April 27, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical truth expressed in many literary forms

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

At the time of Christ, the Jews did not have an approved collection of their Scriptures. It wasn’t until the end of the first century A.D. that they felt the need to formalize the Jewish Scriptures.

At that time, the rabbinic school at Jamnia decided that only the books originally written in Hebrew should be recognized as the Jewish canon. Since the common language of the Jews after the exile in Babylon was Aramaic, and after the military victories of Alexander the Great the common language was Greek, the rabbis’ decision eliminated some of what we include in our Bible.

For example, the two Books of Maccabees are not in the Jewish Scriptures, even though their great feast of Hanukkah is celebrated to commemorate the cleansing of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus as related in the First Book of Maccabees. The Jews retell the story of the Maccabees each year at Hanukkah time, but it’s not part of the Jewish Scriptures.

The Catholic Old Testament contains these books that are not in the Jewish Scriptures because they weren’t written in Hebrew: 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and some passages in the books of Daniel and Esther.

This is important for us because the King James version of the Bible favored by most Protestants also does not contain those books. When that Bible was published in 1611, its team of translators decided to accept in its Old Testament only the books that had been approved by the Jews back in the year 90.

All Christians, however, agree on the 27 books in the New Testament.

Today, since many of the doctrinal tensions that have long separated Catholics and Protestants have eased, some Protestant editions of the Bible include the seven books in an appendix or in a section between the Old and New Testaments. They call these books “aprocryphal” while Catholics call them “deuterocanonical.”

Readers of the Old Testament should be aware of the many varieties of literary forms in the collection of books we call the Bible. The prophetic oracles of Isaiah or Jeremiah are very different in literary style from the legal codes of Leviticus or the narratives of Exodus. The long lists of wise sayings in Proverbs are dramatically different in tone, style and theology from the sweeping liturgical poetry of the Psalms.

There are even four novels in the Old Testament—Tobit, Judith, Esther and Jonah—plus part of the Book of Daniel. This is something that fundamentalists don’t accept. They fear that admitting that the Bible contains fiction and other literary forms is somehow an attack on the veracity of the Bible.

Roman Catholic teaching, on the other hand, as well as that of many other Christian denominations, sees no incompatibility between recognizing the truth of the biblical witness and the fact that it is expressed in many forms of literary expression. Poetry, hymns, stories, myths and other literary forms can communicate both historical and theological truth. †

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