Tuesday, 9 June 2009

On the historicity of the Old Testament

A friend and I were talking about the Old Testament on the weekend, lamenting catholic ignorance of even the basics of Scriptural knowledge such as what books there were in it.

The current Pope has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Scripture for Catholics - just as ignorance of tradition has weakened the Church today, so too ignorance of Scripture, which is, as St Jerome famously said, ignorance of Christ.

Why are catholics ignorant of the Old Testament?

Catholic ignorance results, we agreed, in part because the (EF) Mass uses very few readings from it. The Office of course is very different, really assuming and requiring that knowledge, given that most of it comes from the Old Testament (in the form of the psalms) but unlike medieval catholics, few today are consistently exposed to the Office on a regular basis.

And, it might be noted, priests rarely link the Gospel readings with the Old Testament in their homilies, whether in the form of the Propers or other supporting texts. Yet such linkages are one of the basic principles of Catholic Bible interpretation: the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New, shedding light on it and explaining it. The commentaries of the Church Father's are steeped in such linkages, but they almost invariably assume more knowledge than the modern catholic typically has, so simply reading the commentaries themselves from Matins or whatever is not normally enough to convey the depth of what is being said.

History or instructive stories?

One of the other reasons though that I think modern catholics tend to baulk at the Old Testament, though, is its tales of fabulous and miraculous events, and the morals drawn from them. Even amongst orthodox catholics, a kind of double-standard has developed: we accept the miracles of the New Testament because we believe that Jesus is God. But somehow we feel differently about stories of ordinary people performing the same such wonders in an earlier era (or for that matter in our own).

Far easier, for example, to believe that the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast is symbolic rather than real, an instructive tale of a king that never in fact existed historically. So it was fascinating to read recently of real archaeological evidence to support the existence of a leader historians had long decried as a fabrication.

Similarly, there is a vast industry that argues that the drying up of the Red Sea may have been a real event associated with an earthquake, but has been conflated later with the later (or earlier) story of the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt.

And we certainly can't be expected, of course, to take the six days of creation in Genesis too literally.

I may be verballing him a bit, since only the last was his example, but my friend gave me pause when he said, suggesting that if he were running a seminar series on the Old Testament, he would just avoid the whole question of the historicity of the Old Testament rather than getting into the endless debates involved. His view was that it is its catechetical significance that catholics needed to know about, not whether events happened when and where the Bible said they did.

I had to say I didn't agree - and I'm not sure that catholics are really free to hold such a view.

The Church's approach to interpreting Scripture

Not every word in the Old Testament needs to be taken literally of course. We do need to pay attention to literary genre and conventions, and some stories clearly are intended more for instruction than to be taken literally. Others, such as the Creation story, perhaps symbolically attempt to convey real events (I'm personally quite keen on St Augustine's line, for example, that the 'days' of creation can't mean twenty four hours since the first couple of 'days' happened before the sun was even in place, although my friend didn't find that a very compelling argument).

On the other hand, traditionalists, the much maligned Pontifical Bible Commission (in its earlier, magisterial form), and a string of Popes have consistently sought to resist those who have attempted to assert a purely spiritual interpretation of Scripture. And I'm firmly in this camp! But I'm curious as to where others stand, and whether I've understood the argument about avoiding historicity correctly...


Matthias said...

it is not just catholics whon are ignorant of the Old Testament. I have encountered it amongst Protestants. They can quote the Psalms and know the first verse of the Bible but to ask them who was Josiah ,Manasseh or Melchizidek would be stretching their minds. Yet this is the Hebrew Bible ,the one Jesus quoted from ,the one St Peter quoted at the Day of Pentecost.I was brought up on King James Bible and was told that as Our Saviour knew it so should I. The problem with many ignorant of the Old Testament,could be around the fact that they identify with the Church which of course began in the NT ,but Redemption and Incarnation were prophesied back in Genesis after the fall. Many Proddies ,especially of the Believers churches-Baptists,Church of Christ,Mennonite- seem to lose the thread from the OT

Gabriella said...

