HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
Practical Catholic Guide.
by Peter J. Elliott, M.A. (Melb.),
Peter J Elliott, the author of this pamphlet, is at present a
seminarian at Corpus Christi College, Glen Waverley, Victoria.
Before going to this seminary, he completed his Master of Arts degree
at Melbourne University as a student at Trinity College.
Then he went to Oxford and read for his degree in theology (B.A. ) at
St. Benet's Hall.
He has written two other booklets for the Catholic Truth Society,
A Convert in a Changing Church.
You are Peter
He is co-author of
The Thoughts of Jesus Christ.
A.C.T.S. No 1585 (1970)
HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
Practical Catholic Guide
There was once a man who decided to read the Bible. He took it down
from a high shelf, blew away the dust, opened the heavy black cover,
and started at the beginning. The Book of Genesis wore on and on - into
confusion. Noah's ark was sailing through Eden with Abraham at the
helm. The drowsy afternoon and all this confusion soon sent our friend
to sleep, his head resting on a long list of names in some obscure
Hebrew family tree. When he woke up, he decided that the whole attempt
was worse than trying to read "War and Peace". Back on the high shelf
went the Bible. Down came the dust of years.
Our friend just did not understand what the Bible is or how to approach
it. The Bible is not a single book. It is a small library of books, all
different, all bound within one cover. If I go to a library, I only
choose books which interest me, or books which suit my own purposes. So
it is when I read the Bible. I do not simply read it from cover to
cover. I choose certain books which interest me, books which answer
questions and meet my needs. But to find out my needs and which
questions to ask, I need guidance through the Bible library. Using
typical Bible readers' problems, we can come to clear answers to the
complex question, "How do I read the Bible?"
A PRACTICAL APPROACH
How should I read?
It is wise to read very little of Scripture at a time - at least when
you start regular Bible reading. It is best to read slowly, carefully,
willing to refer to any notes provided as detailed explanation. If a
chapter seems useless or boring, go on to the next chapter.
If possible, a regular time each day should be set aside for reading.
Obviously, this is difficult in a normal working day. But when we think
it out, there are "blank" times during the day which could be used; for
example, on the train going to work, after the children have gone off
to school, after lunch or before going to bed.
The Bible is the inspired word of God. We therefore treat it with
respect. But this does not mean binding one-self to a pious way of
reading. If you want to pray before or after reading, do so. The
reading may lead to prayer. If you want to read "casually," while
travelling or relaxing, do so. It's up to you to decide - freely.
I find the English hard to
understand. What should I do?
Change to a modern version at once. There are many good modern versions
on sale today; some even set out like a novel. We share some of these
new texts with our separated Brethren. The
Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible are perhaps the best
known modern texts. Details of modern versions on the Australian market
are set out at the end of this pamphlet.
Some people appreciate traditional English. This is simply a matter of
taste, temperament and background. Some of our finest literature has
been formed by "Biblical English." However, there is nothing sacred
about "thee", "thy", "thou" language. For some it has noble
associations. For others it is a meaningless barrier.
Can I interpret the Bible for myself?
The Catholic Church encourages private Bible reading. The Second
Vatican Council was quite clear on this point. "Easy access to sacred
Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful." But in
the interpretation of the Bible, the Church will not permit the
domination of private opinion. There are common-sense reasons for this.
The Church compiled the Bible library. The authority of the Church had
the final say in which books would be included in the Bible library,
and which weird and almost forgotten books would be excluded from the
Bible. Only the Church can understand and interpret her own library - a
family library which is largely the story of God's People, His Church.
Because the Bible only makes sense "within the family", it can never
make sense when interpreted by certain religious enthusiasts who knock
on your door or blast you over the radio or television.
The Church seeks to conform herself to the guidance of the Bible. But
the danger of free private interpretation leaves men free to read their
own meanings into the Bible, to make it suit their own opinions or
theories. The result of free private interpretation is quite clear -
utter chaos. Every man fights for his pet theories.
Scripture soon becomes a mine for cranks, a source of superstition, a
centre of grave disunity. None of this was intended when the Church put
the Bible together.
How do I find out what correct
Firstly, by knowing and appreciating Catholic teaching. You will never
find official Catholic teachings contradicted by the Bible. But you
will find your own understanding of the truths of our Faith deepened
and brought to life in the pages of Scripture.
