Sunday, January 7, 2007

RCIA Presentation: The Old Testament

Last year, I was an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) candidate at my parish. For those who don’t know, RCIA is a series of classes for people considering joining the Catholic Church. The quality of RCIA, naturally, varies from parish to parish, but the idea is that people will understand the Church’s foundational teaching before deciding if they wish to join. The knowledge level of the participants varies significantly; some have studied Catholicism for years and are certain they want to be members, and some know little of Catholicism but want to check it out. Some are Catholics already who want to learn or review the basics of the faith. Some students inevitably know more than the teachers. We have a new RCIA director who asked me to teach a class on the Old Testament, making me probably the youngest RCIA instructor in the parish by a number of years. The following is a hybrid text combining the draft of my presentation with what I actually said, including parts of the draft I did not have time for in the lecture, and a transcription of the brief question-and-answer period that followed. This is here for the RCIA candidates if they wish to review, and also here for anyone else interested. A few minor correctives are placed in brackets to call attention to my ignorance and fallibility.[1]

I am D. G. D. Davidson. I am the parish’s resident science fiction writer and archaeologist. I bet you didn’t know the Catholic Church kept those. And just to get it out of the way now, yes, I am an archaeologist, and yes, my name is Doug, and yes, that’s very funny.

Today we are studying the Old Testament, and they’ve given me less than an hour to cover it. Do you all have Bibles? Did you bring your Bibles? If you don’t have a Bible, you can share with the Protestant sitting next to you. That’s a Scott Hahn joke. Obviously, we cannot discuss the entire Old Testament in an hour, so I want you to consider this your “Old Testament Appreciation Class.” By that I mean that my task, as I see it, is not to summarize the Old Testament or explain it, but rather to encourage you to read it for yourself and to give you some tools to help you appreciate it more fully.

Before we can really begin to look at the Old Testament, we must understand three things. The first is a foundational principle. It is a principle that underlies Christianity, the Bible, and all sane philosophy, but it is one our culture is currently trying to destroy. Being, as we are, members of our culture, it is necessary to make clear this thing that in any healthy society everyone takes for granted. It is this. That which is, is. By that I mean that there are things in the universe that exist independently of you and which you are unable to affect or change by your opinion or by any action. Among such things are universal truths, which include the doctrines of the Church, moral precepts, and the attributes of God. Our society teaches that all these things are subject to the opinions of individuals, that reality is personalized, and that reality bends to personal whims. But healthy thinking starts with this: That which is, is independently of you, and so it is no surprise that when God chose to reveal himself to Moses with a name that defines him, he said, in Exodus 3.14, “I am what I am” (NRSV footnote). And what he is is not subject to opinions or popular sentiment. If you get nothing else out of RCIA, get this. Without it, you will never understand the Old Testament, the Bible as a whole, or anything else.

The second thing with which we must begin is the eradication of soft soap religion, what C. S. Lewis called Christianity and Water. That same author commented that people today do not want a Heavenly Father but a Heavenly Grandfather, benign and a little senile, who never instructs and never punishes but only gazes on the children and doesn’t care what they do as long as they have a good time. People who adhere to such so-called religion have difficulty with the Old Testament because they find within its pages wars and rumors of wars, judgment, human error, and the wrath of God.

[I made a mistake in the draft that I corrected in the presentation; I meant not that the texts contain human errors, but that the people the Old Testament depicts are flawed. Some may wonder why I mention this, but as a Christian sf/fantasy writer, I notice a disturbing trend--that many Christians are no longer comfortable with flawed characters in stories, and so I list this among the uncomfortable contents of the Old Testament. As an aside, inappropriate in the lecture but appropriate for this blog, the story of Samson is the antidote for criticism of flawed literary heroes.]

This brings me to the third thing you need to know about interpreting the Old Testament. Most interpretive difficulties--most, certainly not all--arise not because the Old Testament is hard to understand, but because people do not like what it says, and so to rid themselves of what it says, they claim it is obscure. If, when reading the Old Testament, you find a passage you consider difficult, ask first if it is really difficult, or if you simply don’t like it. If you find that you simply don’t like it, then it poses no interpretive difficulty, and you can interpret it with ease and keep reading. If it really is difficult, chances are good that it’s not all that important, and so you can keep reading in that circumstance also.

So, there are the first three things you need to know to read and appreciate the Old Testament: absolutes exist, the Old Testament makes modern people uncomfortable, and most interpretive difficulties aren’t that difficult.

There are two categories of books that you need to know about, and I’ll write their names up here on the board. The first is this term--I have to apologize; I’m left-handed, so half of you can’t see what I’m writing--Protocanon, and the second is Deuterocanon. The word canon means rule, sort of like a yardstick. When we use it in describing the Bible, we are discussing those certain books that the Church has identified as being inspired by God and therefore infallible. That is to say, God ensured that the human authors of these books would write everything God wanted them to write and would not write anything he didn’t want. Beyond that, however, the books bear the writing styles, thoughts, cultural attitudes, and artistic abilities or lack thereof of the human authors who wrote them. And let me say as an aside that when I include cultural attitudes in that list, that is not to say that we should regard our own cultural attitudes as somehow superior to those of the biblical authors just because the biblical authors say things that make us uncomfortable. The Bible sits in judgment on you and not the other way around.

Let me make clear that the books in both categories are all fully canonical, all fully inspired by God. Protocanon refers to those books about which there was little or no dispute in the Church. Deuterocanon refers to books, and some sections of books, about which there was more dispute. They include such books as the Book of Wisdom, Sirach, some parts of Esther and Daniel, the Book of Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Baruch, and maybe some others I forgot. Sometimes the Deuterocanon is referred to with the term “Apocrypha,” which just means hidden. There’s a history behind that term that I’m not going to go into. You need to know--something I shouldn’t bring up now, because we’ll discuss it later, but I got started, so I’ll say it--is that there are some Bibles that do not contain the Deuterocanon. When you’re looking for a Bible, you need to make sure you get one that has the Deuterocanon in it. When you’re buying a Bible, check the Table of Contents, and if it doesn’t have these, you need to switch brands.

In a typical Catholic Bible, the Deuterocanonicals are interspersed with the Protocanon in their appropriate sections according to their genre of literature. In some Bibles, the Deuterocanonicals are in a separate section, but they are still to be regarded as fully canonical. In some Protestant Bibles, the Deuterocanonicals are absent or are arranged with other books such as the Prayer of Manasseh or 2 Esdras, which are noncanonical.

