorities. Biblical scholars emphasise that John’s term does not justify any prejudice against the Jews of our time – something all the more important at the present with so much violence in many places against people of differing religions.
Because of the complexity of John, commentaries can be very helpful, but the longer ones require some dedicated study. I will be using especially in my notes, what has been called the ‘gold standard’ commentary, two volumes of Raymond E. Brown. Recently I found Written That You May Believe by Sandra M. Schneiders, with whom I had the privilege of studying when I did my MA in the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. This book has the added advantage of giving a good introduction to feminist biblical insights. There are a variety of other commentaries of differing lengths. For a simple guide to John, I would recommend The New Testament Freshly Translated by Nicholas King, quoted above. He gives short but useful notes to each section.
The great focus in John is on the union that disciples have with Jesus, and as well, the Father and the Spirit. This is much clearer in this Gospel than in the other three. It appears in various ways, from the opening of ‘dwelt among us’ and especially in the ‘last discourse’ which John sets the night before Jesus’ death. This has made it an important message for all Christians and one to read on our own in all the liturgical Years – A, B and C. May you find it rewarding!
Joan Griffith, 2015
In the three year cycle of Gospels read at Mass, we start Year B with Mark on the First Sunday of Advent. Because Mark does not include any stories of Jesus’ birth as do Matthew and Luke, the Christmas readings will be from the other gospels.
Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, and most modern scholars believe it was the first one written, although it comes second in the New Testament order. The date is estimated as around 60-70 AD. The tradition that it was written in Rome is supported by the use of Latin words in the gospel, and by the need the Evangelist feels to explain Jewish customs for his readers. From the 2nd Century AD, the author (who never identifies himself/herself) has been named as ‘Mark’, and he has also been described as the ‘interpreter’ of St Peter. Since all these are later traditions, we cannot be sure of any details about his life, location or role in the early community.
Like all the New Testament, it is written in the simplified Greek (‘koine’) that was the common language of the Roman Empire. Mark writes in a rough version of this with many expressions that are called ‘Semitic’ indicating that Greek was not the first language of the writer. (The various but related Semitic languages had been spoken in the Middle East areas, and they include the Hebrew of the Bible, and Aramaic which had taken over as the everyday language of Palestine.) Mark’s less-than-smooth style is covered up by most translations, which want to sound like good, even elegant, English. This obscures some points that are useful for study, and I will note these when they occur in the liturgy. As Mark wrote in a language widely understood in his time, the ‘improved’ English versions can make it easier for us today.
Although the style may not seem sophisticated, the theology is profound and there are a number of techniques that show a thoughtful author. Mark often uses some literary effects of that time which are not common in ours, like the end echoing or closing off the opening (technically called an ‘incluso’). He also makes ‘sandwiches’ by breaking an account and putting another story in the centre. When this happens, it is worth noticing what the middle story says about the outer layer or vice versa.
Mark makes no claim to being a witness of Jesus ministry or resurrection, nor does he ever explain his relation to those he wrote for. [Compare the opening of Luke, and the closing of John.] Mark must have had some sources, but we can’t be sure what they were. It is most likely that stories of Jesus, his life and teaching, were memorized and widely shared and collected – what is called ‘oral tradition’ and still common in societies less literate than ours. These memories are probably one source for all the gospels. Mark in the Greek reads as if he was telling a story, rather than writing, with the constant use of the connective ‘and’. He often uses the present tense, another way the account becomes lively. Over 40 times he uses a Greek word which can be variously translated, as ‘immediately’, ‘right away’, ‘straightaway.’ This makes the story almost breathless in its forward movement. Another speech-like feature is that he often puts in explanations like a speaker who forgets an important point at the beginning of the story and adds it later.
Mark, unlike the other gospels, sometimes gives us the words of Jesus in the Aramaic which brings us close to the original situation and thus to Jesus himself. Mark occasionally quotes the Jewish scriptures, but much else of what he writes reflects this tradition. Some of these are subtle and easily missed until pointed out.
Mark has far fewer parables than Matthew and Luke, though he often speaks of Jesus teaching. He shows Jesus almost constantly in action, and always in relationship to those who listen and respond, and also those who refuse his call and eventually plot his death.