Secondly, you can follow the fine detail of interpretation by using
Catholic commentaries or reading guides. Some of these are large and
expensive, some highly technical, but there are others in the form of
well set-out booklets or magazines, for example, The Bible Today.
The words "correct interpretation" can be misleading. The Church does
not have a set interpretation for every jot and tittle of Scripture.
Indeed, most of the Bible is left open for interpretation governed by
the continuous research of Christian scholars, Catholic and
non-Catholic. Only in areas where Scripture has been twisted against
the truths of God's People do we find clear Church rulings.
Your own personal interpretation may take various forms:
(a) what a passage of Scripture means,
(b) how this helps my own appreciation of the Mass, Sacraments, etc.,
(c) how this shows me the Christian way of life,
(d) how this leads me to prayer. . . .
Above all else, personal interpretation should lead to a deeper
love and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and in Him to a deeper love and
knowledge of others and of ourselves.
Because each of us in the Church is a member of the one altar
community, personal interpretation should be balanced out by discussion
with other Christians. Your parish clergy will be glad to help here,
and will encourage moves to set up adult study groups. By a mature
study of Scripture, Catholic Christians will find the way of genuine
renewal in the modern Church.
Where do I start?
Obviously, as it is a library, you do not start at the beginning of the
Bible. The Christian always starts with the second and smaller
collection of books in the Bible, with the New Testament. As we shall
see, this will later show him how to understand the first and larger
part of the Bible, the Old Testament.
The words "New Testament" mean "God's new agreement with mankind," that
is, the way he has revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. The "Old
Testament" means "God's first agreement with his chosen People, the
Jews." This old agreement was replaced by Jesus Christ. It only makes
sense to us as the special preparation which led up to the life, death
and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these wonderful events God made an
agreement with all men, and through these events he created his new
People, the Church. So we are the People of the New Testament.
THE NEW TESTAMENT UNFOLDS
Where do I start in the New Testament?
Jesus Christ is the centre of our understanding of the Bible. We see
the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, moving to a climax in his
life, death and resurrection. So we should start reading, quite simply,
with the life of Jesus Christ.
There are four accounts of the life of Christ in the New Testament, the
four Gospels. The word "Gospel" means "Good News", that is, an account
of the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth. "Gospel" does not mean
"life story," so we cannot expect a complete little biography of Jesus
Christ in each Gospel, although we do have many details in the Gospels
of the major points in the earthly life of Christ.
Which Gospel should I choose to read
The shortest of the Gospels, the Gospel
of St. Mark, was probably the first Gospel written. It gives a
limited account of Our Lord's ministry, his death and resurrection.
Because it is the basic text, written in a compact simple style, it is
perhaps the Gospel to read first. The reader will note how it only
gives a vague picture of the personality of Our Lord, although the
author goes into detail concerning the miraculous powers of this "Son
To fill out a clearer picture of the personality of Our Lord, read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke after
reading Mark. Matthew's Gospel is the most Jewish of the four Gospels.
It gives some details of the Birth of Our Lord, his detailed teachings
and a pattern for the structure of the Church and its discipline - the
role of St. Peter as the first Pope.
St. Luke's Gospel is a delight to read. Here is the closest Gospel to a
rich biography of Jesus Christ. The ancient traditions of his
conception and Birth are set out in the first two chapters. Luke etches
a beautiful picture of the majestic and loving character of Christ. He
also enjoys telling the parables of Jesus (his teaching stories) with
all the zest and eye for detail of the skilled Eastern story teller.
Where do I go from here?
Luke wrote a sequel to his Gospel, the Acts
of the Apostles. You will notice that he addressed this sequel
to the same man to whom he also addressed his Gospel, a man named
Theophilus. So we pass over the unique Gospel of St. John for the time
being, and we proceed to the Acts of the Apostles, addressed to one
whose name means "He who loves God."
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke shows how the "Good News" of Jesus
Christ passed from Jerusalem to Rome. Here we have a vivid
reconstruction of the growth and life of the earliest Church. You will
note the central role of St. Peter, and then how the theme of Acts
changes to follow the missionary adventures of the famous convert, St.
Paul. Readers who find these journeys of interest will refer to maps
provided at the back of many Bibles.