You have a handout, and you’ll need it in a moment, so you can go ahead and get it out. It’s called “The Parts of the Bible.” (I like to make you shuffle papers so I feel like you’re paying attention.) If you look at the parts of the Bible, it has a list of books down there, divided into different sections: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Wisdom Books, and Prophets. This is the traditional Christian way of dividing the Old Testament, more or less. The way you have the books listed on your handout are actually a little eccentric. That first term, Pentateuch, means “five books,” and you’ll notice they have more than five. I think this list comes from the Catholic Study Bible, and I’m not certain why they do this. The Pentateuch is normally considered to contain the first five books--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Let’s look at the Old Testament’s arrangement. In Jewish tradition, the scriptures are divided into three parts: Law, Prophets, and Writings. The Christian arrangement still has three categories; the Pentateuch is sometimes regarded as part of the historic books. Our categories are Histories, Wisdom Literature, and Prophets. The arrangement is important. History is presented first, giving an account of the origin of the world, the growth of the human race, the beginning of the Jewish people, and the progress of the Jewish nation from its legendary ancestor to its struggles with the major world empires of its day from Assyria to Greece, with the shadow of Rome falling over the History’s last pages.
The Wisdom Literature comes second. Many Christological--that is, referring to Christ--types are visible in these books, and so these writings point to the coming of Christ. They also contain God’s eternal Wisdom. They go in the middle, they hover in there, after the Histories.
Last of all, the Prophets depict the future of Israel, discussing problems at the time of writing, but looking to the future, describing the restoration of Israel, the coming age in which the hopes of the nation will be fulfilled, the coming of the Messiah. Looking forward to the future, they come at the end of the Old Testament. These prophecies, like the archetypes of the Wisdom Literature, find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

I’ll give you a brief outline of the stories in the Histories to make sure we’re on the same page. So, the Reader’s Digest version of the History of the Bible goes like this. God made the world. As his definitive creative act, he made man and woman in his own image, and he commanded them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Tempted by a serpent, they disobeyed, ate the fruit, became mortal, and were cast out of paradise.

Before God cast the first humans out of Paradise, he pronounced judgment on them and on the serpent. If you all open your Bibles, or look over the shoulder of your neighbor, read in Genesis 3.14-24...I don’t see many Bibles open. Come on, people.

Student: [Inaudible.]

D. G. D.: Oh, has it been? Well, this is your class on the Old Testament. I need you to look at ‘em.

Student: Yes, sir. [Laughter.]

D. G. D.: Okay, I’ll read it to you, but I invite you to follow along. Genesis 3.14-24 (NRSV), a bit of a long one, but an important one:

The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
Cursed are you among all animals
And among all wild creatures;
Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
In pain you shall bring forth children,
Yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of
the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you shall eat of it all the days of
your life;
Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Until you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
You are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and life forever”--therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

The present human condition is being described. This passage is typically known as the Fall of Man. Buried in the story of the fall is a short section called the Protoevangelion, and it appears in the curse on the serpent in verse 15: He will strike your head and you will strike his heel. The Church has traditionally understood this as a foreshadowing of Christ because it is ultimately Jesus, the second Adam and offspring of the first Adam, who finally crushes Satan and accomplishes the redemption from this Fall.

The children of Adam and Eve became corrupt. To cleanse the world of corruption, God sent a Flood, saving only one righteous man, Noah, and his family. All the nations sprung from Noah. People tried to band together and build a tower to reach Heaven, but God foiled their plot by confusing their languages. They spread across the world. In time, God chose one man, Abraham, from Ur in Mesopotamia, to be his servant, and told him to travel west to the land of Canaan. In his [and her] old age, Abraham’s wife gave birth to a son, Isaac.

A central event in the story of Abraham was when God ordered him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham took Isaac, considered his firstborn son, up Mount Moriah, bound him, and prepared to slaughter him, but the angel of God interrupted and told Abraham to sacrifice a goat in Isaac’s place, which Abraham did. God then blessed Abraham because he was obedient and was willing even to sacrifice his son at God’s command.

Isaac became the father of Jacob, who changed his name to Israel [better to say that God changed Jachob’s name to Israel; there are two versions of the name change in Genesis, and in both, God changes’ Jacob’s name. Jacob doesn’t choose the new name himself]. He had twelve sons, each of whom is the eponymous ancestor of one Israelite tribe. After a variety of shenanigans, they ended up in Egypt. Four hundred years later, their descendants were numerous but had become oppressed slaves. God raised Moses to lead them out of Egypt and back to Canaan. God sent some plagues to convince the Pharaoh to send the people out, last of all killing the firstborn in Egypt but saving the Israelites who participated in a special sacrificial meal called the Passover. The Passover involved the sacrifice and consumption of a young lamb, the blood of which was painted on the doorposts so that the death angel would pass over the houses so marked. After the firstborn of Egypt were all killed, the Israelites left, crossed the Reed Sea by God’s miraculous power, and stopped off at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Law of God depicting how man is to interact with God and with his fellow man. This Law is typically called the Mosaic Law, named after Moses [and not because it was put together with fragments of colored glass...sorry, couldn’t resist]. The Mosaic Law, as well as many stories, are contained in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah or Pentateuch. Moses is the traditional author of the Pentateuch.

One of the most important parts of the Mosaic Law was the sacrifice or redemption of the firstborn and the offering of firstfruits [cf. Exodus 34.19-20]. The firstborn of all livestock were either sacrificed to God or redeemed by substituting money [incorrect; donkeys were redeemed with lambs. I recognized a problem here when I gave the lecture, and so I was vague in my actual talk about whether it was money or substitutionary animals that were used. The Levites were accepted by God in place of the firstborn, as in Numbers 3.11-13]. The firstfruits, that is, the first of all crops, were also offered to God. The firstborn sons, too, were not exempt from this. They were redeemed with money paid to the temple [or rather, to the sanctuary; the redemption with money appears in Numbers 3.46-47 to make up for the fact that there were more firstborn sons than Levites], but were not sacrificed, since the Old Testament consistently frowns on human sacrifice [and because priesthood, not sacrifice, is in view here. I had to present this a week earlier than I thought I did, and the result was some scrimping on fact checking. The errors in this section are the severest, and they don’t alter the point I was making].

You may have noticed that I have three time mentioned firstborn sons. Abraham almost sacrificed his firstborn son, the firstborn sons of the Egyptians died during the first Passover, and the firstborn sons in Israel had to be redeemed. Embodied here is an important concept: the firstborn sons belonged in a special way to God. This points toward Jesus, who was God’s own firstborn son, and who God sacrificed on our behalf. God spared Abraham from doing what God himself would do in order to save us. Similarly, we refer to Christ as our Paschal sacrifice, that is, a sacrifice for Passover. Just as a lamb was sacrificed to substitute for the firstborn of Israel so that death would not take them, the firstborn son of God is our Passover Lamb who dies in our place so that we may have eternal life. [Had I remembered that the firstborn were to be consecrated as priests or other religious functionaries before they were replaced by the Levites, I could have also mentioned that Jesus, as God’s firstborn, is our great high priest.]