I don’t agree on what you say about the EF Mass. In fact it actually confirms the Catholic understanding of the uniquely sacred character of the Bible. The Gospel Book is incensed in Solemn Mass, even as is the Sacred Cross, and the Adorable Host which hides the very Presence of the Son of God. No other book is incensed because no other book could be of comparable sanctity. The first part of the Mass, the Mass of the catechumens, centres around the Sacred Scripture. It is composed almost entirely of Biblical texts; the Psalm at the foot of the altar, the Versicles and Responses after the Confiteor, the Introit, many phrases of the Gloria, the Epistle, the Gradual and finally the Gospel; all these are straight from The Bible.
How literally is the Bible to be taken? Now, I'm not by anymeans implying that the Bible must be taken hyper-literally in every situation, but by in large, I’m sure they meant what they said. They were big boys, they (the authors) can speak for themselves. In fact, didn't the Holy Spirit speak through them? Isn't that what we believe? Taking too many liberties with the Scriptures ends up with a Bible that doesn't mean anything and later with dogmas that don't mean anything and later with the aimless ambiguity that is slowly making its way in our politically correct world.

Now some may accuse me of being a fundamentalist. I'm not and I don’t take the entire bible hyper-literally. I have no problems with an old universe and an old earth for example and there are many things that work just as well as metaphors without taking away from the meaning. But say all you want about fundamentalists: "you will know them by their fruits" and while there have been some hyper-fundamentalists who have done crazy things, those are the exception. Most fundamentalists are very faithful to the original moral doctrines of the apostles. Those 'bible thumpers' still reject abortion and other issues which virtually all of the "the bible isn’t to be taken literally" types have completely abandoned. Even in the Catholic Chuch those supposed Catholics who teach such liberties with the Scriptures and with miracles are the same ones advocating women ordination, permissible abortions in most cases, embryonic stem cell research etc... etc... You think that's a coincidence?

Terra said...

Gabriella - I agree with you that the Mass is indeed very Scriptural, and I'm not suggsting Catholics don't have a proper reverence for the Bible. And I'm certainly not advocating changing the lectionary for the EF mass, I personally think it has major advantages over that used for the OF.

My point is that mass should be the starting point for our spiritual lives, not the only thing in it, and what I'm pointing to is the negelct of catechesis and lectio divina as part of our own going spiritual formation.

The issue is that we aren't familiar with many of the stories in the Old Testament that provide types for the New, don't know the Wisdom literature beyond a few bits of psalms, and are largely ignorant of the prophets beynd a few key texts used in the Mass.

I certainly agree with you that liberal approaches to Scripture have systematically undermined the faith.

But if you read the earliest catechetical preaching we know about - St Peter in Acts, the early Father's, they all trace out the whole story of the fall and path to rdemption of mankind. I wonder if the average catholic, even the traditionalist, knows even the key elements of that story...

Louise said...

Matthias makes an interesting point. I have always been under the impression that Protestants will quote almost exclusively from St Paul and Proverbs. Catholics will tend to quote almost exclusively from the Gospels. That may be a bit simplistic, but I do think it's fair to say that most Christians do not know the Bible as well as we should.

I take the whole Bible fairly literally, allowing for obvious literary forms etc. I assume the other senses of scripture are based on the literal sense.

I take the Creation account pretty literally, but do not for example assume that the seven days were 24 hour periods, since even Augustine observed that the sun was not created on the first day, so how could we have 24 hour days?

Louise said...

And then of course, it's so easy for all of us to use the Bible exclusively for proof texts.

gabriella50 said...

I do agree with you.

"My point is that mass should be the starting point for our spiritual lives, not the only thing in it, and what I'm pointing to is the negelct of catechesis and lectio divina as part of our own going spiritual formation ..."

I personally think it all boils down to a lack of proper catechesis, as you say. When I was a young girl (a long time ago) both at the parish and at school (catholic) we had a lesson on 'scriptures' twice a week, apart from catechism, liturgy, etc. - all this just suddenly faded out ... and when I sent my children to a Jesuit School (!) they had 'history of religions' instead!!!