Research has shown that the details of Paul's journeys are very
accurate. Tradition tells us that Luke accompanied Paul on the
missionary journeys, acting as his physician.
By now you will have gained two basic insights of the New Testament:
(1) You will have a deeper sense of the Personality and mind of Jesus
Christ, a sharper understanding that he is God's direct intervention
into history - our Saviour, our purpose, our destiny;
(2) You will appreciate the Gospels as Church books, as inspired
literature written within the Church founded by Jesus Christ,
literature which only has a full meaning within that same authentic and
continuous Catholic Church. The Acts of the Apostles will have shown
you the young Catholic Church in action.
Why is St. John's Gospel so different
from the other three?
The first three Gospels are known as the "Synoptics" (seeing together)
because they have much material in common. St. John's Gospel is different. He
only gives us a limited account of the details of Christ's life,
gathering in memories and traditions of Jesus which we do not find in
the other Gospels.
However, as you read John, you will find the rich symbolism and
profound meditations of the mind of a great theologian. You will
discover the most sublime of the Gospels, an endless source for
personal meditation and prayer.
John was concerned to give us an accurate vision of Jesus as the
eternal Son of God, as God enfleshed in our world as a Man. In his
beautiful, but difficult, first chapter (the "Prologue") John sets out
the themes of Jesus as "The Word", his gifts of light, grace, truth and
life. John goes on to use the miracles of Jesus to show us how God
acts, making a special feature of the water, wine and bread of the
Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. John shows us what Jesus means
to us now, what his teaching gives us now, our sharing in the
Sacraments of the one Fold.
It is perhaps best to follow the reading of John's Gospel with a study
of his three letters, which
you will find after the letters ("epistles") of St. Paul and St: Peter.
In his letters, John develops
the Love of God, showing how it must grow as the bond of truth and
unity between all believers, for "God is love, and he who abides in
love abides in God, and God abides in him." 1 John 4: 16.
Were the Gospels written separately?
By now you will have noticed how there are many passages which we find
repeated in different Gospels. It certainly looks as if Mark, Matthew
and Luke were aware of one another's writing and did not hesitate to
borrow or copy from one another. Just how the Gospels relate to one
another is a problem which scholars have never solved exactly, although
there are many theories about how they came to be written and why we
find the same texts repeated in the three versions of the "Good News"
known as the Synoptics. The average reader of the Bible need not worry
about these academic matters, although some readers may be led out of
interest to study the problem in a commentary or companion text.
You should read the four Gospels, not primarily to follow textual
problems, but to come to know Christ better. Even as you go on to other
books in the Bible library, you will find yourself returning again and
again to the clarity and simplicity of the living Christ as He is
expressed by His Gospel writers.
The Second Vatican Council affirmed, "Holy Mother Church has firmly and
with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four
Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church
unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while
living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation
until the day He was taken up into heaven."
How do I read and understand the
writings of St Paul?
The letters of St. Paul are often quite difficult to understand. They
are the earliest writings of the New Testament in many cases, written
well before the Gospels took their final form. They are letters
directed to the Church which compiled the Gospels. They are the product
of a sophisticated Christian mind, written originally in Greek.
Obviously, Paul must be read in a clear, modern version of the New
Paul's elaborate style of writing, the way he moves about from point to
point rapidly, requires great care in reading - and frequent reference
to footnotes or a good simple commentary. Even a few verses of Paul may
be enough to read at a time, certainly in some of his longer letters.
To understand and appreciate St. Paul, several points must always be
borne in mind. Paul is writing to early Christian communities with
their own peculiar problems and customs. At times these problems relate
to the sort of problem we may experience in a modern parish. At times
we could get into strife by trying to use Paul to provide dogmatic
answers to modern parish questions. Paul does not cover every aspect of
the Faith. He is silent in many areas because particular problems had
not yet arisen in these areas, so we cannot treat Paul as the last word
in all areas of theology.
Paul himself was very careful to point out when he was giving advice or
opinions and when was laying down the Law of Christ. Paul must never be
quoted out of context, and we may never try and exaggerate one element
in his rich and varied theology to exclude other elements.
Where do I start with Paul?
Galatians would be the best
epistle to introduce St. Paul. It is short. The problems concerning
Paul and the Christians of Galatia are clear. Paul provides us with
some autobiographical detail, to be compared with details in the Acts
of the Apostles, written much later.
Paul's two letters to the Corinthian
Christians show us the problems of an early Christian community
- factions, snobs, heretics and gossips. It is evidence that the early
Church had just the same human problems as the Church today, evidence
which soon dispels the fantasy of a perfect early Church. The first
letter to the Corinthians is notable for its references to the
Eucharist and above all for St. Paul's glorious meditation on love
The Epistle to the Romans is
the central letter of Paul, containing his dynamic doctrine of God's
action which alone saves man. Romans is difficult to understand at
times, but very rewarding in the vision it gives us of the central role
of the gift of Faith in our salvation. To balance out the letter to the
Romans, exaggerated by some Christians, it is best to read the much
later Epistle of St. James.
This will give you a balanced view of the place of good deeds and moral
life in Christian salvation.
From Romans, which takes time to appreciate, you can move to a
"lighter" letter of Paul, the beautiful Epistle to the Ephesians. The fifth
chapter of Ephesians, on marriage and the Church, is perhaps one of the
finest parts of the New Testament. If you go on to read the Epistle to the Colossians, you will
see how it gives much of the doctrine of Ephesians. Some have argued
that Ephesians was not really written by Paul, but put together from
pieces of his genuine letter to the Colossians. As with the Gospels,
there are many academic theories about Paul's letters, and again some
readers may be interested in the detective work of this area of study.
Paul's letters to the Thessalonians
and the Philippians are words
of guidance and encouragement to struggling Church communities. The
later letters to Timothy, Titus
and Philemon are moving
indications of Paul's personality in his last years as a "prisoner for
Did Paul write the Epistle to the
No. [Or at least, probably not.] We do not know who wrote this
remarkable letter which comes after the collected letters of St. Paul.
[perhaps someone in Paul's immediate circle?] The Epistle to the Hebrews is a majestic
Jewish Christian document which gives us the concept of Christ's High
Priesthood. Read carefully, with a good commentary, it can help you
understand something of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, some
have argued that it is really a series of sermons written for use at
Mass in the early Church. There are various links between John's
writings and the letter to the Hebrews. The eleventh chapter, on Faith,
will be useful as a guide to our reading of the Old Testament when we
come to it in due course.
The remaining letters collected in the New Testament are the two Epistles of St. Peter and the Epistle of St. Jude. The two letters
from the first of the Popes show us the early Church and its problems
from the point of view of the man who inherited Christ's authority in
the apostolic circle. St. Peter reminds us that we are a "royal
priesthood", warning us of false prophets and the last days of the
world. The small letter of St. Jude is a complicated and obscure
document, with pointed reference to sinners and trouble makers.
What is the Book of Revelation?
The Book of Daniel in the Old
Testament and the Book of Revelation in
the New Testament are the most terribly misinterpreted portions of the
Bible. The Revelation (or "Apocalypse " - derived from Greek) has
always been a mine for cranks and heretics, fanatics who have dug down
to ludicrous conflicting theories and claims which modern scholars have
shown to be complete nonsense. The early Church saw the dangers in this
book and indeed hesitated before adding it to our Bible. But the
doctrine contained in the strange book of Revelation is sound, often
written in beautiful forms and symbols.
The Revelation which came to an early Christian named John is described
as a series of visions, symbols and images, all pointing to the place
of the Church in the history of the First Century and to the future of
the Church in terms of our eternal destiny. You cannot read Revelation
without a detailed Catholic commentary or guide. A good commentary will
explain how various mysterious symbols are really a code for people and
events in the ancient Roman Empire. Unfortunately, cranks have seen
these symbols as a magic key to the past, present and future, a sort of
historical "prophecy" code. The same cranks also misuse the text of the
Book of Daniel, on which much of the Revelation is based.
Revelation is a good point to settle once and for all one of the worse
abuses of the Bible - attempts to use the Bible to predict the end of
the world. The Church will not allow this folly and dangerous
superstition, for of the end of the world Jesus Christ said plainly,
"But of that day or that hour no one knows . . ." (Mark 13: 32). The
warning not to find exact world prophecy applies to all the Bible.
