Monthly Archives: February 2017

Question: Interpreting and Dating the Bible

Caravaggio MatthewAndTheAngel byMikeyAngels.jpg

St. Matthew and the Angel (destroyed in 1945)

Marcy asks a big, multi-part question.  I took the liberty in breaking this rather large and varied question into five smaller questions.  I hope you don’t mind, Marcy!

 

Let’s take them one at a time.

 

  1. “If the Ten Commandments (or even just the two main ones—love one another and don’t have other gods before me) are the laws by which God wants most western religions to abide, why are things so muddled with the conflicting dicta of other parts of the Bible?”

 

First, let’s look at the Divine Law.  Marcy mentions the “two main” commandments, which could be simplified as the scribe did speaking to Jesus: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  That’s the basis for all law, whether it be religious or civil.  Everything boils down to how we honor God and how we treat our fellow man.  Most Christians and non-Christians can agree with that division, even if they disagree with the laws themselves.

 

Christ’s division of the Divine Law into “Love God” and “Love Neighbor” also reflects the Natural Law, those ethical rules we discern through reason.  Pagan tribes, uncontacted by missionaries, still honor the gods and have an understanding of respecting others.  Our definition of Natural Law comes not from the Bible but from philosophers like Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddha.  It is the moral teaching that affect all of mankind.  It is why, for example, Thomas Jefferson could write in the Declaration of Independence that the rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are “self-evident,” or the Nazi war criminals could be tried for “crimes against humanity,” or that every major ethical philosopher has some variation of “Treat others as you would want be treated.”

 

So that’s God’s plan: Love Him and Love people.  Real love.  Willing the best for others and acting accordingly.  That is our moral plan for life.

 

So if that’s all we need, why the other, “conflicting” laws?

 

I can’t get into everything.  That would take a book (see at the end for a list of them).  Me?  I have a blogpost.  So I will focus on why there are so many laws when the basic laws are so simple.

 

The answer is, of course, that the laws are simple, but people aren’t.  Perhaps it might help to look at the problem in light of God’s paternity.  Parents often find themselves dealing with children who need clearer guidelines.  Before, it might have been simple enough to say “Don’t move” to a baby (like that ever works) but now you must say “Stay there and don’t put the diaper in your mouth”).  The intention of the parent is still there, but now there is another rule in place to ensure the end is reached.  Of course, that doesn’t always work, and even a perfect parent has days when the children just do not listen.  Likewise, parents may know that one day they will have to have rules in the house that do not apply to the babies.  I do not, for example, need to tell my older son Benjamin that he must bring the car back before a certain time, or tell my other son Jacob that he cannot stay out past his curfew.  They’re toddlers.  They don’t need to have those rules.  When the circumstances change, and the children get older, the rules multiply; laws I had not enumerated now come into force.

 

So it is, in a sense, with God and His Law.  God’s law to mankind used to be very simple: have babies, care for creation, and don’t eat from this one tree.  Adam and Eve broke the tree rule before they could even get to the babies and caring for creation.  As a result, there were consequences.  As we travel through the Old Testament, we see how God has to refine and clarify His intentions with Israel.  He gave them the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and the people swore to follow them, but when Moses went back up the mountain to get plans for how to build the Ark of the Covenant, the people revolted and began worshipping a golden cow.  As a result, God took away the priesthood from every family, gave it to the Levites, and gave the Levites very clear instructions on how to worship.  We call these instructions Leviticus; it’s the third book in the Bible.  Later, the Israelites AGAIN broke the law, and so God had to clarify His law AGAIN (this time in the book of Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law”).  So it was again and again.

 

When Jesus came, He continued this refinement of the law.  “You’ve heard it said,” Christ would say.  “But I say,” He would continue.  Christ gives us a New Law that does not remove the old one but rather fulfills it, demonstrating the realities to which that the Old Law pointed.