Mark, more than the other evangelists, pictures Jesus in his full humanity, with a wide range of emotions, including being angry, tired, and not knowing everything. Mark does not try to explain everything and often leaves us to draw our own conclusions. This will be especially true when he shows Jesus as something other than an ordinary human being. At times he leaves us with an unanswered question; for example 4:41: ‘What kind of man is this that the wind and sea obey him?’
Mark also depicts the humanity of the disciples and apostles, showing them struggling to understand but misunderstanding, too sleepy to stay awake and watch with Jesus, fleeing when he is arrested. But he also notes their immediate commitment when called, and he assumes their important roles in the community after the resurrection. Mark stresses how Jesus taught them a new kind of leadership of service and how he predicted they would have to suffer as he himself would. So there is a sombre note to much of the teaching in this Gospel, though it is based on promises of ultimate joy.
Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at the empty tomb, seemingly unfinished. (Our Bibles include an ending written by another writer, summarizing the appearances of the risen Jesus.) We can’t tell the reason for this now, but can guess he might have shown Jesus appearing in Galilee as is promised in the gospel – compare the ending in Matthew. But he may have left the story ‘open’ for us to draw our conclusions, and to live our own experience of Jesus.
Much of the flow of the Gospel as written may be missed when we have short selections at mass, especially when they are out of order. (The first verses of Mark are divided between Advent, the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of Lent and so unconnected.) Sometime during Year B, I recommend finding the time to read through the whole Gospel from beginning to end – it is not long – and see how it all fits together and what impression the whole makes on you. You may see if you learn anything about the writer ‘Mark’ from reading what he has written.
In these notes and discussions, I will bring in some of the background points from such studies as I have at home – close to a dozen on Mark – which are pertinent to each gospel selection. If you want to do more study on the gospel, there is a wide range of guides available, from short ones for beginners to long scholarly commentaries. They can be found in bookstores and on the internet: some book sites allow you to ‘Look inside’ which can indicate whether that commentary suits you.
Above all, read Mark and reflect on the Gospel for what it tells you about ‘The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.
The final book of the New Testament whose title in Greek means ‘unveiling’ is written in a genre popular at the time not easily understood today. It uses many symbolic images, some are hard to visualize, and better taken as directed to the mind rather than the eye. One example of this are the four ‘living creatures’ or ‘animals’ first mentioned in 4:7-9 (and later in 7:11, read on All Saints.) They occur in a ‘vision’ of heaven pictured as a regal court, with God on a throne. God is not described directly as beyond human power to express (John 1:18) but the details give a sense of awe and power. He takes natural examples to illustrate supernatural reality. The four creatures around the throne are such hints. They are ‘covered by eyes, before and behind’ – perhaps showing that nothing is hidden from God. The first had a face like a lion, the second like an ox, the third a human face, and the fourth a flying eagle. They each had six wings, and continually sang: ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’
John, the author of the book, does not explain the animals any further, nor give a hint of what they symbolize. I see as one possibility: the lion – which we still call King of Beasts – as the fullness of power, while the strong ox is power at the service of humans. The eagle in its free flight joins earth to ‘heaven’. The man may represent intelligence. These features could be aspects of God as experienced in relationship to humanity. But like all poetry, they are more evocative than explained.
As so much in the Apocalypse, there are echoes or references to books in the Old Testament. God on his throne, the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ and six winged ‘seraphim’ are in Isaiah’s ‘inaugural vision’, 6:21-3. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which has a lot of apocalyptic passages, his inaugural vision has a more elaborate picture of very similar creatures to John’s, with the wings and eyes and four different faces but with many other features as well. These occur in 1:4-21 and are said to be the ‘chariot’ of God. If you look up this passage, prepare to be confused! The grammar itself is not clear, and the commentator Lawrence Boadt, CSP, suggests the confusion may have been meant to suggest these four are in motion and that may mean not easily discerned. They are all controlled in movement by the One in this strange vehicle.
However bizarre they to moderns, these descriptions would have had some familiarity to people of that time. Winged human headed bulls and lions were huge statues of guardian demigods before the Babylonian/Assyrian temples. Carved reliefs also show eagle headed figures, and wings are common. (Examples of all these may be seen in the British Museum, and some online.) The Hebrews adopted winged creatures as ‘cherubim’ and they were carved for the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 37:7-9). (Our more familiar ‘angels’ are mild descendants of these.) The adapted pagan creatures are, however, not considered by the Hebrews as having supernatural powers of their own; rather they are shown at the service of the one true and truly powerful God.
