‘Because the Bible says’ is not enough

Many intelligent people think it is enough to find in the Bible the correct quote for some ethical question. But even Shakespeare noted that the devil can quote Scripture for his purposes. This is what we see when Jesus is tempted immediately after God speaks from heaven at his baptism to declare that Jesus is his son. The devil was listening.

Generally we are to read Scripture as an evolving document, proceeding from primitive times to those of the Lord. Some of the Old Testament prohibitions and commands come from an early culture which yields to a later one. New Testament injunctions sometimes even reverse those from the Hebrew Scriptures. The most famous and most influential was the serious imperative of circumcision. We know that Paul, a truly zealous Pharisee fully intent on maintaining the Law of Moses, called for an end to this requirement when conservative Jewish Christians demanded that gentile Christian converts be circumcised. The presupposition was that to become a disciple of Jesus, they had to first become Jews. Let’s look at a mere sampling of how Jewish law has been changed in Christian times. This list is hardly complete.

Abraham is allowed slaves (Gn 24, 35) and several wives (Gn 25, 1). God commands the tearing down of non-Israelite forms of worship (Ex 34, 13). God demands the sacrifice of every firstborn animal (Ex 34, 19f). Because of the cruelty of boiling a kid in its own mother’s milk, the elaborate practice of kosher cooking was mandatory (Ex 34, 26). God requires that violators of the Sabbath be executed (Ex 35, 2). Hygienic concerns necessitated elaborate cleansing after human contact with a carcass (Lv 5, 2ff). Israelite priests are barred from wine or any strong drink (Lv 10, 9). Some food items eaten today like hares or frogs were forbidden (Lv 11). Women giving birth to sons were ritually unclean for 40 days and to daughters for 80 days (Lv 12, 2-5), as were spouses after love making, for the duration of the day (Lv 15, 18).

“…[D]o not breed any of your domestic animals with others of a different species; do not sow a field of yours with two different kinds of seed; and do not put on a garment woven with two different kinds of thread (Lv 19, 19).” We breed mules in spite of the first clause and likewise put aside the second and third clauses. We are enjoined to not cut hair from our temples nor trim the edges of beards since pagan neighbors gave religious significance to these actions (Lv 19, 27). Cursing ones parents warrants death (Lv 20, 9). “The [Hebrew] priest shall marry a virgin (Lv 21, 13).” A blasphemer is to be stoned to death (Lv 24, 16).

These and many other of the 613 prescriptions of the Law of Moses, the Torah, have been subject to change over the centuries. How then are we to read Scripture, since we know it is God’s inspired word to us? We Catholics invoke sacred tradition, out of which developed both Testaments. In other words, before anything biblical was written, there was a constant handing on (tradire in Latin) of the people’s beliefs and morals, from older to younger. It shocks some to learn that the Gospels were written down in their final form at least 40 years after the death of Jesus. John’s was finished about 100 A.D. or even later. So in that interim, Christian disciples handed on the tradition of the earliest church’s beliefs, from which the evangelists drew their sources. Likewise in the Old Testament, Jews held captive in Babylon between 587 and 538 wrote down in final form traditions already centuries old. Moses lived in the 13th century BC. Ascribing authorship to him of the Torah, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, involves understanding a kind of authorship very different from ours.

Our Protestant friends, following Father Martin Luther, invoke sola scriptura, by Scripture alone are they taught. But without tradition, how are they to transition Scripture through its evolving cultures to understand it in a way that helps them to live it today? Must they execute the many kinds of offenders specified by the Hebrew Scriptures? Must they reduce women to secondary status because the patriarchal society of ancient Israel did? Literalism is biblically fatal.

With our impending presidential campaign, it is timely to review the above since we can expect to hear partisan biblical misinterpretations given as facts.

Categories: On Behalf of Justice

About Author