After receiving the Law of God at Mount Sinai, the Israelites offended God in numerous ways, mostly by idolatry or complaining, and had to wander in the desert forty years until all the generation that left Egypt was dead except for Joshua, the servant of Moses, and Caleb. Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, establishing the nation with a series of stunning military victories.

At this point, we enter history that can be tentatively dated. For about two hundred years, in a period known archaeologically as Iron Age I--I just have to throw this in--from about 1200 to 1000 BC,[2] the people who would become the Kingdom of Israel were a loose conglomerate of tribes. They continually sinned and offended God, who continually punished them by allowing various other nations to oppress them. When oppressed, they cried out to God, who delivered them by means of tribal warlords, traditionally called judges, who then became temporary leaders.
Samuel, a prophet of God, was the last of the judges. He anointed Saul as king, beginning Israel’s period typically known as the United Monarchy; that is, a single kingdom ruling all the Israelites. This approximately begins the archaeological period of Iron Age II.
King Saul was a tragic figure who offended God in a variety of creative ways, sank into madness, and was usurped by David, a young man after God’s own heart, who established the Davidic dynasty, with which God promised to make an eternal covenant, that David would always have a descendant on the throne. Jesus, of course, as we learn at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was descended from the line of David, and Jesus is indeed an eternal king.
King David committed adultery with the wife of one of his chief lieutenants and had that lieutenant murdered. God was displeased. David repented, married the woman with whom he committed adultery, and she gave birth to Solomon, who became David’s successor. Solomon received great wisdom and wealth from God. He built God a temple and himself a palace, divided Israel into a number of administrative districts, and levied heavy taxes.
His rule was followed by a division. Unhappy with Solomon’s hard rule, the northern tribes--ten of them--rebelled and formed their own kingdom of Israel, while Judah in the south remained in the control of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. Both Israel and Judah went through a long series of good and bad kings. In Israel, they were mostly bad.
In the meanwhile, the Near East’s first real empires began to grow. The Assyrian Empire conquered Israel and practiced the policy of exiling most of the people from the land, shipping them off to live in other places, with the intent of preventing rebellion. This was punishment for Israel’s sins. Assyria also devastated most of Judah but failed to conquer Jerusalem. However, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Assyrian Empire, and then conquered Judah, exiling the people from there in 586 BC, closing Iron Age II. This was punishment for Judah’s sins. The Israelites were absorbed into the cultures to which they were exiled.
The Judahites, however, maintained their ethnic identity. Cut off from the temple worship of Jerusalem, their religion underwent profound changes. The Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian and its first king, Cyrus, gave the Judahites permission to return to their land and rebuild the temple. The exiles returned under a usurper to the Persian throne, Darius, and rebuilt the temple and the city.
Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great, after which Israel fell under the rule of the Ptolemies of Egypt. The Seleucids then defeated the Ptolemies. The worst of the Seleucid rulers was Antiochus IV, who tried to Hellenize Judah’s culture and eliminate Jewish worship. This resulted in a religiously driven insurgency led by a family called the Maccabees. The Jews drove the Seleucids out and allied themselves with fledgling Rome. Israel was then under the descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean Dynasty, a line of rulers who were both kings and high priests. After all that, Judah was conquered by Pompey, who turned Judah into a Roman vassal state, more or less setting the stage for the New Testament.

That’s the very, very short version. As you read the histories of the Old Testament, I want you to notice that many stories are told twice. There’s a twofold structure to the entire collection. The books from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings are typically known as the Deuteronomistic History because they were compiled by a single editor working with the theology of the Book of Deuteronomy. The Deuteronomistic History is generally pessimistic. It was probably compiled sometime after the Jews had been exiled to Babylon, and it depicts the nation as continually turning to sin, even though God is patient and gracious. Finally, the nation sins so much that it is thrust out of the land of Israel.

The books of 1 Chronicles to Nehemiah tell the same story, beginning at the beginning again, with Adam and Eve [or, rather, just Adam--Eve isn’t mentioned], but tell it in a more optimistic fashion because these books were compiled, again by a single editor, after the return of the exiles from Persia to Israel. These chronicles acknowledge the sin of the nation, but look forward to God’s redemption, of God bringing his people back to their homeland. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah depict this return and describe the rebuilding of the temple. Chronicles embellishes the stories of the kings of Israel to make David and Solomon more idealistic kings with fewer mistakes, and adds other details throughout the account.

The Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids is also told twice, in the books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The first book is an historical account, using a lot of eyewitness testimony and historical documents. The second book is more creative, telling the same story from a different perspective and with more entertaining embellishments.

Some of the twofold nature of the histories is even visible in the Pentateuch. In Genesis, there are two versions of many of the stories, though they have been woven into a single account. The best example of this is the creation story. There are two versions of the story. The first has God creating the world in six days, ending with the creation of humankind. The second account, which is older, has God creating a single man out of the dust of the Earth before he has created any animals or any plants. The two creation accounts are laid end-to-end with no attempt to reconcile all their details. These separate accounts give two different angles from which we can approach the timeless truths contained in the story of creation.

Now, before moving on to the Wisdom Literature, let me address a few questions that many people have about the Histories, in particular, about the Mosaic Law. It often happens that Christians will read in their Bibles in the latter half of Exodus, or in Leviticus or Deuteronomy and see that much of these books is devoted to laying out rules of blood sacrifice and describing dietary regulations, and so many of these Christian readers are confused. Why, they ask, do we as Christians not practice this? They want to know why the Mosaic Law is here in their Bibles.

To understand the reason for the Old Testament sacrificial system, and to understand why we do not practice it in the Church, I think you need to know an important term, which I’ll write up on the board here. The term is apotropaic magic. This is me being an anthropologist, so bear with me. If the term doesn’t utterly confuse you, I think it will help you out. The term “apotropaic” is a broad term referring to something intended to ward off evil, whereas the word “magic” in this case, simply refers to any ritualized behavior believed by its practitioners to be efficacious, that is, effective.[3] I would write apotropaic sacrifice, but the Old Testament Law encompasses more than just sacrifice.

Now, the Old Testament Law is apotropaic because it has one major goal in mind--that goal is the right ordering of the universe, or more locally, of the Land of Israel. The Law’s regulations are geared toward keeping things in their proper place and avoiding confusion and chaos. So, for example, the Israelites were not permitted to wear articles of clothing with two kinds of fabric, or to yoke donkeys and oxen together [Deuteronomy 22.10-11], because such things bring together different kinds and result in confusion. Now, some of these laws may be more symbolic than practical. It’s not normal to yoke a donkey and ox together because they’re different sizes, but the law against it is included to point up the importance of maintaining right order and balance.

