The Bible as a sourcebook


#1

I just finished How to Read the Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler. It was not as historically oriented as Who Wrote the Bible but it was a very good read just the same, steeped in the historical-critical method at a level I could appreciate and understand.

Aside from the obvious caution against reading the (Old Testament) Bible as literal Word of God (something that Catholics should not need to be lectured on), perhaps the most interesting thesis of the book was his argument that the Bible should be read as a “source book” and not a “text book”. By this analogy he means that the (OT) Bible is a collection of writings representing a variety of viewpoints evolving over time. I had suspected something like this but he lays it out fairly convincingly even if the historical-critical method is never as certain as we would prefer.

One of the questions that I have long pondered was why the seeming incongruity between the OT and the NT. This is one possible answer. The OT itself is far more internally incongruent than most non-scholars appreciate. If that is so then we should not be at all surprised to find incongruities between the OT and the NT. We should not be surprised to find Jesus correcting the priests and pharisees.

My impression is that, traditionally, the Catholic Church has avoided this approach and has, instead, maintained the view that Jesus fulfilled the OT or distinguishing between law and tradition (which is sometimes read as written vs. oral Torah) and that this explained the new direction that Christianity took, particularly in ending most of the requirements of the Torah law. Jews, of course, rejected this and insisted on keeping the Torah.

The rabinical tradition seeks to make sense of the OT as a coherent, unified theology. As a textbook. Some Protestantism does the same while other Protestantism almost ditches the OT. Catholicism has always seemed to me to have had an ambivalent and nuanced approach to the OT.


#2

Bubba,

I haven't read the book you mention here, but it seems that, while there are interesting observations, there are also some viewpoints that are at odds with the Catholic position on Scripture.

[quote="Bubba_Switzler, post:1, topic:331943"]
Aside from the obvious caution against reading the (Old Testament) Bible as literal Word of God (something that Catholics should not need to be lectured on)

[/quote]

Standard response to this one: there are a wide variety of approaches to the Bible among Catholics. The Church seems to suggest that we look at the Bible as literally the Word of God, although we need not believe that it is to be accepted in its entirety as if it were a history book or news report (i.e., 'literalistically' or in a fundamentalist sense).

perhaps the most interesting thesis of the book was his argument that the Bible should be read as a "source book" and not a "text book". By this analogy he means that the (OT) Bible is a collection of writings representing a variety of viewpoints evolving over time.

There is both sublime truth and naive misunderstanding in this statement, if this is what the author is suggesting. Yes, the Bible has human authors, who lived in different eras and at different times. Necessarily, then, there are a variety of human viewpoints in the Bible, which (when viewed as a whole) may be interpreted as if there is a 'evolution' of religious thought among God's people. On the other hand, however, there is a single, consistent, unchanging viewpoint that is part of the entirety of Scripture -- the viewpoint of the divine author of Scripture, God, whose inspiration permeates the whole of the Bible.

One of the questions that I have long pondered was why the seeming incongruity between the OT and the NT. This is one possible answer. The OT itself is far more internally incongruent than most non-scholars appreciate. If that is so then we should not be at all surprised to find incongruities between the OT and the NT. We should not be surprised to find Jesus correcting the priests and pharisees.

The corrections that Jesus offers to his human contemporaries, though, are corrections not of the texts of the OT, but of their interpretations and traditions that proceeded from the text! It would be logically inconsistent to suggest that, as people interpret the Bible differently over time, they are discovering incongruities within the Scriptures! Are there places where we need to look at the texts critically, and determine where we see the hand of the human authors more plainly? Of course. Are we to ascribe the notion of 'incongruity' to the OT and NT themselves? That's a question that requires a far more nuanced answer than you propose here, I think...

My impression is that, traditionally, the Catholic Church has avoided this approach and has, instead, maintained the view that Jesus fulfilled the OT or distinguishing between law and tradition (which is sometimes read as written vs. oral Torah) and that this explained the new direction that Christianity took, particularly in ending most of the requirements of the Torah law. Jews, of course, rejected this and insisted on keeping the Torah.