 

“Conflicting data?”  Remember something very important: we must read the Bible as a whole, not each part in isolation.  We are also not asked to read the Bible alone; that can (and does) lead to confusion on so many points.  The Bible was, after all, written over several centuries by different people in different historical situations.  It is here that the Church’s Magisterium is so essential.  The Magisterium’s particular role is interpreting what God has revealed to us, whether through Scripture or through Tradition.  We should not ignore what the Church has to say about these important points, especially when looking at more controversial topics in the Bible.  God does not contradict God, and truth does not contradict truth.  We have to adjust our understanding of Scripture and the world to God’s, rather than force Him into our narrow frame of mind.

 

Christ established the Church to guide the faithful to salvation and to provide grace through the sacraments.  I might, in a later blog post, go over how we know the Church was established by Christ and that Christ intended it to have the role it does today.  For now, this brief excurses will have to suffice.

 

  1. “Why even use the other parts?”

 

The Bible is much more than laws, just like a library is much more than rulebooks.  There are poems, histories, sagas, proverbs, letters, biographies, visions, and short stories.  All of them teach, but not all of them are laws in the strict sense.  The purpose of Scripture is not just to tell us laws.  It is to tell a love story, that of God for us.  The story helps us understand the laws, just as knowing about your family would help understand any rules particular to your household.  This world, creation, is God’s household, and we are all His children.  The Church’s theology picks up on this.  Theologians refer to the external activities of the Trinity, i.e., whenever God does something outside of Himself, as the “Divine Economy,” from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning “managing a household.”

 

  1. “Who were the authors?”

 

On the one hand, we know the names of several authors of various books in the Bible.  For example, the New Testament letters were written by Sts. Paul, John, James, and Jude.  The Gospels were written by Sts.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  St. Luke also wrote Acts of the Apostles, and St. John is named as the author of Revelation.  In the Old Testament, we know that David wrote most of the Psalms, that Baruch was the scribe for the prophet Jeremiah (and wrote down his own prophecies).  Hebrew tradition names Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and we can ascribe the words of the various prophets to them or a scribe that travelled with them.

 

On the other hand, we don’t know who wrote most of the Bible.  We can estimate when certain works were composed, but most of Scripture is was written by anonymous authors over the centuries. However, we can see that certain books were written by the same author.  For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles seem to have been written by Ezra the scribe (who also wrote the book Ezra in the Old Testament), but modern biblical critics aren’t sure and so they refer to the author as “The Chronicler.”  Most of the historical books were written by anonymous historians who drew from previously written sources.

 

All of that said, we should also keep in mind that all of the human authors of Scripture are the secondary authors.  The primary Author is God.  He ensures that nothing needed for our salvation is missing from Scripture, and it is because of this that we speak of the Bible as inerrant and inspired.  When we ignore God as the primary Author, we miss the whole purpose of the book.

View the Great Isaiah Scroll

Sample of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Isaiah Scroll)

  1. “When did they write?”

 

As mentioned, the Bible wasn’t written in a couple years; more like several hundred years.  While we cannot figure out the exact date of composition for many of the books (that information is simply lost in time), we can estimate for several of the books when they were composed using evidence within the text and from other historical information.

 

Dating books in the Old Testament is particularly challenging.  Even though the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah, specifically Genesis through Deuteronomy) are attributed to Moses, we do not know for certain when they were written down.  We do know that there were copies of them in writing during the time of the kings because the scrolls of the Torah were found abandoned in the Temple and were read to King Josiah (see 2 Kings 22), which means scribes wrote them down before 600 BC.  Even scholars who tend to date these documents as “later” date them to the 720s BC, over a century before Josiah’s reign.

 

We can date books by the writers ascribed to them.  For example, even if they did not write them down themselves, many of the Psalms are attributed to specific individuals, such as Kings David and Solomon, which would put their composition between 1000 and 922 BC.  Solomon is also the ascribed author of Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, again, dating those books’ composition to no later than 922 (when Solomon’s son split the united Israelite kingdom through his arrogance).