I’ll give another example from the food regulations. The Law prohibits a lot of things, but only uses the word “abomination” to describe a few particularly evil things, such as bestiality, homosexuality, or the eating of shellfish [Leviticus 11.10-12][4]. Why? And why is eating shellfish forbidden so strongly? It is forbidden so strongly because shellfish, as creatures that live in water but do not have the usual fins and scales, are representative of the chaos that the Law is meant to keep at bay. The association with water makes the symbolism particularly strong because in much of Ancient Near Eastern mythology, the sea is the ultimate representation of chaos. It appears personified as a being of chaos, often a giant serpent--in Canaanite mythology, the sea is Prince Yam, the enemy of Baal. In Babylonian mythology, the sea is Tiamat, the nemesis of the god Marduk. And in the Old Testament, the sea is Leviathan, or Rahab, a sea serpent or army of serpents that appears in the Psalms, in Job, and in some of the prophets as an enemy of God, whom God defeated at the creation of the world.

This concept of creation by cosmic battle was a popular motif in the ancient Near East, one that scholars call the “Combat Myth.” The best-known version of the Combat Myth is the Enuma Elish from Mesopotamia, written, in the second millennium B.C., which depicts the god Marduk defeating a chaotic nature goddess named Tiamat.

It is significant, too, that when the world became completely corrupted by sin, God destroyed the world in a Flood. This is a depiction of the world returning to chaos as a result of man’s sin. From the very first until today, sinproduces disorder in the universe. The Law of Moses is designed to stave off disorder--that’s the purpose of the regulations--and to right the universe again when it has become disordered--that is the purpose of the blood sacrifice.

Why don’t we practice the Jewish Law today? Why does Jesus say in Matthew 5:17-20 that he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it? Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate act of apotropaic magic, fully renewing the universe and making possible our salvation. The Law, in a more limited fashion, could maintain the balance of the Nation of Israel, precariously, but the Israelites through their history proved inadequate to fulfill its requirements. Jesus, as God and Man and an archetype of the Nation of Israel, fulfilled the Law perfectly and sacrificed himself as a sacrifice that surpasses all the sacrifices of the old system.

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, it says in 9.13-14, referring to the difference between the Old Testament Law and the New Testament sacrifice of Christ, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer,”--that’s the Old Testament practice--“sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (NRSV). The Jewish Law could purify the body, but the blood of Christ can purify the heart. The Jewish Law points to the coming of Christ and his ultimate sacrifice. This is how Jesus fulfills the Law without abolishing it. And so, because Jesus brings the ultimate sacrifice, that he need offer only once, the old sacrificial system is no longer necessary.

It is with the shedding of blood that the universe is righted, that sin is forgiven. It says in Hebrews 9.22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (NRSV). And because of the importance of blood, the Israelites are specifically commanded not to eat blood. When they killed an animal to eat it, they were commanded to pour the blood out on the ground. Whenever this injunction appears, it appears with an explanation, as in Leviticus 17.11: “for the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (NRSV). Blood contains the life or soul, and when a sacrifice is made, the life is poured out.

Because of the close association of blood and life, the ancient Israelites saw the blood as the very essence of the animal. A person engaging in unlawful magical practices might eat blood in order to gain the powers and ability of the associated animal, or else use the blood for divination. These things are forbidden and so blood was poured out on the ground and covered with dirt.

Some people might ask why, in the Church, we eat and drink the blood of Christ when the Israelites were specifically commanded not to eat blood. It’s for the same reason: because the life is in the blood. We are not to try to acquire the lives of animals, their strengths or powers, but we are to strive to become Christ-like, to become godly. Christ’s life is eternal life, and that is why Christ says in John 6.54, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (NRSV, with emendations). The life of Christ is in the blood of Christ.

Now the Wisdom Literature. In here you find some of the most powerful and complex books in the Bible, including Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach.

[These comments on the Psalms were off the cuff. I’ve cleaned them up a bit to make them more readable.][5] I want you to notice something about the Psalms. The Book of Psalms is a compilation of songs for liturgical use. These were songs used in the temple worship. The songs describe in very personal, very passionate terms, the relation of God with the Nation of Israel and the relationship of God with the individual songwriters who produced these songs.

I understand a lot of you are Protestants or former Protestants. One of the things about heresy is that it almost always is not a new invention. Heresy is typically some bit of orthodoxy that is blown out of proportion. Heretics don’t do this just to be contrary. They do this because something has gone wrong with orthodoxy and they are trying to counter it, and they end up going too far. The Protestant Reformation arose at a time when Catholic practice had become largely formulaic and legalistic. This wasn’t universal; this was also a time of great mystics. Some seemed to think that if you participated in the rituals, crossed your Ts, dotted your Is, and connected the dots, you didn’t need to worry about much else. Some of the Protestant reformers heavily emphasized relationship with God, but they made the mistake of throwing out the rituals that they thought were getting in the way. Look at the Psalms. Music for liturgical use that is about deep, passionate relationship with God. For the ancient Israelite, ritual and relationship were inseparable. Rituals do not get in the way of your relationship with God. They are there to help your relationship with God. I mean particularly the sacraments, which are vehicles of God’s grace.

Last year, I was sitting where you are, so I know what some of you are thinking. You’re building up to this, it’s exciting. If you’ve already been baptized, you’re looking forward to first confession, confirmation and Eucharist. First confession is a rush, let me tell you. There’s nothing like coming out of your first confession. I liked it so much I did it three times. You come out of that, and you make it to Easter Vigil, and you’re confirmed, and you take the Eucharist, and then you think, “That’s it. I’ve got him. I got Jesus. Now I can hit cruise control.” Right? Is anyone thinking that? It doesn’t work that way.

Some Protestant groups will tell you that you don’t need Jesus in the Eucharist, that all you really need is to invite Jesus personally into your heart. Well, they’re half right. If you haven’t personally invited Jesus into your heart, I recommend that you do that right away. As a Catholic, I recommend that you do it more than once. Morning and evening would be a good start.

The rituals and sacraments are there to build on, to renew, to enhance, to continue your relationship with God. If you’re thinking that in coming to the Catholic Church you can replace personal striving with ritual, I’ve got news for you. You can see in the Psalms that it doesn’t work that way. And if you think maintaining a personal relationship with God without the sacraments is tough, I can tell you: it gets worse. Because the sacraments bring you closer to God, and when you get closer to God, you realize just how good God is, and when you realize just how good God is, you realize just how good you aren’t.

So when you hit the Psalms, don’t just sit there saying, “Oh, man, I’ve got a hundred and fifty of these.” Instead, think of them as poems for liturgical, ritual use that describe personal, passionate, often overwhelming, sometimes very painful relationships with God.

