Introduction and Motivation
This paper was provoked by the following posting [slightly edited, as presented
here] made to my email list:
"I am interested what you and others
at this list think regarding the following biblical dilemma, with which
I have been wrestling, off and on, since I was about sixteen years age.
How can one reconcile the belief that
the whole of scripture is in all its parts inspired by God and inerrant
(at least as far as the spiritual truths therein contained), with the fact
that some of the books of the Old Testament are merely a bloody account
of the profane history of the hebrew tribes and the brutal subjugation
by them of the aboriginal peoples of Palestine, which brutalities are often
to God Himself?
God supposedly ordered them to slaughter
whole towns [e.g. Jericho -ed], to kill the women and children and
animals, to rip the unborn babies out of their wombs, and then to rape
some of the virgins, and offer the rest up to God. I have asked several
clergy this question, over the years.
I am less bothered by the acts of God done to save
the Jews from Pharaoh and his armies (though what the Book of Exodus describes
goes far beyond the duty of any God to help anyone, even the Jews!) than
I am bothered by the totally senseless, utterly cruel and thoroughly unjustifiable
deeds described in other books of the Old Testament:
A bishop in Rome told me in 1973 that God ordered
no such things, that the Jews did these things themselves on their own
initiative, ascribing them to God in order to justify their unjust actions.
This would mean that the texts of those books have been altered by the
scribes already a long time ago, which is plausible.
Here in Holland, I have asked four priests what they
one said simply to not read those passages,
the other three indignantly told me that I was an
even for asking such a question!
How can any of this be remotely inspired by a just,
good and holy God, and portrayed as spiritually beneficious for Christians
of today? The Church, by not reading most of these stories in Her Liturgy
of the Mass, shows her disapproval or at least embarrassment at these Old
Testament stories, in spite of Her teachings on inspiration and inerrancy.
the orders from God to wipe
out the native peoples of Palestine, for example;
or the story of Israel's slaughtering
all the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin and then Israel's kidnapping
the virgins of another tribe so that the Benjaminite men would have wives
and continue to reproduce [Jdgs 19-21].
Or the supposedly divine law to kill
a witch [Ex 22:18, Deut 13:1-5].
Or the very unedifying story of the daughter in law
as a whore so that she might have sex with her father in law
I can understand why God would temporarily choose
a particular people - the Jews - for a particular purpose. But that choice
did not have to mean - and in my conviction could not have meant - that
God wished the Jews to treat the non-Jews worse than beasts.
I think that the God described in some of the
most primitive parts of the Old Testament is not the God which we believe
in: the Holy Trinity, but rather, the tribal
war god of the Hebrew tribes. The early Hebrews had more than one god,
and worshipped their gods in much the same way as the non-Hebrews. Many
traces are to be found of this in the primitive Old Testament writings:
references to household gods [e.g. Gen 31:34],
amulets and fertility ceremonies. In other texts, there is an amalgamated
It seems to me that there is in the Old Testament
a gradual development from primitive worship of a devil like tribal war
god to a God of All Nations, who will come in the flesh as the
Messiah; but how can one consider some books, such as Joshua, to be
religious as all, let alone inspired? I know of heathen writings which
seem more divinely inspired. The later Old Testament books, such as the
Wisdom books, are indeed inspired and useful: though Ecclesiastes is
an odd one with its eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die like the
animals! I sometimes read this to cheer myself up.
It is not my experience that the Jews of either
biblical times or of today were or are any better or worse than other peoples
on the face of the earth at the time in which they have lived. The discussion
on the Old Testament is not at all about the Jews. That is what the three
Dutch priests on three different occasions did not understand when I asked
them what they thought about the Old Testament; and which is why they called
me an 'anti-semite' just for daring to ask them!
The discussion actually is about God: what he is truly like; and about
the Church: what She actually believes regarding those books and passages
in the Old Testament; and what minimum She demands of us to believe.
I doubt whether the Church has reflected upon
the divinely ordered atrocities and the many divinely prescribed death
sentences of the Old Testament at all; She has been too afraid to reflect
upon them and therefore probably has no real view on them yet, which is
why nobody can come up with a satisfying answer.
This is one of the biggest problems within the
Church: to avoid an issue and to forbid one to ask questions is no solution,
but serves only to postpone the problem and cause it to fester like a wound
until the body begins to rot. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, example
gratia, dedicates one sentence to the whole problem of the Old Testament:
"The Old Testament is divinely inspired...
even though it does contain some imperfect and time bound things''.
What an understatement! Neither in my years of theological
studies at a Pontifical University in Rome nor in my reading afterward
have I ever came across any catholic theological investigation into the
moral problems of the Old Testament and the repulsive portrayal of God
and His chosen people in some of its books. Why can questions not be asked
and things not be discussed? Is our faith so fragile and weakly founded?"
Catholic Priest, "B", (October 2005)]
think that the posting speaks for itself, without any need for comment
from me. Another correspondent replied:
"It seems to me that the principal issue
is how we are to define "inspiration."
As you and many others recognize, if we give God very great and direct
responsibility for all the words in the Hebrew Scriptures, and for the
expressions of His will that led to frightful acts of bloodshed, then we
end up with a highly unsatisfactory theology.
Was it God's will that the first-born
of Egypt be slain on a single night, or that the entire Egyptian army
and their horses be drowned in
the Red Sea, or that the aboriginal peoples of Palestine be exterminated?
No; but God allowed those stories to be written and preserved, because
they somehow reflect the truth of God's love for Israel, and the importance
of the covenant relationship.
Horrible stories such as the one about
Jephthah's daughter [Judges 11],
and, a favourite of mine, the one about the holy man of Judah [1
Kings 13], illustrate the awesome all-powerful
of God, and the reverence that human beings must feel for it; but they
should not be interpreted as saying positively that God desired and commanded
these things to be done.
Unfortunately, throughout history we have tended
to remain on the surface, and our wrong understanding of what the will
of God is has led to all sorts of terrible consequences. The Catholic Church
in its wisdom is selective in what passages from the Hebrew Scriptures
to include in its liturgy; so for the most part, in the Mass and the Office,
we do not stumble on very many corpses. For the most part; we do not suppress
Exodus, for example.
I am sorry that you are struggling with problems
of canonicity. By all means appeal to those who believe that Councils of
bishops have set all this straight, if it helps you; but I recommend a
more historical approach, which rejoices in all the rich literature that
is available to us, and which mourns the suppression or loss of so
much that we cannot see. I remind you of the practice of the authors of
the New Testament: when they wanted to quote from the Old Testament, they
most certainly did not restrict themselves to the Septuagint. They used
whatever Greek version they found convenient to their purpose, including
perhaps versions of their own out of Aramaic." [A
Catholic layman, "MS", (October 2005)]
Some incorrect or inadequate
The gravity of the dilemma expressed here has led various people to espouse
extreme solutions. I shall next review and criticize the main ones with
which I am familiar.
There was a strand of Gnosticism which held that the creator god of the
Hebrew Scriptures was not at all the same as the Father of Our Lord Jesus
Christ. The latter is the true supreme God; the former is an incompetent
underling (the demiurge), who messed things up by creating matter. In this
tradition, the serpent of Genesis, is a hero who wishes to save humanity
from the mess that the demiurge created. and the whole of the Old Testament
is suspect and can at best only be interpreted on the basis of a secret
(arcane) and hidden (apocryphal) knowledge (gnosis) that is not at all
apparent either from the text or the living tradition (of the Hebrew people)
that gave rise to it.
The basic problem with this doctrine is that it makes out that all creation
is at root a mistake, that matter (and hence the body and sex is intrinsically
evil) and that (wo)man is pretty much irredeemable.
The creed of Toledo [Dz 28] anathematizes
those who say there is one god of the Old Testament and another of the
New. This doctrine is also intentionally excluded by the Nicene
"We believe in One God, maker
of Heaven and Earth; of all that is, visible and invisible."
In 1053 pope St Leo IX required Peter of Antioch to profess the same faith
in one divine author of Old and New Testaments [Dz
348]. Moreover, pope Clement VI makes it clear in his letter
to the Catholicos of Armenia that the books themselves and not merely the
dispensations are at issue:
"We ask if you believed and now believe
that the New Testament and Old Testament in all the books which the authority
of the Roman Church has handed down to us contain unquestionable truth
throughout". [Dz 570r]
The Oecumenical Councils of Florence [Dz 706],
Trent [Dz 783] and the Vatican all strongly
affirm the idea that there is one God jointly of both the Old and New Testament.
This was a more overtly Christian version of the same viewpoint. Marcion,
in the mid second Century, proposed that Christians should accept as scripture
only Paul's letters, and his own de-Judaized form of the Gospel according
"Marcion went much further in his criticism
of the Old Testament than I would dream of going. He scrapped it completely,
even the 'good parts'. Even the fear of being considered a marcionite does
not dampen the voice within me that is asking the questions. Personally
- if this were merely a matter of taste and choice - I too would scrap
the whole Old Testament; if that were the only way to get rid of the most
offensive parts of it. The Church's teaching that the whole Old Testament
(Septuagint version) is (in some sense) divinely inspired, forces us to
look for a less simple answer.
Marcionism is open to more or less the same criticism and condemnation
Unlike Marcion, I - and most Christians, I suspect
- have no big problems with the New Testament. The Gospels - including
the infancy narratives - are for me historically and spiritually true (the
four Gospels are per se the life story of Our Lord in the flesh, and are
therefore historical, but more than historical, as they give us a history
that transcends facts and ordinary human conditions. The few factual discrepancies
between the Four Gospels reinforce the historical value, I find, rather
than detract. The supernatural details are no mere embellishments, but
belong to the essence of the narrative of Our Lord's life, teaching, wonders,
works, self-sacrifice and rising from the dead. Religion without the supernatural
is pointless.) But that is my view - I do not know what the Church demands
of us to confess as regards the historicity of the Gospels." [My
original Priestly Correspondent, "B", (October 2005)]
This is, perhaps, the conventional Catholic view. Basically, it is the
idea that Christianity and Judaism are more or less totally different religions.
The role of Judaism being only to prepare the way for Christianity, the
advent of which discontinuously replaced a "shadow belief" with "the true
substance of The Faith". On this view, the Jewish Scriptures exist only
to foreshadow the New Testament, and the Old Testament should always and
only be interpreted in the light of the New. Many great theologians, including
my hero Origen, held to this position.
It is well expressed in subsequent postings from "B", "MS" and "AC":
seems to me that the Old Testament is the whole literary production of
the early Hebrew people; which their priests, being the natural keepers
of the memory of the people, wished to preserve for posterity. That
collection of writings, both sacred and profane, eventually acquired an
aura of holiness, simply because it had become so old and so familiar.
The Christian Church inherited the Old Testament
in toto in its Greek version, and considered the whole collection indiscriminately
to be sacred, because it had been used, venerated and quoted by Our Lord
and His Apostles. Thus we got stuck with both the good and the less good,
the useful and the less useful, the inspiring and the repulsive aspects
of the Old Testament. Those Christians who actually read the Old Testament,
have been looking for an explanation ever since.
Historicity is the least of the problems regarding
the Old Testament. Its moral dilemmas are far more serious to me, and to
sincere seekers of the Truth, such as Simone Weil in the book 'Letter to
a religious', in which this young jewish philosopher expresses her
desire to be baptized a Catholic, but cannot bring herself to accept the
I first read a copy of the Bible in the monastery,
when I was about sixteen or seventeen. Until then, I had only seen passages
of the Holy Scriptures in prayer books and in the Missal. I was shocked
to read in Leviticus that a man who sleeps
with another man should be outcast from society. Since I read the Bible
from the beginning, I quickly came across even worse sounding words in
my reading. This left a lasting impression upon me and put me off biblical
studies more or less up till now. I have always leaned towards Dogmatics
and Liturgy and Church History, and shunned biblical studies. I am now
rereading the Old Testament, to try to see it in another light.
However, I must confess, that the conversations
between Moses and God in Exodus sound frighteningly like the words of a
child who is trying to calm his somewhat confused, capricious, easily offended,
unpredictable, and potentially dangerous
alcoholic parent. This rereading of the Old Testament is not shedding
any positive light upon my questions.
For me the New Testament is the Holy Book of Christians
per se, whilst the Old Testament is more or less the background information
which we can consult in order to put the prophesied Coming of Our Lord,
His life and cultural/religious reference in its proper context and understand
it more fully. For ours is an incarnated God, and an incarnated religion.
The proper use of the Scriptures, as I see it, is to reverentially listen
to the relevant bits of it that are read or sung during the celebration
of the Liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office.
My faith as a Catholic does not depend directly
upon the scriptures at all, let alone the Old Testament. My belief in God
depends upon the natural revelation in nature and in my conscience. The
further supernatural truths which God has wished to reveal about Himself:
the Trinity; the
Incarnation; the Resurrection;
Mother; His Church; the
Eucharistic Sacrifice and Presence, these depend upon the Divine Revelation
as contained in the Living Holy Tradition,
of which the Liturgy is the privileged place of
expression, and the Holy Scriptures acquire their value and meaning within
the context of the Liturgy and the Tradition which it celebrates.
This is how see it, and this is why I write that
my faith does not depend directly and solely upon Scripture and the problems
which we are now discussing. Which means answers of any kind, or a lack
of answers, regarding the Old Testament, would not at all negatively affect
my Catholic faith, but honest and sincere answers could well have a positive
effect." ["B" (October 2005)]
is worth noting that we Christians have traditionally, treated the Old
Testament always as ancillary to the Christian revelation. The first reading
in today's Novus Ordo Lectionary is an excellent example. Exodus 22:20-26
is from the long and complex legal code that give the Torah its name. To
Jews, this is the most important part of the Hebrew Scriptures, the part
that they spend the most time reading and discussing. To us, it is mostly
irrelevant, not to say boring, and we rarely look at it, privileging much
more the narrative portions of Torah, and the Prophets (including the historical
books and the writing prophets) and the Writings (especially Psalms and
the Wisdom literature). As is regularly the case, this passage from Exodus
has apparently been chosen to give something of an Old Testament background
to the Gospel lesson.
On the other hand, I think we never hear at Mass
Exodus 22:17-19, which is about three classes of people who must be put
to death (witches, people who have sex with animals, and people who offer
sacrifices to other gods); or Exodus 22:27-29, which is about offering
the first-born children to God, and the first-born of one's cows and sheep."
"We have not to forget that the veil of the Temple
was torn apart at the moment of Christ's death. The Old Testament was
no more and the People of God are the baptised of the Church. The old
laws no longer have any validity. We Christians eat pork and seafood -
all the things that were purified by God (cf. St. Peter's vision of the
sheet containing "impure" animals for eating and the Angel's command to
kill and eat). Likewise, the old laws of the Torah are abrogated.
I see the Old Testament is its allegorical and
symbolic meaning - a preparation for the Incarnation of Christ and the
Redemption. The Holy Trinity is a
God of love
and the fulness of Revelation, for which the people of the Old Testament
were only prepared progressively. I have read the Bible entirely cover-to-cover
just once - I found much of the Pentateuch (apart from Genesis and Exodus
- with the Paschal theme) incredibly boring. What is genuinely spiritual
are the Prophets, the Wisdom Books and the Psalms - that is something else,
which have been sanctified by Christ as were the old pagan mystery religions.
I love the beautifully erotic Song of Solomon.
For me, the beauty of Christianity is that it
is not merely a "Jewish heresy", but a recapitulation of the whole of human
experience, progress and aspiration, expressed in Paganism
and Judaism alike. The dogma of the Trinity "moderates" the stark monotheism
of Judaism and Islam, and gives us entirely different archetypes. Christianity
admits eroticism in the spiritual life, but Islam and Judaism
expect you to love (or rather serve
or submit to) God for absolutely nothing in return, as do many deformed
versions of Christianity." [A second Clerical
Correspondant "AC" (October 2005)]
I have made clear elsewhere, I largely repudiate
this position. While I accept that "MS" and "AC" are largely correct
in implying that for Catholics, the detailed regulations of the Mosaic
Law are almost entirely defunct; I must admit to finding the overall effect
and impact of the Liturgical Rubrics of Leviticus inspiring. Moreover it
must not be forgotten that neither the Ten Commandments nor the foundational
laws to "Love the Lord your God" and "Love
your neighbour" have been "abrogated"!
While not denying that "B" is right to raise the problem that he does,
neither claiming that it is at all easy to answer; nevertheless, for me:
The Catholic Religion is a developmental
continuation of the Judaic Tradition, not a replacement for it.
The New Testament should be read in the light of the Old Testament just
as much - if not more than - the Old should be read in the light of the
Most "New Testament ideas" are in fact "Old Testament ideas" repackaged,
for example "Love your neighbour as yourself" [Lev
Our Blessed Lord based his preaching on Old Testament themes and images.
".... while Jesus was standing there,
he cried out,
'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one
who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's
heart shall flow rivers of living water"'." [Jn
"Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price." [Is 55:1]
"A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden
locked, a fountain sealed. Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and
cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief
spices a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams
from Lebanon." [Song 4:12-15]
"Come to me all who labour and
are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you, and
learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will
find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is
light". [Mat 11:28-30]
Much of the Church's liturgical practice and ethical teaching originates
in the Old Testament.
Leviticus is the best justification for the elaboration of Catholic Ritual.
The psalms and Old Testament canticles are central to the Church's worship,
both in the Office and the Mass.
Some of the most profound insights of Scripture are to be found in the
Torah, see below.
Many hugely inspiring examples of holiness and faithfulness are to be found
in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah to mention just
a few personal heroes.
"Come close to me, you uninstructed .... I have
opened my mouth, and spoken: 'Buy her without money, put your necks
under her yolk, and let your souls receive instruction; she is not
far to seek.' See for yourselves, how slight my efforts have been to
win so much peace." [Sir 51:23-30
NB this passage is not present in all manuscripts of Sirach!]
"Let's not forget that the New Testament
is the maturity of the Old Testament. Just as little as we are going to
disregard the child in us now that we are mature, we equally can't disregard
the child of the Old Testament, now that we have the adult of the New.
The New Testament does not abrogate the Old Testament cultic code, but
gives it its fullest possible meaning. It's all about book (the Tanach)
versus person (Jesus Christ). Different paradigms, but the same phenomenon:
God's self-revelation to humans." [A third
Clerical Correspondent: "H" (October 2005)]
The former position can give rise to the idea that the Old Testament has
to be "sanitized" in some manner; the "nasty bits" being radically re-interpreted,
almost as if they never meant what they manifestly did mean to their writers
and first readers. The great theologian Origen was especially keen to ignore
the plain meaning of Old Testament texts and to concoct mystical significances
for them, whether or not the literal meaning was problematic or not. For
Origen, God's inspiration of the text was only operative when it was read
within the Church by those with spiritual maturity and insight. The Word
of God was only present in the text for those able to rightly discern it.
I believe that passages from either Testament can have secondary and
sometimes spiritual/mystical meanings which
may not have been either intended or apparent to their human authors, though
intended by God. For example, the deepest significance of the visit of
the three Angels to Abraham and of the encounter of Moses with God in the
Burning Bush was - I am sure - not realized by the author-editor(s) of
Genesis and Exodus. Nevertheless, I think that it is wrong simply to discount
the plain meaning of any Scriptural text. It seems to me that to do so
is to do violence to The Word of God - the core document of Sacred Apostolic
My Priestly Correspondent later enquired:
"Is the above supposed to connect to
the the immediately preceding long citation from me? I hope not, because
the whole point of my question is that the obvious, literal and primary
meaning of many Old Testament passages are offensive and need to be
taken seriously, not sterilized, spiritualized away, or analogized away
alla Origen. I do, of course, admit to several co-existing meanings, but
not in order to pretend that the originally meant meaning be conveniently
discounted." ["B" (October 2005)]
To which I respond that no such thought occurred to me! I said "can give
rise" not "will give rise". Of course, "B" has already said that he would
willingly excise those offensive passages (or even the Old Testament entire!),
if this was an option open to him.
This is easy to understand and express. It is the idea that whatever the
Bible says should always be taken at face value. Hence, as the Bible says
that God on occasion commanded the Israelites to kill innocent non-combatants,
then one must accept that He did so and one must further believe that this
was a just and good thing to do; simply because God commanded it. The basic
problem with this "solution" is manifest: it makes God out to be an arbitrary
The following is a conflation of responses to our question from three
Fundamentalist-Evangellical web sites. I think that the text I present
is pretty representative of such thought.
Certain accounts within the Old Testament
depict God not as holy, kind, good, and merciful, but instead as unjust,
mean, vengeful and unforgiving.. It would seem, then, that the God of the
Old Testament is a God of wrath, and quite distinct from the God of the
The Extermination of the Canaanites
When the Israelites were commissioned to take the
land of Canaan, God instructed them to smite completely the native peoples,
and to show no mercy upon them. In fact, He is represented as having ordered
the destruction of entire cities, such as Jericho, just to allow the Jews
to have a homeland in the Middle East. How can this be reconciled with
the goodness of God?
Surely a loving God could not command
such a genocide.
Several things must be taken into consideration.
While I think that there is some truth in the above, it is mixed in with
a lot of error!
This argument is based on the unstated assumption
that the people whom God ordered destroyed were morally equivalent to the
Jews who replaced them. However, this is what the Bible says about the
people who were destroyed: "It is not for
your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going
to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations
that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm
the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
It must be noted that the Lord had been very patient
with these immoral pagan tribes for a long time. When Abraham first entered
Canaan, God promised that it would someday belong to his seed, but said
that it could not yet be theirs because "the
iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full" [Gen
The Canaanite religion was a brutal system that may
have involved human sacrifice and even infanticide.
The destruction of these wicked people was for the
moral preservation of the nation of Israel.
God has the right to render judgement upon evil at
any time. No one has the right to criticize the moral activity of God
unless he can establish and defend some genuine moral standard apart from
God: and this no unbeliever can do!
The Biblical Imprecations
The "imprecatory" sections of the Scriptures are
those that contain prayers or songs for vengeance upon enemies, or which
end in triumphant praise at their destruction. How is it that such expressions
come to be part of divine revelation? These writings should not be viewed
as outbursts of vindictiveness characteristic of an inferior moral code.
It is wrong to take a low view of texts that were placed in the divine
record for a purpose. These prayers and songs express a zeal for God's
cause; a willingness to leave vengeance in His hands; and acknowledge that
punishment for sin is a part of the divine order.
The enemies of Israel were the enemies of Israel's
Israel's defeat was a reproach to His Name.
The cause at stake was not merely the existence of
a nation, but the cause of divine truth and righteousness.
Unethical Actions by God
The Bible sometimes represents God as acting in ways
that seem to be unethical. For example:
In order to correctly interpret such passages, one
must be aware of certain idiomatic traits of Biblical Hebrew. Active verbs
were used by the Hebrews to express, not just the doing of a thing, but
the granting of permission by an agent for a thing to be done; which the
agent is (mis)represented as doing. Hence, sometimes the Bible uses figurative
terminology, representing God as directly causing some action or effect,
when in reality He did not do so.
concerning Pharaoh, God said: "I will harden his
heart" [Ex 4:21];
God says, apparently of the Mosaic Law: "I gave them
also statutes that were not good" [Ezk 20:25]!
and Jeremiah said: "Lord God, surely thou hast greatly
deceived this people" [Jer 4:10].
With reference to the examples cited above:
Those who respect the Bible as the Word of God must
realize that though certain passages of Scripture are difficult to understand,
there is always an explanation to be had. Many of the answers can be discovered
by means of patient and thorough research; and even where difficulties
remain, we must not charge God with error.
Pharaoh hardened his own heart, by yielding to the
enchantments of his magicians and refusing to listen to the testimony of
When Ezekiel says that God gave statutes that were
not good, he means no more than that when stubborn people determined that
they did not want to abide by true justice, God permitted them to follow
the wicked statutes of the pagan nations around them.
When Jeremiah suggested that God deceived the people
of Israel, he meant only that the Lord allowed them to follow their own
paths of self deceit.
God in fact is not different from one Testament
to another. God's wrath and love are revealed equally in both Testaments.
Throughout the Old Testament we see God dealing with Israel in much the
same way as a loving father deals with an erring child. This is how we
later see God dealing with Christians
"For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
and scourges every son whom He receives." [Heb
Throughout the Old Testament, we see God's judgement
and wrath poured out on unrepentant sinners. Likewise in the New Testament
we see that the wrath of God is still
“revealed from heaven against all ungodliness
and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” [Rom
Even a quick reading of the New Testament makes it
evident that Jesus talks
more about Hell than He does Heaven. Throughout the Bible we see God
lovingly and merciful calling people into a special relationship with Himself,
not because they deserve it but because He is a gracious and merciful God,
slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth; yet we also see
a holy and righteous God Who is the judge of all those who disobey His
word and refuse to worship Him.
Some first attempts at
third clerical correspondent wrote, addressing "B":
"I battle, like you, to understand this.
I belong to a Calvinist-Reformed discussion group, and the moderator and
I have had a few interesting discussions about hell and why I find it unpalatable
to my sense of grace and mercy to believe in a "pizza
oven" where God fries little people like you and me for not wanting
to play with Him anymore.
This is a tough one, and I probably have more
questions than answers; but one thing I know is this: our human perception
of God taints and colours God. I think a whole lot of really 'primitive'
thinking by our Israelite ancestors in the faith is the source of these
odd descriptions of God. I simply cannot reconcile my understanding
and experience of God with a psychopathic tyrant who blows fire and smoke
from his nostrils.
What I think we need to learn from this
is that we need to allow God to reveal Himself to us as He is, and not
as We are. This is a fundamental perceptual principle:
We see as we are, and to change how
we see, we need to change who we are.
In Christ, we have been transformed into His likeness,
but the image is still lacking: good old Orthodox theology here! I think
we as fathers though we are evil (to use Jesus' words) know how to give
good gifts to our children because we empathize with them. Hence we should
not be surprised that God, too, knows this.
I so identify with what you are writing, you have
no idea, but let's not approach the problem with the idea of validating
or invalidating the Canon. This is not right. We have to engage with matters
such as these by keeping true to our Apostolic Faith. The Canon of the
Old Testament is inspired and is now part of our written Paradosis [=
Tradition - ed].
God speaks to us through it.
There must not be the slightest doubt
in our minds and hearts about this, or else we loose connection with the
Book and its Tradition.
Our point of departure must be the perspective of
faith, or else we can just as well discuss the New York Times instead.
We see, in the pages of the Tanach [=
the Hebrew Bible - ed], many series of developments
and growth in understanding of the depositum fidei. Take for example the
almost 'primitive' use of the legendary and mysterious 'ephod' and 'urim
and thummim' in the priestly office. By the end of the monarchy (certainly
by the end of the post-exilic period) the ephod (and probably also the
urim and thummim) were classified with the teraphim (household gods [e.g.
Gen 33:34]) and considered to be less than
acceptable for religious use. So, too, the early priestly function of providing
torah (oral instruction) to the people of God. Initially a priestly prerogative,
later disconnected from the Priesthood and administered by the Scribes
and Teachers of the Law, which also included lay people!
I am sure that a lot of what is going on in the Hebrew Bible's account
of God is in fact an account of (Wo)Man's developing understanding of God.
For this reason, it is important that we keep tight hold of the whole account
so that we remember how far we have come and may get an impression thereby
of how much further we may yet have to go. For example, I think it is unwise
to remove all the sexist language from the Bible. Not because I approve
of the sexist attitudes of various Biblical writers, or because I think
that they reflect the Mind of God: no, but because this flawed language
remains a powerful witness to us that the whole of the language of Sacred
Scripture is human language - with all the glories and poetries and inadequacies
that this means. If St Paul could have culturally (ill-)conditioned
ideas about women, then he could have similarly inadequate ideas about
slaves or who knows what/who else; and so could we!
Things [seem to -ed] change
as our human capacity allows us to better understand.
No wonder Jesus pointed out to the Apostles that
even they could not bear to hear all there is to know, but that in the
age of the Paraclete, the revelation would become greater [John
Although I honestly have few answers for you,
I have learned to marvel at how our own limitations are projected onto
God (the psychoanalyst in me, I confess!), and how easily we assume that
God is such and such because we are such and such. I think a society's
perception of God tells us who they were, and not who God is. God is, by
God needs no metamorphosis, we do.
I so love the words of Saint Paul in this regard:
"As it is, to this day, whenever Moses
is read, their hearts are covered with a veil, and this veil will not be
taken away till they turn to the Lord .... and all of us, with our unveiled
faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed
into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory"
[2 Cor. 3:15-18].
It is in Jesus Christ alone that the transformation
of the human soul takes place and that a full and complete unveiling of
the vagueness and uncertainties of the past dispensations is experienced.
Our New Testament perspective of grace is the point of departure we should
use when reading the Old Testament, or else we, like the Jews, read with
our hearts "covered with a veil".
["H" (October 2005)]
It is vital to remind ourselves of the context of our question. Unlike
my correspondent "B", I find the Torah (otherwise known as the Pentateuch
or the Books of Moses) to be generally inspiring and profound documents.
I list below a few of the highlights:
I believe that the Torah is not to be taken in a straight-forward way,
as a set of stories that are clearly presented and have definite interpretations.
Sometimes this is obvious (as in Jacb wrestling with "the man") and often
a Torah story raises a huge number of questions in a quite unavoidable
manner. I believe that the real purpose of the Torah is to do this - to
make us ask questions by posing us with challenges. Often it presents us
with an "inadequate" view of God precisely to elicit from us a reaction
along the lines of "but that can't be triue - God would never have done
that!". This causes us to discover and notice that we have a higher
view of God within us than that which is (supposedly) recommended to us
by the Torah. It was in this way that the Jews developed the highest moral
view of God ever acheived by any sociological group - only Plato (an isolated
individual) had, to my knowledge. a comparable conviction of "Heaven's
absolute commitment objective justice". The Jews developed this doctrine
of God (which some Christians have subsequently renaged on) out of their
experience of "wrestling with God" in the study of the Torah. The name
Israel (which is how Jacob came to be called after his nocturnal grapplings
with an anonymous man) means "He who wrestles with God".
God the Creator:
The Cosmos is created from nothing by an act of Divine Intellect [Gen
by a separation of "positive from "negative" [Gen
The Spirit of God is intimate with matter [Gen 1:2].
Hence, there is no "demiurge".
Hence also, matter is not intrinsically evil.
God is being-in-itself [Ex 3:13-15].
WoMankind is created in God's Image [Gen 1:26-27].
Gender and the Divine invitation to reproduce [Gen
1:27] pre-dates the fall.
Hence sex is intrinsically wholesome.
WoMen are not intended to be lonely [Gen 2:18-24],
but to have companions and live in community.
God the Redeemer, Friend and Lover of WoMankind:
God still cares intimately for WoMankind, even after they have sinned
God is willing to covenant and bind Himself to WoMankind [Gen
9:8-17; 15:17-20; 17:1-14 Ex 24].
God wants to dwell among the community of His people [Ex
God is implacably opposed to human sacrifice [Gen
22:12 but cf Jdgs 11:29-40 Ezk
20:26 Ex 22:28-29].
God is a powerful deliverer and redeemer [Ex 12,
With God's help, it is entirely possible to defeat sin and to be a good
It is possible to become a friend of God [Gen 5:21-24,
It is proper to argue [Gen 18:22-33] and fight
32:24-32] with God.
God the Just Judge
The Ten Commandments [Ex 20:1-17].
Strangers and foreigners should be treated fairly and with consideration
Revenge is limited to like for like [Ex 21:24 Lev
24:20 Deut 19:16-21].
Love your neighbour as yourself, whether (s)he be Jew or Gentile [Lev
One should always bare in mind that the Torah is a conflation of various
documents, each of which had its origin in a different epoch and historical
context. (Perhaps they can all be traced back in some way to Moses - as
the Bible Commission would have had us believe - perhaps not; I don't see
that this matters. They are all authentic expressions of the Living Tradition
of the Hebrew People of God.) Hence one tends to find inconsistencies in
the plot and one shouldn't pay too much attention to these. They are not
the point! What is important is not what actually happened historically
(though this may be relevant and isn't entirely to be dismisssed - sometimes
it is vital that SOMETHING actually happened or else the story looses its
very reason for being told!) but the effect that the story is supposed
to have on the reader and student of the Torah.
The Torah is a compliation of "educational resources" that the Rabbis
developed and used to get across spiritual, ethical and philosophical lessons.
I know that I find the Torah much more powerful and personally challenging
if approached in this way - which I suspect is a more authentically Jewish
way than is typical among Christians.
Defining the Problem
proceeding to attempt to formulate an answer to the problem at hand, it
is vital to clarify what exactly the problem is.
following observations must be made immediately:
God is sometimes represented as:
directly bringing about
actions that seem to be unjust, duplicitous or wicked.
Examples of God appearing (sometimes implicitly) to approve of wickedness
God's acceptance of Jacob, after he had tricked his elder brother Esau
out of his birthright
The story of the young widow "Tamar" who disguised herself as a whore so
that she might have sex with her father in law, "Judah", who was refusing
to let her marry his youngest son, "Shelah", her brother-in-law who should
have been constrained to give her sons so that the name of her late husband,
"Er", would be preserved [Gen 38:6-26].
Moses' killing of the Egyptian overseer [Ex 2:1-5].
God's toleration of slavery and the abuse of slaves [Ex
The duplicitous murder of Sisera, the general of a Canaanite army with
a tent peg [Jdgs 4,5] by Jael in the days
of Deborah the prophetess and ruling Judge of Israel.
The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter [Jdgs 11:29-40].
Examples of the commanding of apparent wickedness include:
Abraham was apparentl;y ordered to cast out his concubine Hagar, and first
born son Ishmael, in favour of Sarah and Isaac [Gen
Abraham was apparently ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac [Gen
22] - see below for a detailed
God's injunction to execute all witches and mediums [Ex
22:18, Deut 13:1-5].
The Hebrews were ordered to wipe out the native peoples of Palestine, many
cities were to be put "under the ban" [Lev
Num 31:1-21 Deut 7:1-5; 20:10-18
Josh 7:16,18-21,25;8:1-2,7-8,19,22-29;10:28-43; 11:14-15].
The story of Israel's slaughtering all of the women and children of the
tribe of Benjamin in revenge for the murder of a Levite's concubine and
then Israel's kidnapping hebrew virgins from other tribes so that the few
Benjaminite men remaining might have wives and so continue their tribe
Examples of directly bringing about wickedness include:
The Flood [Gen 6-8]. However, this may have
been a natural disaster and only attributed to God's initiative.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorra and the death of the wife of Lot
19]. Once more, the destruction of the cities of the planes may
have been some kind of natural disaster, rather than an "Act of God" and
the story of the salinification of Lot's wife be nothing more than a fable.
God's abortive murder of Moses [Ex 4:24].
This is a very mysterious and garbled incident.
The plagues of Egypt, especially the Death of the Firstborn [Ex
The drowning of Pharaoh's army [Ex 14:23-28].
It should be born in mind that this was a "them or us" situation.
God's commitment to wipe out the primitive populations of Palestine, including
the injunction to put many cities "under the ban" [Ex
23:23,27-30 Num 21:2-3,31-35 Deut 17-24;
11:23-25; 12:29; 20:1-4 Josh 10:10-11; 11:6-9,30].
God's anger towards the Hebrews after Aaron had set up the Golden Calf
for them to worship [Ex 32:1-14,35 Deut 9:13-14,19,25].
The death of two sons of Aaron [Lev 10:1-3].
The death of Korah and his men [Num 16].
The fiery serpents [Num 21:6-9].
Harsh threats to punish disobedience viciously [Deut
28:15-68; 31:16-21; 32:15-43].
The death of one prophet (who was killed by a lion) for having been deceived
another one [1 Kgs 13].
God gave the Hebrews "statutes
that were not good" [Ezk
20:25], commanding them to commit infanticide of their own firstborn
[Ezk 20:26, cf Ex 22:29, Lev 18:21].
Nevertheless, a number of serious issues remain to be dealt with. Later
on in this paper, I will attempt to do so, but first it is appropriate
to discuss how the canon of Scripture was established, and what is meant
by Scriptural Inspiration and Inerrancy.
Many of these incidents are reported in a partial and sometimes clearly
The fact that the writer may seem to approve of something should not be
taken as meaning that God certainly does.
"God's approval" is sometimes only implicit or tacit; toleration might
be a better word to use than approval.
The fact that the text claims that something was explicitly commanded or
approved by God should not be taken as a definitive.
The distinction between "The priests or prophet commanded it in the name
of God" and "God commanded it to be done by the words of his priests or
prophet" was perhaps too subtle for the ancient Hebrews.
Sometimes events are ascribed to God in a quite arbitrary manner, see for
example [Num 11:1-2;33-34].
Given the rest of this chapter, it is pretty obvious that the phrase:
"the anger of the Lord was kindled, and the Lord
smote the people"
is a figure of speech meaning:
"something very unpleasant happened to the people".
I say this because
no pretext whatsoever is given to explain "God's anger" on the second occasion
and between the two incidents of "God's anger" there is a clear example
of God's gracious kindness, when He is presented as responding superabundantly
to complaints and moans from the Hebrews that they were fed-up of eating
manna and wanted fruit and meat and green vegetables instead [Num
How was the
canon of Scripture established?
following is a debate reported [October (2005)]
between my corespondent "H" and a Calvinist antagonist "C".
[C] "What I am saying is that the canon
existed as an objective entity given by God from the moment each canonical
document was penned. The Spirit working in each canonical author imbued
the text with the necessary authority, and that same Spirit worked through
the text to impress that authority on any reader of the text: for one reading
in faith, this results in acceptance of its authority, and for one reading
in disbelief, a condemnation from on high. In either case, the authority
of the text is affirmed and confirmed by the Spirit speaking through the
text. This means that the locus of authority in determining or defining
the canon is not the church, but the Spirit."
[H] "You isolate the Spirit as if He were apart
from the Church, and as if the Church were merely accidental or even irrelevant
and unimportant to the work of the Spirit in defining the Canon. This is
not the Biblical teaching. Jesus promised to send to the Church “another
Paraclete” (advocate, intercessor, counsellor, support), 'the
Spirit of truth' [Jn
14:16] who will be 'with'
the Church, 'in'
the Church [Jn 14:17],
and 'on' the
Church [Acts 1:8].
In fact, the Spirit will also flow 'from'
the Church [Jn 7:38-39].
The Spirit is in the Church, and guides her into all truth [Jn
It is in and with and through the Church
that the Spirit speaks.
To illustrate: the Canon of Scripture, Old
New Testament, was finally settled by Athanasius in the East in 367 AD,
and at the Council of Rome in 382 AD, under the authority of Pope Damasus
I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same Canon was affirmed
at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD and at the Council of Carthage in 397
AD. In 405 AD Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the Canon in a letter to Bishop
Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year
419 AD, reaffirmed the Canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface
to 'confirm this Canon, for these are the
things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.'
All of these Canons were identical to the modern Catholic-Orthodox Bible,
and all of them included the deuterocanonicals. This, surely, is a demonstration
of the Church's understanding of herself as vessel of the Spirit, and the
channel through which the Spirit speaks, and not as an obstacle or obsolete,
accidental bystander. The Canon was recognized under the guidance of the
same Spirit who inspired the Canonical writings."
|[C] "In a way parallel to the private recognition
of the believer that the Gospel is true, so the church came to recognize,
through the working of the Spirit through the word, which documents were
canonical and which were not."
[H] "There was no canon of Sacred Scripture
in the early Church. There was no Bible apart from the Septuagint
Old Testament text. Of all the 'versions' of the Old Testament, this certainly
takes first place; since it is based on a pre-Masoretic Hebrew text. When
the Christians started citing not only Greek Epistles from her Apostles,
but also the Greek Old Testament, many Jews abandoned that text in favour
of the Hebrew version then current.
The Bible is the Book of the Church; She is not
the Church of the Book. Thus the Church has a Book and a Teacher: the Spirit
in the Church. It was the Church, guided by the authority of the Spirit
of Truth, which discerned which books were inspired by God. The Church
did not decide what the canon was going to be; she proclaimed what the
canon already objectively was. We agree on this.
Interesting discussion can be had over the 'protocanonicals'
and the 'deutoerocanonicals' of the New Testament, and how the Church's
Sacred Magisterium operated in this regard. What I don't understand is
what you mean by "the working of the Spirit
through the word". Shouldn't it be: "the working
of the Spirit through the Church"? Where does "The
Word" declare the canon of "The
[C] "I believe that the great Oecumenical councils
can only claim the revelation of the Spirit derivatively through the word
of God, but that nonetheless their conclusions were thoroughly in accord
with the witness of the Scriptures."
[H] "Where do the Scriptures, then, define the
canon? If Councils only function 'in
accord with the witness of Scriptures'", then
where do the Scriptures witness to the content of canon? You are ignoring
how the Councils saw themselves. They clearly understood the Church to
be 'in the Spirit' when 'in Council'. How can you accept as binding the
Council's definition of the New Testament Canon, and yet dismiss its definition
of the Old Testament Canon? Why, for the latter, do you prefer to accept
the decision of a Synod of Rabbinical Jews as authoritative? We both know
how complex a discussion of Canonics can get, but a simple progression
from primitive oral Paradosis is probably as follows:
Why do you assume that once the oral Paradosis or
Tradition gets to the "canonical stage", that the process
of Paradosis itself ceases? The Fathers know nothing of this!
a pattern of teaching [Rom.
a pattern of sound teaching [2
a deposit [2 Tim. 1:12],
a recognized canon.
St Francis de Sales wrote an article:
'The Protestant violation of Holy Scripture', [Burns and Oats: London,
(1886 AD)]. As an introduction paragraph he wrote:
know, thank God, that Tradition was before all Scripture, since a good
part of Scripture itself is only Tradition reduced to writing, with an
infallible assistance of the Holy Spirit. But, since the authority of Scripture
is more easily received by the reformers than that of Tradition, I begin
with the former in order to get a better entrance for my argument.'"
[C] "The word of God needs no external authority
to confirm its truth, only the Spirit speaking through the word."
[H] "You are not reflecting the Tradition of the
Fathers in your thinking. Whose Tradition are you reflecting, then?
The Spirit also speaks through His Church. It is from Holy Spirit and from
the teaching of the Holy Apostles, and their successors that we too come
to 'the knowledge of the truth'
and to 'true religion' [Tit.
1:1]. This is why the decisions that are made
when the Apostles (or Bishops) gather in Council are endorsed by the Holy
Spirit [Acts 15:28],
because it is in this manner that the Church exercises her witness, with
the Holy Spirit [Acts 5:32],
of the truth that is in Jesus Christ. Jesus promised to send the Church
'another paraclete, the Spirit of truth' [Jn
Bishop will tell you that individual opinions are relative in the absence
of Magisterial precedent. We are all free to think as we please, as part
of the vox populi in the Church, but when we put it all on the table and
the Church makes a definitive Magisterial statement, then individual opinions
are only indicative. Even if all the Fathers agreed in their writings on
some subject, these would be indicative only of their own private views
if the Church's Magisterium declared the opposite!
Each protestant group has its own Paradosis that
directs its interpretation of Scripture and its practice, and it is this
unacknowledged 'tradition' that distinguishes each group from all others.
It is true that Jerome, and a few other isolated
writers, did not accept most of the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. However,
Jerome was persuaded, against his original inclination, to include the
deuterocanon in his Vulgate edition of the Scriptures. This is testimony
to the fact that the books were commonly accepted and were expected to
be included in any edition of the scriptures. Furthermore, in his later
years Jerome accepted certain deuterocanonical parts of the Bible. In his
reply to Rufinus, he arduously defended the deuterocanonical portions of
Daniel even though the Jews of his day did not. He wrote:
have I committed if I followed the judgement of the Churches? But he who
brings charges against me for relating the objections that the Hebrews
are wont to raise against the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children,
and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not found in the Hebrew
volume, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I was not relating
my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they [the Jews] are
wont to make against us' [Against Rufinus
Thus Jerome acknowledged the principle by which the
canon was settled: the judgement of the Churches. Other Fathers
that Protestants cite as objecting to the deuterocanon, such as Athanasius
and Origen, also accepted some or all of them as canonical. Athanasius,
accepted the book of Baruch as part of his Old Testament [Festal
Letter 39], and Origen accepted all of
the deuterocanonicals, he simply recommended not using them in disputations
A Summary [much edited]
Apostolic authorship is the most obvious
and fundamental criterion for inclusion in the New Testament canon. But,
if you only use this criterion, you're in trouble: Paul's Epistle to the
Laodiceans was not included in the New Testament canon! One exception
to this rule is sufficient to sink it. The Apostle Paul is, in any
case, a real thorn in the flesh for anyone trying to maintain this as the
sole criterion for New Testament canonicity. Paul was not one of the
Twelve. The Twelve exercised their Apostolic Magisterium and judged
that Paul's teaching was of the Spirit [Gal.
Apostolic approval, either explicit or tacit,
is another criterion for canonicity, but here again you are in trouble.
Anyone using this argument without reference to the Church's Magisterium,
perhaps to justify the inclusion of the Gospels in the canon, must also
include the writings of Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna
and possibly also Papias. These (excellent, wholesome and edifying) writings
were excluded on no other grounds than the judgement of the Spirit-inspired
Magisterium of the Bishops-in-Succession.
The idea that inspired texts make themselves apparent
to the reader is partly valid. In terms of the oral Paradosis: often the
'common sense of the faithful' is sufficient criterion for canonicity:
especially if that 'sense' is well informed by Paradosis. This best accounts
for the inclusion of the Gospels in the canon, for example. On this basis
alone, one cannot exclude the possibility of future addition to the canon,
if suitable documents were to be found. With all the textual finds of the
last few years, don't be surprised if '1 and 3' Corinthians appear from
somewhere to take their place next to our current '2 and 4' Corinthians!
Of course, the way in which the Old Testament
canon was quite different, and not all the writings of the Old Testament
are from prophetic sources either! Here, the only criterion was the Church's
discernment of what was true, under the guidance of Holy Spirit.
It is Holy Spirit in the Church, who
speaks to the Church, through the Church.
How is Sacred Scripture
The following is heavily indebted to the article by J.H. Chrehan S.J. to
be found in "A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture"
(Nelson, Edinburgh 1953), especially for the quotations, references
and outline argument. The original article is well intentioned and very
informative but, it seems to me rather complacent. In particular it glosses
over the teaching of pope Benedict XV ["Spiritus
Paraclitus"], which is generally incompatible with the thesis that
he wishes to propose and that I have taken further forward. As is now typical
of neo-conservative Catholics, Chrehan relies too much on - what was for
him - the latest teaching document to emerge from the Vatican, namely the
encyclical "Divino Afflante".
understanding of inspiration
The Torah or Pentateuch was commonly held by the Jews to have come from
God entire, in much the way that Muslims believe that the Koran was given
to Mohammed. Even the final verses of Deuteronomy were sometimes thought
to have been dictated by Moses before his death, though generally it was
held that Joshua appended them. The prophets were thought to have been
less completely controlled by God than Moses in their utterance;
while the historians were accounted to have been merely assisted by God.
The foundation for the Jewish theory of degrees of inspiration is
"If there be among you a prophet of the
Lord, I will appear to him in a vision, or I will speak to him in a dream.
But it is not so with my servant Moses... for I speak to him mouth to mouth
and plainly: and not by riddles and figures. He hath seen the Lord"[Num
For the Jews, inspiration and inerrancy were tied up with the idea that
had been foretold by God's prophet would certainly happen: even though
at least it did not! They regarded most of the books in their canon
as being prophetical: for Moses was the greatest prophet, the psalmist
was the royal prophet and even the Books of Kings were called prophetical.
Moses is presented as writing his canticle at God's dictation, [Deut
"Baruch wrote from the mouth
of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord which he spoke to him, upon the roll
of a book",
Philo considered Scripture to have been written
by men in ecstasy.
[It was] "a god-indwelt possession and
madness." [The prophet] "uttereth nothing
of his own, but entirely what belongs to another who prompts him the while...
The wise man is a resonant instrument, struck and beaten by the
unseen hand of God".
This inspiration was extended by him to the translators of the Septuagint,
in the well known story of its origin which he recounts. The Targum, too,
had its share of inspiration, for Jonathan ben Uzziel was said to have
composed the Targum of the prophets with aid from Haggai, Zechariah, and
Daniel! When it was finished, a voice from heaven asked: "Who
has revealed my secrets?"
Witness of the New Testament
The Apostles reaffirm the idea that the Scriptures are inspired. St Paul
"All Scripture, inspired of God, is profitable
to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice"
[2 Tim 3:16].
St Peter, agrees:
"Prophecy came not by the will of man
at any time: but men spoke on the part of God; inspired by the Holy
Ghost" [2 Pet 1:21].
This is an echo of an earlier impromptu sermon:
"God hath spoken by the mouth
of his holy prophets from the beginning of the world" [Acts
Of all the New Testament writings, only the Apocalypse makes any claim
to be inspired [Apoc 1:19,22:6], but St Peter expresses some kind of belief
in the inspiration of "the epistles of our dearest
brother Paul", when he says:
"The unlearned and unstable wrest these
epistles, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction".
The Witness of The Fathers
Pope St Clement I indicates that
he regard Paul's letters to Corinth as inspired:
"In truth it was by the Spirit that he
sent you a letter about himself Kephas and Apollos." [1
The old man to whom St Justin ascribes
his conversion says:
"There were long ago men more ancient
than any of the philosophers now in repute, men who were happy, upright,
and beloved of God, who spoke by the divine Spirit and gave oracles
of the future which are now coming to pass. These men are called prophets.
They alone saw the truth and proclaimed it to men, not practising any restriction,
not made shamefaced nor swayed by boastfulness, but proclaiming that
and that alone which they heard and saw, being filled with Holy Spirit.
Their writings are still extant." [Dial. Tryph
This shows that Christians of that time accepted the Old Testament as inspired.
In a passage dealing with parables St
"If we cannot find explanations of all
things which require investigation in the Scriptures, let us not seek for
a second god beyond The One Who Is, for that would be the height of impiety.
We ought to leave such things to God who is after all our maker, and most
justly to bear in mind that the Scriptures are perfect, being spoken
by the Word of God and by his Spirit, while we, as lesser beings, and
indeed as the least of all, in comparison with the Word of God and with
his Spirit, in that proportion fall short of the understanding of God's
mysteries." [Adv. Haer. 2:4]
Athenagoras adopts the comparison of the
player and the musical instrument which occurs in Philo:
"The words of the prophets guarantee
our reasoning... for they, while the reasoning power within them was
at a stand, under the motion of the divine Spirit, spoke forth what
was being wrought in them, the Spirit working with them, as it were a piper
who breathed into his pipe" [Legat. 9]
Theophilus of Antioch, writes:
"The men of God were spirit borne and
became prophets; being breathed upon by God himself and made wise, they
were taught of God, holy and just. Thus they were deemed fit to receive
the name of the instruments of God, and were enabled to hold the wisdom
of God by means of which they spoke about the creation of the world
and all else... and there were not one or two of them but many, and all
spoke in harmony and accord with each other of those things which happened
before their time, or during their time, and also of what is now coming
to pass in our days.... These statements of the prophets about justice
those of the gospels are found to be in harmony because their authors
were all spirit borne and spoke by the Spirit of God".
[Patrologia Greca, ed Migne: 6 1064,1137]
The Scholastics and Protestants
In general the Middle Ages took the question of how Scripture was inspired
for granted. However, Richard Fitzralph (Archbishop of Armagh c 1356),
did advance the discussion when he asserted in his dialogue with John the
Armenian, that Holy Spirit is the primary author of Scripture,
while the human writer is the immediate author.
The Catholic theologian Lessius rejected that understanding of verbal
inspiration which amounts to "divine ventriloquism" and Cardinal Bellarmine
supported him in this. In contrast to this sensible view, the Anglican
heretic Cartwright, held to a strict (almost Koranic) verbal inspiration
even to the exclusion of all textual corruption:
"Seeing the Scripture wholly both for
matter and words is inspired of God, it must follow that the same words
wherein the Old Testament and New Testament were written and indited by
the hand of God do remaine".
The Swiss "formula consensus" (1675 AD) has
it that all vowel points and accents were due to inspiration and that no
barbarisms of language could occur in biblical Greek or Hebrew! However,
it was not just heretics that held such views. The Catholic theologian
Banez did too! The Oecumenical Vatican Council, refrained from pronouncing
on the dispute between him and Lessius.
re-evaluation of the concept of inspiration
The Oecumenical Vatican Council explicitly rejected the idea that the Church
not only guarded the canon of Scripture but actually gave the books their
inspired character, adding that it was because they had God for their (principal)
author and as such were given to the Church that the books of the Bible
were to be regarded as inspired [Dz 1787].
Pope Leo XIII taught in "Providentissimus Deus" (1893) that inspiration
so that those things only and wholly which He wished should be written
down [Dz 1952].
the arousing of the human author to write by the action of Holy Spirit;
and the assistance given by the Spirit in the work of composition,
The Thomists developed an instrumental theory of Inspiration. As an
instrument is said to have no action at all except as moved or applied
by some higher agent, so the biblical authors are envisaged to be set in
motion by God to produce even such effects as might be within their natural
powers. In this view, inspiration is a divine action upon the intellect
under whose impetus it clearly perceives exactly what God wishes to be
written, and then sets about writing it. This replaces a word-for-word
Divine Dictation by a "total" Inspiration. On this theory, God is the total
author (and not merely principal) of the text while the human writer was
to be regarded as the total author, in his degree.
The Divine Condescension
Now, whereas the idea of instrumental cause surely applies to Inspiration,
it would seem that a mere instrument would be unintelligent and passive
in the hands of God. On the contrary, in the co-authorship of the Scriptures
God acts in and through the human author, as an author, and
not merely through him as an unskilled tool. We have already read that
the human authors themselves:
Hence the Thomist theory is inadequate. While God did work through
human writers to produce the Scriptures as through instruments (just as
John Damascene speaks of the Sacred Humanity of Christ being the instrument
of His Divinity); because the instruments were human God worked
them too; the human writers making full use of their intellect and will
as they co-operated with God's grace. Of course, the testimony
of Athenagoras is somewhat contrary to this.
"spoke on the part of God"
"spoke by the divine Spirit and gave oracles of the
"saw the truth and proclaimed it to men"
"proclaiming that and that alone which they heard
"being breathed upon by God himself and made wise,
they were taught of God, holy and just."
"were enabled to hold the wisdom of God by means
of which they spoke"
"were all spirit borne and spoke by the Spirit of
This is well demonstrated by the language of the Second Book of Maccabees,
where the human author reflects on his labours of composition; their difficulty,
purpose, and method. While God often gave the prophets their theme by direct
revelation, so that they were well aware that they dealt with God, this
was not always so. God worked with different individuals for different
ends in different ways. He could just as well motivate a man to write a
summary of Jason's histories of Judas Maccabeus' revolt against Macedonian
rule, protect him from making any substantive error, and by condescension
allow him to give vent to his weariness; the compiler being entirely
unaware that he walked with God. Clearly the subjective experience of the
writer of the Apocalypse, who was acutely conscious of the fact that he
was being inspired will have been entirely different that of the writer
of the Second Book of Maccabees, who - pretty clearly - was not!
The collaboration of God and the human writers was by no means hypostatic!
In each case, there was a distinct and beloved human
person and identity involved in the work, alongside (but under the
direction of) Holy Spirit! God entirely respected the autonomy of the human
authors, allowing them to exercise their own skills, express their own
thoughts and manifest their own personalities as they wrote under His influence.
Divine condescension is so gracious in supporting the human author's autonomy
that it must be supposed that its only limit is set by the need that the
final outcome of the process be entirely fit for God's purpose. As Pope
Pius XII put it:
"Catholic theologians, following the
teaching of the holy fathers and especially of the Angelic and Common Doctor
have investigated and explained the nature and effects of divine inspiration
better and more fully than was the custom in past centuries. Starting from
the principle that the sacred writer is the organon, or instrument, of
the Holy Spirit, and a living and rational instrument, they rightly
observe that under the influence of the divine motion he uses his own
faculties and powers in such a way that from the book which is the
fruit of his labour all may easily learn the distinctive genius and individual
characteristics and features of each author." [Pius
XII: Divino Afflante #37]
wisely noting also that:
"Just as the substantial Word of God
became like to men in all things, sin excepted, so the words of God, expressed
in human language, became in all things like to human speech, error excepted"
This all means that one can expect to find in the different books of the
Bible differences of style and of literary genre. Moreover, pope Pius XII
wisely reminded us that:
[Pius XII, Divino Afflante #41]
"To express what they had in their minds
the ancients of the East did not always use the same forms and expressions
as used today. They used those which were current among the people of their
own time and place, and what these were the exegete cannot determine a
priori, but only from a careful study of oriental literature." [Pius
XII, Divino Afflante #39]
More recently, the human element in the composition of the Gospels was
officially recognized in the "Dei Verbum":
"To compose the sacred books, God chose
certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full
use of their powers and faculties... God speaks through men in human
fashion... the interpreter of sacred Scriptures… must look for that
meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined situation and given the
circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express... Thus the
writers of the Gospels as well as all the scriptures are human authors
in the fullest sense of the word: if we are to understand the word
of God speaking through them, we must first understand the human elements
of the composition... The fact that there is a human element and human
prejudice within the writings is not an obstacle but the vehicle through
which we hear the word of God." [Dei Verbum
The word "prejudice" is, it seems to me, regrettable!
It must also be remarked that a text may:
as well as its primary, literal, obvious or manifest sense, this meaning
being open to the comprehension of the human author and normally explicitly
understood and intended by him or her; support a secondary or spiritual
sense, this meaning being intended ab initio by God, to emerge or
arise or be recognized according to Divine Providence within the life and
worship of the Church. In such cases:
"God alone was able to know this spiritual
significance and He alone could reveal it to us." [Pius
XII, Divino Afflante #31]
Thus, whereas all in the Scriptures is from God; not all is from the human
The Extent of Inspiration
My first priestly correspondent, 'B', wrote:
"I do not remember what I learnt about
how much God actually inspired, and how much is attributable to the human
A theory first put out by Dr H. Holden, an English priest in 1658, limited
the scope of inspiration. Holden said:
I had in school a good book on the subject called
'Introduzione alla Sacra Scrittura', which is out of print, and which I
no longer possess. Alas. Please forgive my ignorance due to faulty memory
and lack of current reading on the subject.
Is the inspiration equal or unequal for the various
Did God inspire only the collection and the preservation
of some of those books?
Did he inspire a general idea behind the stories,
which the Church has to try to dig out of the mud, like a pearl gatherer?
Is every separate thought inspired, or just the main
What is covered by inerrancy?
Which of the very differing versions of Tobias (and
some other books of the Old Testament) is the divinely inspired one (of
course, it is not direct inspiration anyway, as that can be claimed only
by the autograph.)
Does the Church know the answer to this question?
How does this question affect the whole concept of
divine inspiration, canonicity and inerrancy?
Luckily for us catholics, our faith does not
depend upon the answer or lack of answer to these and similar questions.
For, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly points out, ours is
not a Religion of a Book, but the religion of the Word made Flesh, Jesus
We believe that God loves us not because 'The
Bible tells us so', but because the Church shows us so, in the gifts to
us of her faith, her sacraments and her charity. Which is why it is so
painful when the Church seems to show us the opposite of divine Love, either
by being negligent in her duties of teaching and sanctifying, or by declaring
our personalities disordered and us unfit to receive the means of grace."
"The special and divine assistance which
is given to the author of every such book as the Church receives for the
Word of God doth only extend itself to those things which are doctrinal,
or at least have some near or necessary relation unto them. But in those
things which are written by the bye, or have reference to something else
not concerning religion, I conceive the author had only such a divine assistance
as other holy and saintly authors have".
Manning defended Holden as orthodox but muddled, and Cardinal Newman revived
the theory of obiter dicta being uninspired:
"Obiter dictum means as I understand
it, a phrase or sentence which, whether a statement of literal fact or
not, is not from the circumstances binding upon our faith... There does
not seem to be any serious difficulty in admitting that they are found
in Scripture. The Church has taught us in two councils that the divine
inspiration of Scripture is to be assigned especially rebus fidei
et morum." ["The Nineteenth Century": Feb
This is amounts to an inference from what the Synods of Trent and the Vatican
had said about the Vulgate's safety in faith and morals to a conclusion
regarding inspiration. After this, pope Leo XIII wrote:
"The method of those is not to be tolerated
who, to rid themselves of these difficulties [of apparent error
in the Bible] readily grant that divine inspiration
pertains to matters of faith and morals and nothing more.
Deus, 1893 Dz 1950].
Note the careful qualifications "readily"
and "nothing". In strict logic this sentence
excludes almost nothing!
Diverging opinions are held by theologians on the inspiration of versions.
Some of the Fathers shared Philo's view that the Septuagint was inspired.
On the question of those Old Testament books, originally written in Hebrew
but whose original is lost to us, such as 1 Mac; views have been expressed
ranging from unqualified affirmation to total denial that the versions
which we do possess are inspired as such. My original Priestly correspondent
adopts a middle of the road position:
"Only the actual documents written by
the human authors themselves, are considered to be inspired by God.
Not the copies thereof, or the copies of copies of copies, or their translations.
The Septuagint, though a translation, is also considered to be inspired
because of the many passages worded differently - in a messianic sense
- and because of the parts missing in the Hebrew. This means, that
any later manipulations of the text - such as perhaps ascribing to God
the responsibility for what human beings themselves did - would not be
inspired." ["B" (October 2005)]
How is Sacred Scripture
The proof from Tradition that the Church has always regarded the Scriptures
as "free from error" is simple.
Pope Benedict XV summed up the tradition thus:
An attitude of awe and reverence before the Scriptures
is already present in Polycarp who writes:
"It it not possible for anyone like myself to company
with the wisdom of the blessed and renowned Paul... who wrote to you"
The care that the Spirit showed to keep corrupters
of doctrine from the Scriptures is marked by Irenaeus:
"The Holy Spirit, foreseeing that there would be
corrupters, guarded against their deceits and declared in Matthew 'Now
the manner of Christ's birth was thus...'"
Origen declares the principle formally:
"The Evangelists neither lied nor made any mistake"
[In Jn. 6:34].
However, he elsewhere notes the undoubted fact that in the Gospel of Matthew,
a text actually due to Zechariah is wrongly attributed to Jeremiah [Mat
St Augustine laid down a rule, which western
exegetes have followed for many centuries:
"If I come upon anything in the Scriptures which
seems contrary to the truth, I shall not hesitate to consider that it is
no more than a faulty reading of the manuscript; or a failure of the translator
to hit off what his text declared; or that I have not succeeded in understanding
the passage" [Ep. 82]
"The teaching of St Jerome is strikingly
confirmed by what our predecessor Leo XIII declared to be the unbroken
and ancient faith of the Church about the absolute immunity of the Scriptures
from error of every kind:
'It makes no difference at all that the
Holy Ghost should have taken men to be - as it were - His tools in writing,
as if forsooth the men who were inspired, but not the divine author, might
let fall some error. Not so, for He Himself so stirred and roused them
by His supernatural power to write, and was so present to them in their
writing that they conceived correctly, and were minded to write faithfully;
and expressed fittingly with unfailing truth, all those things and those
only which He bade them write.' [Leo
XVIII "Providentissimus Deus" (1893) Dz 1952]"
[Benedict XV "Spiritus Paraclitus" Dz 2186]
What, more exactly, is error?
In studying these matters, it rapidly becomes apparent that the meaning
of the word "error" is at issue here. For the earlier authorities, this
is a simple matter. For them any proposition is either true or false and
any proposition found in Scripture is bound to be true. Clearly, this attitude
is based on a naïve epistemology and begs Pilot's question: "What
is Truth?" As the debate progressed, this position became untenable; and
the meaning and application of the word "error" was nuanced in various
ways. According to Dr Ludwig Ott:
"Even though all Holy Writ is inspired
and is the Word of God still, following St. Thomas [Sent. II d. I2
q. I a. 2], a distinction must be made between that which is inspired per
se, and that which is inspired per accidens. As the truths of Revelation
laid down in Holy Writ are designed to serve the end of religious and moral
teaching, inspiration per se extends only to the religious and moral
truths. The profane facts of natural science and history contained
in Holy Writ are not inspired per se, but only per accidens, that is, by
virtue of their relationship to the religious-moral truths. The data
inspired per accidens is also the Word of God, and consequently without
error. However, as the hagiographers in profane things make use of
a popular that is, a non-scientific form of exposition suitable to the
mental perception of their times, a more liberal interpretation is possible
here." [Ott II 2.1.11]
Now it is apparent on even a cursory reading of Scripture that it is not
"inerrant" in any simple sense. For it contains a substantial number of
definite trivial errors:
Difficulties from Science
p = 3 [1 Kgs
Gross mistakes in adding up [Num 3:39, Ezra 1:7-11;
2:64, Neh 7:66]
A text actually due to Zechariah is wrongly attributed to Jeremiah [Mat
Difficulties from Theology
Bats are a kind of bird [Lev 11:13-19, Deut 14:11-18]
Insects have four feet [Lev 11:21-23]
Hares chew the cudd [Lev 11:6]
The sun moves about the Earth, like the Moon [Josh
The Earth stands still [1 Chron 16:30]
God, who is a Spirit, "walks" and so must
have feet [Gen 3:8]
The omnipotent and impassible God was "refreshed"
by resting after the six days of creation [Ex 31:17]
Moses [Num 12:6-8] (and others [Ex
24:1-11]) spoke with God face to face;
Difficulties from History
and yet it is elsewhere said that this is impossible because "no-one
may see God and live" [Ex 33:13-23].
The utter destruction of Tyre
is wrongly predicted [Ezk 26:1-14; 27:32]
The military-political predictions of the book of Daniel were largely unfulfilled.
It is later admitted that this failed to happen [Ezk
Difficulties from Mathematics
While the matter of "p = 3"
may easily be explained in terms of colloquial approximation, none of this
touches the question of elementary arithmetic errors. These cannot be accounted
for as "turns of phrase" or "approximations". While some might be due to
the errors of copyists, it is altogether more plausible that they testify
to the general innumeracy of the ancient Hebrews, who were not renowned
as any kind of mathematicians! The erroneous attribution of a text from
Zechariah to Jeremiah [Mat 27:9] is of a similar
Difficulties from Science
Leo XIII dealt with the objection that inerrancy set the truth of the Bible
in opposition to the truth of physical science.
"No error whatever exists in those cases
in which the sacred writer, when treating of physical matters, followed
sensible appearances [St Thomas, 1a q 70, art 1 ad 3], expressing himself
either, metaphorically or in the common manner of speaking current at the
time, and current now also in many matters of daily experience, even amongst
the most learned men. The sacred writers - or more properly the Holy Ghost
who spoke through them - did not intend to teach men these matters (namely,
the inner constitution of visible things) which are in no way profitable
to salvation" [Providentissimus Deus, 1893
Dz 1947, subsequently quoted in Divino Afflante # 5]
This seems to accord entirely with what I take to be the obvious meaning
of Cardinal Newman and Dr Holden, if not quite what they said. The difference
between them and pope Leo is that His Holiness wished to stress that even
the colloquial inexactitudes and apparent irrelevancies contained
in Scripture are inspired "per accidens" and so exactly what God wishes
them to be: even if He "wishes" them to be formally wrong!
Difficulties from History
Pope Leo went on to indicate how this principle might be used to deal with
difficulties from history. His words were understood in various ways.
One attempt to meet charges of error in Scripture was "The Theory of
Implicit Citations", advanced by P. Prat and others between 1902 and 1907.
They argued that since all ancient authors quoted freely, and since plagiarism
was accounted no offence; some of the apparent errors of sacred writers
could be explained by supposing them to be quoting without reference from
some non inspired author. The potential breadth of application of this
theory is apparent on reading the second Chapter of the Second Book of
Maccabees. As its inspired author summarized five books penned by the uninspired
historian Jason, might not any errors present in the canonical text be
put down to Jason? While the Biblical Commission did not condemn the theory,
it did urge restraint in its use.
Pope Benedict XV later renewed this verdict of the Biblical Commission
2188], while more generally condemning the typical way in which
he judged pope Leo's teaching was being misapplied in the most forthright
["Spiritus Paraclitus" Dz 2187]. In
effect, he asserted that this would lead to the entire undermining of the
authority of Scripture.
Pope Pius XII subsequently over-turned Benedict's blanket condemnation
Afflante" Dz 2294]. He nevertheless insisted that it was
vital to ascertain the purpose of the scriptural writer (especially as
shown in his choice of literary genre) before accusing him of errors.
The 1948 letter of the Biblical Commission
to Cardinal Suhard [Dz 2302] deals with the
question as to how this principle might be applied to the Torah. Recalling
an earlier decision [Dz 1999], it states that
no one can seriously doubt that Moses used earlier written documents and
oral traditions in preparing the Pentateuch. What then, more exactly, was
Moses inspired to do in his selection or rejection of passages from earlier
This question hinges on the literary genre of (especially) the first eleven
chapters of Genesis. The Commission remarked
that one can neither simply affirm nor deny that they are "history" without
applying to them the standards of a literary genre which does not really
fit them. The text is not history in a classical or a modern sense, but
sits somewhere between history and myth; being an account of the remote
past as handed on by oral tradition from one generation to another. Some
elements of this tradition one must presume have their origins in real
events, while others have more the form of "just so stories". The peoples
of the Orient have had a special way of their own of recounting events
which is worthy of patient investigation. It is open to no one, then, to
say roundly that there is error in these chapters. This because it is not
always clear what in fact the human author there sought to affirm, owing
to our ignorance of his conventions.
If he made them his own, vouching for them;
then he must be held to have put them forward as true.
If, however, he merely reported them as what was told to him, without vouching
then there are no grounds on which to expect them to be free from intrinsic
Instead, "inerrancy" would mean simply that:
Moses did in fact accurately record the narrative as he received it.
Two years later, Pope Pius XII urged caution in these matters:
"We must specially deplore a certain
excessively free way of interpreting the historical books of the Old Testament
.... the first eleven chapters of Genesis, even though they do not fully
match the pattern of historical composition used by the great Greek and
Latin writers of history, or by modern historians, yet in a certain true
sense - which needs further investigation by scholars - do pertain to the
genre of history."
None of this addresses the problem represented by the twenty-sixth and
twenty-ninth chapters of Ezekiel, where a prophetic prediction at first
seems to fail and is then more or less explicitly acknowledged by the prophet
to have failed.
[Pope Pius XII "Humani Generis" (1950)]
I have written further on the decrees of the Pontifical Bible Commission
Benedict XV [Dz 2188] spoke severely of scholars
who had recourse to literary genres incompatible with the full truth of
the Word of God. Nevertheless, Pius XII later encouraged the study of literary
"It is absolutely necessary for the interpreter
to go back in spirit to those remote centuries of the East, making proper
use of the help afforded by history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences,
order to discover what literary forms the writers of that early age intended
to use and did in fact employ....
Hence, when God is spoken of as "walking in the garden" [Gen
3:8], it is not the purpose of the writer to describe the means
of locomotion of the Divine Presence; but only to indicate that God was
present and was considerate enough to give notice of this fact by sensible
The Catholic exegete must ask himself how far
the form of expression or literary idiom employed by the sacred writer
may contribute to the true and genuine interpretation; and he may be sure
that this part of his task cannot be neglected without great detriment
to Catholic exegesis. For... in many cases in which the sacred authors
are accused of some historical inaccuracy or of the inexact recording of
some events, it is found to be a question of nothing more than those customary
and characteristic forms of expression or styles of narrative which were
current in human intercourse among the ancients, and which were in fact
quite legitimately and commonly employed.
A just impartiality therefore demands that when
these are found in the Word of God, which is expressed in human language
for men's sake, they should be no more stigmatized as error than when
similar expressions are employed in daily usage. Thus a knowledge and
careful appreciation of ancient modes of expression and literary forms
and styles will provide a solution to many of the objections made against
the truth and historical accuracy of Holy Writ." [Divino
The matter of God being "refreshed" by
31:17] is more difficult to deal with as this would seem to reveal
something of the Inner Life of God: which matter can by no means be accounted
unprofitable to salvation, unless the whole of Trinitarian Dogma is so
discounted! Manifestly, the human writer thought the point he was making
to be important, and the point at issue was not accidental to some other
matter under consideration. Now this text can easily be interpreted as
a projection onto God of the good purpose of the Sabbath for (wo)men. The
idea being to argue that "if it is good enough for God then it is good
enough for you"; and also perhaps to insinuate that God will be found in
the peace and quiet of rest and recuperation and finally to remove any
possible motive for feelings of guilt: that the Sabbath rest is just an
excuse for sloth and indolence! Nevertheless, such an interpretation does
not - in any simple sense - alter the fact that what the text actually
says, which I am sure is exactly what its human writer meant it to signify,
is formally erroneous.
Why is the Church
so keen on Scriptural Inerrancy?
Given the manifest fact that the Sacred Scriptures do contain things that
are difficult to distinguish from "errors", why is it that the Church has
always held firmly to the proposition that the Scriptures are inerrant?
Consider, for a moment, what would be implied, both theoretically and practically,
were the alternate position to be adopted.
All of the above reeks of heterodoxy as well as heteropraxy. Hence, I suggest
that the Magisterium's absolute commitment to "Inerrancy" amounts to a
manifestation of Her knowledge that the Scriptures are Irreformable.
If the Scriptures contain errors, then it would be incumbent upon the Church
to identify them and eliminate them.
This is exactly what Marcion and Luther both did.
It is what the translators of the NIV frequently do.
This would inevitably mean that the text would be subject to a never-ending
process of emendation and "improvement" as secular human knowledge advanced.
Many such "corrections" would be no such thing: just changes made according
to the taste and prejudice of the latest editor!
It would also mean that it would be incumbent on the Magisterium to bring
the text into alignment with official teaching and make it entirely impossible
for official teaching to be challenged on the basis of Scriptural testimony.
It would also make it possible for the hierarchy to sanitize the Scriptures:
removing from them elements uncongenial to their tastes, such as the Books
of Job: with its apparent hedonism; the Song of Songs: with its explicit
eroticism; or the Apocalypse: which the Eastern Church has never been comfortable
[after 'D', private communication, October 2005]
Inspiration as Process
My lay correspondent proposed:
"A looser definition of 'inspiration'
might be more helpful: the authors of the biblical texts, and those who
collected and edited their writings, all believed in God, and believed
they were obeying God's will by writing, or collecting and editing, what
they wrote; but it is quite possible, even probable in many cases, that
their understanding of God was inadequate. God for His part has allowed
that these texts be preserved and read; but they are not to be relied on
to tell us anything specifically true about His nature or His will; they
must be interpreted only as reflecting the basic theological truths: God
created the world and all things in it, God loves Israel, God hates sin,
and a few others on that level.
I think that while this suggestion is flawed, and I suspect formally heretical,
within it is the answer to our entire problem.
Admittedly, this looser interpretation of 'inspiration'
puts some strain on the doctrine of inerrancy. We should insist in this
case as well that that word be interpreted with nuance. The Bible can
be in error, only if we misinterpret it. And we misinterpret it, if
we fail to divine the deep theological wisdom beneath the surface of the
literal meanings." ["MS" (October 2005)]
It seems to me that the questions of canonicity, inspiration and inerrancy
are bound up one with another, such that they cannot be dealt with analytically
- one at a time - in the way that the article in "A Catholic Commentary
on Holy Scripture" attempts to. I think that it is necessary to see each
of these questions as an aspect of a single question, namely "How Has God
Spoken To His People?".
As soon as this question is asked, it is apparent that the first and
superlative answer is simply:
As my correspondent 'H' wrote [slightly edited]:
"Through the Incarnation of the Divine Logos",
"Through the continuing guidance of Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church",
"Through the Creative Act by which God brought into being all that is:
visible and invisible".
"The 'revelation' of the Decalogue to
Moses is probably the only time that God has actually personally
contributed to the canon, directly. At least, so Tradition goes. But I
think this is a nice example of inspiration: God reveals (in
this case He also writes), the revelation is received by an intermediary
(who, in this case, is little more than a channel, but mostly this
intermediary is an instrument: God uses the faculties of this person -
mental, emotional, and so on - to particularize the inspiration. Luke's
writings bear his personality, etc.), and passed on to the Qahal/Ekklesia
Church, Congregation or Assembly] as instruction
Only when all this glory has been rehearsed is it possible to start
looking at the processes by which Sacred Scripture came into being
and is interpreted.
I think from a New Testament perspective, "the
canon" is a person, not a book [Heb. 1:1-3],
Jesus Christ; and is also contained in the Church, which is His pleroma
fullness or completion] [Eph.
1:23]. This nicely links the Acts of
Revelation to the Living Church. I also think we need to emphasize that
the Act of Revelation is the Revelation Itself, and the written
record of it is entirely secondary. For example, the "Exodus Event" was
the revelation of God, and its historical account in the Tanach [=
Hebrew Bible] is the inspired faith history in canon
of this revelation." ["H" (October 2005)]
Note that word "processes", for I think this to be crucial. The Bible
did not suddenly come into being. Neither was it dictated by an Angel or
presented in a vision, neither does any any such event account for its
genesis. No! The Bible is not what the Koran is supposed to be: the "words
of god". Rather, many of God's friends at first spoke and then later wrote,
as best they were able, of the God that they knew and loved; and of their
experience of Him, according to their understanding; and of their convictions
regarding His nature and disposition towards WoMankind; and of their appreciation
of His dealings with His People. This was a human enterprise, though blessed
and encouraged and elicited by God.
In the beginning they recounted stories and myths about the past: some
based on personal recollection of what had been, some based on accounts
passed on to them by their ancestors, some set forth to rationalize or
disclose the meaning and significance of otherwise inexplicable observations
and day-to-day experience. Later, these words were recorded by priests
and scribes as sacred texts. The first scribes wrote what they would, while
being concerned to faithfully represent the oral tradition that they had
received; but in their working God was intimately present: granting them
insight and wisdom and eliciting from them, by His grace, exactly what
He would. Much of what was written by early authors was passed on to later
ones who lovingly conflated and blended strands of testimony into a single
ever-growing and strengthening tradition. In all of this, at each stage
of this process, God was active as guide and gentle director. In His providence,
as the texts developed they became exactly what He wanted them to become:
Divine Torah. In both Jewish and Catholic thought, Moses is
thought to have had a pivotal role in making the Torah what it is.
|An Anglo-Catholic friend "DJ" kindly brought to my attention the following
pertinent Anglican text:
"God has spoken to us in a variety of
ways: God's word comes from different sources which carry somewhat different
nuances. It is too easy to claim that scripture and tradition are orthodox
[sources] and that reason and experience represent secular departures.
All three persons of the Trinity point in the same direction: Jesus doesn't
tell us that Shalom and Decalogue no longer matter; the Spirit doesn't
tell us that the peace of Christ is now passé. The Old Testament
urges inclusion of the outcast. The Spirit of Jesus, forming the new creation,
the Body of Christ, as the focus of God's reconciling actions in the world,
talks to us through our experience.
From this perspective, inspiration is not the prerogative of one
particular author or editor; but rather of a whole community and succession
of authors, scribes and editors. Inspiration is a property of a sociological
process, which nevertheless has a definite outcome. Hence questions about
whether this human agent or that one was inspired and whether this version
of the text is inspired rather than that one do not really arise. The text
develops towards an "Omega Point" or finality: and as it does so, it participates
more and more fully in the Divine Form
of the Torah. Differing versions may each have value as offering alternate
insights that - although perhaps formally contradictory - may yet form
the basis of a later synthesis.
So 'revisionism' is not an accurate term if it
implies that scripture and tradition have always been the same from the
beginning and are only now being challenged from within the Church by a
spirit of secularism. Scripture and tradition are not opposed to contemporary
experience. They themselves are records of other generations' risky, uncertain
experience - Abraham had no scripture to consult when discerning whether
he was to leave home.
Scripture is an untidy collection of homely stories,
examples and analogies designed to point out God's ways of being made flesh
because to be flesh is to enter the diversity of times and places. The
polyphonic harmony sung throughout the ages can accommodate some discordant
notes and allow them to expand and deepen the harmonic counterpoint. Opening
ourselves to the potential working of the spirit in our own contemporary
experience is essential to our identity as Christians: it is not an option.
Discernment is based upon, 'That doesn't sound like the voice of Jesus;
it is not life-giving, redeeming word.'" ["Living
Together in the Church" pp 241-256, slightly edited]
From this perspective, inerrancy means just that there is "nothing
wrong" with the Torah: that it is exactly fit for the purpose that God
intends it to have in the Life of His People. It does not mean that every
statement is formally correct in every detail. Sometimes the inadequacies
themselves teach us wisdom: in particular the great truth that what matters
isn't detail but the overall effect of a thing! In the midst of life there
is death: catabolism as well as anabolism, but this does not compromise
From this perspective canonicity means just that the People of
God know - of the very nature of the case - what is the text that they
are developing as their own History and Constitution. There is no doubt
regarding what is inside or outside the canon, for the canon is nothing
more than the "work in progress" and, until that work is complete, it has
The rest of the writings of the Old Testament developed in analogous
ways. In some cases individuals were more or less sole authors of books,
and these texts were recognized as part of the dialogue between God
and His Chosen People. In other cases texts grew by accretion or edition
with a number of authors and scribes contributing to the final product.
In all cases, God was the principle author of the text; for He knew what
part He wished each text to play in the Life of His People and He made
sure that it was entirely fit for that purpose.
The Truth of Scripture may only be only discovered by the People whose
Book it is. Only they are the context that gives it the meaning that God
intended it to have. Only within the Church can the Scriptures be properly
understood and interpreted and only in this context can their significance
be rightly known.
Inerrancy is an aspect of the Infallibility of the
Church's Magisterium. It means that when rightly interpreted - in concord
with the Dynamic Tradition of the Church - the Scriptures are a faithful
and sure source of Doctrine and a certain guide to God's purposes and nature.
Canonicity is also an aspect of the Infallibility of the Church's
Magisterium. It means that the People of God recognize that which is
especially theirs; without rejecting other worthwhile testimony (for the
Church can hardly be said to pay no account to the writings of the Apostolic
Fathers, or to dismiss them as mere private theologians!) This perhaps
explains why the Church did not hesitate to accept the deuterocanon as
authoritative and recognize it to be Divinely Inspired. As my Priestly
Corespondent 'B' has indicated, there is much of obvious great worth and
nobility and spiritual value in the Wisdom Literature, at least.
All is process. The only perspective from which to judge these matters
is from inside the process. The outsider can never understand what it is
all about. The situation is very much akin to that of the Definition of
Doctrine of which I have written elsewhere.
It is not tidy; but neither does it need to be.
The problem of pseudepigraphy
My lay correspondent suggested:
"You might want to say more about the
phenomenon of pseudepigraphy, especially in the New Testament. You already
say something about the related phenomenon of traditional ascription in
the formation of the Old Testament canon, at least regarding Moses as the
traditional author of the Pentateuch - to which can be added David as the
Psalmist, Solomon as the author of some Wisdom literature, Daniel as the
author of the apocalyptic chapters in the latter half of the Book of Daniel.
Do not forget, by the way, there are two Septuagint recensions of Daniel,
more important than the recensions of Tobit, inasmuch as Daniel is a more
prestigious book. You should also observe how pseudepigraphy works in the
New Testament. The consensus of scholars both Catholic and Protestant limit
the number of Pauline letters actually written by Paul (to wit, Romans,
1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon).
The others in the Pauline corpus are pseudepigraphical. Same with the two
letters attributed to Peter, which were written long after Peter had died."
["MS" (October 2005)]
the authorship of a document from its internal character is fraught with
difficulty, once any explicit claim that it makes to be written by a named
individual are discounted. Equally, the arguments advanced by contemporary
scholars against the Pauline or Petrine authorship of those Epistles explicitly
claiming to have been penned (or dictated) by Paul or Peter are in my judgement
inadequate. They generally start from some arbitrary principle that begs
the question, such as "Rome was only referred to as Babylon by Jews after
the sack of Jerusalem, hence the Second Epistle of Peter must have been
written after 70 A.D. and so cannot have been written by Peter". This argument
is seriously proposed in the introduction to this book in a modern study
edition of the NRSV which I posses. An opposing and altogether more convincing
argument - which it is not appropriate to repeat here - is given by H.
Willmering S.J. in his commentary on this Epistle in "A Catholic Commentary
on Holy Scripture".
This is not to say that I hold unequivocally to the proposition that
all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him, and similarly the
two Epistles of Peter or the three of John. I must confess that I do not
know for sure. Nevertheless, I prefer the self-testimony of the authors
of these letters to the scholarship of modern academics in this matter.
In the end, from the point of view of a Catholic this really doesn't matter.
The context in which pseudepigraphy is an embarrassment is Evangelization.
It would be very convenient to be able to give to an enquirer a set of
texts which could be said - unequivocally - to be historically accurate,
impartial, eye-witness accounts of the life, teaching, passion and resurrection
of Our Lord. It would be only slightly less useful to have a corpus of
writing to hand known to have been penned by His Apostles, giving expression
to His teaching as applied in the lived experience of His Infant Church.
Unfortunately, this is not possible; and we should acknowledge this fact.
