Margaret Carswell takes us on an exciting biblical journey. Here she signposts what we need to know when we read Scripture, its genres, forms and various meanings.
When we read Scripture, we engage with sacred writing that has informed individuals, communities and whole societies for thousands of years. We encounter God who has journeyed with humanity from its beginnings, and who is, as the Bishops have said, still speaking. Although the Catholic Church did not expect the laity to read the Bible for some centuries, it does now, and that’s an exciting invitation. As we read our Bible this year how can we read it so as to best draw from it the life-giving messages that have energised and challenged people across the generations? Some principles, drawn from Church documents can assist us.
At the second Vatican Council, the Church reminded the faithful that that Bible was written by human authors in human words (Paul VI, 1965). The Bishops of England and Wales note that this presents a challenge for those who wish to read the Bible as a sacred text. How can we acknowledge both the divine reality of the word of God in Scripture as well as its human dimensions? (CBCEW, 2005). The Bishops caution, “Not to recognise the divine reality of Scripture would be to fail to venerate it as the inspired word of God. Not to recognise the human features of Scripture would lead us into fundamentalism, which brings a reluctance to ask deeper questions about the text” (CBCEW, 2005, 13). Simple inclusions in our reading of Scripture will help us take up this challenge.
Dei Verbum declared, with all the authority of a Council document, that being attentive to the literary form of a passage is not an optional nicety. It matters “for truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse” (Paul VI, 1965, 12). As competent readers, we know this to be the case. As we read our local newspaper, online or in print, our mindset shifts almost without our notice as we move through the writing: from the initial reports or articles to the letters to the editor, to the advertisements to the sporting section and even the obituaries. As the literary form of what we read changes, so does the way we understand what it is saying.
When we move to read the Bible we must similarly allow our thoughts to refocus as we move from one literary form to another. Is this writing a parable intended to tease the mind into solving an imagined problem or question? Is it a miracle story intended to highlight the profound change in perception and action that comes with the gracious healing power of God? Is it a poem or song intended to express the deepest response to a personal event or experience? Is it a speech intended to give voice to what an author wants to make abundantly clear?
While most literary forms are within the capacity of older pupils, we are at once blessed and challenged by the fact that most passages in the Bible are narratives. The blessing is that this means they follow a predictable, recognised, structure, one that teachers are well versed at teaching, even to our very young. From the orientation where we meet the characters, a problem develops which is eventually resolved. The challenge comes though, in that many of us use the term narrative and fiction synonymously, an unhelpful association which diminishes and threatens the truths that narratives convey. Narratives are certainly not reports, neither are they a set of instructions or an article, but, like reports, instructions and articles they carry within them a kind of profound truth that we are invited to find and own. We see this when the disciples followed Jesus, he asked them “What are you seeking?” and they said, “Rabbi” (which means teacher) “where are you staying?” (John 1:38).
Once we know the literary form that an author is using, we can then look for the kind of techniques they use to tell their truths. We can look for contrast, where one character, setting or action is juxtaposed against another. We can look for allusion, where something or someone “rings” of a previous event or person. We can find figurative language which flags for us meaning at a deeper, non-literal level. And we can find the particular ways a writer speaks of God. They may use titles (Messiah, Son of God, Rabbi) or metaphors (shepherd, rock, midwife or father), or personification (referring to God’s hands, voice, eyes and heart) to stamp their belief, front and centre.
For the Church, noting both literary form and writing technique is not just an exercise in investigation. It should lead us more clearly to a treasure that awaits us: “what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (Paul VI, 1965, 12).
Have a go. Luke’s Gospel is a good one to begin with. Begin reading Chapters 1 and 2 and you will see Luke’s use of literary form and technique. Luke begins by telling everyone about his credentials for writing using a kind of legal Greek (1:1-4); he then moves to a very long narrative of the birth of Jesus, (1:5-2:52) paralleling the announcement and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Into this, he places the speeches of Mary (1:47-55), Zechariah (1:68-79) and Simeon (2:29-32). If you fancy re-reading a well-known narrative, Luke alone tells the stories of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), the Lost Son (15:1-2, 11-32) and Zacchaeus (19:1-10). In each of these passages Luke will use contrast superbly, but he will demand that we do not sit idle in reading, leaving many questions unresolved!