The four creatures have a later life, as they were used by early Christians as symbols of the four evangelists, based on how each opened his Gospel. Matthew is the man, for he begins with the human genealogy of Jesus. Mark is the lion, for he starts with John the Baptist preaching (‘roaring’?) in wilderness. Luke begins in the Temple, and as the ox was used in sacrifices that represents him. John, whose Prologue starts in ‘the beginning’ with Jesus the ‘Word’ of God, ‘soars’ above the earth as an eagle. These ‘attributes’ have been a gift to artists through the ages. (Wikipedia has some examples.)
Matthew’s gospel is the first book in the New Testament, but many modern scholars doubt that it was the first one written. Priority goes to St Mark, and it appears that Matthew made use of Mark at least as an outline. Commentaries differ in suggesting how much more he may have taken; some sections are the same word-for-word. Matthew is considerably longer, mostly because he puts in long sections of Jesus’ teaching. When he narrates a story, however, it usually is less detailed and sometimes less vivid than Mark’s. For an example of this, compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34.
Matthew and Luke also share some material that is not in Mark and probably have got it from the same sources. No written record has turned up for these passages, which are mostly sayings, and appear in differing parts of the two gospels. Some books use the designation ‘Q’ for these shared texts.
Each of the four gospels has its own theological take on the life of Jesus, and each writer shows a distinct personality. Matthew is the ‘most Jewish’ of all four. This is shown even in the language. Where Luke and Mark have ‘Kingdom of God’, Matthew usually has ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – as generally translated but literally ‘heavens’ which is a Semitic way of speaking. Jews tried to avoid using ‘God’ out of reverence and in line with the Second Commandment. All of the gospels use allusions to the Old Testament to show how they foreshadowed Jesus, but Matthew has more direct quotations, ten of them using the formula, ‘This happened to fulfil the words….’ There are many passages which suggest this more subtly.
But while noting the continuity of Jesus to the past, he also stresses that in Jesus there is something entirely new and unexpected. This appears from the opening of the Gospel in which Matthew gives his legal descent though Joseph from David and Abraham, but signals first some oddities in the past with the women in the genealogy. Then we read that Mary is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by a human father.
Matthew sometimes shows Jesus using the rabbinical style of debate and perhaps it is another Jewish feature to argue with other Jews. In his commentary on the gospel, Daniel J. Harrington takes the viewpoint that at the time Matthew wrote, he was contending with the followers of the Pharisees to be the rightful successors to the faith of the Old Testament, and this explains both why he stresses lasting parts of the Jewish Law but does not hesitate to show Jesus at other times making changes. ‘You have heard it said… but I say to you…’ is used a number of times in Matthew 5:17-48. Gentiles play an important part from the visit of the Magi on to the last words of Jesus. Harrington thinks that Matthew had in mind, as the recipients of his work, a mixed community of converted Jews and Gentiles.
Matthew takes a special interest in St Peter. Although he recounts Jesus rebuking him (16:21-23) and the denial during the Passion as does Mark, this is the only gospel with the ‘commission’ that on Peter Jesus will build his church (16:16-19). Matthew is also the only one of the four to use the word ‘church’.
Matthew makes a point of noting geographic locations, often tying them to an Old Testament prophecy, as Galilee in 4:12-16. Thus he gives them symbolic value.
A major feature of the gospel are the five sections of Jesus’ teaching, and these instructions for living as a disciple made it a favourite in the early church. Many of these words have also entered even into common speech. The best known of the five is ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ which takes up three chapters. It is Matthew who gives us our version of the ‘Our Father’ or ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and the ‘Beatitudes’ (5:1-10). Only in this gospel is the Last Judgement which has inspired so much Christian art. Although punishment for sin is part of Matthew’s faith, the parable of the Last Judgement is far more about how Jesus identifies himself with all those in need to the point where anything done for them is done for Jesus himself.
Besides the discourses, we see Matthew’s concern to show the preparation of the disciples and their need for discipline as part of Christian living. In this gospel, immediately after Jesus starts to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, he calls the first disciples (4:18-22). In this passage, which is very close to the words in Mark, we see Matthew’s curious fondness for twos: Mark has noted ‘Andrew the brother of Simon’ and ‘John the brother of John’ – presumably the oldest first. But Matthew while keeping these adds twice, ‘two brothers’. At other times, he doubles the number of those healed. Perhaps this comes from the Jewish Law that requires two witnesses.
The presence of Jesus even after his death is an important point for Matthew. Early in the Gospel, Matthew tells us Jesus is ‘God-with-us’ and the last words are ‘I am with you through all time.’ Also he records Jesus saying, ‘When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.’
Who is ‘Matthew’ the writer? The name comes from early tradition, and could be no more than a deduction from the fact that the name ‘Matthew’ is only in this gospel, in the call to the tax collector to ‘follow’ and as an Apostle, where in both cases Mark and Luke have the name ‘Levi’. It is possible that the tax collector is the author, or maybe the authority, behind the gospel but if so it is odd that so little seems to come from personal experience rather than so much from sources like Mark and those shared with Luke. Although we may not have biographical details, we can sense something of the writer by living closely with his work – he is careful, reverent, reflective and completely dedicated to Jesus and his teachings.
Date and location of the writing of the gospel are educated guesses, often suggested to be in the years 70-80 and in either Palestine or Syria both of which had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. There is some stress on Galilee in the gospel that may come from a community in that area.
For the liturgy, selections are chosen predominantly to fit into the feast structure of Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter season and therefore do not follow the book sequence as it appears in the Bible. At some time during the year I suggest reading it consecutively to have a sense of its form and development. For reflective reading, especially in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ it is better to take short passages, and see how they speak to you. (These verses seem to be collected rather than represent a talk given at one time, so they are not always related in topic or our idea of logic.)
There are numerous guides or commentaries with varying levels of scholarship and comment, and I find it hard to make a recommendation for everyone. There are good notes in the Jerusalem Bible. Books and pamphlets are at the Catholic book shops near Westminster Cathedral and online. I have a number of commentaries which I will be drawing on for the weekly notes, including R. T. France which is over a 1000 pages. It may be a challenge to finish a study in his detail study in Year A but I look forward to living more closely with Matthew in 2014. I hope all of you will also find the experience rewarding, comforting, and inspiring –and also at times challenging as that I believe that is one of the purposes of scripture.
The Bible is the ‘foundation text’ for Christianity, so much so that St Jerome, an early translator and scholar, could say, ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’. We hear selections from it at every mass, but reading and praying with scriptures on our own is meant to be is a vital part of spiritual life. Modern historical scholarship, archeology, and literary studies have made much of the Bible far more intelligible for our times than in the past, and the Church has encouraged us to make use of these aids. Yet starting to read the Bible is not always easy and people do not always know where to turn for help.
There are numerous books giving background and interpretation of the Bible, as a whole, or by sections or individual books which can be found at local Catholic bookshops or online, but the very number of these can be confusing. One simple way to start is with The Jerusalem Bible. This is the Catholic translation we hear at mass which also contains introductions to the various books and types, and footnotes on difficult passages.
Thousands of Christians, however, who did not have that access to scholarship, have for centuries found instruction and inspiration for their lives in hearing, reading and reflecting. With or without study guides, the most important step is just to start reading. This may also give you an idea of which studies you would find useful.
These notes give a little basic background to picking up the Bible yourself.
The Greek word ‘biblia´ from which our word Bible comes means ‘books’ – in the plural. It is more a little library than one book and the parts were written over several thousand years. The last books come from the first century after Christ. We are dealing with ancient cultures and ancient histories as well as ancient literatures. For Christians, the Bible is divided into two parts: the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’, often abbreviated OT and NT. The word ‘testament’ in this context means ‘covenant’ or ‘solemn contract’, and was first used for the Jewish people in their acceptance of God’s Law and way of life as they heard it revealed by Moses. Jesus then spoke of the ‘New Covenant’ which came with him and his saving death.
Our Bible was written in Hebrew for the oldest parts, but the Hebrew version was translated before the Christian era into the Greek that was the common language of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ and the early church. This version named the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX) also includes some books written shortly before the time of Christ. These did not end up in the accepted Jewish scriptures set by rabbis after the time of Christ. Although used by early Christians they were also not accepted by the first Protestants. They may be omitted from Protestant Bibles, or put in a second section called ‘Apocrypha’. Catholics and Orthodox Bible will contain them, and they may be called ‘deutero-canonical’ or ‘second canon’. We share with Jewish believers the books of the Hebrew Bible, and with Christians of other denominations the 27 books of the New Testament.
The New Testament was written in Greek. This means that for all of these we are reading translations, and languages rarely have word-for-word perfect equivalents. A translation is necessarily an interpretation, and interpretation is an inevitable part of reading scripture. (Actually we have to interpret anything we read, but some is so automatic that we usually don’t notice that is what we are doing.)
There is much scholarship that is shared with Jews and Protestants, but beginners may be more comfortable starting with Catholic writers to be sure that interpretations will fit our own beliefs. As Catholics, we have a general guideline to interpretation from the teachings of the Church, but there are many points on which Catholics scholars disagree and as readers we may make choices as well on what it means for each of us.
If we think of the Bible as a little library we can compare it to our modern books. The Old Testament, with its much longer history and ancient literary types, is more difficult to understand. Within the various books or sections, we may find differences or even disagreements. All human life from the highest aspirations to the worst cruelty and violence is contained within the pages. We can see over time a growth in understanding and ethical standards. I find it important to remember, as one of my professors Sandra M. Schneiders said, that not everything written in the Bible is for us to imitate; some of it is a warning to act or believe differently. A simple guideline for Christians is to ‘read the Old Testament in the light of the New’.
Modern readers who go into a library understand the divisions we make: we know that ‘science fiction’ and ‘science’ are very different and we recognize some overlap like ‘historical novels’. These literary types are something we pick up through our culture, but the biblical books come from a different culture and differing times and if that is not understood there will be confusion and mistaken interpretations. It doesn’t help that some ‘books’ may contain within them parts written at different times and by different authors!
Besides unfamiliar forms, there are some similarities in literary types or ‘genre’ – for example the Bible has lots of poetry, though we may not recognize it without rhymes. Hebrew poetical style is based on ‘parallelism’. This is stating of one idea in two sentences (parallels) or in contrasting two ideas in a verse. For example from a Psalm:
I will celebrate your love forever, O LORD,
Age after age my words proclaim your praise.
Some of Jesus’ words are cast in parallels, too. It may seem repetitive at first, but it is a way to read reflectively. Poetry with its images has the capacity to touch us deeply, sometimes beyond the words themselves.
The Bible is full of images, and most of these are not meant to be taken literally. For example, often God is spoken of having human attributes. We read of his ‘strong arm’, he walks in the Garden of Eden during the cool evening, and shows emotions like anger and jealousy. The Hebrews were not ‘naïve’ in writing of God in this manner, for any human words will be inadequate to express the ‘otherness’ of God, even abstract terms like ‘omnipotent’. We see in other sections of scripture reminders that God is far above humanity, and in some ways unknowable to our limited minds – ‘God dwells in light inaccessible’ (1 Timothy). Human comparisons have the advantage of putting us in relationship with God, one of the ways scripture helps us.
There is history in the Bible, but not quite the same as modern standards, more like family or group traditions. Some sections contain moral codes, also lesser commandments and rules for Jewish ritual practices. The ‘Song of Songs’ is a human love story, which can also symbolize God’s love for each of us. Another genre is the ‘Wisdom’ literature. Some of this is simply practical reasoning looking for good ways to live (much of this in the book called Proverbs), but there are also more spiritual reflections. Seeing ‘Wisdom’ personified as a woman who was treated as an aspect of God, helped early Christians understand both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Job is a fictional book and particularly complex, as it seems an old story of ‘patience’ is torn apart in the middle to give a poetic dialogue on the problems of human suffering in the light of God’s love.
One thing the Bible does not have is science in any recognizable form, although there are fundamentalists who view the opening of Genesis as a scientific account of creation in conflict with modern science. Seen in context, these two chapters are a theological reflection on God’s relationship with the world and its peoples. The Catholic Church has never been fundamentalist and for centuries has interpreted the Bible more symbolically.
The Bible also has ‘fiction’ as we do, because stories are universally enjoyable but can also instruct, reveal deeper truths, carry inspiration and warnings. Jesus was a master story-teller and did not expect his listeners to take his parables as factual cases. We are used to parables, but mistakes can be made about Old Testament stories when they are taken as history. Jonah is one example, a little gem of a story, fiction and not a history, dramatically showing God’s willingness to forgive and illustrates the ‘but if’ of prophecy.
There are books labelled ‘prophecy’ a word which is often now equated with ‘prediction’ but biblical prophecy is much more about bringing God’s word into the needs of the time, condemning sinful actions or giving encouragement and comfort in times of distress. Prophets gave warnings about human sinfulness and called on people to return to God. What is often not realized is that such warnings, including those of Jesus, contain ‘but if’ – if warnings of punishment lead to turning from evil that will bring God’s forgiveness.
Some of the prophets had predictions for the future, but usually spoke for their own times. Christians would see in some prophecies ideas that would help them understand Jesus and especially the meaning of his death.
The Old Testament presents us with several thousand years of God seeking out people, and people searching for God and responding to God. It was a development that for Christians reaches its climax in Jesus. Some Hebrew words that occur over and over give us the spirit of the whole, stressing of God’s love reaching out to humanity. Walter Brueggeman names five in the Old Testament about God: ‘merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving and steadfast in love’. This description will also shown to be true when Jesus speaks of ‘the Father’ – and true as well of Jesus himself.
The most important part of the Bible for Christians to read is the New Testament, especially the four Gospels. This is the best place for beginners to start. Here we encounter the events of Christ’s life-death-resurrection, his teaching, his humanity and his divinity. That there are four Gospels with some differences should alert us to seeing that there are varied ways of understanding the meaning of Jesus’ life. Repeated readings also help us to see ‘the breadth and the length, the height and the depth’ we find in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:18) It may seem confusing, but the effect is also enriching, opening us to creating our own encounter with Christ, the Father and the Spirit.
The first three gospels are often called the ‘Synoptics’ – from the Greek meaning ‘seeing from the same perspective’. They have differences, but follow the same general path through Jesus’ life. The shared parts are sometimes word for word, but it is good to watch for the subtle variations in their theology. Many scholars today think that Mark, the shortest of the three, was the first gospel and that Matthew and Luke made use of him as a source and outline. They both add some material they got from other shared sources, but some that is unique to each of them. John takes a different line, with longer discourses of Jesus, and a strong stress on his divinity.
The Book of Acts has the early history of the Church as compiled by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Most of the rest is cast as ‘letters’, many written by St Paul to his converts, but other writers used the form of a letter to contain a more general theme aimed at both telling more about Jesus as a guide for living. The last book, ‘Revelation’ or ‘Apocalypse’ is written in a genre not used in modern times, which features descriptions of ‘visions’ – which may not have been ‘real’ visions, but the intent is to encourage believers in difficult times. It contains imagery verging on the bizarre which should not be taken literally, nor are they precise prophecies. This book is perhaps the last place for a beginner, despite some passages of high poetry and consolation.
One entry to the Bible is following the liturgy and this we do in RCIA. The parish website also carries these notes for each Sunday’s readings. We have in the mass each week three selections from three different books of the Bible; usually the first is from the Old Testament, followed by verses from psalms that we are invited to recite. The second is often taken from the Letters, and there is always a gospel selection. We have a three year rota (A Matthew, B Mark, C Luke) of favouring one of the ‘Synoptics’. John does not have ‘his own’ year, but is read at various masses throughout each year.
There are traditional forms of praying with scripture reading, one is called ‘Lectio Divina’ – holy reading. This is at its simplest, reading a short section, thinking about it, trying to get into its meaning for you, and then in peace and silence, letting it speak to you and the needs of your own life. It is also a way to pray with others, reading a section, then some silence and finally sharing insights.
I advise keeping some note of passages that seem to speak especially to you, either as comfort, teaching, or a challenge to come closer to God. Some don’t mind marking their Bibles, but a list of citations (book, chapter, verse, as ‘Mark 1:1’) will make it easy to look them up again. I myself like to copy out verses that inspire and guide me; I call it my ‘Patchwork Bible’.
Reading the Bible can be a great adventure, a sure way of encountering God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus our Lord, and finding our own place in ‘salvation history.’ May you find it so!
Some minor points: There can be variations in the names of the biblical books between different translations. Many writers use abbreviations, but usually list them. Chapter and verse numbers are not original to the biblical text but very useful in locating specific passages. One problem is that Psalms are numbered differently in the Hebrew text and the early Greek translations which are often a more accurate source. Bibles differ in which numbers they print. In the parish notes, I give both alternatives so adjustments may be made for the particular translation used
St Jerome, who died in 470 AD, was an early biblical scholar and this is his prayer for reading the Bible:
Lord, you have given to us your Word to shine on our path: grant that we may so meditate on that Word and follow its teaching that we may find it in the light that shows more and more until the perfect day.
Joan Griffith, 2014