The Bible in the Past, Present and Future

The books discussed in this article illustrate how Jews and Christians have repeatedly gone back to the Bible to shape their present and future. Though it is an ancient book, the Bible has always been and still remains a source of life, renewal and challenge. Alan D. Callahan’s The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible (Yale Univ. Press, 296p, $30; 9780300109368) is a marvelous exploration of how the Bible has shaped African-American religion and culture. Callahan, who taught for many years at Harvard Divinity School and is now professor of New Testament at the Seminário Teológico Batista do Nordeste in Bahia, Brazil, observes that African-Americans first encountered the Bible as strangers in a strange land of slavery, through the strange language of English letters, and by the strange religion of evangelical Protestantism. He also notes that African slaves and their descendants discerned something in the Bible that was neither at the center of their ancestral cultures nor in evidence in their hostile American home: a warrant for justice in this world.



Callahan first considers the ambivalence that early African-Americans felt about the Bible. The book takes its title from an 18th-century slave who imagined that when his master read the Bible aloud, the book itself was talking. While most African slaves learned about the Bible in oral settings, their fascination with the Bible also led many to learn how to read it for themselves (despite many obstacles). While whites who promoted and justified slavery often appealed to a few biblical passages in “the poison book,” slaves found in the Bible (“the good book”) reasons for hope in this life and the hereafter. The main part of the book explores the four biblical images of exile, exodus, Ethiopia and Emmanuel by which slavery’s children called into question their history and destiny, and all things human and divine—including themselves.

Jon D. Levenson, in Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (Yale Univ. Press, 274p, $40; 9780300117356), takes issue with the contention that belief in resurrection was a latecomer to and a minor influence on the Hebrew Bible. Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University, argues that the ancient rabbis were committed to the belief that at the end of time God will restore the deserving dead to life, and that the rabbis viewed the bulk of the Hebrew Bible as committed to this same idea.

The key Old Testament text is Dan 12:2: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Levenson contends that this text was not a complete innovation in the Hebrew Bible but rather a synthesis of elements spread throughout the Bible. He finds intimations of immortality and resurrection in various psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Elijah cycle and even descriptions of Sheol as the abode of the dead. He regards belief in resurrection as the catalyst that brings together those and many other biblical texts.

Both an insightful reader of texts and a fine theologian, Levenson insists that Jewish belief in resurrection must be understood in the context of Israel’s story, and that once the rabbis grasped this point they found it all over the Hebrew Bible. He concludes that without the expectation of resurrection, the restoration of Israel would be something less than what the rabbis thought the Torah had always intended it to be—the ultimate victory of the God of life. Levenson’s learned and stimulating work is a challenge to Jews today to reclaim their traditional belief in resurrection and to Christians to rethink the resurrection of Jesus in the context of Israel’s story.

In recent years the quest for the historical Jesus has taken on new life, issuing in a flood of books written from all perspectives, and entering the popular consciousness through the controversies surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Dan Brown’s TheDa Vinci Code. One neglected element in the recent Jesus books has been the contribution of archaeology to the quest of the historical Jesus. The mammoth volume edited by James H. Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology (Eerdmans, 766p, paperback, $50; 9780802848802), goes a long way to remedy that gap in coverage. It consists of 30 papers presented by an international group of archaeologists and biblical scholars at a conference held in Jerusalem. Charlesworth, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, has provided a substantial essay that places the papers in their academic context.

How does archaeology as seen in this volume contribute to Jesus research? By itself, archaeology neither proves nor disproves the Bible. But it can illumine the context of Jesus’ life and times, and clarify obscure passages in the Gospels. Moreover, it can increase our appreciation of local Palestinian color in the Gospels and thus our sense of the verisimilitude of those narratives.