Job is much too complicated to get into here, but it explores, in a complex round of poems, the mystery of suffering. Psalms is a collection of worship songs. It is essentially a compilation of lyrics for liturgical use, and so it forms the bulk of the Liturgy of the Hours. Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings aimed at the edification of young men, though it’s useful to anybody. Ecclesiastes is another complicated and ambiguous book. It’s a meditation on human existence, and its overarching message is that life is pointless without God.

Song of Songs is an erotic poem or collection of poems; scholars have gotten particularly creative with this one because it has no coherent storyline, but it tends to suggest a number of storylines. It has been the favored book of mystics, and it is customary to read it as an allegory of God’s love for the Church or even for the individual.

Wisdom is a book praising the wisdom of God and exhorting the reader to obtain wisdom.

Sirach is an extended, lengthy collection of practical advice, somewhat like an extended version of Proverbs.

Pervading the wisdom literature is an interesting figure, a personified Wisdom. Wisdom is personified as a woman since wisdom is a feminine noun in Hebrew. The Wisdom Books tell us that God produced Wisdom before all other things, that God made the world through Wisdom. In the New Testament and in the Church, we are told that God begat Christ from eternity past, and that it was through and for Christ that all things were made. This is because Jesus is Wisdom incarnate. Wisdom in the Old Testament is essentially an anthropomorphized depiction of the preincarnate second Person of the Trinity. That is why Jesus is called the Word of God in the New Testament. Word in Greek and Wisdom in Hebrew have a similar range of meaning. Jesus is the wisdom of God, the word of God that God speaks to us, and we see this Wisdom in the Wisdom Literature in two ways: in the personification of Wisdom and in the actual, practical wisdom that the books contain. The same Wisdom appears in the Gospels, which contain Christ’s teaching, but also contain Christ himself.

The following passage comes from Wisdom 6.12-20:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
And she is easily discerned by those who love her,
And is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
For she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thoughts on her is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
Because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
And she graciously appears to them in their paths,
And meets them in every thought.

Wisdom 7.26 says this of Wisdom: “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (NRSV). Compare this to Hebrews 1.3, which says of Christ, “He is a reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

Proverbs 3.19-20 says this of Wisdom, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew” (NRSV). Proverbs 8.22-24 has Wisdom saying this about herself, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (NRSV). The word translated “created” in this version is better translated, “begat.”[6] Compare this to the description of Christ from Colossians 1.15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (NRSV). Here, in the Old Testament Wisdom books, we meet with the eternal Son of God described as Personified Wisdom.

Because Wisdom is timeless, it is placed in the middle of the Old Testament, after the history, which was in the past, and before the Prophets, which discuss the future.

The Prophets look forward to God’s Wisdom becoming incarnate and forming a new covenant with God’s people, the covenant we live in today. They also speak of eschatological things, things that God will do at the end of time, and that’s why they come at the end of the Old Testament.

The prophets come in two flavors. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are Major Prophets because their books are longer. Following the Major Prophets are the twelve Minor Prophets, not because their books are less important, but because their books are shorter. I’ll briefly give a few highlights from the Prophets here, and then invite you to read them for yourselves.

Isaiah is probably a collection of three books, typically called First, Second, and Third Isaiah. The first book was written before the Babylonian exile, the second was probably written during the exile, and the third was probably written shortly after the end of the exile. The book consists of condemnation of Israel for her sin, encouragement of the exiles that God is in control, and promise of Israel’s final redemption.

I segued into Isaiah because I want to mention the Servant Songs. These passages in Isaiah describe the nation of Israel as God’s suffering servant. Jesus, as the true Israel, fulfilled the images contained in these passages. I will quote a few brief examples from Isaiah 53 (NRSV). It says in verses 4 and 5, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” It says in verses 10 to 12, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” It is, of course, Jesus who was sacrificed for our sins and who bore our transgressions and who now lives to make intercession for us.

Regarding Jeremiah: two books besides the book of Jeremiah are grouped with Jeremiah because they are traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah or his close associates. The first is Lamentations. This is a poem describing in mournful fashion the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Jeremiah lived through this destruction, and because he foretold the destruction and often mourned both the coming conquest and his own mistreatment at the hands of his fellow Israelites, he acquired the nickname, “the weeping prophet.” Hence, Lamentations, the saddest book in the Old Testament, is associated with Jeremiah. Also associated with Jeremiah is Baruch, which contains two books. One purports to be a letter by Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary, warning the Israelites exiled to Babylon not to engage in idolatry. The other is a brief letter purporting to be by Jeremiah himself.

Daniel is also an unusual book. It consists of a collection of stories that may have come from a cycle of Daniel stories popular during the reign of the Seleucids. In the book, Daniel is a young Jewish man who lives in Babylon during the exile and, through his wisdom and ability to interpret dreams, rises to prominence in the Babylonian court. Also included in Daniel is an apocalypse. Apocalypse in its fully developed form is a peculiarly Jewish brand of literature[7] that makes a certain political and religious point by using metaphors and allegories that look strange and ambiguous to modern readers. Apocalypses usually describe historical events in metaphorical terms and also make predictions for the future. The apocalyptic visions of Daniel describe various empires that have influenced and troubled Israel, spending most of the time on the Seleucids who controlled Israel after Alexander’s conquest, because the Seleucids probably ruled Israel when Daniel was written. Daniel depicts these empires being at last destroyed and superseded by the Kingdom of God, which arrives with the coming of a powerful figure that Daniel designates the Son of Man. This is, of course, the title that Jesus used for himself. Here is Daniel 7.13-14 (NRSV with footnotes accepted):

I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven
And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away,
And his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

We simply do not have time to spend going over the Minor Prophets. I will say, however, that they are an oft-neglected section of the Bible rich with beautiful passages and profound truths. However, I will say this. The last book of the Minor Prophets is Malachi. Malachi speaks of the coming of the Day of the Lord, when the Lord will come to judge all people. Malachi promises condemnation for all evildoers and salvation for all the righteous.
He ends his exhortation with the following in 4.5 (NRSV): “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” Elijah was regarded as Israel’s greatest prophet, though he has no book to his name. He appears in Kings as a prophet who confronted Ahab and his wife Jezebel, who were turning the Israelites away from the worship of the true God and to the worship of the Canaanite god Baal. At the end of his ministry, God took Elijah alive from the Earth so that he would not experience death. Here, Malachi says that Elijah will return in order to prepare the way for God’s coming. In the New Testament, we learn that John the Baptist ministered in the spirit and power of Elijah and prepared people’s hearts for the coming of Christ. So, this place is an appropriate spot to end the Old Testament, in preparation for the New.

