I REALLY BELIEVE IN the importance of reading things in their proper context, as you can see in my Four-Step Reading Method for reading with understanding. This is especially true of the most important book ever written, the Bible.
I was reminded of this earlier today, when I read this article by Thomas P. Harmon on Catholic World Report, a review of John Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History. Although intended as a primer for anyone trying to get a sense of the Bible as a whole, Bergsma’s Bible Basics presents the Bible the way it has traditionally been read, not as a collection of sacred texts but as a single, unified book with a pervasive theme – i.e., the entire Bible is about Christ. This is the way the first Christians understood Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) and it is obviously true of the New Testament, which completes the story of salvation history.
Much of the exuberance of the early Christians stemmed from the extraordinary realization that the Scriptures had been fulfilled within their lifetimes and in their sight (one is tempted to say, right under their noses). Their exuberance is present in Peter’s speech to the crowds on Pentecost, when he points out Christ’s fulfillment of the promises given to David with a chain of references to the Prophet Joel and the Psalms (Acts 2:14-36); it’s also present in Paul’s speech in the Synagogue in Antioch, where Paul shows that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel from Moses to David (Acts 13:13-41). Christ’s words in Matthew 13:17 nicely capture the bewilderment of the early Christians that so many of their fellows remained unmoved: “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
I’ll get to why this message has been obscured in a minute. The important point here is that the Bible is one unified book, not simply a random collection of sacred writings. Like a novel, it has a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end; unlike a novel, the story it tells is true, although not every “chapter” (book of the Bible) is factual. (More about that in a later post.) If we think of the Bible this way, we can see that reading a single chapter, out of the context of the whole, makes no more sense than reading just one chapter of a novel – we can’t really understand it, except as part of the whole.
By the way, we shouldn’t be led astray when we speak of “books” of the Bible. Before the invention of the codex (a book of individual leaves or pages, bound together within a rigid cover), written works meant to be preserved were inscribed on scrolls, each scroll being called a “book.” Lengthy works spanned several scrolls, or many “books.” Since the codex format allows entire works to be published in a single unit, we have come to think of a “book” as a complete work. But the ancient “book” was the equivalent of “chapter” in our modern parlance. (See my earlier discussion of the revolutionary advent of the codex.) Therefore, my suggesting that each “book” is like the chapter of a novel makes more sense than you might first think. Modern editions of ancient works still call the “chapter” divisions “books” (St Augustine’s Confessions, for instance).
To give this analogy of the Bible and the novel, consider, too, that Christians regard the Bible as having one Divine Author, who used individual humans as His ghostwriters. Each writer (Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, etc.) wrote in his own chosen style, but wrote what the Author wanted to convey. (Plenty of successful novelists, who have contracts that require lots of new titles in rapid succession, create plot outlines and then entrust them to ghost writers.) So the Bible is the book, God is the author, the prophets, evangelists, etc. are the ghost writers. What is the story? It’s the story of the salvation of Mankind and all Creation, starting at the beginning (Genesis) and ending with the triumphant wrapping up of beginning to end (Genesis to Revelation). Some bad stuff happens along the way, but the Hero wins out and vanquishes the Foe, and the story has a happy ending. God the Son is the Word with which the story is told, as well as the Hero of the story. We are the readers being instructed and delighted by the story, but we are also characters acting out our own little roles in the story.
This idea of the unity of the Bible — so important in grasping what God is trying to tell us — often gets overlooked today, and that is a disastrous oversight. As John Bergsma points out in Bible Basics,
The message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures was the bedrock of the early Christian mission to the Jews and the source of much of their energy. That exuberance has continued to be vital force in the Church ever since. But the message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures has been obscured in recent years. …
These days, lots of people learn about the Bible in Bible Study groups – but how many of those present the Bible in the way I have just described? There is, generally, an over-emphasis on the cultural context in which each book was written (“Bible archaeology,” I call it), which distracts from the idea that each “book” is really simply a chapter the whole Bible, the story of salvation history. This approach can be misleading when relied upon exclusively, and can prevent us from understanding the way Christians have always understood the Bible, as a book about God’s plan of salvation that has been at work in the world since the very beginning. This is a problem that Thomas Harmon points out in his review:
The underlying assumption of most historical-critical scholarship is that, not only can we not rely on the divine inspiration of Scripture to provide unity to the Bible, but even the individual books and parts of individual books are the result of random, subrational processes. We cannot, therefore, find unity in the books of the Bible even on the human level. The result is that, when the unity of the Bible is denied, so also is its intelligibility. It is no wonder so many contemporary people find Christianity unbelievable when a large percentage of those who spend their lives studying the Bible think that it is unintelligible.
This problem recedes from view when we return to the understanding that God is the author of this sacred story; that the Bible, although its individual chapters were produced by different ghost writers and composed in many different styles and genres, nonetheless follows the Author’s master plot. It is crucial that we know and remember this. Here’s Harmon again:
Without an appreciation of the intelligibility and unity of the Bible, history appears random and God’s salvation of men seems unlikely, uncertain, or impossible. The theme of fulfillment of the Scriptures is especially important now, during the Year of Faith and as the Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome is just completed.
If you’ve decided to devote more time and attention to reading and studying the Bible in this Year of Faith, you might try Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History, which follows the theme of successive covenants throughout salvation history. Another good book that helps the reader understand the Bible in the traditional way–to see it whole–is Mark Shea’s Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did. Read well, and prosper!