The Bible and the Believer (3)

The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
by Mark Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington

• • •

One of my tasks this year will be to work on answering the two questions that Pete Enns raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What is the Bible for?

First, we are taking up this theme by considering a book Pete co-authored with Mark Brettler and Daniel Harrington (a Jewish and Catholic scholar, respectively), called The Bible and the Believer.

The late Daniel J. Harrington presents a Catholic perspective on how to read the Bible both critically and religiously. Harrington was a Jesuit priest, professor of New Testament at Boston College (and the Weston Jesuit School of Theology), longtime editor of New Testament Abstracts, former columnist for “The Word,” America’s Scripture column, and one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars. He died in February, 2014.

Dan Harrington had a remarkable career as a student of the Bible. He authored nearly 60 books, some 225 articles and essays, more than 250 book reviews, and over 150 essays on Sunday Scripture texts for America magazine (2005-2008). He was alsothe editor of (and contributor to) the Sacra Pagina commentary series on the New Testament (1988-2007). While doing all of this, Harrington wrote 50,000 abstracts and 25,000 book notices for New Testament Abstracts.

With regard to the common division between religious and critical perspectives on scripture, Harrington reminds us that:

The Catholic imagination tends toward finding analogies and complementarities wherever possible. The Catholic tradition insists on the integration of faith and reason. Catholics tend toward “both … and” thinking. So, on this matter, as on many others, the typical Catholic response is that both critical and religious readings of the Bible are not only possible but also necessary to appreciate fully what Sacred Scripture is. (p. 80)

Like Mark Brettler in our previous post, Dan Harrington also would have us recognize that Catholics have a unique perspective on the very make-up of the Bible and what should be included in sacred scripture.

Catholic Bibles contain seven Old Testament books over and above those found in Jewish or Protestant Bibles. They are Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch. Moreover, both Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain fuller editions of Daniel and Esther, following the more expansive Greek textual tradition. (p. 81)

Note that he calls these additional materials “Old Testament books,” and not Apocryphal books. If you pick up a Catholic Bible published by a Protestant publisher, these books will be included in a separate section. They are considered “apocryphal” or “deutero-canonical.” But for Roman Catholics, it is all the Old Testament, and these books and variations extend the reach of the Old Testament into the era of Second Temple Judaism.

So, how do Catholics approach the Old Testament? Harrington points us to the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 as the “most authoritative modern document on the Catholic reading of the Bible,” known as “Dei Verbum.” This document has informed further development in the area of biblical studies in the Catholic church, including the work of The Pontifical Biblical Commission and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 apostolic exhortation entitled Verbum Domini (Word of the Lord). These and other efforts at biblical study since Vatican II “reaffirm the indispensable character of historical criticism while, at the same time, insisting on the theological or spiritual interpretation of the Bible.” (p. 85)

In order to understand their approach to the OT, we must ask, what is the Bible, for Catholics?

Catholicism is not a religion of “the book.” Islam may well be. And some say that Judaism and Protestantism (with its insistence on sola scriptura) are, too. But Catholics view the Bible as primarily a witness to a person, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and the Word made flesh. Thus, Catholicism is more a religion of a person. (p. 85)

When it comes to reading the Old Testament, then, here is the approach Daniel Harrington says is characteristic of Roman Catholic practice:

…it is fair to describe the primary Catholic approach to the Old Testament as proceeding “from promise to fulfillment” or “from shadows to reality.” The “promise” is to be found in the shadows of the Old Testament, and the “fulfillment” or “reality” in Christ as he is proclaimed in the New Testament. In practical terms, today this approach lies behind much of the selection of Scripture texts in the church’s lectionary for Sundays and major feasts. While there are exceptions (especially during Lent), for the most part, it seems that in the lectionary the Old Testament passage has been chosen with an eye toward providing “background” for the Gospel text, and the responsorial psalm serves as a bridge between the Gospel and Old Testament texts.

However, Catholic scholars also recognize the dangers of an exclusive promise/fulfillment approach, especially with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. This led to the 2002 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission on “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.”