Our world is full of mobile phones, international travel and debate about climate change. The world we read about in the Bible introduces us to Kings, Pharaohs, Pharisees and Scribes; to Temples and synagogues; to the mountains and lakes and rivers of far-away places and to rituals and customs of a completely different religious tradition. The Church affirms the Jewish nature of Jesus and the Jewish world he came from. Nostra Aetate and the family of documents that come from it remind us of “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock” “theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4-5, Paul VI, 1965, 4). In making suggestions about how this bond might be nurtured, the Church pays particular attention to educational settings warning that poor teaching about Jesus and Judaism is detrimental, not only to Jewish-Christian dialogue, ”but – since we are talking of teaching and education – to Christian identity” (Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 1982, 6).
A useful website is www.thebibledoctor.com – an online bible dictionary. Focusing on the Gospels, it helps explain the many people, places and events found in the Bible. Another useful website is www.nazarethvillage.com – a living museum in Nazareth, where first century Palestine is brought to life by volunteers. Images, movies and artefacts from the site provide a window into life in the time of Jesus and invite students to travel back in time and learn more about the world they read of.
Have a go. Choose a Gospel passage you know well, perhaps Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples (Mk 1:16-20) and, as you read it carefully, write a list of everything in the passage that situates it in an ancient world. Your list should include fishing (as an occupation), net making, fishing boats and Lake Galilee. Look these entries up on www.thebibledoctor.com and learn more about what life was like as Jesus wandered around the lake near his hometown.
Although we read them as almost personal utterances the books that have been gathered together in Bible were written for the community their author knew. We read through their lens, their understanding of life and of God. As we teach these passages to our pupils, we need to be alert to the world of the author and their audience. What was happening to them? What were the questions they were asking? What were the problems they faced? What did they wonder about?
You may be able to make the author visible by placing an empty chair into your room as you read their words, so that we listen, mindful that they are in our midst. Learning about authors and communities presents particular difficulties but a good starting point is to begin referring to the attributed author by name, and by not presenting passages by different authors side by side without due acknowledgement.
Have a go. Let’s tackle the creation accounts. The account in Genesis 1 (Gen 1:1-2:4a) is generally attributed to someone we call P, the Priestly writer. This writer seems to like order, structure and repetition. Most scholars think the account of creation in Genesis 1 is a hymn or song written to console the Israelites during a time of oppression in exile in Babylon. The repetition at the end of each verse, “and God saw that it was good” would have been easy for the community to remember. In contrast, the writer whose work follows Genesis chapter 2 is thought to be another person completely, someone who calls God YHWH. Scholars propose that this narrative, written for the Yahwist’s community who were comfortable, safe and enjoying a time of prosperity in the safety of their kingdom.
Read Genesis 1:1-2:4a and then chapter 2 and see how two writers share their belief in God through the action of creation. As you read, think about what each author might have wanted to say to their particular community to encourage them? What did they want to emphasise about God? Thanks to the work of an editor, we can meet God who is at once, both powerful and distant, and intimate and near, breathing life into us.
The Church doesn’t want us just to be able to retell or recall the words we read in the Bible. Neither does it want us to be able to analyse a passage just to demonstrate prowess. It wants us to know that the words we read in Scripture have meaning for every generation. I speak of Scripture as “meaning wrapped in words”. Our task is to unlock the literary form, the writing techniques and authors world and the setting of a passage so that we might get a clearer sense of what the author was trying to say. Then, we are better placed to bring that message to our lives so that we might hear the God who speaks to us, now. With the author “in the room”, a clear idea of not only what, but how, they wrote and some insights into the physical setting, we are on our way!
Dr. Margaret Carswell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Religious Education, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University.
She is the writer and publisher of the RE online resource, ‘In God’s Name’. She lives in Australia, but spends 4 months every year in the UK, supporting Catholic schools and teachers of Religious Education.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland. 2005. The Gift of Scripture. London: The Catholic Truth Society.
Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. 1982. Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/relations-jews-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_19820306_jews-judaism_en.html
Paul VI. 1965. Dei Verbum. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
Paul VI. 1965. Nostra Aetate. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html