200605scripture1Preliminary Matters

Before we start reading the Old Testament (OT) a few preliminary matters need to be mentioned. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes the OT. In general, Protestant tradition recognizes the list of books in the Hebrew Bible as canonical, while Catholic and Orthodox traditions follow the longer Greek list. You can find these different lists, and some other variations, in a modern, ecumenical edition of the Bible. The differences reflect differing faith claims; what people believe is the 'Word of God'.

Another matter is the term 'Old Testament'. It has done long service in Christianity but is problematic. It is quite unacceptable to Jews. It is also strange to think that the Word of God could ever become 'old'.

Many now prefer terms like 'Hebrew Bible', 'First Testament' or 'Older Testament'. In a similar way, many now prefer to use BCE = 'before the common era' and CE = 'common era', rather than BC = 'before Christ' and AD = 'anno domini' (year of the Lord). No single term is likely to please everyone. It is best to be a bit flexible.

Ways of Reading the Bible: 1

As soon as we commence reading a text, we have to interpret it, to 'explain' it to ourselves. The 'fit' between text and reader is not perfect: a certain gap remains. We are after all limited human beings and we miss things. We can go solo but experience suggests the Bible is best read in community. We all need help.

People have worked long and hard over the past 2000 years to develop sound ways of reading the Bible. Three particularly influential ones stand out.

The first was developed in the early Church, has had immense influence and still enjoys considerable favour. Like all ways of reading texts, it has its strengths and limitations. Its genius was to see that texts often operate at more than one level.

An OT text may be telling the story of Abraham and Sarah but it can also be prefiguring Christ in some way, as well as providing a subtle teaching on some aspect of the moral life. It seems God (and the inspired author) can pack a lot into one text. Its flaw was a tendency to impose a Christian meaning on OT texts.

Ways of Reading the Bible: 2

The second way was to some extent a reaction to this. Around the time of the Renaissance, European society became aware of the difference between the ancient world and their own. The OT was an ancient document but it was not-especially for the reformers-thereby passé. In order to appreciate its original and therefore true meaning, scholars argued that readers need to bridge the historical gap and find out more about the world of the Bible and the history of its people.

According to this approach, many OT texts had a long history of composition, going through several editions. This indicates that inspired OT authors were like us; believers who sought long and hard to articulate their faith in the books bequeathed to us. Readers are invited to continue this faith journey. The Bible is unfinished business-in Paul's words one sees the mystery of God 'as in a mirror, darkly'.

This critical, historical reading of the OT concluded that it is the record of many different voices seeking to articulate their faith experience. It is not a history in our terms. Modern scholars seek to 'reconstruct' the history of Israel by comparing biblical texts with other sources of information, such as archaeology. The weakness of the historical approach is that it can develop complex theories about how texts were composed in ancient times but have little to say about what the Bible means now.

Ways of Reading the Bible: 3

The third, and most recent, way is to study the OT as religious literature. It is a reaction against critical, historical analysis, arguing that questions about the history of the text and its authors are too hypothetical to be of real value. One should focus on the present text with its rich veins of meaning.

In some ways this recalls aspects of the first approach. More challenging however is its proposal that what matters in the interpretation of a text is not the author's intention: we cannot recover that. It is the reader who must decide what a text means, particularly ancient texts whose authors are long gone.

Some feel that this approach is a license to replace authorial intention with reader's invention. Also, bypassing the 'history' factor may impede one's understanding of a text.

The meaning of words can change with time. On inspecting St. Paul's cathedral in London, King Charles II congratulated the architect on producing 'so awful and artificial a building'. If we wanted to pay that compliment nowadays, we would say something like 'awe inspiring and exquisite a building'.


In reading the OT we will try to take what is useful from each of these approaches and hopefully avoid what seems not so useful.

On the value side: early Church scholars saw depths of meaning, historical scholars opened a window on the very human world that produced the Bible, and literary scholars have shown us that the OT is a sophisticated and immensely rich treasure of religious literature. On the debit side: early church scholars tended to see Christian themes everywhere in the OT; one needs to le it speak first as OT.

Historical scholars thought the job of interpretation was done when they explained how a text came about. Interpretation begins but must also end with the present text.

A literary, reader oriented approach can lead to despair about a text having a definite meaning. Presumably authors, even ancient ones, knew what they wanted to say. And what about God who we believe had a hand in it all?

What is common to any approach is that a reader must pay attention to the way a text communicates in order to understand what it communicates. This is the relationship between the form or structure of a text and its content.

The OT communicates by employing stories, genealogies, reports, songs, laws, prophecies and so on. We have been educated to recognize the common literary forms of our society; with a bit of effort and imagination we can hone these skills to appreciate the characteristic ways in which the OT 'speaks'.


Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney