Of Creation and Covenants: Exploring Scripture Today

Andy Park looks up a Scripture passage during a 2010 Bible study at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

This selection of books on the Bible contains one offering for ordinary Catholic laypersons, especially those engaged in various church ministries who wish to begin deepening their knowledge of the Bible: Michael Cameron, Unfolding Sacred Scripture: How Catholics Read the Bible (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications). Bringing 13 years of experience teaching introductory courses in Bible, he divides his material into two parts: I, “The Catholic Way of Reading Scripture,” (four chapters); and II, “Unfolding Sacred Scripture: Touring the Texts” (10 chapters). Although concerned to distinguish Catholic from evangelical approaches (more personal and less focused on historical and institutional commitments), he urges Catholics not to reject anything good coming from various biblical study programs, but always to engage in a catholic both/and approach, which he holds as communal, sacramental, historical and flexible.

This section reflects well the Catholic approach to Scripture since the Second Vatican Council, reflected in practice and in church documents. For Cameron, a Catholic reading should embrace theological and scientific concerns, as well as those of contemporary culture. For this reader, however, Part II (“Touring the Texts”) proved more engaging. Here Cameron displays an uncanny ability to describe the different parts of the Bible (e.g., Pentateuch: Creation and Humanity; Exodus and Covenant; Kingship; Prophecy; Apocalyptic; Gospels—three topical chapters and treatment of each Gospel) in a lively and perceptive way. Even though he highlights narrative texts, his approach to texts could also prove quite stimulating if applied to the Psalms and the Wisdom books. This part of his book well illustrates the tone and content of a Catholic reading that he previously described. In fact, it might profitably be read before Part I. This is an engaging little book, especially for those who wonder about the role of the Bible in Catholic life today.


Next I would like to turn to three books on the Psalms that enrich the interpretive and religious opportunities for readers. Two are recent commentaries (2014), which could not be included in last year’s review; one is an older book on the Psalms that has just recently been translated into English.

Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms (Cambridge University Press). Co-authored by two masters of Psalms-study, this is a very substantial commentary that uses the New Revised Standard Version translation, offers commentary on the entire Psalter, contains mini-essays on almost all significant questions and is aimed at an intelligent, educated, religion- and church-related audience. Its usefulness is quite clear, since usage of the NRSV is widespread in mainline Protestant congregations and seminaries, as well as many Catholic universities and seminaries. Although the text is focused for nonspecialist audiences (i.e., without extended philological, textual and critical academic discussions), specialists will quickly recognize its value for them, in the range of issues these authors incorporate.

After a remarkably concise but complete Introduction to the Book of Psalms, with matters of Hebrew poetry at the outset, the authors pay “attention to genre, liturgical connections, societal issues and the psalm’s place in the book of Psalms as a whole.” Societal issues both ancient and modern are treated, and readers of discussions titled “Bridging the Horizons” will be rewarded with thoughtful reflection on North American cultural, social and political issues as they intersect with the interpretation of Psalms. Examples are: “Adversaries and Allies” and “The Righteousness of God,” usually located in the first significant place where a Psalm features the term or issue. Many theological and historical topics that emerge in reading of Psalms are presented in the section title “A Closer Look” (e.g. “Job’s Similarities to the Psalmist”). Overall, these authors present a very readable and astute approach to Psalm reading; and members of study groups, divinity students, pastors and biblical scholars will be well-rewarded for their attention to this commentary.

A second major commentary on Psalms was written by three scholars: Nancy DeClaisse-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth Laneel Tanner: The Book of Psalms, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans). Advertised as “the most complete and detailed one-volume commentary available on the Psalms,” it lives up to most expectations. The author of the commentary on each psalm is indicated, and together they provide a rich approach to Psalm study and interpretation. Indebted to Martin Luther’s view of the Book of Psalms as a “little Bible,” (as also for Bellinger and Brueggemann), their Introduction covers a similar range of issues as the previous volume.

Since the authors provide their own fresh translation of each Psalm, the introduction includes a detailed presentation of textual issues (Hebrew texts, importance of witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint and other versions) that guide their translation decisions. The commentary on each Psalm begins with a summary of its contents and literary structure, comment on the superscription (if there is one), translation (accompanied by very helpful notes on philology, other scholarly positions, other uses of words in the Psalter), followed by clear and rewarding commentary on sections (of verses) of the Psalm. Each entry concludes with reflections on the significance of the Psalm in contemporary society, dealing with issues both communal and personal, as well as theological.

Two features are original to this commentary. Convinced that the aesthetic power of the language is part of its theological truth and power, they try to draw meaning from the poetic techniques of the ancient psalmists. They also attend to gender-inclusive language, though in a different way than the NRSV. They do not transform masculine-singular nouns and pronouns into generic plurals, but use other terms, like “one,” in an attempt to stay closer to the poetic language. In the commentary sections, one soon notices that they shift from masculine to feminine pronouns whenever gender is not determined by the content. Overall, this commentary will attract a wide variety of readers; translation and commentary are quite accessible, notes and comparisons with other commentaries will reward scholarly readers.

Just released, by Paul Beauchamp, is Psalms, Night and Day, translated by Peter Rogers, S.J. (Marquette University Press, originally published as Psaumes nuit et jour, 1979). This volume is well worth the wait of 36 years for a translator. With neither a scholarly introduction nor treatment of the Psalms, these chapters, which originally appeared as talks during the 1970’s, during the great heyday of Scripture study after Vatican II, bear the stamp of a significant scholar in touch with nonscholarly audiences. Divided into sections on: The Psalms and Us, Supplication, Praise, Promise and Psalms and the World (with focus on Creation), each chapter consists of five to seven compact pages (originally addressed to a live audience). Footnotes are few, but the issues usually found in the footnotes of Psalm-study are treated here, in clear prose. Beauchamp has an intriguing way of introducing the questions that might concern us (e.g., imprecatory, cursing psalms) in a conversational way that builds on his view of the human issues in these texts, which demonstrate especially that the Psalmists’ world is not very “spiritualistic” but always concerns the “body”; his avoidance of the body-soul language of theology in the West keeps readers corporally focused.

Beauchamp also demonstrates a healthy way of reading psalm texts in the light of Christ. Jesus defines himself as one who has done the will of the Father, and that “will” for him was “discovered” in the Psalms that he himself knew, dictated to him through other people. I was prepared to read through an academic introduction to Psalm-reading, but continually learned to slow down, read slowly and reflectively. Finally, it seemed that reading his text resembles spiritual reading, perhaps a lectio style, more than academic reading. The end result will be a deeper perception of Psalms and their power in our lives.

The next book constitutes a wide-ranging (chronologically and geographically) ‘story’ by the prolific historian Philip Jenkins, The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (Basic Books). Jenkins argues against what he terms an alternative history of Christianity that views the disappearance of lost Gospels (many Apocryphal Gospels, especially Gnostic texts, etc.) as the result of narrow restrictions imposed by the church during Late Antiquity, probably from the fourth century A.D. New publications in the last 40 years, especially of Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and others, attracted much media attention, presented as exposing truths that have long been suppressed by the “main church.” He surveys a wide swath of data—literary, liturgical, visual (e.g., church art)—from the era between 400 and 1500 (the Protestant Reformation) to argue that these so-called “lost” texts were anything but lost, if one looks carefully at the medieval church not only in Western Europe, but throughout the East, extending even to India.

The survey includes not only Christian but also Muslim and Jewish sources that illustrate the complexity of the religious scene during these thousand years. For Jenkins, most of the heresies of these centuries were dualist (e.g., the Bogomils, Albigensians, Paulecians, etc.), and they witness to the ongoing life of those “gospels” and texts that had supposedly been suppressed. He provides a fascinating historical contextualization of many texts of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha and other bodies of Christian and Jewish literature that have been studied more in recent decades. Readers will encounter historical tidbits that need saying in our era. For example, it was an Albigensian who claimed that Mary Magdalene was a concubine of Jesus and was the woman taken in adultery in the Gospels! Some traditions, for example about the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, come from a little-known sixth-century Syriac text: that the cross of Golgotha, for instance was situated directly above the tomb–and skull–of Adam. Many other traditions abound, and this book is recommended because it reads so enjoyably, sometimes almost like a historical novel (but the mass of documentation belies any thought of a fictional account).