The various archaeological essays provide information about places mentioned in the Gospels (Cana, Bethsaida), contemporary texts (Dead Sea scrolls, inscriptions), religious institutions (synagogues, Jerusalem temple), culture (theaters, hippodromes), customs (attitudes toward magicians, burial practices), religious movements (Essenes) and social conditions (rich and poor). Other essays show how John’s Gospel often supplies reliable topographical information and how recent archaeological discoveries can contribute to our understanding of resurrection and Christology. This collection bears witness to Charlesworth’s contention that archaeological work helps biblical scholars to rethink and recreate the past, and so cannot be ignored.

For those in search of Holy Week reading, François Bovon’s The Last Days of Jesus—translated by Kristin Hennessy—(Westminster John Knox, 101p, paperback, $19.95; 9780664230074) may be a good choice, especially since Luke 22-23 is this year’s Gospel text for Passion/Palm Sunday. Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School, seeks to reconstruct the events that took place in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday when Jesus died. Here he writes primarily as a historian rather than an exegete, and seeks to determine what can be asserted with confidence about the various episodes that constitute the passion narratives. He recognizes the limitations of any historical inquiry and professes to be both a believer and a Christian theologian. His little book is a masterpiece of textual learning, respect for the Gospels, good judgment and conciseness.

Bovon begins his presentation with an inventory of ancient sources that include both the canonical Gospels and various extracanonical texts, with particular attention to their distinctive approaches to Jesus’ passion and death. Then, taking as his methodological starting point the fact that Jesus suffered a Roman punishment (crucifixion) as the “King of the Jews,” he works through the individual parts of the Gospel passion narratives with particular attention to their historical character going back to the time of Jesus. He rejects as too simplistic the dichotomy current in scholarly circles between “history remembered” and “prophecy historicized.” In some cases he is quite confident about historicity, and in other cases he attributes material to the early church or to the Evangelists. He also shows how familiarity with ancient Roman law can solve some historical problems pertaining to the “trial” of Jesus. He concludes with reflections on the difference that Easter makes and on the texts pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection.

The Letter to the Hebrews is among the most difficult documents in the New Testament. It presupposes an acquaintance with classical rhetoric, Platonic thinking and ancient Jewish techniques of biblical interpretation. It is really an extended meditation on the early Christian confession of faith that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). Moreover, it is in effect a sermon written down to be read aloud, and thus one of the classics of Christian preaching.

For those who might wish to do a serious study of Hebrews during the Lenten and Easter seasons, Luke Timothy Johnson’s Hebrews: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 402p, $49.95; 9780664221188) is an excellent resource. This serious and detailed biblical commentary is accessible to non-specialists, who will learn much from it. Johnson is an experienced teacher, a learned and productive scholar and a writer who communicates well with various publics. While treating the many philological and historical issues in Hebrews, Johnson never loses sight of the great theological significance of the text and how the biblical author’s rhetorical skills and talents contributed to expressing his religious message.

Johnson is among the best Catholic biblical scholars active today. His commentary on Hebrews in the New Testament Library series is a good example of Catholic biblical research today. It is technically competent, conversant with the relevant ancient sources and focused on the abiding theological meaning of the text. As the author of many excellent commentaries on New Testament books, Johnson has established himself as a “master of the sacred page.”

The story of how the canonical collection of 27 books in the New Testament came to be is well told by David L. Dungan in Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament (Fortress, 224p, $17 paperback; 9780800637909). After setting the development of the Christian canon in the context of concern for accurate codification in the Greco-Roman world, the chaos introduced by Gnostic sects and persecutions under various Roman emperors, Dungan, professor of religion at the University of Tennessee, focuses on the work done by Eusebius of Caesarea and his predecessors in sifting through several centuries of Christian writings, and applying to them the tests of connection with the apostles, orthodox teaching and widespread use in the churches. Then he shows how the process was both narrowed down and speeded up through the intervention of the emperor Constantine, with the result that by the late fourth century there was general agreement about what books belonged in the canon of Christian Scripture.