 

We can also date the composition of books by what they discuss.  For example, scholars estimate that Ruth was written around the time of King David because of the genealogy attached to the end; the whole story is a sort of background to the rise of David as king.  We can date when the anonymous “Chronicler” wrote 1& 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah because of the genealogy of high priests described in Nehemiah 12 (dating the composition around the early fourth century BC).  We know that 1 & 2 Maccabees were written by 100s BC because they describe the events of the Jewish revolt against the Greeks in Israel, which ended around 160 BC, and because both books are in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) which was completed before 132 BC.

 

Unfortunately, not all of the books are so easily dated.  However, we do know that the entire Old Testament was completed by the translation of the Septuagint.

 

As far as the New Testament books, we know that they were completed by the death of John the Evangelist (around AD 100).  Historical critics who tried to date the books later into the AD 100s or even the 200s have been shown to be wrong by more recent scholarship.  The general consensus is that the four Gospels were written before AD 70, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.  The letters of Sts. Peter and Paul were written before their death in the late AD 60s.  The Gospel of Luke was written before Acts of the Apostles, which was written before Paul’s final arrest and execution (probably before the fire in Rome in AD 64).  For more on the dating of the Gospels, check out this article I wrote about their historicity.

 

  1. “What happened to the parts written by women?”

 

In the Ancient World, literacy was the precious possession of a few special individuals.  As such, scribes (those who could read and write) were respected and pretty much guaranteed an important position in society.  Recent studies have found that more people than previously thought could read and write in Judah prior to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, but even then the number was a few hundred, very small in relation to the hundreds of thousands of Israelites (see here).  Even by the time of Christ, when more people could read and write thanks to the education systems of the Greeks and Romans, the majority of people could do little more than write their name.  Scholars estimate at most 10% of the Empire’s population could read or write more than their signature.

 

If literacy was that rare among the general public, it was even rarer for women.  Rich women might be able to read or write, but the common ladies could not.  So the simple answer to the question “what happened to the parts written by women” is that they never existed because women, for the most part, didn’t write.  The fact that there is no tradition of direct female authorship of any Biblical books should not be ignored in this regard.

 

However, the Church has long reminded us of the important role women have in society, in salvation history, and in the inspiration of stories and details in the Bible.  Remember that three of the historical Biblical books (Ruth, Judith, and Esther) have female protagonists, and women play a huge role in Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, and 2 Maccabees (where we find the story of the brave mother who encourages her seven sons to die rather than blaspheme God).   It might be argued that these early stories of heroic women (especially where the stories refer to the inner thoughts of these heroines) were drawn from the reminiscences of the women themselves.  In that sense, they might be seen as the book’s author.

 

In the New Testament we see a similar scenario with Mary, Jesus’ mother.  The details of Christ’s infancy narrative, especially in Luke’s Gospel, were drawn from the authors’ conversations with Mary.  Luke even hints at this by saying that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  How does an author know the inner thoughts of someone unless he spoke with her?  We also know that Mary lived with St. John the Evangelist after Christ’s death.  St. John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels and emphasized repeatedly in his first letter that “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8ff).  What better source of that reflection than God’s own mother.

Six women of the Old Testament - Eve, Miriam, Yael, Ruth, Judith and Esther

Six Old Testament Women (Eve, Miriam, Jael, Judith, Ruth, and Esther)

Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

 

So I hope that answers your questions, Marcy, or at least whets your appetite for more.  Feel free to check out some of the resources I linked to in this article, or some of the resources in the tabs at the top of the page.

 

And everyone, if YOU have a question you want answered, go ahead and send it in.  I’ll get to it eventually . . .

 

 

For Further Reading

 

On Biblical Interpretation

Scott Hahn, A Father Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture

_______, Scripture Matters: Essays on Reading the Bible from the Heart of the Church

Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.  

 

On Difficult Bible Passages

Trent Horn, Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties

Matthew Ramage, Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas

 

On Bible History and Dating

Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Books: Are They Reliable & Relevant?

F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Books: Are They Reliable?

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