The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church
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We now know that there is something fundamentally wrong with this criticism, even in human terms. However, one part of the criticism is true. It is true that simply reading a pre-written 'book' into another book is not a good idea. (This was not exactly what Catholics in former times were doing with the Old Testament, but let that pass for a moment. Catholics in former times were certainly doing enough of a bad thing to justify the criticism.)

Ironically, however, (especially in the last four hundred years) many scholars and scientists increasingly assumed that there really was some pre-written 'book,' some logical structure of thought, some series of equations, that gave the meaning of all other books and all other thoughts, and which you should indeed read into all other books and all other thoughts.

This hypothetical 'book' that everyone was looking for was literally more real than reality itself, since the book was the recipe for making reality. You could test whether something was real if it was part of the recipe. If it wasn't in the book, it couldn't possibly be real. The only problem with this particular pre-written book seemed to be that it wasn't the pre-written book that Catholics wanted to use!

This pre-written 'book' was called Reason (or sometimes, Science). Nowadays, some people call it the Theory of Everything. People supposed that the way to possess this pre-written 'book,' this pre-existing logical structure of everything that is the recipe for reality, and thus gives the ultimate meaning of all other books and all other thoughts, was to be completely self-sufficient, and to carefully isolate yourself from all 'contaminating influences' so that you could see the 'objective' or 'unbiased' truth. >>


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However, there is a slight problem with this centuries-long effort. We now know for a fact that there is no such 'book.'

In 1931 the mathematician Kurt Gödel proved that any set of logical thoughts complicated enough to include basic arithmetic was inevitably going to be 'incomplete.' There was always going to be at least one sentence you could say within that 'book' (within the structure of those thoughts) whose truth you could not prove, except by relying on some other 'book.'

In other words, we are NEVER going to find a pre-written 'book,' some pre-existing structure of thought or series of equations, that we can use to find the meaning of all other books and all other thoughts. A master 'book of books' does not exist. We will always have to read many books to help us find the truth.

So actually, it is incorrect to criticize someone simply because he is using one book (or thought) to help him find the meaning of another book or thought. We have to do that!

Obviously, if we use something untrue to help us find the meaning, that won't help, but using truth to help us find more truth is not only allowed, it is necessary, even in human terms. >>

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In spite of all of this, many people, from biblical fundamentalists (who actually have a pre-written list of 'fundamentals' that you are supposed to read into the Bible) to 'scientific' people who don't believe in God at all, continue to insist that there just has to be a pre-written 'book,' the recipe for reality, by which the truth of everything, including the Bible, can be measured - and that they have it.

However, there is more - much more - wrong with the idea of a pre-written 'book' - the pre-existing logical structure, the series of equations - that is the recipe for making reality, and by which the meaning of everything can be discerned, including the meaning of the Bible.

For God is not a recipe. He is not an inert, pre-existing 'book.' He is not a logical structure, or a series of equations. He is the Most Holy Trinity, alive, active, Three Persons in One, fascinating and mysterious.

Thus the whole centuries-long effort, from Catholics and everyone else, to find a 'book' that could be read into reality (even into the Bible) because it is the recipe for reality, is not only impossible in human terms. Ultimately, the effort is seriously contrary to Catholic faith, for the Church's faith is in her Lord Jesus, not in a recipe. In the Catechism the bishops and the Holy Father teach that:

... the Christian faith is not a 'religion of the book.' Christianity is the religion of the 'Word' of God, 'not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.' [CCC 108] >>

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True to the Word who gives himself to her, the Catholic Church professes that Jesus is the risen Lord, Truth himself, who has given himself to her in a forever bond of true love. This intimate bond is living and actual. It is no pre-written book, no recipe, no 'idea,' no logical structure or series of equations. Instead, that forever and living bond of wondrous love between Christ and his Catholic Church gives the impetus, not for a recipe, not for a pre-written 'book,' but for a living and holy story that is still being written in time and space as we speak.

Catholics have indeed at times tried to force the meaning of a pre-written 'book' into the Bible. However, Catholics have also been responsive to the living Word of God as he shows himself in living time and space, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through his Bride and Body, the Catholic Church.

Thus, while you can certainly criticize Catholics of earlier ages for the manner in which they might have used the fact that the sacraments are real and the New Testament is true to find the meaning of the Old Testament, you can't criticize them just for using the truth to find the truth. That's what they should have been doing.