Now, since you’re all going to be reading the Bible, you may be wondering what Bible you’re going to want to read. Buying a Bible can be daunting today because some publishers have flooded the market with niche Bibles, which are Bibles geared toward certain occupations, lifestyles, or age groups. I want to steer you away from niche Bibles for a couple of reasons. First, most of them are Protestant, so they won’t contain all the books we’re talking about here. Also, a Bible is a significant monetary investment, and I don’t want to see you end up with one that you’re going to outgrow in a few years when your hobbies change. Plus, on top of that, I mean, how much does the Bible really have to say about extreme sports, anyway? A good Bible is generally expensive, and so you want one that is durable and that will be useful to you for years and years, so it’s best to avoid Bibles catering to fads. I have up here a few that I recommend.

There are only two translations you need to worry about. The two modern Catholic translations in English are the NAB, the New American Bible, and the RSV-CE, the Revised Standard Version--Catholic Edition. The RSV-CE only comes only in one form [Ignatius: 1994].[8]

The NAB comes in a variety of editions. The one I recommend is the Catholic Study Bible, Second Edition [Oxford UP, Oxford: 2006]. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. It’s in-depth, and it’s scholarly, so it should serve you for many years. You have NABs already and you can see that it has copious footnotes. This also has lengthy discussions of each book in a separate guide in the front, as well as a number of articles, maps, and a concordance. For a Bible-study apparatus in one volume, this bad boy will totally hook you up.

RCIA Director: The cost is about forty-five dollars.

D.G.D.: Yeah, the price is pretty good for a study Bible.

RCIA Director: I carried one of those all over Israel until it’s just about falling apart.

D.G.D.: Oh, really? Hmm. An Oxford Bible is supposed to be more durable than that. [Laughter.]

Before opening it up for questions, I want to talk about how to read the Bible, since you’re all going to read the Bible. Now, there’s no wrong way to read the Bible, except to not read it, and so it’s not necessary to approach the Old Testament in any particular way.

But I think a lot of people get bogged down while trying to read the Bible because they think they have to approach it in a special way. I was talking to a friend about how to read the Bible, and I told him that what I do is start at the beginning of Genesis and read through until I get to the end of Revelation. Obviously not in one sitting. It takes me about a year to do that. He said no, no, you can’t do that; every time you read the Bible, you have to read something from the Gospels. You can’t pick up the Bible and read without reading something from the Gospels. So I asked if he read the Bible every day, and he said no, it takes too much time. Don’t set yourself a goal for Bible-reading that you can’t keep.

You have a handout that will suggest a technique, a gimmick: a sort of chronological way of reading the Old Testament that some people like because they feel it makes the text easier to approach. It suggests reading some of the books in the order that the stories they tell take place, placing them in a chronological order.

If you want to read the Old Testament that way, that’s great. However, I’m a big advocate of reading the Old Testament the old-fashioned way; that is, starting at Genesis and reading it through to the end. I encourage this in part because I want you to understand that the Old Testament is arranged the way it is on purpose and to appreciate its arrangement: Histories followed by Wisdom followed by Prophets. Plus, I, at least, find it easier. It’s not much harder than sitting down and reading a novel. You can read the Bible like a novel. And if it’s the first time you’ve read it, that’s probably best.

You can just set aside a half hour, or fifteen minutes, or five minutes every day and read. You will find that you can indeed read through the Bible. Some of its parts are not the most exciting things to read. The first ten chapters of 1 Chronicles are a killer. But if you discipline yourself and read it, you will find that the first ten chapters of 1 Chronicles do not go on forever, however it feels when you’re in there.

Another problem is that people try to study the Bible before they’ve read the Bible. You can’t study if you don’t know what you’re studying, and reading the Bible straight through, which with diligence you can do in a year or less, is a good way to give yourself a basic overview of the material. They try to study a certain topic in the Bible, and they go around from passage to passage, but they don’t understand the context of the passages because they haven’t read the whole books before, so they don’t understand what they’re reading and conclude that the Bible’s too hard to understand. People might also get a big study Bible and feel some kind of obligation to read all the footnotes. Don’t do that to yourself. Read the book introductions to give yourself an overview, and then just read it straight through. If you want to look at a footnote every once in a while, do that, but don’t feel that you have to read every one. The footnotes will still be there later.

I want to encourage you all to read the Bible. The most major document released by Vatican II was the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, and one of its major points is read your Bible. I think it was St. Jerome, or maybe I’m getting him mixed up with St. John Chrysostom [it was St. Jerome], who said that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ. That includes the Old Testament. That includes the whole Bible And do not slip into this mindset that Catholic is equivalent to biblical illiterate. Catholics have been told that for so long that they’ve started believing it. Biblical illiteracy is not a Catholic problem but a cultural problem. Don’t think that because you’re Catholic you can’t understand or read your Bible. You can read it. You can understand it. All you have to do is discipline yourself and say, “For this ten minutes, I am reading my Bible.” It’s like any other devotion. If you can say a daily Rosary, you can read a daily Bible passage.

That, I think, pretty much finishes me off, maybe finishes you off. So I’m going to open it up for questions.


D.G.D.: Yes?

Student: When I read my Bible, I look in the bulletin at church, and it has daily readings, and I read those every day. Is that what I’m supposed to do?

D.G.D.: The question is about the daily Mass readings printed in the bulletin. What you have there in the bulletin are the daily readings that are read at Mass. If you have a missal, or this Catholic Study Bible, you have a list of the readings that are read each day. Those are the readings that the Church has chosen to use in her liturgical celebrations. That’s good if you’re reading those. That’s great. That is scripture, and it also puts your reading into tune with what the Church is celebrating that day. I recommend, still, reading the Bible straight through from beginning to end because I think that will enhance your understanding of the Mass readings. There’s only so much they can read at a time in the Mass, so the Mass readings are passages taken out and presented to you. I think you will find you get a lot more out of Mass if you have read the whole Bible through at least once. And you’ll get a lot more out of that Mass reading, because you’ll be able to say, “Oh, I remember that. That was talking about...” or “Oh, I remember that. That’s when so-and-so did something.” So, yeah, that’s good. I still recommend reading it straight through. Any other questions?

Student: What was it that was objectionable [inaudible]?

D.G.D.: The question is, what was disputed about the Deuterocanonicals? That’s a complicated question. I don’t think I can answer it real successfully. They were particularly and especially disputed at the Reformation. The Protocanon contains books that were all written in Hebrew. Largely, or at least partly in reaction to the growth of Christianity, there was a Jewish council at Jamnia in about A.D. 100. I’ve read that the council may be overrated, that it wasn’t as successful, that it wasn’t as generally accepted as is sometimes said. The council in about A.D. 100 selected a Jewish canon, consisting of the books that they had in Hebrew. The Christian Bible at that time was the Septuagint, that’s a Greek translation of the Old Testament. It included books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, those others that I have mentioned.