How, then, would you respond to covenant theology (a la Hahn (et al)), which says that Jesus is providing a new covenant? That is, instead of suggesting that the NT 'corrects' the OT, per se, it provides a new and definitive covenant (just as the OT lays out a series of successive covenants made between God and His people)?


#3

[quote="Gorgias, post:2, topic:331943"]
I haven't read the book you mention here, but it seems that, while there are interesting observations, there are also some viewpoints that are at odds with the Catholic position on Scripture.

[/quote]

I should probably mention that the author is Jewish so nobody should expect orthodox Catholicism from this book.

There is both sublime truth and naive misunderstanding in this statement, if this is what the author is suggesting. Yes, the Bible has human authors, who lived in different eras and at different times. Necessarily, then, there are a variety of human viewpoints in the Bible, which (when viewed as a whole) may be interpreted as if there is a 'evolution' of religious thought among God's people. On the other hand, however, there is a single, consistent, unchanging viewpoint that is part of the entirety of Scripture -- the viewpoint of the divine author of Scripture, God, whose inspiration permeates the whole of the Bible.

These two ideas are, of course, not in conflict. It is entirely possible for the Bible to reflect "a variety of human viewpoints" even "be interpreted as if there is a 'evolution' of religious thought among God's people" and still exhibit a definite "unchanging viewpoint that is part of the entirety of Scripture." Assuming that is the case, the challenge for Biblical scholars is, of course, to discern the unchanging from the variant and changing. (I'm presuming, for the sake of argument, that the essence of truth that we are seeking is unchanging.)

The corrections that Jesus offers to his human contemporaries, though, are corrections not of the texts of the OT, but of their interpretations and traditions that proceeded from the text!

This is true on the surface, Jesus did not do editing proofs on Jewish scripture. But in a deeper sense it is more debatable. There was no Bible in Jesus' time as we understand it today. Certainly there was no NT but neither was there an OT Bible. There were, instead, lots of manuscripts some of which by Jesus' time were generally regarded as authoritative.

And it's not accurate to say that it is only a debate about interpretation. Does any Catholic dispute the Torah meaning of the commandments e.g. stoning those caught in homosexual acts or simply keeping Sabbath on Saturday? We just don't follow them.

It would be logically inconsistent to suggest that, as people interpret the Bible differently over time, they are discovering incongruities within the Scriptures! Are there places where we need to look at the texts critically, and determine where we see the hand of the human authors more plainly? Of course. Are we to ascribe the notion of 'incongruity' to the OT and NT themselves? That's a question that requires a far more nuanced answer than you propose here, I think...

Partly I think I answer this above in the discussion of the development and canonization of the Bible. We're really talking here about pre-canon Bible, i.e. Biblical times. The author is not making any claims about interpretation of the Bible post-canon.

Let me break down the discussion into propositions this way:
1) The OT is internally incongruent. That is, it reflects multiuple (human) theological viewpoints (irrespective of any underlying unifying divine viewpoint).
2) The OT and NT are mutually incongruent.
3) Even if we accept either of the above there still remains the seperate question of why. Let's not assume that accepting the above implies that God changes his mind or God evolves his commandments.

How, then, would you respond to covenant theology (a la Hahn (et al)), which says that Jesus is providing a new covenant? That is, instead of suggesting that the NT 'corrects' the OT, per se, it provides a new and definitive covenant (just as the OT lays out a series of successive covenants made between God and His people)?

I would stress first that a lot is going on with the NT above and beyond any theological or moral incongruity but these issues are not entirely seperable from one another. You have:

1) A continuation (perhaps with correction or evolution) of the OT theology and moral code.

2) You have a new covenant (to complement or replace the old).

3) You have the enlargement of mission from the Jews to the gentiles.

To add to the complexity of this you have Jesus being somewhat amgiguous but then Paul and Peter start bending (if not breaking) the old OT rules. Paul gets hauled before the Jerusalem council for this.


#4

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.