April 20, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Why Catholics should know the Old Testament

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

My wife, Marie, and I enjoy watching “Jeopardy!” together.

I can’t help noticing that when the category “Bible” shows up, it’s often the last category chosen by the contestants. Although the Bible continues to be a best-seller, it’s not the best read book.

I thought, therefore, that perhaps I should write a series of columns about the Bible. Not the whole Bible, but the Old Testament, probably less familiar to most Catholics than the New Testament. (I already wrote a series about Jesus in the Gospels and another series about St. Paul.) The World Synod of Bishops next year will focus on the Bible in the life of the Church so perhaps this series will be a preparation for that.

Let me begin with a quotation from Pope Benedict XVI. He wrote, “The New Testament is nothing other than an interpretation of ‘the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings’ found from or contained in the story of Jesus. … Judaism and the Christian faith described in the New Testament are two ways of appropriating Israel’s Scriptures.” The Old Testament is quoted frequently in the New Testament and the Gospel writers show how many of the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus.

Catholics, indeed all Christians, believe that through the Bible, God himself speaks to us. Although the Bible has human authors, we believe that ultimately it has only one author—God. He made use of the authors of Sacred Scripture to communicate revelation by means of inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

The Catholic Bible has 46 books in the Old Testament, including seven books that are not in the Jewish Scriptures. I’ll say more about that next week.

The historical part of the Old Testament begins with creation, naturally. Then it continues with the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the stories of Noah and the flood.

Unlike fundamentalists, Catholics do not believe that all of these stories should be taken literally. We do not believe, for example, that the universe is only about 6,000 years old. We believe that these stories are true from a theological or spiritual point of view, but not necessarily historical.

Firm historical traditions begin with the forging of Israel into an identifiable people, an event that began around 1250 B.C. Traditions about the earlier patriarchal period starting around 1850 B.C., through Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, the period of the Exodus and early settlement in the Holy Land, are sketchy since there were few means of preserving historical archives.

The writing of the various books of the Old Testament probably began during the time of Israel’s monarchy, around 1000 B.C., and they concluded in the century before the birth of Christ.

After the Jews were defeated and taken to Babylon in 586 B.C., it became important to write down their history, and many biblical experts believe that it was during that period that the various books were first collected, perhaps by the scribe Ezra. †

Local site Links: