THE BIBLE GOD’S LIVING WORD
Many Christian sects refer to the Bible for all their choices. It is normal to hear their preacher say: “The Bible forbids the eating of pork.” “The Bible accepts polygamy.” “The Bible says that we must observe the Sabath.” etc. This is true. However, we cannot accept everything written in the Bible without criticism. We can, on the contrary, ask ourselves a few questions.
What Is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of many books written under the direct inspiration of God. It is divided into two main sections, the Old Testament, written before the coming of Jesus, and the New Testament, written after the coming of Jesus. The writing of the Bible took a long time, the oldest book being written more than 3,000 years ago and the last written around the year 100 A.D.
Why Is the First Part of the Bible Called the Old Testament?
The first part of the Bible is called the Old Testament because it tells us about the old covenant God made with Israel on Mount Sinai. The New Testament, tells us about the new covenant God made with the new people of God through the person of Jesus, who died on the cross on Mount Calvary and rose to life again.
What Are the Differences Between the Two Testaments?
The Old Testament presents an imperfect law, the law of Moses, while the New Testament presents a perfect law, the law of Christ.
“All the prophets as well as the law spoke prophetically until john” (Mt 11:13).
“Let no one, then, pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or Sabbath. These are shadows of things to come; the reality belongs to Christ” (CoI2:16-17).
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of them, it can never make perfect those who come to worship by the same sacrifices that they offer continually each year” (Heb 10:1).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt 5:38-39).
Which Law Should the Christian Follow?
We belong to the new people of God and so we follow the law of Christ. The laws presented in the Old Testament are not binding on us.
“We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, (yet) who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the Jaw no one will be justified” (Gal 2:15-16).
“I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification’ comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:21; see also 3:10-12 3:23¬25).
“Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they” (Acts 15:10-11).
“In the same way, my brothers, you also were put to death to the law through the body of Christ, so that you might belong to another, to the one who was raised from the dead in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom 7:4).
But Jesus Said He Did Not Come to Abolish the Law!
Jesus did not come to preach against what is contained in the Old Testament, nor to say that the Old Testament is to be considered abolished altogether. He came to perfect the covenant between God and his people.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17).
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).
So Why Do We Bother with the Old Testament?
The Catholic Church teaches that the Old Testament is needed to understand the New Testament better; to learn about the ways God uses to educate his people; and to know certain profound experiences of God presented especially in the prophets and the psalms.
To understand the New Testament better
The Old Testament is a preparation for the New Testament:
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”(Jn 3:14-15).
“Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die”(Jn 6:49-50).
To learn about the ways God uses to educate his people
“My angel will go before you and bring you to the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites; and I will wipe them out. Therefore, you shall not bow down to their gods and serve them, nor shall you act as they do; rather, you must demolish them and smash their sacred stones. You shall serve the Lord, your God; then he will bless your food and drink, and I will remove sickness from your midst (Ex 2:23-25).
“The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They served the Baals, the anger of the Lord flared up against Israel, and he delivered them into the power of plunderers who despoiled them. He sold them into the power of the enemies around them, and they were no longer able to withstand their enemies., But the Lord raised up judges to save them from the power of their plunderers” (Jgs 2:11.14.16).
To know certain profound experiences of God presented especially in the Prophets and in the Psalms,
“When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, Lord, God of hosts (Jer 15:16)
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Ps 119:105)
However, to use the Old Testament to confirm one’s teaching can be misleading, for the law of the New Testament sometimes contradicts that of the Old Testament. For instance, read the two quotations below and see the differences in teaching:
“You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you” (Lev 11:8)
“Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mk 7:15).
Does the Bible Have Truths and Laws Valid for Everybody, Everywhere and Every Time?
The Bible certainly contains the commandments of the Lord and it is the Word of God. However, the contents of the Bible cover many different things, and not all of them have the same value. In the Bible we may find: popular beliefs, old tales, customs, personal opinions, disciplinary rules and advice.
Popular beliefs are beliefs of the biblical period that mention scientific or philosophical questions that are now answered differently.
“The sun stood still, the moon stayed, while the nation took vengeance on its foes. This is recorded in the Book of Jashar. The sun halted halfway across the heavens; not for an entire day did it press on (Jos 10:13).
“Since the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement on the altar for yourselves, because it is the blood as life that makes atonement” (Lev 17:11).
“He Nephilim appeared on earth in those days, as well as later, after the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of human beings, who bore them sons. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown” (Gn 6:4).
“They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom”(Jn 19:40).
“Look at Israel according to the flesh; are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar” (l Cor 10:18).
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
Jesus told him, “If you seek perfection, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in heaven. Afterward, come back and follow me” (Mt 19:21).
“Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire” (l Cor 7:8-9).
It is clear that these words have not the same value as the commandments of the Lord.
The Interpretation of the Bible
We have already seen that the Bible, as we know it, is the result of many years of work. It took thousands of years to arrive at the final edition. It is clear that the sacred books represent the culture, customs and experience of the people of God throughout this long period. To understand the Bible, therefore, it is necessary to keep in mind certain important criteria of interpretation.
Why Do We Need Criteria for Interpreting the Bible?
We need some rules because of the variety of styles and the different ages of the writings that compose the Bible. We have to consider the text, the context, the connected texts, the novelty of the New Testament, agreement with the faith and the tradition of the Church.
The same word may have different meanings according to the time and place it is used.
To better understand the meaning of a quotation it is important to see what is written before and after that text. For instance, what does Jn 5:39 mean? “You study the scriptures because you think that in them you will find eternal life.”
In the opinion of many sects, this quotation of the words of Jesus means that one can find salvation in the Old Testament from before the time of Jesus. But if we continue to read we see that this is not the case: “These very scriptures speak about me. And yet you are not willing to come to me in order to have life.” Jesus clearly says that the Old Testament is not enough, we have to accept him to have salvation.
The connected texts
When studying the teaching of Jesus it is not enough to read a quotation; one has to study all the texts relevant to the point as well.
The novelty of the New Testament
The teaching of Jesus is not against the Old Testament but it fulfils the revelation that God made before the coming of the Saviour (Mt 5:17). Indeed, the teaching of Jesus sets a higher standard of life for the believer, not by abolishing the old way, but by completing it. This is why, when the New Testament presents a teaching in contrast with the Old Testament, the former is to be chosen. Read Mt 5:20-48.
Agreement with the faith of the Church
God is the author of the Bible working through the inspired writers. The books of the Bible therefore cannot teach two contradictory things. For instance, if we accept that God wants the salvation of all human beings (“who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” 1Tim 2:4) then we cannot believe in the idea of predestination, by which God has already decided who shall be saved and who shall not no matter what one does.
The tradition of the Church
The Bible is not a novel. Its meaning has to be interpreted in the light of tradition, i.e. the way it has been understood by the Church throughout the hundreds of years of its existence. The successors of the apostles, the pope together with the bishops, are the ones who are responsible for teaching the right interpretation of the Bible.
But Martin Luther Taught the Principle of the Free Interpretation of the Bible
This is a teaching which is not in accordance with holy scripture
“First you must understand this: there is no prophecy contained in Scripture which is a personal interpretation. Prophecy has never been put forward by man’s willing it. It is rather that men impelled by the Holy Spirit have spoken under God’s influence” (2 Pt 1:20-21).
A wrong interpretation of the Bible leads to mistakes, and this may happen all too easily through ignorance or weakness:
“speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16).
Why Does the Catholic Church Forbid the Use of Holy Scripture by the Faithful?
The Catholic Church has never discouraged the use of the Bible. The very first Bibles were compiled within the Catholic Church and approved by the councils of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD). The first printed Bible was entrusted to Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, by the Catholic Church.
Martin Luther, one of the founders of Protestantism and a man who was strongly opposed to the Catholic Church, wrote in his ‘Commentary of St John’: “We are obliged to recognize that the Catholics have the Word of God, that we received it from them, and that without them we should have no knowledge of it at all.”
It is a fact that the Catholic Church uses the Word of God differently from the protestant Christians and the numerous Christian sects. Within the Catholic Church, while individual Christians are encouraged to read and pray it, the Bible is also very important in the liturgy of the mass and the sacraments, and, of course, in the teaching of the faith.