Memories, reflections, stories and signposts
The word 'bible' comes from a Greek word meaning 'books'. The bible is not one book but a whole library, for it consists of 73 books written over a period of about 1600 years. It was originally written in three ancient languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and many authors of varying backgrounds have contributed to it including labourers, scholars and mighty kings.
At first glance it might appear to be a hotchpotch of history, scraps of battle songs, poems, family trees, legal codes, plays, short stories, prophecies, political speeches and sermons. But, through closer examination one can trace a unifying thread: the unfolding story of God's plan for the salvation of humankind.
The bible is divided into two parts called the Old Testament and the New Testament. A testament or a covenant is an agreement, an understanding between two parties. The Old Testament relates the promises of a loving God to the Jews, the Chosen people of Israel. In return, the Jews promised to live in accordance to the truths that they received.
Hence the Old Testament was written by the community of faith who preceded the birth of the Christian Church and who are, to this day, an important part of its ancestry.
The People of the Book
Catholics believe that, as God’s revealed word, the scriptures do not stand on their own. They must be interpreted in light of tradition, that is, the ongoing life of the Church community since the time of Christ.
If some strangers from outside your family opened up one of your family photo albums or read one of your treasured letters, they would not reap as full an understanding of their meaning as you have. Since you are a descendant of this family, you will have picked up the innuendos and stories behind the photos.
Through the knowledge and values osmotically instilled during your upbringing, you are personally affected by the spirit behind them. To understand what the photographs and letters are really getting at, the stranger would need to see them through your ‘eyes’.
Similarly, to understand Scripture properly, it must be read within the context of the faith community from where it came.
Not a 'What' but a 'Who'
Scripture is the 'book of the Church', not only in origin and in handing on, but in its purpose. It is intended to join us to one another, and be the inspiration that causes us to become more responsive to one another as a community of believers.
Scripture cannot be taken in isolation from the people who created it and the people to whom it calls us. The Catholic approach to scripture carries with it a sense of 'us'.
Questions such as 'What does this passage mean to me?' or 'How is God speaking to me through God's word?' always presuppose a deeper question: 'What does this passage mean to us as a community?' How are these words calling me into a deeper relationship with God's people?'
Alive Then, Alive Now
Far from being a collection of 'dead' precepts, the bible captures the lively reflections of a people on a Spirit-led journey through life; whose convictions are capable of breathing life into our own experiences today.
To say scripture is 'inspired' does not mean that it was zapped down from the heavens or that God dictated it sentence by sentence. What it does mean is that a community of people, attentive to the promptings of God's Spirit in their life events, felt moved to put into words their reflections.
So, although the bible was formulated and recorded by human hands, in a more primary way it is considered to be the word and work of God.
Old But New
With each new generation, the Holy Spirit breathes a 'freshness' into God's Church which enlivens age-old truths with new insight so that they may speak to the people of their day. It is uncovering this 'freshness' of the scriptures that is the work of continued reflection and study by scholars and theologians.
Of course, being creative and open to new insights does not mean that every trendy interpretation of the scriptures is an adequate expression of its meaning. At times the Catholic Church has issued some cautions to applying either an overly 'spiritual' or an excessively 'rational' approach to the bible. Either extreme results in a distortion of the true message.
As with every human endeavour, the scriptures must be subject to methods of scientific enquiry and literary critique rather than be read in a superficial or 'fundamentalist' way. On the other hand, the experience of faith from which the bible was conceived must always be taken into account.