Thomas Römer has written several intriguing Old Testament studies translated into English. The Invention of God is the most recent, well translated by Raymond Geuss (Harvard University Press). In this book Römer traces the development of the notion of Yhwh as the only God, from its origins in southern desert regions, among Moses and the Midianites, into Jerusalem, its cult in Israel and then in Judah, its statue in Judah and Yhwh and his Asherah. He interprets developments especially after the fall of Samaria, the reforms of Josiah and the origins of biblical monotheism at the beginning of the Persian period, when Yhwh became the sole God of the monotheistic religions.

In his parlance, “invention” does not mean something contrived or made up, but a gradual invention or discovery by a culture as a whole. The crucial era for Yhwh’s development into the sole God was the aftermath of the Exile, when both priests and Deuteronomists described their God as universal and transcendent, a process that continued through the Persian era. His analysis hits on major themes in what has been known as the priestly document and the Deuteronomistic history, and then focuses on important parts of Isaiah 40–55. His grand story incorporates much of the recent discussion about the dating of these text traditions, demonstrates the implications of these studies and integrates it all with newer archaeological discoveries. In short, he tells a credible and recognizable tale, though not one that his scholarly colleagues will agree with in all details. It reads very well, is well translated and has a bit of the excitement of discovery for engaged readers.

With Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne), Bart D. Ehrman has written a thought-provoking book prompted by his interest as a historian in the various traditions about Jesus. To conduct his inquiry, he uses insights from cognitive psychology about individual memory, from sociology about collective memory and from anthropology about the preservation of traditions in oral cultures. If New Testament scholars have for some time been interested in oral cultures and collective memory, they have generally stayed away from cognitive psychology about individual memory and refrained from asking some hard questions about changing and distorted memories when it comes to Jesus.

Each chapter begins with contemporary situations—mostly from North America—which involve individual and collective memories. Each includes a brief exposition of findings and theories about memory and an investigation about the remaining memories about Jesus in the canonical Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and peritestamental literature. These memories pertain to Jesus’ words and deeds, memories about his birth, childhood, trials and death. The book may help to reflect on the appropriateness of the common adequation made between historical exactness and truth and at moving beyond it. Its organization and lucid style make the book enjoyable to read for lay readers, seminary and college students.

If everyone loves Jesus, the spectrum of attitudes toward Paul is far more diverse. Patrick Gray has chosen to focus on the critiques formulated against Paul from the origins until now in his forthcoming book Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics Through the Centuries (Baker Academic). There is no risk of running out of material on this topic since critiques against Paul are as old as Christianity, as we see in Paul’s letters themselves, the earliest Christian writings to have been preserved. Paul indeed devotes much space to responding in his letters to critiques formulated against him, for example in 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Galatians.

Gray has read broadly to identify negative attitudes toward Paul. The book includes critiques with origins in Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions ranging from antiquity to our time. To establish such a rich collection is quite an achievement, but there is more. The second part of the work examines the contexts, subtexts and pretexts of all these critiques. In doing so, Gray describes, for instance, the traditional Western representation of Second Temple Judaism and how the post-Holocaust period has challenged it in the new perspective on Paul. The book ends by creatively addressing the perennial question of the relation between Jesus and Paul from the perspective of comparative religion. All in all, this volume covers an amazing amount of ground. Gray’s lucid and at times humorous style makes this book accessible to a wide audience.