Of course, while criticizing former generations of biblical scholars for reading a 'book' into the Bible, modern biblical scholars are themselves using all sorts of books to help them find the meaning of the books of the Old Testament. We just saw that this is perfectly acceptable and legitimate, in both human and spiritual terms.

However, for many (if not all) of these scholars, there is at least one 'book' that is professionally 'off limits' and that can not be used 'responsibly' to find the truth of the Old Testament: the living 'book' that is the New Covenant, the union of the very person of Christ and his very real, specific Catholic Church (a union through which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him give us what we need to study the true meaning of the Bible, in our time and space). >>

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The fact that many scholars today, even many who are Catholic, can see no 'professional' way to use the most important truths of all to help them find the truth about other things, even the truth about the Bible, is one of the deepest wounds of modern life. You and I are not going to fix this very sad and serious problem here.

On the other hand, you and I can see that denying the truth of the New Covenant in order to find the truth of the Old Covenant is just not going to work. In fact, some modern Catholic biblical scholars have managed to tie themselves into knots by trying to do just that.

For example, after isolating themselves 'professionally' from the living judgments of the Holy Father and bishops in communion with him, some biblical scholars have come to the conclusion that all we really get are human words. God never actually speaks his Word. For these scholars, human words are all we get, and human words are far too fragile, far too momentary, far too finite, to contain what God might have to say. If God is speaking at all, he's using language that human beings can never actually hear.

For these scholars, 'God' is a kind of mirage that always vanishes just as you begin to look at the Bible with real precision. They ask, where is God - really - in human words, even the human words that make up the Bible?, and their answer is: if we look carefully and honestly, the truth is that human words can only make God's presence disintegrate. >>

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These scholars are very impressed by the fact that human words are fragile, fragmentary, and incomplete. Where could God possibly be in the endless flux of fragile, fragmentary, passing human words? These scholars think that God does not really say anything, at least using words that we could ever understand. They think that our human words can never contain God's presence; they can only disintegrate it.

Don't for one minute think that I'm kidding. Even as early as 1981, a very, very famous Catholic biblical scholar (who was also a Catholic priest) wrote this in one of his books: "God does not speak." And he never took his words back, either.

Since Jesus, the Word of God himself, is a specific, real person who definitely speaks specific, real things, it is not easy to understand how in the world this man continued to study the Bible, let alone how he continued to be a Catholic and a priest, while thinking that "God does not speak," but he did.

Some more recent biblical scholars agree with the ideas of this (now-deceased) Catholic priest, but are less willing to fudge their implications. These recent scholars (both biblical and general scholars) are quite explicit in stating that, when they study the Bible, all that they see is words about words, an endless number of words - some in the Bible itself, some they themselves are writing.

God (if He's even there and speaking) is simply too far beyond human words to ever be speaking through this endless stream of human words. If God is speaking at all, he never, ever speaks even one word that we will ever really understand.

This is what they see, and (if they are especially thoughtful and honest) it may bring them close to despair. The more precise and scholarly they become, their own words - all words - seem to make the Lord Jesus become less and less substantial, specific, and real. The more they study, the more he seems to vanish from their sight. And yet, they can't get off the merry-go-round. They can't stop writing the words that, day by day, make him seem less and less real. >>

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Seeing this and beginning to get desperate, some other modern biblical scholars now say that the meaning of the Bible resides, not in books or words, but in ''believing communities.'' However, other scholars note that these ''believing communities'' quite often believe exactly opposite things about what the Bible means.

So, if the true meaning of the Bible somehow resides in these 'believing communities' (but in reality these 'believing communities' often believe exactly opposite things about what the Bible means), then the 'true meaning' of the Bible is either that it has no particular meaning at all, or that it can have any meaning that you want, so long as you can find (or start) a 'believing community' that agrees with your opinion.

And on it goes. It is not easy to study the Bible.

This obviously does not quote the Pope and bishops in communion with him exactly, but they still tell us: ''We may be stupid and we might be sinful, but if you study the Bible without professing that the sacraments are real and the New Testament is true, then you are eventually going to get lost, and you will never find the full meaning of the Bible.''

Could it be that they're actually right? <<

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An ''oral tradition'' is

a.   a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.
b.   written words spoken orally at special occasions for generations.
c.   words spoken and remembered over generations, and not written down.

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Modern biblical scholars think that some of the Old Testament, and the gospels, began as

a.   oral traditions.
b.   vague traditions.
c.   written traditions.

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According to the Holy Father and bishops in communion with him, thinking that some of the Old Testament, and the gospels, began as oral traditions

a.   by itself moves you farther from Christ.
b.   does not by itself move you farther from Christ.
c.   may by itself move you farther from Christ.

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Wait a minute. Do the Holy Father and bishops in communion with him understand that, by the nature of oral tradition, the tradition is told, re-told, elaborated, cut, changed, by many different people over many years, even over centuries, maybe even for a thousand years, before some version of it ever gets written down?

a.   Maybe.
b.   No.
c.   Yes.

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Wait a minute. Do the Holy Father and bishops in communion with him understand that, by the nature of oral tradition, different versions of the same tradition may have been passed on at different times, or were being passed on even at the same time, before some version of it ever gets written down?

a.   Maybe.
b.   No.
c.   Yes.

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Wait a minute. How can the Catholic Church profess that the one particular version of an oral tradition that was eventually written down in the Old Testament is the true, inspired Word of God, when so many other oral versions may have existed?

a.   What a silly question. It was a simple question of power. The people with power liked one particular tradition, and suppressed the others.
b.   What a silly question. There isn't any one ''privileged'' version of the oral tradition. It was just an accident that one was chosen over the others.
c.   What a silly question. God ''waited'' for the inspired authors to decide the ''name'' of the true tradition. Once they had, ''that was its name.''

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Wait a minute. What about any people who innocently listened to and passed on a version of an oral tradition that did not end up in the Bible? Weren't they automatically moving farther from God when that happened?

a.   Maybe.
b.   No.
c.   Yes.

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Wait a minute. Do the Holy Father and bishops in communion with him understand that, from time immemorial, there have been many other stories about the universe's origins, including the one told by modern science, many of which flatly contradict the Bible's account? [CCC 283-285]

a.   Maybe.
b.   No.
c.   Yes.

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For you to be truly free, your decisions have to matter. You must have the ability to move in the wrong direction, not just the right one.

Obviously that means that both sin, and heresies - the ultimate in wrong directions - can exist, that you can really move toward them, and that it does matter if you move toward them. <<

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The word ''typology'' has a special meaning within the Catholic Church. Typology is

a.   hegemonic privileging of meaning by an oppressor religious culture.
b.   seeing in God's works in the Old Testament a pre-echo of the works of his Son.
c.   the art of trivializing the literal sense of the Old Testament until it vanishes.

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When referring to persons or events in the Old Testament, the word type refers to a person or event with typological meaning. The Church has often seen Moses as a type of Christ. Why?

a.   He approached God by taking off his shoes and hiding his face, and protesting that he was not worthy to do his work.
b.   He led his people from slavery to freedom and gave them the law, the means by which they could keep covenant with God.
c.   He petitioned the great Pharaoh, king of the earth, for freedom, and watched as God sent plagues to make Pharaoh comply.

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Moses's position in the Old Testament is unparalleled. He is the human key both to the Exodus by which God freed Israel, and to the covenant that God made with Israel on Mount Sinai that gave the Law by which Israel still lives. As CCC 61 implies, Moses is a saint recognized by all the Catholic Church's liturgical traditions. You should look very carefully at the incorrect answers to the preceding question, to understand more deeply just how far above even the great Moses Christ reveals himself to be.

Finally, you should read in the gospel of John: Jn 8:51-58. Now you know the full weight of Jesus's ''I AM'' in that passage. <<

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Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy || Joshua Judges Ruth 1 Samuel 2 Samuel 1 Kings 2 Kings || 1 Chronicles 2 Chronicles >> Ezra Nehemiah << || Tobit* Judith* Esther 1 Maccabees* 2 Maccabees* Job


Proverbs Ecclesiastes Song of Songs Wisdom* Sirach* || Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations Baruch* Ezekiel Daniel || Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi

The Old Testament books with a star * are not any more or less important than the others. The star indicates that the Catholic Church definitively professes and knows these books to be part of the sacred writings, the inspired Word of God [cf. CCC 120], but that they are specifically rejected by the Jewish people, and called ''apocryphal'' (of doubtful inspiration) by Protestants.

The books


occur in that order in the Old Testament. Most scholars think that, historically,

a.   Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries.
b.   Ezra came after Nehemiah.
c.   Ezra came before Nehemiah.

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copyright (c) 2001 John Kelleher. All rights reserved.