All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
First, let's look at the Bible as a book.
My Bible is a handy book, but the original texts were not incorporated into a single book. They were individual books, separately written and separately copied and distributed. "Genesis" was a book, "Exodus" was another book, "Isaiah" a third, "the Gospel of St. Mark" yet another - many different books written by many different authors over the course of about 1,200 years. My modern bible publishing company was kind enough to print all of these different books under one cover, as a kind of anthology, for my convenience. We must remember, however, that these are all different books by different authors.
These books of the Bible are inspired, by which we mean God Himself somehow had a hand in their composition. How He did so is unknown, but the result is that I can be assured that the content is without error. In the above quote from 2 Timothy (a book of the bible), the author, St. Paul, teaches us that all scripture is inspired by God. St. Paul wrote this book in Greek, and in his original text he did not say “inspired by God;” rather he used the word theo-pneustos, or “breathed by God.” The image is of God’s breath, which is the Holy Spirit, leaving Him and coming to us; this is more than just ensuring freedom from error – this is God communicating His very self to us. As such, when we study scripture, we are intimately encountering God and enjoying our relationship with Him.
Additionally, we Catholics understand that the purpose of the bible is to teach us knowledge of God; it is not to teach us knowledge of anything else. Therefore, we have no need to get bogged down in arguments about non-religious specifics; for example, it is not critical to our Faith if God created the existing known universe in six days, or if He did so in 13.5 billion years. Rather, the first chapter of Genesis teaches me that the One God created the universe, that He did so out of nothing pre-existing nor even from some part of Himself, and that He did so of His own free will, according to His own design. This is meaningful to the Christian Faith (it was also a radical departure from other creation stories which were contemporary with ancient Israel).
My English bible (the RSV-CE, by the way), is a translation of these ancient texts into modern English. This is a vital fact, because modern English differs significantly from the languages and literary styles of those ancient texts. A direct translation can reproduce the words in our language, but context is lost. This lost context is vital to a deep understanding, and is perhaps one of the causes behind the proliferation of Christian denominations. A key purpose of these essays is to recover the lost context through exploration of the literary techniques. Don’t worry: there won’t be any dry lectures on literary techniques, only the results.
We might ask ourselves, where are the original texts of these ancient books? The answer is: no one knows. They have likely been lost to the ravages of time. The original texts we have today are merely very old copies. For the most part, we do not have old copies of the entire bible: only four such entire bibles exist and they all date back to the 4th/5th centuries. Otherwise, there are various ancient copies of individual books, as well as many fragments – a verse here or there quoted in other ancient texts. All of these bits and pieces have been studied endlessly, compared and put together to create the bible as we know it today.
Because we do not have original texts, many bible scholars have spent their lives studying the texts we do have and trying to understand how they came to be, to what extent original texts might have been modified, and whether we can believe the accuracy of today’s “received” texts. Such scholarship is known as textual criticism and is an element of today’s most dominant school of scripture study, the Historical-Critical Method. This school of thought has been the leading method of study for over 100 years. For Catholics, this method greatly influenced the standard English translation, the New American Bible (NAB) and its predecessor, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) translation. This Historical-Critical school is, however, an academic exercise, focused on applying literary criticism to the bible with little to no intention of improving our relationship with God. That is, its approach to Sacred Scripture is that of an academic, an outsider looking in. The Christian reader would be more interested in how Sacred Scripture supports the life of Faith.
An even more modern exegetical method, which is rather holistic in its approach, is canonical exegesis, where texts are compared with other texts to gain contextual insight. It is based on a premise that there are common analogical meanings employed by the authors; for example, the number seven symbolized the covenant throughout the entire bible. In particular, NT authors very frequently refer to OT texts as a source of context, without explicitly quoting the OT text. For example, John’s Gospel notes that Jesus, asleep in death on the cross, was pierced by a lance, his side opened and out poured the sacramental symbols of blood and water; this refers back to Gen 2, where sleeping Adam’s side was opened and a bone was removed which became his bride, Eve. This rich symbolism implies that the Church, born of the sacraments, is the bride of the Lord. This canonical exegetical method, developed by American scholars, was noted by Pope Benedict XVI:
The aim of this [canonical] exegesis is to read individual texts within the totality of the one Scripture, which then sheds new light on all the individual texts. Paragraph 12 of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation had already clearly underscored this as a fundamental principal of theological exegesis: If you want to understand the Scripture in the spirit in which it is written, you have to attend to the content and to the unity of Scripture as a whole. The Council goes on to stress the need for taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic correspondences within the faith). (Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007, pg xviii)
The bible has two structural traditions. The first is the use of chapters and verses to map the entire text. Anyone can find the 3rd verse of the 5th chapter in St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, which is customarily abbreviated as 2 Cor 5:3. The system of chapters that we use today was invented by Stephen Cardinal Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century. The system of verses now used dates back to the 16th century printer, Robert Estienne. We can see, then, that chapter and verse are relatively new inventions; the original texts had no such divisions or numeric mappings. When we get the end of, say, Rev 11, and move to chapter 12, we should not necessarily see a break in the text just because Bp. Langton did.
The second tradition is the arrangement of the books. Very fundamentally, Christian bibles place all of the books written before Christ at the beginning, and all the books written after Christ at the end. As we believe Christ ushered in a New Covenant, we call the pre-Christian books the Old Testament and the Christian books the New Testament. “Testament” is from the Latin word testamentum which means covenant. The covenantal change brought by Jesus Christ is foundational to our Faith. Note, however, that such a change is not believed by those of the Jewish faith; our references to Old Testament and New Testament are an affront to their beliefs. They refer to the pre-Christian books as the Hebrew Scriptures and to the Christian books as the Christian Scriptures. (In all of my essays, I refer to the New Testament as NT and the Old Testament as OT.)
For the Christian, the Old Testament books teach an on-going evolution of the covenant between God and man. The history of this covenantal evolution is characterized by God’s chosen ones breaking from God, God punishing His people as a method to bring them back, then forgiving them and re-establishing His covenant with them. The problem is obvious: humankind is not faithful and cannot keep covenant with God. The solution comes in the person of Jesus Christ; the covenant is now unbreakable, because God is now on the side of humanity. The New Testament teaches this, but it does so primarily by characterizing the OT as promise and Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of that promise. The history of God’s people and the covenant between them and God is called salvation history.
This brings us to a final comment: Why does God reveal Himself through a book of history? Why not just a simple book of doctrine, like a catechism or a theology textbook? Consider the difference between God and us: He is eternal and infinite, while we are subject to time and space. The goal of our Faith is to bridge that gap, to share in the nature of God. God teaches us how to do this by using the very thing that separates us: time and space, that is, history. Our Faith is taught through persons living in various times and places.
This is a simple summary of the bible. Next we will explore the structure of the Old Testament in more detail.