Christians do believe that God works out his purposes in history -
salvation history. Some Christians may believe, as personal opinion,
that this is the "last age" of the world. But we cannot go beyond this
private opinion to fine details, fantastic claims and fearful exact
predictions. It is certain that the author of Revelation did not intend
his readers to misuse his symbolism in this fashion.
Read Revelation with an eye to its beauty and truth. See the splendid
symbolism of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - the Lamb slain eternally,
the altar, the throne, the apostles, the incense - all the symbols of
our liturgy. See the vision of the woman crowned and robed with the sun
- Our Lady and the Church. See the vision of heaven as the eucharistic
banquet, the supper of the Lamb, the symbol of our eternal and
indescribable destiny. Above all, listen to the cry which closes the
New Testament, that theme so clear in our renewed liturgy, "Come, Lord
EXPLORING THE OLD TESTAMENT
The last book of the New Testament will have left you looking into the
future, to the coming of Christ, to the completion of all time and all
purposes. But again and again your reading of the New Testament has
pointed back to the first People God gathered together as the focus of
his plan for the world, to the Jews. We call the Jewish Bible the "Old
Testament", the old agreement between God and men. We believe that it
has been superseded by the New Testament, by the new agreement in Jesus
Christ and his Church. But we have a reverence for the Old Testament
and we include it as an essential part of our whole Bible.
But why read the Old Testament? Isn't
the New Testament enough?
Obviously the New Testament is "enough" insofar as it gives us the
words and acts of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. But because Jesus Christ
was a Jew, a religious Jew, a Man living, thinking, speaking and acting
as a Jew, we cannot understand his place in history or much of his
teaching unless we go back to the great saga of the Jews, back to the
When we do this, we find that God had been preparing for Birth of His
Son. He gathered together a People. He led them to a promised land. He
remained true to them even when they disobeyed Him and fell into
disaster and slavery. Ultimately, He brought His chosen People to a
single perfect point, to one woman, the chosen Jewess who became the
Mother of God.
In this Old Testament saga we can see our God as the God of history.
The whole story of man centres on the Jews, the old Israel, then on the
Church, the new Israel. It is "salvation history". Your reading of the
New Testament points to this meaning of human history, to God's
purposes in human lives and national histories. But when we look back,
this story is not complete, indeed it cannot be told, unless we know
and understand the Old Testament.
God in the Old Testament seems
different from God in the New Testament. Why is this?
Reading the Old Testament, you will discover a God who seems jealous,
cruel, warlike and demanding. But within the Old Testament you will
also find the same loving, patient and gentle God revealed to us in
Jesus Christ. Why are there these different views of God in the one
First, we remember that the Old Testament is not one book. It is the
sacred library of Jewish literature. Some of its books are history,
others are poetry, theology, philosophy, folk-lore, legends and
prophecy. These books were written at many different times by many
different people. They reflect many different views of God. But
gradually they develop towards a Christian doctrine of God. The
primitive view of God as a warlike tribal God fades away. The Jews
learned that God is the God of the whole universe, the kind and
merciful God who has a steadfast love for his People, Israel.
When we come across the primitive ideas of God in the Old Testament, we
must not pass judgement on those who had these limited notions. Many
people today have notions of God which are quite as limited and crude.
Why is God called "Yahweh" in some
versions of the Old Testament?
Some modern versions give the ancient title of God as "Yahweh". Others
give this simply as "the Lord" or "God". The name Yahweh is quite
mysterious. Some argue that it means "I am" or "I am because I am".
Others claim that it means "I cause to be" or "I make things happen".
Some even claim that it means "I blow", i.e. "I am the God of storms".
It is an ancient and holy name for God. It is perhaps rather confusing
when used in Christian liturgy. But it reminds us of the Jewish basis
of our Faith.
Where do I start reading in the Old
Perhaps the clearest approach to the Old Testament is to start with the
history of God's own People. We can begin this quite simply with the
first book in the whole Bible, the
Book of Genesis. This is the first book in the five most sacred
books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch". The other four books of
the Pentateuch are Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Genesis was put together from
many pieces of tradition. You will read first the glorious description
of the creation of the world, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the
tragedy of the Fall. "Genesis" means "the beginning".
The creation story is not a scientific account of how God made the
world. It is concerned to convey the facts that God created man in his
own Image and that man rebelled and fell, passing on to all his
descendants the evil tendency of Original Sin. Christ came to restore
the fallen nature of man.