Within the Church, there were some differing opinions about the canonicity of certain books. St. Jerome only considered the books of the Protocanon as canonical. He’s in the minority. The majority of the Church Fathers accept the entirety of the larger canon. The canon that we have in the Catholic Church was made official at the Council of Trent, which was called, among other reasons, largely in response to the Reformation. Martin Luther threw out the books that did not agree with his theology, and his excuse for doing that is that he could refer to what the Jews used. But they did not codify their canon until a long time after Christianity was already in existence.

Student: When was that?

D.G.D.: About A.D. 90 to 100 are the dates usually cited [for the Council of Jamnia]. I don’t think they know exactly when it took place.

Student: 90 B.C.

D.G.D.: What’s that?

Student: 90 B.C.

D.G.D: A.D. 90 or 100 are the two dates that I’ve seen for it. In there, around the turn of the century. Does that answer that?

Student: Well, that will get me started.

D.G.D.: Okay. So, the majority of Church Fathers are agreed on the larger canon, and the Church is agreed on the larger canon. They didn’t bother to sit down and make it definite until there was a larger heresy disputing it, which is usually how definitions work in the Church. They’re not usually made until absolutely necessary. Because by the time of the Council of Trent, this was essentially undisputed and had been for quite a very long time. Any other questions? I hope I answered that one. Yes?

Student: I don’t know if you can answer it, but it’s kind of a thought. God told us that he is “I am,” right? With all the different religions...when Jesus came, the whole world saw him, right?

D.G.D.: Uh, I’m not quite sure I know what passage you’re referring to. Do you have a...?

Student: I don’t know the passage exactly, but it says that when he came, the world saw...I mean, I believe that the whole world saw, that the whole world saw Jesus Christ. Because, at the same time, as I thought about it, the way I believe, and the way I was raised, and the way my mom taught mom’s changed a lot, but we’ve always believed that the other religions, in a way, have the same basic foundations as ours. Like, there’s a savior, or whatever. In other religions, they believe in a savior who came from a Virgin, though there’s a different name, but they believe in the same story. Like, if they were, I mean, a lot of them...I mean, would that still be considered okay? Because they do believe that there...that there’s a savior?

D.G.D.: I can begin to answer that....

Student: And then I have one more thing, that....

D.G.D.: Oh, can we begin with this one?

Student: Yeah.

D.G.D.: So I don’t forget.

Student: Yeah. [Laughter.]

D.G.D.: Alright. I’ll write up, actually, I don’t need to write it. It will take too long. The Catholic Church has a dogma. A dogma is a belief that is set down, that without it, you’re not Catholic. The Catholic Church has a dogma. “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.” Another...I don’t know an exact declaration, but I promise you it’s a dogma...another dogma is that Christ came once. There is one incarnation of the Son of God. That’s Jesus Christ, who is a historical figure. He was a carpenter in Galilee who walked around Israel. And everyone didn’t see him. Now, the dogma is, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” That has been interpreted in different ways, in at least two different ways in the history of the Church. We’ve swung one direction now, we’ll probably swing back the other way sometime later. The way it was commonly interpreted, which you can find in St. Augustine, is that that really, literally means that no one who is not a Roman Catholic can be saved.

A much more typical way to interpret it now is that when God saves, he always saves through Christ--nobody comes to God except through Christ, and Christ makes that very clear in the New Testament [cf. John 14.6]. Nobody can be saved except through the Church and through the sacraments. If there were no sacraments, there would be no salvation. If there were no Church, there would be no sacraments, and there would be no salvation, etcetera. The Church leaves open the possibility, by which I mean she does not claim in absolute terms whether or not a non-Catholic can be saved. There was a Pope, and I’m afraid I can’t remember which Pope [it was Pius IX, and the document is the Syllabus of Errors, error 17] who put together a list condemning erroneous doctrines. One of them was that we can have good hope for the salvation of non-Catholics. That was listed as an erroneous doctrine. Now, I would put the emphasis on the word good. It’s good hope. The reason for that is that judgment is always up to God. We can never--in fact, it is a great sin--to say, “You’re going to Hell.” You can’t do that. Or say, “I know Joe’s in Hell because he was such a lousy guy.” You can’t do that because that’s not your judgment. You can warn a person of the danger of Hell. That’s often very necessary, and that’s an important part of the Church’s ministry, is to warn people who are behaving in such a way that they could very well be separating themselves from God intentionally, by their own choice. But you can’t tell a person that he’s going to Hell. That’s not your business, you’re not the judge.

But all salvation does come from Christ. What you’re seeing in stories from around the world--as I said at the beginning, there are certain universal truths, there are certain things that are absolute. You can find this idea in both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to begin with...Tolkien was Catholic and Lewis was Protestant...who talk about myth, the creation of myth--people who tell these types of stories sometimes tell truth. Tolkien described it as sunlight shining through a forest, and every once in a while, a shaft of sunlight manages to hit the forest floor. When people tell stories, myths, that get at the very basic questions, the very basic elements of the human condition, the question of origins, that kind of thing, they tell stories that will often contain truths.

But without revelation from God, the truth will be mixed with error. And so, you will find stories from around the world of gods who die and rise and make the universe a little better when they do that. You will find stories of virgin births...but none of these are Jesus because Jesus is one individual person. The Buddha is not Jesus. I lost my names all of a sudden...[I was searching for Odin, who hung on a tree]...but any figure you want to take from world mythology, these stories reflect Jesus. They are ultimately about Jesus, but that’s about Jesus. Jesus is a specific individual. He was incarnated at a specific time and place. He had a specific ministry.

The question, ultimately, of whether or not people who have some of that mythology have enough to bring them into a relationship with God...that is a question ultimately that God answers, and that we can’t. We can pray for those people and certainly we are called to evangelize those people. We are called to call them into the Catholic Church. And I think you would find that if we just said, “You know, anyone can go to Heaven no matter what he believes,” that our missions, that our evangelism would be decimated. I think you can observe that already in a number of liberal Protestant denominations, even a little bit in the Catholic Church as well. Vigorous belief--which is very biblical, very Christian--that Christ is the only way, is intrinsic to Christianity and is absolutely necessary to fulfilling the Church’s mission to missions, to evangelizing the world. Does that answer that?

Student: Yes.

D.G.D.: Okay. What was the second question?

Student: When it talks about in Revelations....

D.G.D.: You mean the Book of Revelation?

Student: The Book of Revelations is my favorite.

D.G.D.: That’s sort of in the New Testament.

Student: Yeah.

D.G.D.: Go ahead, though.