This document appeared almost forty years after Vatican II and reflects the progress made in Christian-Jewish relations since the council. Moreover, it was prepared by professional Catholic biblical scholars, many of whom had worked seriously on Old Testament texts often in collaboration with Jewish scholars. The Catholic scholars were well suited to appreciate the intrinsic merits and contributions of the Old Testament on its own, without always looking for explicit references to Christ and the New Testament. That document first affirms that the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people are a fundamental part of the Christian Bible. This is clear from the New Testament itself, which would be unintelligible without the Old Testament. The New Testament writers not only appealed to the authority of the Jewish Scriptures and used Jewish exegetical methods in interpreting biblical texts, but they also developed key Old Testament themes such as the revelation of God, the greatness and wretchedness of the human condition, God as liberator and savior, the election of Israel, the covenant, the law, prayer and worship, divine reproaches and condemnations, and the promises (including the kingdom of God and the Messiah). While noting the prominence of the Christological reading of the Old Testament in the New Testament and in Christian history, the document also observes that the return to the literal sense and the development of the historical-critical method have helped retrieve important insights into biblical texts. It also urges respect for traditional Jewish readings of the Bible and insists that the Old Testament in itself has great value as the word of God.

When it comes to the New Testament, Catholics give preeminence to the Gospels. As is the case when reading the OT, Harrington notes how biblical scholars incorporate the insights of critical theology when approaching the Gospels. They recognize that the Gospels must not only be read as uninterpreted stories of Jesus, but also read in the light of the early church and the Evangelists, who wrote them with an eye to the original communities that received them.

Finally, Catholics insist that Bible readers seek to grasp the spiritual sense and contemporary application of the text.

While insisting on the historical-critical method as “indispensable,” official Catholic teaching also insists that it is not totally adequate. Besides establishing the author’s intention and the meaning in its original historical context, the interpreter must also consider the spiritual sense of the text, that is, what the text might mean today for an individual or for a group. This idea is based on the biblical concept of the word of God as something living and active, having an effect not only in the past but also, and especially, in the present and future (see Isa 55:10–11; Heb 4:12). Ideally, the spiritual sense should flow from the literal sense.

…To be authentic, a spiritual reading of the biblical text must keep in mind three things: the literal sense, the paschal mystery, and the present circumstances.

This happens on an individual and group level through such practices as lectio divina, by which the scriptures become “actualized” in people’s lives and in the life of the community. But the primary way by which the Bible’s teaching and lessons are accessed by the people of God is through the Eucharistic liturgy. Harrington details the ways the church has responded to Vatican II by revising the way the scriptures are presented and explained in worship to help the people.

But he also recognizes problems that continue to trouble the church in its relation to scripture, including biblical illiteracy on the lay level, lack of well trained priests to teach the Bible well, and inadequate interpretive models such as the promise/fulfillment perspective, which essentially turns the Old Testament into a book of prophecies about Jesus.

21 thoughts on “The Bible and the Believer (3)

  1. Here’s what Harrington says:

    The books of Tobit and Judith are now recognized as charming tales (like Esther and Jonah) that provide valuable information about Second Temple Jewish life and piety. The works known as 1 and 2 Maccabees convey important historical and religious data about decisive events in the second century BCE. The book of Wisdom, because of its emphasis on immortality, offers a key element in the development of the biblical hope for eternal life after death. The book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) presents the opinions of an early second-century Jewish teacher in Jerusalem about practically everything and bears witness to his efforts at integrating the ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition and the Jewish biblical tradition. The book of Baruch shows how certain biblical passages—Daniel 9, Job 28, and Isaiah 40–66—were reread and interpreted to shed further light on Israel’s experience of exile. The Additions to Esther make that book more explicitly religious, while the Additions to Daniel include the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Boys, along with the marvelous Greek tales of Susanna and of Bel and Dragon. These additional books make the Catholic Bible a rich resource for the study of Second Temple Judaism. (pp. 81-82).


  2. Stbndct, it is not so easy to shake off a Catholic upbringing and identity. For many of us, we doubt the legitimacy of our reasons for leaving the Church for the rest of our lives. I remain interested in the problems and situation of the RCC, I read about it, at times my wife and I have mulled over the possibility of joining/rejoining it, and I’ve spent quite of bit of time in one Catholic parish over the last few years.


  3. Since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church’s focus on increasing lay familiarity and engagement with the things you enumerate has definitely increased.


  4. There is what I think is a well balanced view of Scripture titled “The Authority of Scripture” by David F. Watson posted today on his blog at (don’t know if this will link or not). It is from a Wesleyan/Anglican perspective.


  5. So, it is safe to say that the Apocryphal designation of the additional OT books for Catholics are there to reflect the theology of 2nd Temple Judaism?


  6. CM, Thanks for your honest insight in what I believe is a common misstep in many professions and not limited to clergy. This issue has so many off shoots about teaching and leadership. People need to believe that their religious leader does know more about their religion than they do. The religious leader would just know the cobbler knows more about shoes than he and the farmer about crops, We have to have confidence and trust that our leaders know of what they speak and the leader , at some point must acknowledge that their people are there to learn and follow the teachings of their faith in their worship and of course, it is a part of their live not their entire life. So thank you for sharing something that many professionals in many field do and think they are “dumbing” down if they go over the basics.

    Adam T. I am with you on your comments. That is why I have become disappointed with many “leaders”, teachers who betray the trust and have sometimes contempt for the people that put them in the position as the people are not as smart as me.

    King being briefed by security, the peasants are revolting, King says “they certainly are”.. From old Mel Brooks movie but cannot recall title. If the people in your “group” know as much as you , they do not need you.


  7. This! So, this.

    Not everyone needs to be an expert. And insisting they should be an expert – especially when that is entirely unfeasible – creates pressure to asset expertise when it is not there, which creates all kinds of additional problems. Unreasonable demands for expertise replace appropriate humility with inappropriate shame.

    People cannot be experts in everything, expertise is too expensive.


  8. I was raised in the Catholic faith, went to Catholic schools and taught in a Catholic school (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), and I am very comfortable with the Old Testament (or the ‘First’ Testament) being openly read in our Churches as a part of our liturgy and as having a wholeness within the context of ‘The Story’.

    It may be true, that there is a lot of biblical illiteracy among some of the laity, but only the ones who did not or do not attend mass regularly over years. I say that because the Scriptures are ‘incorporated’ into the liturgy in such a way as to show connections and A LOT OF SACRED SCRIPTURE IS READ OPENLY AT MASS. And there is a lot of ‘listening’ to the Word going on at mass, taking the Word in by ‘hearing’. . . . not just ‘reading’, which does add another ‘sense’ to the reception of the Word by the individual attending. Year after year, in ‘rotation’, those attending hear much of the sacred Scriptures read and become ‘familiar’ with them so that in hearing them again, there is not only ‘recognition’ but also an ability to put the verses into a context with the whole ‘Story’ in a way that is important.
    So, if not fully ‘literate’, the average practicing Catholic is likely to be more at home with sacred Scripture IN CONTEXT than you will find among those Christian people who do not incorporated the Scriptures into an organized liturgy, but instead rely on their pastor to ‘choose’ which readings to emphasize and in what ways to emphasize them in a ‘sermon’ that is not following ‘the Church year’, so I do think many Catholics (who attend mass) are at an advantage in understanding what this means:

    “As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”


  9. As it is in institutions of higher learning, in the halls of government and in most civic organizations and clubs. What we hold up as our ideals and how we put them into practice are always gapped. Part and parcel of the human struggle.


  10. I took Robert’s statement in a general sense in response to the article, which is presented by one of the foremost Catholic scholars of the past generation. Harrington’s view of scripture and how it works in the church — the Catholic scholar’s perspective — and the view of the common layperson may be vastly different. In general terms, I think Robert is correct, but as Eeyore has said, this is not a problem unique to Catholics.

    One of my great frustrations as a pastor — often springing from my own inability to be sympathetic to the actual lives of my parishioners and what they were capable of devoting time to — was the biblical illiteracy I saw and what I perceived as a lack of hunger to go deeper into biblical studies and theology. I’ve come to admit that that’s a pastor’s perspective, who spent countless hours and lots of money in seminary tucked away in his ivory tower. I wasted a lot of time in needlessly lamenting the situation, and, sadly, in scolding my congregations.

    This is one area in which I consider Martin Luther a genius for developing the Small Catechism and entrusting it to the families in the parishes so that the parents may teach their children. True, there are limitations there too, but simple tools that allow people to master the Rule of Faith take us a long way toward biblical and theological literacy.


  11. Robert, who decides what good scholarship is and where it’s expounded ? You paint an awful wide brush for someone who isn’t Catholic and doesn’t worship there. Even if you used to be Catholic long ago I can’t see you having a pulse on the issues of most in the world..


  12. Robert, I’m sure you’re correct, but one gets a strong impression that there have been big changes in the 50 years since Vatican II with regard to lay involvement in Bible studies, spiritual retreats, and other types of small groups where talking about scripture is more prominent. This is my impression as an outsider. Am I correct?


  13. Just as there is between the schools and seminaries of evangelicalism and the mainlines, and their pews.


  14. Talking about what happens at the level of good Catholic scholarship done in good universities and seminaries, and what happens at the parish, diocesan, national, and even the Vatican levels, are different things. There is a wide gap between those worlds.


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