To understand Genesis properly, to appreciate its wise analysis of
human nature, we need to use a good guide book, for example, Frank
Sheed's Genesis Regained.
Genesis goes on to trace out the age of the fathers (the "patriarchs")
the story of the call of Abraham, "our father in faith", the ancestor
of God's own People. We see the chosen tribes learning more and more of
the God who guides their destiny.
What does "Exodus" mean?
The word "Exodus" refers to the journey out of Egypt after God's People
were delivered from slavery under the leadership of Moses. In the Book of Exodus we examine the
dramatic salvation act of God which is recalled in our Easter
ceremonies. Once free, the chosen People received the Law of God, the
The Book of Leviticus need not
hold your attention on your first reading of the Bible. It concerns the
ceremonial of the old priesthood. You may skim over many sections of
the Book of Numbers, leaving
out long lists of tribes and families, perhaps following the adventures
of Moses in the desert wandering. Come back to these parts when you are
doing deeper research.
The sober Book of Deuteronomy
("second law book") is the record of a much later reform of Israel's
religion. It follows a series of sermons given by Moses before his
You will find in it a rational re-statement of God's Law and God's
promises. Blended into it is a detailed code of social law, borrowed
largely from neighbouring nations. The key idea behind the book is
"covenant", an agreement in legal terms and obligations between God and
His own People.
Were these historical books written
at the time they describe?
Many scholars today answer.. No. Many traditions in them were written
at the time the events happened, or at least put into songs or poems in
the tribes. But it was not until much later that the books took their
As you follow the history beyond the five books of the Pentateuch, you
will find more detailed human records of events. The Books of Joshua and Judges show us
God's People taking . possession of their promised land and settling
into it. At this point read the small Book
of Ruth, set in those early days. Here is a romantic human story
of love and faithfulness.
The stirring age of Israel's high history is found in the four Books of
the Kings, known as the two Books of
Samuel and the two Books of
the Kings. Saul, David and Solomon raise Israel to royal glory.
Then the nation splits, idolatry creeps back again and stronger
neighbours close in on the divided People.
What was the Captivity?
In the eight centuries before Christ was born, the Jews suffered defeat
and humiliation under the hand of five great empires: Assyria, Babylon,
Persia, Greece and finally Rome. About six hundred years before Christ
the Jews were taken off to Babylon as prisoners and virtual slaves. In
the captivity experience the Jews found a renewal of their faith. The
Books of the Chronicles, Ezra
and Nehemiah centre on this
experience and events which came after it. Other books with stories
from the Assyrian and Persian eras are the Books of Tobit (Tobias), Judith and Esther. The story of Queen Esther is
a beautiful account of heroic fortitude.
The last great oppression of God's People before the Roman occupation
was that under the Greek empire. The two
Books of the Maccabees will give you the stirring story of the
Jewish resistance movement, with moving accounts of martyrdom and
faith. In terms of history, these books bring us to the closest point
between the Old Testament and the New Testament
Where is the poetry of the Old
The Book of the Psalms is the
central collection of the sacred poetry of Israel, hymns from the great
temple ceremonies, poems and prayers of personal devotion. You may
choose to read the psalms in a separate text, for example the Fontana
edition. Many of the psalms will be familiar to you through the texts
we use at Mass. They are also used in the Divine Office, said or sung
by clergy and religious. The psalms burst with life and rich emotion.
For many they are the most precious and living verses of the whole Old
The Song of Solomon ("Song of Songs")
is a poetic book of great beauty. It is a love poem which is open to
many different interpretations, as a romantic poem of physical love or
as a symbolic poem of the Love of God.
Who are the "prophets"?
Some of the finest reading in the Old Testament is found in the various
books of the prophets. The word "prophet" has many meanings, but
generally refers to an inspired representative of God, a man called by
God to remind his People of their past and future. Some of the small
books written by a prophet or his disciples are of limited interest,
but the great prophets of Israel still speak to us today. A good
commentary or footnotes will tell you when the particular prophet lived
Perhaps the greatest of the prophets was Isaiah. Today we know that the great
book of Isaiah really falls into three sections, perhaps even written
by three different men. 'First Isaiah', chapters 1 to 40, is notable
for the great vision of the Lord God in chapter 6. 'Second Isaiah',
chapters 40 to 56, contains the mysterious Servant Songs, which
Christians see as a prophecy of Jesus Christ and his sufferings. 'Third
Isaiah', chapters 56 to 66, some scholars think, was written after the
great captivity, and comes to a climax in chapter 61, read by Our Lord
when he began his ministry. (Luke 4: 16-30).