Student: It’s my favorite book. I’m kind of asking...I have some talks about religions that will come that claim that they are peaceful, that they are a combination of a bunch of religions put together or whatever? Like, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Baha’i faith?

D.G.D.: I’ve heard of it.

Student: you have any preferences on that?

D.G.D.: Oh. Like a relationship between Baha’i and Revelation?

Student: I mean, just about the faith itself.

D.G.D.: Um...well, on that...on that issue, that would probably be more speculation than anything I could say definitely., I have no particular opinion. [Laughter.] Baha’i is...another religion. There are lots of those. And it’s another one, they have their own specific beliefs. I know a little bit about them, I’ve spoken to some Baha’i...let me change that. I used to know something about them because I’ve spoken to some Baha’i. It’s been a while. I think they draw heavily on Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which is actually still in existence. As for a relationship to Revelation, opinion. I’m not sure we need to get into that. It’s another religion. There are lots of those.

Being Catholic means believing that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth in regard to the major questions. Not that she has the fullness of truth on physics, but in regard to the major questions relating to God, to God’s relationship to man, how I can be saved. That does not mean, as already mentioned, that other religions contain no truth. They do. Some religions contain a good deal of truth. Others contain very little. As for Baha’i, I can’t rank them because I don’t know enough about them. Any other questions? Yes?

Student: As a scientist, do you ever run into...well, an archaeologist, do you ever run into areas in your work where you have to worry about the contradiction between what you discover and what you believe in the Bible?

D.G.D.: Boy, there’s another complicated question. What is this, Stump the New Guy? [Laughter]

Student: I know a lot of geologists, and they deal with different kinds of....

D.G.D.: Okay, the question is specifically how I, as an archaeologist, deal with the possibility of the apparent contradictions between scripture and the archaeological record. [Did I just say “the possibility of the apparent”?] That, again, is another question on which the Church, on some matters, allows a little bit of leeway. I personally do not hold to a literalist, or a better term would be historicist interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3, if that’s mostly what you’re getting at.

Student: Yes.

D.G.D.: The question of if the Earth was created in six literal twenty-four-hour periods--my own opinion is no. That’s not necessarily to discourage you from differing from me. My own opinion is no. Part of the reason for that is the way the stories were written. As mentioned previously, there are two creation accounts that have different details. Some people would use even that fact to attack scripture, but I don’t think that’s warranted. The Bible’s not a scientific text, not a geological record. If it had been, it would have been entirely incomprehensible to its earliest audience. And plus, it would go out of date again, because science updates and so forth and differs from religion in that regard [apparently I was having a mental lapse, because if the Bible were an infallible scientific text, it would not need to be updated or refined as scientific theories normally have to be]. The accounts from Genesis are depicting in a mythological fashion some certain truths you need to know. God created the universe. Something happened that’s our fault that created a rift in the relationship between man and God. The stories in Genesis are a means by which the people who wrote them understood and explained the situations that they lived in. And this particular recording and redaction of that was guided by the Holy Spirit, with the result that it gets across the message God wanted. But it’s still set in a certain context. The story’s very Near Eastern. The story of God creating the universe out of a watery chaos is very Near Eastern, but it’s radically different. The Combat Myth that I talked about is gone. The person who wrote the first chapter of Genesis radically reinterpreted the myths he knew to bring them better into line with reality. God doesn’t have to create the universe by combat. God’s all-powerful. He can speak the universe into existence. So, the myth remains in other texts, the Combat Myth remains as useful imagery, but God spoke by his Word and brought the universe into being. That’s what Genesis tells us. So it draws on the culture in which they lived. The whole of the Bible does that. And God ensured that it gets across the truth that needed to come down to us. So, when you talk about the geological record, age of the Earth, stuff like that, that’s an issue I struggled with once upon a time, but once upon a time was when I was a Baptist. So that’s not really an issue for me.

Student: That’s why I’m asking. [Inaudible.]

D.G.D.: Okay. That one’s not really an issue anymore. Remember this: the Bible’s infallible, which means it infallibly says what God wants it to say. It’s not a modern historiography. We do history now differently than they did then. They did storytelling different than we do now. That’s why there’s things like apocalypses, which are just weird. It does come out of another culture, but it’s still timeless. You have to appreciate it a little bit within...something that’s beyond our normal, narrow way we like to look at things now. We like to say, well, geology says the Earth is this old, and the Bible appears to say the Earth is this old, so one has to be wrong. In this particular case--that’s true of many things, actually--but in this particular case, it doesn’t have to be that way. Any other questions?

[This ended the talk.]

[1] The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the national Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] Dates vary from scholar to scholar, but most are close to this. This follows Amihai Mazar’s Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E. (Doubleday, New York: 1992), a good introduction to archaeology in this region from the Neolithic through the Babylonian exile.
[3] For this term, I am indebted to the sometimes helpful, frequently obnoxious, and occasionally inaccurate notes on the Bible by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett that appear in the back of the Oxford World’s Classics The Bible: King James Version with Apocrypha (Oxford UP, Oxford: 1997). This term appears in the discussion of Leviticus on page 332 in the back of the Bible.
[4] The interpretation of Leviticus 11.10-12 that I give appears as a possibility in the Reading Guide of the Catholic Study Bible, Second Edition (Oxford UP, Oxford: 2006), page RG 130-131, but my first encounter with it was in an unusual insight in the generally ignoble footnotes of the Nelson Study Bible (Thomas Nelson, Nashville: 1997), page 191 note.
[5] For this discussion of the Psalms, I am indebted to C. S. Lewis, who made some similar comments in his Reflections on the Psalms. I read this a year or so ago, and don’t remember who published the copy I had, but one is available from Harvest Books (1964). For my description of heresy, I am indebted to G. K. Chesterton, who I think wrote something like it in The Catholic Church and Conversion, which I encountered in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume III (Ignatius 1990).
[6] I owe this information to Claudia V. Camp and Carole R. Fontaine, who wrote the commentary on Proverbs for the HarperCollins Study Bible (HarperCollins, San Francisco: 1993), and whose note on this verse appears on page 953 of that Bible. I used “begat,” perhaps incorrectly, since it usually refers to men. Drs. Camp and Fontaine suggest conceive or engender, which work just as well.
[7] At the University of Toronto, I was privileged to hear Matthew Neujahr give an illuminating lecture on non-Jewish apocalypse-like Akkadian ex eventu prophecies. If I remember his lecture correctly, he maintained that apocalypse in its fully developed form is peculiarly Jewish, though there are definite parallels in non-Jewish literature.
[8] When I checked only a few months ago, I found only the Ignatius edition, but my last check on showed a leather-bound version from Scepter (1998) and a compact leather-bound edition from Oxford UP (2005). Not only that, but Ignatius now has a Second Edition of their hardback (2005).
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