That the Bible be revered as the Word of God’s People, rather than as the Word of God in current times, was the idea posited by Te Kupenga – Catholic Theological College Biblical Studies lecturer Dr Sarah Hart in a talk given at St Therese church in Mangere on April 27, titled “Revisiting Ut Unum Sint after 25 years – a biblical perspective”.
Dr Hart analysed three major issues related to the Bible in 2000 years of Christianity. The first issue concerned what writings did or did not to get into the Bible as we have it today, that is, the canon. Jerome’s Vulgate, or Latin translation of Greek and Hebrew texts, became the Roman Bible from the fourth century until Vatican II in the mid nineteenth century.
The second major issue was the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Sola Scriptura, or the concept of the Bible alone from the reformers, challenged the Roman church’s custom of reading the Bible in synergy with Traditions of the Church.
From the Middle Ages onwards and with the advent of the printing press the words of the biblical text started to be regarded as immutable. “When the layers of meaning within the texts are unpacked, the words of the Bible are not static or fixed, as may initially seem,” she said. In contrast to this development the third issue sees a shift since Vatican II in how the Bible can be viewed – as the Word of God’s people, rather than as the Word of God alone.
Dr Hart explained how modern biblical scholarship has highlighted the multi-faceted, multi-layered nature of many biblical texts. Biblical texts emerged from what can be called a five-stage process involving oral, written, and editing traditions, before becoming part of the canon of Scripture.
Dr Hart mentioned the varied make-up of the early communities. Firstly, there were those who experienced Jesus, then there were the followers of Christ in a wide variety of communities where they experienced Jesus. Some communities were more Judeo/Christian-orientated, others with a much greater number of Gentile-Christians. We, in “our parishes today, continue the line of the early Christian communities. We learn about Jesus in our communities through biblical texts and through the customs and practices of our Tradition”.
Dr Hart referenced the thinking of Australian biblical scholars Tony Campbell, with his colleague Mark O’Brien, who suggest that short narrative passages in the Pentateuch, and by extension in the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), can be used as “present text” to “contrast what might be thought of as the past or final text of a printed Bible”.
What is needed in this “text-as-base-for-user” approach is “someone to tell the story, and develop it, a live audience and a listening context”. This helps illuminate God’s involvement in the present day context.
Dr Hart gave an example of a story related in each of the synoptic Gospels – the Transfiguration. There are many similarities in the texts, and also some subtle differences. But none of the texts explain what it was that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah about.
“We do not know, but herein is a gap in the text which a story-teller can fill. Information from the Old Testament texts on Elijah and Moses helps us discover God’s involvement in the scene.”
Among this information was that Elijah had regard for poor people and had a sense of social justice. He healed Gentiles. He straddles this world and the next. Like Jesus, Moses experiences resistance from his own people. He did not live to enter the promised land, just as Jesus did not experience the fulfilment of the kingdom of God in his lifetime.
This, and many other commonalities, mean it is likely Jesus was sharing his struggles during his mission with these two great Jewish ancestors who likewise struggled.
“Through the references to Elijah and Moses, we heard of God’s involvement in the people of Israel and in Jesus’ life. . . . The Old Testament texts informed the mind and thought of Jesus. If we want to be close to Jesus, we need to know the texts that formed him,” Dr Hart said. From such living texts, we can also learn something of God’s involvement in people in the present.
“As long as we all keep reading, praying, and studying these texts, the words come alive, taking flesh in us as the Word of God’s people.”
By way of introduction to her overview of three major biblical issues in two thousand years of Christianity, Dr Hart referenced St John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one) on the desire for Christian unity.
Ut Unum Sint acknowledges that debates about Scripture have led to past divisions among Christian communities, especially in the West. But it also notes that modern translations of the Scriptures, which are the fruit of ecumenical cooperation, “generally offer a solid basis for the prayer and pastoral activity of all Christ’s followers” (US44).
“This quote applies to all Christians,” Dr Hart said, “that the Bible be a source of nourishment for prayer and positive action.”