It does no good to pretend that the authorship of all the documents of
the New Testament is known, but neither is it advisable to dismiss the
claims to authorship that they make lightly. After all, such things are
often a matter of fashion: a perspective that would be treated with derision
by some establishment in one year will later be acclaimed as the universal
consensus of all right-thinking scholars a few years later.
I have no difficulty with the idea that in antiquity it was common for
authors to make use of the name of others who were accepted to be authorities
when writing documents of their own.
A substantial minority of the documents to be found in the standard collection
of "Plato's works" are now - on the basis
of internal evidence - more or less universally acknowledged to have been
written by later disciples rather than the Master, himself. Some of these
are worthy of serious study.
In the end all that matters is that a document is a faithful witness to
the Apostolic Tradition.
The fact that no claim of Apostolic authorship has ever been seriously
advanced for two of the four canonical Gospels makes this fact very clear.
After all, who exactly was "Mark" and on what basis did Luke take it upon
himself to write either his gospel or the sequel "The Acts of the Apostles"?
I shall now attempt to deal with all the particular issues raised by my
correspondent "B". I do not think that many of them are at all easy. Nor
do I think that I have a good answer for most. All I can do is offer my
best insights and hope that someone else will be able to advance the argument
Divine petulance and wrath
Torah presents a confused message. On some occasions, God is represented
as kind, indulgent, understanding and forgiving. On others, God is represented
as judgmental, vindictive, jealous and almost childishly petulant. Sometimes
the two images are presented together [Num 14:18-20].
Clearly, the Hebrews' understanding of God's character and of what God
wanted from them was conditioned by their own expectations.
I have always interpreted the character of the rows between God and
[Ex 32:1-14,35 Num 14:10-35 Deut 9:13-14,19,25]
as the means by which God led Moses to understand that "I Am not like
that at all". If Moses could be led to oppose God and apparently convince
Him to change His (unchangeable) mind, then Moses would be convinced that
God really meant it. After all, the incident of Aaron's Golden Calf must
have been a profound disappointment for Moses; whereas God always knew
that it was going to happen - it was no surprise to God at all! It must
also be born in mind that sometimes it was Moses that played the part of
complainant and God who calmed Moses' indignation [Ex
5:22-6:1 Num 11:10-23] and that at least on one occasion
the anger of Moses and the anger of God are more or less equated [Num
In every case, it is vital to evaluate the row it terms of its outcome.
Generally these are favourable and gracious. The punishment meted out on
the prophetess Miriam [Num 12] for "bitching
at Moses" was quite mild; almost a tease, in fact. The incident of the
[Num 21:6-9] was resolved by
the creation of the great bronze totem, which John's Gospel presents as
a proto-type of the Cross of Jesus. God was engaged in a teacher-pupil
relationship with Moses and the Hebrew tribes. He always knew what He was
up to and what He was going to do. Often, they projected onto Him their
expectations, which He had to erode by constructive engagement with them
as they were, with the mind-set and world-view that they then had. At first
they undoubtedly perceived The Lord God of Hosts to be their tribal
war-god, even though this was not the role that He had played in the life
of Abraham or Jacob or Joseph.
God had to move His People on from this impoverished and limited vision.
He did so by steps; presenting them with graded "learning activities" calculated
to make them question and re-evaluate their own prejudices by a Socratic
process of confrontation and contradiction. It must be born in mind that
sometimes the only way of getting a message through to a child (or hysterical
adult) is with a slap. Such an action is liable to be understood in terms
of anger on the part of the assailant, even if no such emotion is present
at all. When God threatened punishment, it was often just before He showed
leniency and "repented of the evil" that He had seemed about to do. When
He seemed to ask for human sacrifice, it was only in order to decline it
as superfluous and instead commend the faith and loyalty of His servant.
I have dealt with the huge matter of "Hell and Damnation" elsewhere.
The Flood [Gen 6-8].
This may have been a natural disaster and only attributed to God's initiative.
Of course this doesn't lessen the problem of the great evil involved, but
this type of question I address elsewhere.
The main point of the story is in any case not the destruction of sinners
(and indeed most life on Earth!) but rather the Universal
Covenant that God establishes with WoMankind, through Noah and his
The destruction of
Sodom and Gomorra and the death of the wife of Lot [Gen
The destruction of the cities of the planes may have been a natural disaster,
rather than an "Act of God".
The point of the story is to emphasize the central importance of hospitality
and the potential to find the Divine in the common-place of life.
I suspect that the story of the salinification of Lot's wife is nothing
more than a fable.
God's abortive murder of Moses [Ex 4:24].
This is a very mysterious and garbled incident. It is impossible to make
any judgement of it.
The plagues of Egypt, especially
the Death of the Firstborn [Ex 6:28-12:32].
This I find very difficult to comprehend.
There is, to my knowledge, no notice of any such event in the Egyptian
From the point of view of the Hebrew tribes, all is sweetness and light.
God was simply doing what was necessary to extricate them from slavery!
There is nothing to explain or excuse, and everything to be thankful for.
This should, perhaps, be the main emphasis that is put on the story; certainly
the masses of africans transported to slavery in North America took great
comfort in this account of God's righteous and liberating power.
However, from the point of view of the general Egyptian population, the
whole thing looks very different. According to Exodus, they suffered greatly
and in particular very many innocent people died just because they were
"firstborn". They had no political say as to the status of the Hebrew tribes.
It was not by their will that the Hebrews were enslaved (assuming that
in fact this is true: there is little evidence for any kind of mass slavery
in the Egyptian record). Neither would it be by their will that the Hebrews
would be freed. It was Pharaoh's will alone, along with that of his Ministers
and the Priests of Amon-Re that would decide this.
It should be noted that the slaughter of the first-born was the culmination
of a whole series of plagues of increasing severity. Pharaoh could have
acceded to Moses' demand at any point before the end of the process, and
in fact very nearly did so.
Perhaps the political situation wasn't quite as I have just outlined. Perhaps
Pharaoh was subject to certain kinds of popular pressure. Certainly there
would have been a mass outcry if all the firstborn in the land died in
one night because of a political stance. After all, this would have amounted
to perhaps 25-40% of the entire population! Perhaps the outcry would have
amounted to a rebellion. Who knows?
Perhaps it wasn't every first-born in the land that died. After all,
Pharaoh himself wasn't slain. Perhaps this was just the Hebrews' perception.
Perhaps "the land of Egypt" should be read as "where the Hebrew were settled".
In any case, the level of apparently God initiated slaughter is massive.
For God to kill an innocent is not formally "murder".God gives life gratuitously,
hence there is no formal grounds for complaint if He takes it gratuitously.
After all, everyone dies at some point!
We do not know the fate beyond death of the Egyptians who died. Perhaps,
like the Holy Innocents, they all went to Heaven!
Assuming the story not to be a fabrication, it seems to me that it can
only be rationalized in terms of "the ends in view justified the extremiity
of the means used".
The drowning of Pharaoh's
army [Ex 14:23-28].
This is of a similar character to the slaying of the Egyptian first-born.
There is, to my knowledge, no notice of any such event in the Egyptian
It should be born in mind that this was a "them or us" situation. More
accurately it was a one-sided military confrontation: between a cohort
of one of the great Imperial fighting forces of its day and a disorganized
If God had not intervened in some way, the Hebrews would have either been
slaughtered or brought back into captivity.
Assuming the story not to be a fabrication, it seems to me that it can
only be rationalized in terms of "the ends in view justified the extremiity
of the means used".
The death of Korah and his men and
of those who objected to this [Num 16].
A group of rebellious levites, led by Korah, called for "a priesthood of
all believers". Moses' very authority was at issue here, and that of the
Aaronic priesthood too. Korah and his followers were given plenty of warning
that they were overstepping the mark. In the end, an example was made of
them; the earth opened up under their feet and swallowed them.
To modern sensibilities this sounds harsh. It certainly seemed so to the
Hebrews who witnessed it. A large number objected to what they understood
to have been Moses' murder of his own people. These were struck down by
a plague: which Moses then successfully sought to bring to an end.
It is difficult to see how else the situation could have been dealt with,
in the circumstances of the day. Throughout history, treason has generally
attracted the death penalty; on the basis that any exercise of leniency
in such situations tends to be interpreted as weakness and only foments
As to how much of this was God's initiative and how much Moses' is not
clear. Whet is pretty certain is that both the faulting of the ground under
Korah's feet and the subsequent plague were understood at the time to have
resulted from God's direct agency.
Harsh threats to punish disobedience viciously [Deut
28:15-68; 31:16-21; 32:15-43].
This may all be nothing more than a graphic warning amounting to the statement
that if you live unjustly, your sins will automatically result in bad outcomes
which you will unavoidably suffer.
The death of a prophet (who was killed by a lion) for having been deceived
another one [1 Kgs 13].
This is a sad story. The death of the first prophet seems harsh, but in
fact it led to the second prophet seeing the error of his ways and both
being reconciled with the first prophet - now sadly dead - and taking his
message to heart.
God gave the Hebrews "statutes
that were not good" [Ezk 20:25],
commanding them to commit infanticide of their own firstborn
[Ezk 20:26, cf Ex 22:29, Lev 18:21].
This is a difficult verse to interpret; as it is not clear what Ezekiel
is referring to. The Levitical injunction to give every first born son
to God on the eighth day of its life refers to circumcision coupled with
the formal "redemption offering" [Ex 13:2,13-16 Lev
12:2-8 Lk 2:22-24] which from the earliest days supplanted any practice
of ritual infanticide that may ever have featured in primative Hebrew ritual.
It may be that the "statutes" in question are not any part of the Mosaic
Law. To quote my evangelical source:
"Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express,
not just the doing of a thing, but the granting of permission by an agent
for a thing to be done; which the agent is (mis)represented as doing."
"When Ezekiel says that God gave 'statutes
that were not good', he means no more than
that when stubborn people determined that they did not want to abide by
true justice, God permitted them to follow the wicked statutes of the pagan
nations around them."
"When Jeremiah suggested that God deceived the people
of Israel, he meant only that the Lord allowed them to follow their own
paths of self deceit."
The law to kill a witch or false
prophet [Ex 22:18, Deut 13:1-5].
These injunctions are intended to preserve the doctrinal integrity
of the faith. In those days the idea of "excommunication" had not been
thought of, so the only possible penalties for apostasy or sorcery (always
presumed to be malicious) were exile or execution.
|My correspondent "MS" provided a wonderful commentary on a difficult
story to be found as the twenty-fourth Chapter of the Second Book
is a powerful little story, allegedly communicating at least six points
of theological information.
'Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against
Israel.' Somehow God can accuse an entire
nation of displeasing Him, and is prepared to punish them all, regardless
of the presumed personal innocence of many individuals in that nation.
We have seen that sort of thing many times before.
'And he moved David against them...'
God inspires a king to do something offensive, which will justify God's
punishing the entire people. That is analogous to the repeated hardening
of Pharaoh's heart in Exodus. But here it is more bitterly ironic, because,
we had been given to understand that God liked David.
The census seems at once a sinful idea to Joab (that
brilliant ethicist!) and later to David as well; but it is unclear why.
Perhaps, it was interpreted as the appropriation by creatures of a prerogative
that should always belong solely to the Creator. So it is a species of
a sin of pride.
In my view, this is all a form of speech. It is simply a poetic way of
saying that David had a bad idea of his own. The text attributes to God
the immediate causation, saying that God told David to take a census. More
accurately, God only allowed David to have this idea and to act upon it.
Possibly to make it clear that it was a bad idea.
God sends the prophet Gad to David, to communicate
the terms of his repentance. That is a common, though not exclusive, means
of getting a message across from God to a human character. Literally, in
this context at least, it tends to work better than, say, a dream vision,
or an angelic visitation, or the consultation of a witch.
I suspect the census was a bad idea because, like the Domesday book, it
gave the King a huge amount of information that he could thenuse to set
taxes and military levies and check whether they were being fully met by
his subjects.This was just too much power to be put in the hand of one
It is interesting that of the three options for chastisement
- three months defeat in warfare, seven years of famine, and three days
of pestilence - David chooses the last, with the oblique response to Gad:
us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; and let
me not fall into the hand of man.' It is unclear
why pestilence should be considered the exclusively divine chastisement;
perhaps it has something to do with a primitive, pre-scientific explanation
for an inexplicable natural phenomenon.
The prophet only approaches David when the King has already realised that
he has done wrong. Until this point there is no prospect of any kind of
This response prepares us for the happy theological
conclusion: At Gad's instigation - so presumably God is behind it - David
builds an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah, and makes sacrifice:
David rightly expresses the view that it is unfair of God to punish the
whole nation for his own personal offense. Nevertheless, God seems to do
exactly this: seventy thousand men die!
'And David built there an altar unto the Lord,
and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord was intreated
for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.'
Those two final passive voice verbs are truly
magnificent. To use the words from elsewhere in the Old Testament: 'God
repented of the evil that He had considered.'
I am not so terrifically embarrassed by this story.
A couple of the theological items are unsatisfactory, that is true. But
after we, with David, are wrung through the wringer, as it were, the story
teaches one of the profound theological truths, of the sort that I (perhaps
heretically) suggested we should always be on the lookout for: God can
be "angered" by our sinfulness, God can "punish", but also God can be "moved
to mercy" by our repentance." ["MS" (October
The fact that no punishment is in prospect until after David has repented
suggests to me that the "punishment" wasn't in fact any such thing, but
that it was going to happen anyway. Nevertheless, when David acted out
his repentance by offering sacrifices, God acted to bring the pestilence
to an end.
God appears to offer intimacy and even friendship to individuals. Sometimes,
even as an aspect of His reaching out to His People, He proffers a much
less comfortable aspect. There is a real conflict in the Torah between
on the one hand, the idea of a God who can comfortably converse and sojourn
with Abraham [Gen 18], and Moses
33:11, Num 12:6-8] and even seventy sundry Hebrew notables "invited
back to God's place for a dinner party"; [Ex 24:1-11]
and on the other, the idea of a God who is surrounded with "The Shekinah
or Cavod YHWH" and cannot be seen face-to-face but can at best grant his
dear friend Moses to glimpse "his back". [Ex 33:13-23]
This "second God" tries to become as intimate as possible with His People
by establishing an Embassy (the Mercy Seat, between the Cherubim of the
Ark of the Covenant) in a visible Tabernacle (and later Temple) where He
will "share food" with them, via the Aaronic sacrificial system. A negative
consequence of this kind of intimacy is the danger that it represents/
When God is present in this mode, so are His Energies - and these are dangerous,
if not treated with due caution and respect. They are liable to break out
on the unsuspecting or careless, whether or not they are guilty of any
sacrilegious intent. Two of Aaron's sons found this out to their cost.
It is as if there is a normal means by which God can communicate or
manifest HimSelves and then there is an extra-ordinary means that is only
appropriate or possible occasionally or in exceptional circumstances. In
the days of the Torah, the ordinary means were the Tabernacle and Ark,
shrouded in smokes and fires; now they are the Mass and Sacraments. In
the days of the Torah, the extra-ordinary means were intimate revelations
and visions granted to Abraham, Jacob and Moses; now they are similar revelations
and visions granted to particular individuals. Just as the Aaronic worship
was dangerous, so is our sacramental worship. St Paul explicitly warns
about the practical danger involved
in receiving Holy Communion unworthily.
Divine connivance with
Examples of God appearing (sometimes implicitly) to approve of duplicity
Abraham was ordered to cast out his concubine Hagar,
and son Ishmael, in favour of Sarah and Isaac. [Gen
However, God cared for them both; and Ishmael prospered in his own right.
God's acceptance of Jacob, after he had tricked his
elder brother Esau out of his birthright.
Not enough details are given in the story to judge the rightness or wrongness
of Jacob's actions.
It must be noted that the two brothers were eventually reconciled.
I suspect that there was a lot more going on here than we are privy too.
The point of this story is that God will choose whomsoever He wills to
forward His purposes and is not bound by issues of birthright or precedence.
This is shown again later in the vocation of David - the youngest of a
set of brothers of an unexceptional family - to the Kingship of Israel.
The story of the young widow "Tamar" who disguised
herself as a whore so that she might have sex with her father in law, Judah,
who was refusing to let her marry his youngest son, Shelah, her brother-in-law
who should have been constrained to give her sons so that the name of her
late husband, Er, would be preserved [Gen 38:6-26].
This story is mainly about a woman cleverly obtaining justice for herself
in spite of the unwillingness of various men (i.e. Judah and his sons Onan
and Shelah) to do right by her.
Apart from the unconventional sexual morals it features, I don't find this
story difficult. Certainly I do not find it "very
unedifying" as does my corespondent "B".
Divine connivance with murder
of God appearing (sometimes only implicitly) to approve of murder include:
Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac [Gen
Moses' killing of the Egyptian overseer [Ex 2:1-5].
This was provoked and was, in effect, the defence of an innocent third
The murder of Sisera, the general of a Canaanite army with a tent peg [Jdgs
4,5] by Jael in the days of Deborah the prophetess and ruling Judge
The Bible contains no explicit divine approval of the actions of Jael.
This was an action of war.
The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter [Jdgs 11:29-40].
This was a great act of folly on the part of Jephthah.
The Bible never expresses any approval of either the vow he made or of
the fact that he fulfilled it.
The main point of the story is that one shouldn't make [reckless] vows!
The story of Israel's slaughtering
all of the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin in revenge for the
murder of a Levite's concubine and then Israel's kidnapping hebrew virgins
from other tribes so that the few Benjaminite men remaining might have
wives and so continue their tribe.
This is a terrible story of one bad deed leading to another.
It starts with an apparent desire on the part of a group of Benjaminites
to rape a male Levite, passing through their city of Gibeah! [Jdgs
To avoid this fate, the Levite gives his concubine up to be raped! [Jdgs
The Benjaminites rape her until she dies! [Jdgs 19:28]
The rest of Israel then determines to destroy the tribe of Benjamin; in
vengeance for the murder, apparently with God's explicit approval [Jdgs
20:23,28] - though exactly how this was manifested is not made clear.
I suspect that "God's approval" was no more than the "say so" of some
When the genocide is complete, all the women and children of the tribe
of Benjamin are dead and only six hundred men remained. Then the Israelites
regret their actions. [Jdgs 21:1-4]
They proceeded to "make amends" by kidnapping the virginal women of Jabesh-gilead
after having murdered all the [Hebrew!] menfolk of that town, and their
wives and children. [Jdgs 21:8-14]
It transpired that still more women were required, so a second batch were
abducted from the town of Shiloh. [Jdgs 21:16-23]
The story is completed by the significant remark: "In
those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was
right in their own eyes." [Jdgs 21:25]
I suppose the main messages of this story are:
Without a King, you have mob rule.
Especially when people start to say that they know what is God's will!
Don't justify your own actions by claiming that what you decide to do is
Don't make vows.
Don't rape people.
Don't commit murder.
Don't take vengeance.
Commentry on the
Un-Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham
This story cannot and must not be understood in the standard and obvious
way; but there again, I do not believe that the Torah is mean to be so
understood - any more than much of what Plato wrote was intended by him
to be taken in a direct sense. The Torah is God's "teaching aid".
I think that many of the stories included within it are put there to challenge
one's moral and religious sentiments. Indeed, some are put there to provoke
outrage - as signs of contradiction. If one "goes along" with the simple
interpretation one shows that one has failed and not understood the lesson.
The story of "The Unsacrifice of Isaac" seems to start with a lie on
the part of God, who seems to say that Isaac is Abraham's "only
son". This is simply not true, as Abraham had an older son, Ishmael,
who he was very fond of and who Abraham only sent away (along with Hagar
his mother) because Sarah was jealous of him and because, finally, God
told him to do so. Subsequently, God took great and special care of Hagar
and Ishmael. We must first ask, therefore, was it really God who was speaking
to Abraham at this point? God does not lie and Abraham wouldn't be so silly
as to think that God would say such an obvious untruth. Are we
so confident that God doesn't lie? If so, why do we happily accept this
statement at face-value? Perhaps Satan spoke to Abraham, pretending
to be God - but I don't think that it is necessary to pursue this train
of thought, because in "Young's Literal Translation" God's instruction
runs: "Take, I pray thee, thy son, thine only one,
whom thou hast loved, even Isaac, and go for thyself unto the land of Moriah,
and cause him to ascend there for a burnt-offering on one of the
mountains of which I speak unto thee." [Gen
22:2], so nothing untrue is actually said! The phrase "thine only
one" might easily have colooquiolly meant "thine sole heir". Why, then,
do translaters of this text generally render it as a lie?
Moreover,, according to Youngs Literal Translation, it would seem that
God doesn't even directly command that Isaac be offered as a sacrifice,
and certainly not that he be killed! A circumlocution is used: "cause
him to ascend there for a burnt-offering"; which
was actually what happened! Isaac did ascend the mountain and a burnt-offering
was made, which he attended and helped officiate at. The standard interpretation
is, perhaps, the obvious meaning of these words; but the words do not by
any means demand to be so interpreted! After all, Abraham himself says
half way through the story that: "God will provide
the sacrifice" [Gen 22:8] and
in fact is proved correct. Abraham had good reason to expect this. God
had promised to make his progeny - through Isaac - a great nation
21:12]. Hence, I think that Abraham's words (that God would provide)
were a prophecy; not just "wishful thinking" or a tactic to pacify Isaac.
Abraham always knew what was going to happen, more or less. He was profoundly
intimate with God and very comfortable with the idea of arguing with God.
Isaac did not know what was going to happen, on the other hand; and yet
still went along with the whole thing.
Only the statement of "The angel of the Lord" in [Gen22:12
& 16] seems to explicitly corroborate the standard interpretation
of the story: that Abraham was actually asked by God to offer human sacrifice
and that Abraham actually intended to do so - out of a sense of obedience.
God is presented as saying that he will bless Abraham because he
didn't withhold Isaac from him; but God had already promised to
bless Abraham and had explicitly made the form of this blessing depend
personally on Isaac, so this cannot be taken at face value. The key phrase
is "not withheld thy son" - and again, clearly
in the action, Abraham has behaved exacty as the "Angel" has stated. He
did not "withhold" Isaac; but neither did
he kill him! Abraham acted with implicit trust in God,
but I say with
clear knowledge that he would not lose his son to death at this point in
time. There was never any possibility of Isaac permanently dying at
this stage, and Abraham knew this - because of God's promise
21:12]. He didn't know how far he would have to go with the sacrificial
action, though. It might, in principle, have involved death and resurrection
- if Abraham was capable of conceiving of such a turn of events, which
I seriously doubt!
Why did Abraham bind Isaac and lie him on the makeshift altar of sacrifice,
if he was never asked by God to do so? On one level, we will never know.
We can speculate that Abraham himself concluded that this must have been
God's intent, given the lack of any divinely provided sacrificial victim;
but this is somewhat strange, as there is no account of Abraham waiting
to see of God would provide a victim, or of Abraham beseaching God to do
so. Also, there is no record of Isaac putting up any resistence to his
aged father's actions. It is implausible that a young man in the prime
of his life would be easily overpowered by his elderly father after the
pair of them had just climed a steep hill and built a sacrificial altar!
Perhaps Abraham and Isaac were playing-out a ritual that was familiar to
their culture. After all, in the law of Moses it was later to be stated
that all first-born males were sacred to God and had to be redeemed.
If God was not the direct instigater of the incident, but the whole
affair was orchestrated by God's Agent, then clearly it would have been
the same "Satan" that "tested" Job. As to whether this "Satan" is our "Devil",
I claim no clear knowledge of the Heavenly or Hellish hierarchies. The
deeper questions are:
The most that Abraham could have been "tested" over is his belief that
God would honour his promise; and this wasn't even a two-sided covenant,
it was rather a one-sided extravagant undertaking of one friend (God) for
another (Abraham). God already knew that Abraham was his friend, and so
did Abraham. The Epiphany of Mamre shows this more clearly than anything.
God has no need to "test" people like this, though sometimes God does act
so as to help his friends to discover or develop the level of their own
commitment to justice.
what does "testing" mean and
how or why should an all-knowing God want or need to "find out" whether
Abraham would do as he was (unjustly) ordered to do?
Many times the faith of the Jews (and ours too) has been and will be
"tested"; where God seems to ask from us the utterly unreasonable - with
no hope of explanation or good outcome. The Jews suffered slavery in Egypt
and exile in Babylon and dispersion throughout the Roman Empire and the
Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust and the Russion Gulags. I have
suffered my "little Calvaries" over my beloved PJH and various other matters.
Catholics understand that the whole "Unsacrifice of Isaac" episode was
a prophecy-in-action of the willing self offering that our Blessed Lord
(the Son of God, not just the son of God's best friend) would go through
with. Perhaps God explained this fact to Abraham afterwards. If so, this
is not recorded. "The Unsacrifice of Isaac" is, moreover, the model of
each of our lives. We must offer our mortal lives to God in the absolute
confidence that God will restore them to us; but also add onto them length
of days unto eternity.
My account of this story happens to conform exactly to its "literal
terms". [Incidentally, very little "literature" is meant to be taken "literally"!]
It is only the matter of "God's intention" that I am questioning. I think
that how the Torah and other parts of the Old Testament represent "God's
intention" is often seriously questionable and should be understood not
as "objective fact about God" but as a "starting point for reflection".
Divine toleration of slavery
It is far from obvious that all forms of slavery
are wrong, even though pope John Paul II did condemn slavery as "intrinsically
evil". No Old Testament writer ever questions the principle of slavery.
Neither, as far as we have it, did Jesus or any of the Apostles. Neither
did Plato or Aristotle or any Father of the Church for almost two millennia.
On the other hand, many authorities - certainly the Torah [Ex
21:26-27] - set clear limits on the conduct of masters towards their
slaves. I have written further on this matter elsewhere.
Divine condemnation of usury
It is far from clear why usury was ever
condemned in Hebrew culture. I presume because - in the absence of formal
investment opportunities - spare cash was just that: spare, surplus and
without purpose or application, and to seek to make a gain on it by exploiting
those in need was rightly perceived to be wicked. I have written further
on this matter elsewhere.
The modern Catholic (such as the author!) has a profound aversion to the
idea of warfare. After the horrors of two World Wars, this is understandable.
However, it is a sad fact of our fallen world that sometimes warfare is
inevitable and that sometimes it is wrong and sinful to avoid war. For
example, the failure of the United Nations to intervene militarily to prevent
the Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda genocides and in order to depose the tyrant
Mugabe is deeply shameful.
Historically, the Church has had no difficulty in believing that - at
least in extremis - God intervenes in military affairs. The battles of
Lepanto and Vienna, for example; where the forces of Christendom at last
halted the inexorable advance of the Islamic navy and army. Every time
that the Church cries out "Sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth!" she names God
as "The Lord of Hosts", most plausibly an invocation of God as Commander
in Chief of the Hebrew Army.
The Hebrews had a need for military success if they were going to be
established as God's Chosen People. All the tribes and nations of the time
behaved - more or less - in the way that the Hebrews are represented as
behaving. It was a question of either fighting to gain and defend territory
or die. There was no United Nations. Whether God supported Israel's military
ventures or not: they would have to go ahead, if Israel was to be established
as a state. The brutality and violence represented by Israel's military
campaign was simply inevitable. If Israel hadn't conducted a successful
military campaign, some other conflicts would have taken place; with some
other outcome. In the end, Israel was defeated: by Assyria then Babylonia,
only to be re-established as a buffer-state by the Persian Empire and then
incorporated in first the Macedonian and then Roman Empires (with the brief
Maccabean interlude) before being dispersed throughout the world for nineteen
One should bear in mind that death is not such a terrible fate. After
all, it awaits each and every one of us. What is much more important is
what fate awaits us after death! The death
in battle of Canaanite warriors at the hands of Hebrew insurgents isn't
so absolutely terrible. The fact that God may have enjoined His People
to execute war on the Baal worshiping inhabitants of the Promised Land
of Palestine isn't utterly horrible. However, the fact that so many non-combatants
were exterminated - even when the Jews were inclined to spare their lives
- does seem wrong. Today we would call this genocide and especially condemn
this because it might result in the death not just of individuals but of
a whole culture. Of course, this was exactly
the outcome that was (apparently) envisaged by God: in order that the Jews
would not come under the influence of Baalistic practices and revert to
polytheism - which they regularly did.
In the end, I don't think that there are any entirely satisfactory answers
to the entirely proper questions that my correspondent "B" poses. I can
only suggest that, contrary to the well established official teaching of
the Ordinary Magisterium, much of the Old Testament is not to be taken
at face value. Frequently, what is posited as of God is in fact an expression
of what the author or the people (s)he is writing about thought about God.
I don't think that this devalues the Old Testament at all. It is simply
a fact that one has to take account of when reading it. Similar considerations
apply to the New Testament, but not to quite the same degree and not in
quite the same way.