While Dungan focuses on history and theology in the early development of the New Testament, In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000 (Smithsonian Institution, 360p, $45; 9781588342409; distributed by HarperCollins), edited by Michelle P. Brown, provides a sumptuous look at the various media by which the Bible was conveyed in the first Christian millennium. This volume was published on the occasion of an exhibition organized by the Freer Gallery of Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. The exhibit marked the 100th anniversary of Charles L. Freer’s first purchases of biblical manuscripts, including the Washington Codex of the Gospels (Codex Washingtoniensis), the third oldest (late fourth-early fifth century) parchment manuscript of the Gospels in the world. This beautifully illustrated volume contains excellent essays on the early Christian preference for the codex format (books rather than scrolls), the spread of the Bible in various lands and languages in the ancient world and the emergence of the Bible as an icon. About two-thirds of the book consists of full-color photographs and explanations of the 74 objects from the Freer Gallery and other libraries and museums that made up the exhibition.

The October 2008 meeting of the World Synod of Bishops will deal with “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” This topic has been a longstanding interest of Pope Benedict XVI, and the discussion will surely be shaped by the statements of the Second Vatican Council’s document Dei Verbum and the 1993 Roman document on the Bible and its interpretation. That such documents came to be written is due in large part to the pioneering efforts of a French Dominican priest who spent most of his career at the école Biblique in Jerusalem. The narrative of his life (1855-1938) is told by Bernard Montagnes. O.P., in The Story of Father Marie-Joseph Lagrange: Founder of Modern Catholic Biblical Study (Paulist, 214p, paperback $22.95; 9780809143337). Making extensive use of Lagrange’s correspondence and other firsthand documentation, Montagnes focuses on the trials and tribulations that Lagrange endured for being ahead of his time. Lagrange’s familiarity with the Holy Land, great historical and philological learning and enormous scholarly productivity brought him admiration from other scholars but conflict with some Dominican superiors and church officials. The opposition from Jesuits (perhaps even the Jesuit superior general, Luis Martin, S.J.) is one of the more embarrassing episodes in modern Jesuit history.

What Montagnes emphasizes is that in the midst of many difficulties Lagrange remained the humble and obedient religious. But he was not easily discouraged. He trained several generations of great Dominican biblical scholars and made the école Biblique into one of the world’s best centers for biblical research. When forbidden to publish on Genesis, he turned to the Gospels. When blocked from writing on the Gospels, he took up the study of Paul’s epistles. He always steered a middle course in biblical interpretation, which is precisely the approach officially endorsed in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) and Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (1965). Lagrange fully deserves the title “founder of modern Catholic biblical study.” Montagnes’s final sentence sums up his life and ongoing significance very well: “Whenever faith and culture conflict, the synthesis of the scholar and the believer represented by Father Lagrange remains a luminous example and guide given to the church.”

What Lagrange pioneered came to fruition in Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum). Part of a new series entitled “Rediscovering Vatican II,” Scripture: Dei Verbum, by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S. (Paulist, 160p, $15.95 paperback; 9780809144280), describes the content and assesses the significance of that document in a careful and balanced way. He contends that Dei Verbum fostered a peaceful revolution, not only at Vatican II (1962-65) but also in the Catholic Church. He notes that Scripture has once more become “the soul of sacred theology” and that there can be no turning back from the path that the constitution has laid out for the future.

The debate over the text that eventually became Dei Verbum, in which a narrowly conceived and traditionalist first draft was turned back, became an early defining moment in the course of the council. Witherup, a Catholic biblical scholar and now superior of the U.S. Province of the Sulpicians, retells this fascinating story very well, including the role played by Joseph Ratzinger. In treating the content of the final document, he lists 21 emphases that express both its continuity and its newness. Then he reflects on the implementation of Dei Verbum in five areas: scholarly assessment, Catholic parish life, priestly formation, official Catholic teaching and ecumenism. Finally, he considers six issues that to some extent remain unresolved: the relation between Scripture and tradition, the role of the historical-critical method and other methods of interpretation, the search for a distinctively “Catholic” approach, the role of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the character of modern translations and the challenge of biblical fundamentalism.

Reading these fine books may help Catholics and others approach the Bible with fresh eyes and appreciate better the Bible’s past, present and future roles in Christian life.

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