Most books on Paul aimed at a general audience deal with his missionary work and the theological character of his letters. Patrick J. Hartin’s A Window Into the Spirituality of Paul (Liturgical Press) takes the less traveled path of studying the spiritual vision that emerges from Paul’s letters. Hartin considers Paul’s spirituality as a whole while paying attention to the context of specific letters and focusing on specific passages. He locates Paul as a Diaspora Jew immersed in the Greco-Roman world and the spiritual tradition of the people of Israel.

Next, Hartin follows Gustavo Gutiérrez’s insight about significant moments in the development of a spiritual tradition. Accordingly, he begins with Paul’s encounter with the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus and moves to the reflection it prompted and to its lasting effects in Paul’s preaching. Hartin explains how Paul reconfigured his system of beliefs to place the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ at its center, redefined the terms of the covenantal relationship with God once Christ acts as its mediator, described the role of the Spirit and of the community of believers, all this while paying attention to the eschatological context of Paul’s spirituality. The final section discusses the enduring value of Paul’s spirituality by focusing on some core convictions encountered in the lives of four North American witnesses: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Rev. Stanley Rother, Mother Antonia Brenner, and St. Katherine Drexel. This book is a valuable resource for Bible study groups, college students and independent readers looking for a deeper understanding of the spiritual message of Paul.

Research on the historical Jesus published since the 1990s has produced tomes, for example John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant and John P. Meier’s five massive volumes of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, which total over 3,550 pages. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans) is consistent with this trend with nearly 600 pages of tightly knit prose that deals with the historical aspects of Jesus’ Last Supper, a topic that has not received an extensive treatment in recent years and is replete with difficulties. Scholars are divided, for instance, about the likelihood that Jesus asked his disciples to drink his blood in a Jewish context, where it is forbidden to consume blood. In this context, Jesus’ request sounds gross. Besides the historical plausibility of Jesus’ words and deeds in a first-century Jewish context, Pitre investigates what the Last Supper reveals about Jesus’ self-understanding, overall eschatological outlook and intentions toward the community of his disciples. Pitre suggests that Jesus envisioned himself as a new Moses, who would have launched a new exodus, set a new Passover, brought back the miracle of manna and gathered the tribes of Israel into the kingdom of God. Pitre’s book makes an important contribution to the quest for the historical Jesus as it situates him well in his Jewish context.

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Henry George
4 years 7 months ago
Are we obliged to presume that Paul's writing and not the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Matthew are the earliest Christian writings we have ?
Henry George
4 years 7 months ago
Are we obliged to presume that Paul's writings, and not the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Matthew, are the earliest Christian writings we have ?
William Rydberg
4 years 6 months ago
In my opinion, I find it unfortunate that Catholic Scholars as prominent as the Authors would not take the time up front, to explain that there is difference between Modern day scripture study and day to day ordinary practical teaching from a Catholic Catechetical perspective. In my opinion, it is incumbent upon a prominent Jesuit Catholic Priest Scholar to point out that in the Catholic context, Scripture Scholars DO NOT have special status like they do in Protestant esp. "sola Scriptura" denominations wherein my opinion, Scripture Scholars are de facto seen to be more authoritative than Senior Reverends, or Bishops in those Protestant denominations. When it comes to passing on the faith, Catechism of the Catholic Church is what has Authority for Catholics. Just my opinion... Years ago, it was the responsibility of the local Catholic Ordinaries to provide something called "Imprimatur" and also "Nihil Obstat" when asked, but the practice seems to have stopped. One wonders why, because it would be a starting point for Catholics at least, when beginning their search for tools to understand, in what must be a pretty crowded field of available literature (ranging from the metaphysical to secular humanist points of view). I imagine that these aforementioned terms were not a guarantor of content quality, that would ultimately be up to the reader's discretion/likes dislikes, however one would have the assurance the book would have been read by a Catholic expert designated by a Catholic Bishop, responsible for issuing the aforementioned terms in accordance with some kind of objective criteria. But it would have been a starting point for Catholics only, in my opinion. But I haven't seen these "markings" on many Catholic books lately-unless they are re-prints of old Catholic Classics. (Catechism of the Catholic Church excepted).


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