Why are some of the prophets so odd?
There are some strange actions and words recorded in some of the
prophetic books. Jeremiah was
quite an eccentric. He went so far as to act out in strange behaviour
the fate that would come to God's People if they continued their
idolatry and immorality.
Ezekial had visions and used
harsh and shocking symbolism to drive home his message of disaster for
God's wayward People. In Amos
we find a man rather bewildered at the fact that God had seized hold of
him and made him a prophet. Hosea
used his own grim marriage experience to point out the unfaithful ways
of God's People.
We are well aware that these were remarkable men, at times 'fanatics',
but within their writings are moments of clear doctrine which speaks to
modern man. Hosea's marriage experience would be the perfect advice for
people involved in grave marriage problems. It speaks of "steadfast
love" and constant forgiveness. Chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah speak in terms of hope for
the future, of a "new covenant". The small Book of Malachi refers to a coming universal
sacrifice, to be offered "from the rising of the sun to its setting . .
.", a reference which Christians have seen as applying to the Mass.
What is the "Wisdom literature"?
After the dramatic tone of the prophets, you will prefer to turn to the
quieter books known as "Wisdom literature". These were written by wise
scribes, attached to a royal court or to the temple. Much of their
wisdom is not couched in religious language. They show us the
philosophy of the Jews, their reflections on life and its purpose.
There is great beauty and Christian meaning in the way the Book of Proverbs turns wisdom into a
symbolic person. You may think of the Church or Our Lady as you read
through the homely or profound sayings of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon. In the Book of Ecclesiastes (or the Preacher) you
will find a clear rational mind at work, at times bitter over the
"vanity" of life, yet capable of the great poem of chapter 3, ". . . a
time to be born, and a time to die . . .". The homely adages of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) show a more
practical and less subtle approach to life.
Of all the books in the Bible the most difficult and disturbing, in my
opinion, is the Book of Job.
Set in the days of the patriarchs, but apparently written later in its
final form, Job approaches the problem of suffering in terms of God and
man. Does he provide an answer? You will not be able to see the answer
unless you persevere with Job. You will need a commentary or notes to
read Job, and then the whole book may prove tiresome. In the end it
will be rewarding. Some have started by disliking Job intensely, but
ultimately seeing it as the cream of the Old Testament.
For Christians, Job has a special meaning because of the interpretation
we read into Job 19: 25, "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at
last he will stand upon the earth. . . ."
THE BIBLE IN MY LIFE
We have covered generally the most important areas of the Bible. Even
if you only decide to read a few books of the New Testament you will
find that life takes on a new meaning. Certain obvious effects may be
Firstly, the readings you hear at Mass will start to come alive. You
will be thinking on the same "wave-length" as the men who wrote those
readings and psalms. This must overflow into your private prayer. Your
knowledge of Jesus Christ as a real and tangible Person will deepen.
Your reverence for God's plan in history and in each life will increase.
But don't 1 have to be clever for all
No. The person who comes to the Bible with "clever" ideas is liable to
stumble. However, the Bible in practical terms can only improve the way
we think, write and speak, for it opens to us a wonderful range of
language and expressions. Not only has the Bible helped form our
English language, it is also central in the life of music, painting,
sculpture and architecture. Just look around carefully and you will be
surprised at the truth of this observation.
There is a deeper knowledge available to the Bible reader. This is a
discerning wisdom, gradually acquired. No-one can open the writings of
Paul or the Wisdom literature without learning more of human nature,
our common dignity and weakness. In this we may learn more of the art
of loving, caring and sharing.
Has family Bible reading a place
Certainly - but let it be introduced with great care. Scripture must
never be imposed on anyone. The "Bible basher" is a terrible bore. In
the home he can damage the faith of children. But short, well chosen
and simple Bible readings should find a place in the Catholic family.
The admirable practice of the family rosary has faded in many homes.
Nothing has replaced it. At least from time to time a short Bible
reading could fill the need for family devotion. It could also
supplement the family rosary, where this continues. On major feast days
a family Bible reading could become one of those customs of the
Christian home which do so much to build up the Faith.
As well as the crucifix or statue, a gift of a Bible should come from
parents and god-parents. Special children's Bibles or Bible readers and
excellent modern biblical picture books are on sale today. The best way
to supplement and help the catechetical formation of our children is to
open to them the vivid stories of the great heroes of the Bible. They
should be as familiar with David, Paul, Samson and Moses as they are
with the depraved "heroes' presented on television.
After all this, why read the Bible?
This last question is quite simple. But it has a thousand answers, even
apart from the many practical benefits of Bible reading mentioned above.
The Church compiled the Bible library to be read with true
understanding. The Bible is really a mirror. In it we see ourselves,
for the chosen People who live and move in Scripture are the same
People of which we form a part today. Their pilgrimage is ours, in all
its struggle, agony, joy and victory. Before this great tapestry of
their glorious witness we may feel humble, yet grateful. But all this
colour and movement is nothing compared with the majestic act of God's
salvation in Jesus Christ. For us, He remains the personal centre of
the Church library, its one purpose, its beginning and its end.
Reading the Bible, each of us is confronted again and again with this
Person, crucified and risen for our salvation. His free gift of
salvation will become the converting reality of our life's journey. We
will happily claim the words of those excited disciples who encountered
the risen Lord on the Emmaus road:
"Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road,
while he opened to us the scriptures?"
GUIDE TO ENGLISH EDITIONS OF THE BIBLE
The books of the Bible were written in several languages - Hebrew,
Greek and Aramaic. There have been many English versions, becoming more
and more accurate as modern scholarship has advanced.
Two factors should guide the Catholic in choosing a good version for
(1) the authority of the Church,
(2) personal tastes and understanding.
The Revised Standard Version (Catholic
Edition) (RSVCE): a clear, simple and accurate modern version, slightly
adapted from the RSV Protestant edition of 1946, thus an ecumenical
text. Hard cover or paperback editions. New Testament may be bought
The Jerusalem Bible (JB) : a
fine version based on a French Bible, in two editions: ( i ) a
scholars' text with complete footnotes, (ii) a readers' edition with
less detailed footnotes. The New Testament may be bought separately.
This is generally a more complicated and less accurate translation than
the Revised Standard Version, but valuable for its footnotes and clear
setting out. Used in Australia for the Liturgy.
Knox: a beautiful translation
by the late Msgr. Ronald Knox, favoured by some for private reading,
not suitable for reading aloud because of its Latin-style of English
prose. Hard cover and paperback.
Douai-Rheims: the well-known
traditional Catholic edition, for those who appreciate traditional
Confraternity: an American
edition, not common in Australia but found occasionally in prayer books
The Revised Standard Version:
from which came the Catholic edition which is almost identical with the
The Authorized Version (AV) :
also known as "The King James Version", the great English Bible of
1611, famous for its prose style, but often difficult to understand and
at times not accurate.
The Revised Version (RV): a
conservative revision of the King James Version, made in 1881, dull
style but accurate for scholars.
The New English Bible (NEB) :
an excellent modern version, fully published in 1970. New Testament
obtainable separately and especially good as an edition of St. Paul.
Good News For Modern Man: an
American New Testament in paperback form, perhaps the best modern text
for clear understanding. Now available as a complete Bible.
J. B. Phillips: a fine prose
translation of the New Testament.
EDITIONS TO BE AVOIDED
The "translation" prepared by Jehovah's Witnesses, the New World version is very
inaccurate. Two well-prepared versions, the Moffatt and Barclay editions of the New
Testament, show deliberate interpretations read into the text, for
example of the eucharistic words of Our Lord.
The serious reader who wishes to pursue close study of the Bible should
use the Catholic Commentary,
the Jerome Biblical Commentary
or the New Catholic Commentary,
together with J. McKenzie's Dictionary
of the Bible. Of non-Catholic commentaries, the best is the new
edition of Peake. These
commentaries provide reading lists of current studies in the theology
and analysis of Scripture.
BERNARD O'CONNOR, Diocesan Censor.
+ J. R. KNOX,
Archbishop of Melbourne.
8th September, 1970