St. Augustine’s Approach to Scripture

In a letter to St. Jerome, Augustine comments on his view of the Bible, especially when dealing with a passage that is difficult to understand. He writes,

“I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.” Augustine, Letter 82, Chapter 1, § 3

What a humble approach to the Bible from a very faithful man. It would be great to see more people approach the scriptures with such faith.

Engaging the Culture: A Biblical Perspective

345px-ChristCleansingI recently had a conversation with someone regarding the Jehovah’s Witness position on the celebration of holidays. For those who are not familiar with the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they prohibit their members from celebrating holidays, both secular and religious, because many popular holidays have an apparent pagan origin and seek to exalt humans instead of God. A quick keyword search on their website provides a breakdown of their claims against specific holidays.

I mention the Jehovah’s Witness position not because I wish to debate the origin of any holiday or festive practice, but because it reflects a bigger and more important issue at hand. The overarching theme behind this issue is the relationship between culture and faith. How can we, as Christians, engage the culture while effectively and faithfully proclaiming the gospel? Are we able to find any points of contact between a culture and the gospel while evangelizing and catechizing?

The Jehovah’s Witness position on these questions is a strict one. Anything originating from pagan customs is automatically and permanently unclean. However, what does the Bible tell us? Are there elements in non-Christian cultures that can act as a springboard for evangelization? (continue reading…)

The Miracle of Sharing? (Jn 6:5-15)

Several months ago, I attended the Northwest Regional Catholic Stewardship Conference in Vancouver, WA. The purpose of the conference was to teach parish ministers effective techniques to develop a healthy atmosphere of stewardship in their local communities. For the most part, the conference succeeded in its goal by offering great pastoral advice and practical strategies. However, in an attempt to make a relevant connection between the life of Jesus and the Christian vocation of being good stewards, the first keynote speaker made a grave error in her interpretation of Jn 6:5-15. Here is the biblical text:

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself. (RSV)

After referencing this passage, the keynote speaker made a comment I did not expect to hear in that particular setting. To the best of my memory and paraphrasing ability, she said,

“Can you imagine Jesus miraculously dividing five loaves and two fish in order to feed five thousand people? What would that look like? Are we supposed to imagine that he kept pulling loaves and fish out of a bag? No, the narrative is not saying that Jesus miraculously produced more bread and fish. What really happened is Jesus encouraged everyone to share and be stewards to each other. In the end, once everyone had shared, there was a surplus remaining.”

This was not the first time that I have heard this claim. In fact, this is a fairly common interpretation resulting from a larger hermeneutical view that believes anything “miraculous” must have a non-supernatural explanation. With this post, I would simply like to offer a response to this particular interpretation of Jn 6:5-15 to demonstrate that natural explanations of the miraculous, which claim to be more reasonable and easier to accept than adhering to supernatural causes, often create severe difficulties in explaining the biblical text. (continue reading…)

Snakes and Scorpions in Joseph’s Pit?

During my studies at Hebrew University, I remember my Hebrew professor made an interesting exegetical comment while the class was translating Genesis 37. This chapter, which describes Joseph’s relationship with his resentful brothers, contains a rather peculiar statement in v.24. Here is what the verse says:

And they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty, there was no water in it. (Gen 37:24 RSV)

At this point in the class, my professor stopped our translating exercises and pointed out the apparent redundancy in the second half of the verse. “If the pit was truly empty,” he argued, “then there would be no need for an additional statement saying there was no water in it. Therefore, several Jewish rabbis claim the pit actually contained snakes and scorpions at the bottom.” As my roommate and I walked back to our dorm after class, we discussed this statement and tried to wrap our heads around how one can make the exegetical leap from an empty pit with no water to a pit containing snakes and scorpions.

As it turns out, this interpretation comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Here is the relevant text in English from Shabbat 22a:

R. Kahana also said, R. Nathan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanḥum’s name: Why is it written, and the pit was empty, there was no water in it? From the implication of what is said, ‘and the pit was empty’, do I not know that there was no water in it; what then is taught by, ‘there was no water in it’? There was no water, yet there were snakes and scorpions in it.[1]

The Midrashim also mentions this idea: (continue reading…)

Genesis 2:4a & 2:4b

If you have ever spent time studying the creation stories in Genesis or comparing different outlines of the book, you may have noticed some disagreements about when the first creation story ends and when the second creation story begins. Some scholars claim the first creation account concludes with Gen 2:3, while others assert that the narrative extends to Gen 2:4a. The confusion comes from Gen 2:4, which combines grammatical elements normally associated with two distinct sources: P and J. Here is the verse:

אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם ביום עשות יהוה אלהים ארץ ושמים 

What is of particular interest is that v.4a uses language often connected with P, such as the תולדות formula and the use of the verb ברא, while v.4b seems characteristic to J due to its use of the divine name יהוה. For this reason, many scholars conclude that the P creation account extends into and ends with v.4a.

On the other hand, several other scholars point out that the division of v.4 between two sources is not without difficulties. For example, the term תולדות, which occurs several times in Genesis, usually refers to the narrative that follows the phrase and not to the preceding text. Therefore, it would appear to some that v.4a is actually the start of a distinct creation narrative.

While the arguments continue with several other points and counterpoints, it is fascinating to notice the chiastic structure of v.4 that links the two creation accounts together. Here is a visual breakdown of the verse:  (continue reading…)