Catholics in the United States have been enriched in the last few of decades with a renaissance of biblical studies. The Denver Catholic Biblical and Catechetical Schools now enroll over 2,000 students. Many others have gone through Jeff Cavins’ Bible Timeline series or benefited from the many books and resources from Scott Hahn and his St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, including the Letter & Spirit journal and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. There have also been new opportunities for academic studies, such as through the Augustine Institute and Franciscan University of Steubenville.
To continue this renaissance, the first volume of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament has been published, written by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (Ignatius, 2018). This large book (1060 pages) is quickly becoming a Catholic bestseller, and for good reason. It is one of the best fulfillments of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a renewed Catholic interpretation of the Bible, rooted in the Catholic tradition and liturgical life, guided by faith, and which makes use of modern historical and literary studies. The authors help bridge a gap that largely divides the academic and spiritual readings of the biblical narrative.
The introductory chapter of the volume explaining the vision of the work itself makes an important contribution to explaining the proper way to read the Bible. It speaks of being “self-consciously both historical and theological in its approach” and utilizing “all of the tools of natural human reason . . . but unites them to supernatural faith” (9; 11). This vision takes flesh by examining major historical questions and issues raised by modern scholarship while also engaging the Church Fathers and magisterial tradition. For instance, it explores five different theories for why certain foods are prohibited in Leviticus, from Mary Douglas’ anatomical explanation to St. Thomas Aquinas’ liturgical view (212).
For each book of the Old Testament, Bergsma and Pitre provide a brief introduction, details on its literary structure and outline, overview of its content, historical issues raised by modern scholarship, theological issues, relation to the living tradition of the Church, and explanations of how it appears in the liturgical readings. In the sections on theology and the tradition, they regularly cite the Church Fathers, the writings of saints, and teachings of the Church, including the Catechism. Each chapter also includes helpful tables and boxes which answer common questions, such as how we count the Ten Commandments, as there are a few variations (see 179).
A Catholic Introduction to the Bible makes the sacred text more accessible by drawing out key themes, answering difficult questions and misconceptions, and drawing us into ancient history. The authors describe how “the Old Testament is in fact an enormous library of books that were written by human beings and gathered together over the course of centuries. Unlike many ancient books, it was preserved through time and continues to be the object of intense study up to our own day” (16). They help us to enter into this study ourselves, not only in its historic dimensions, but also through faith, which enables us to participate in its realities.
We can see this in participation coming out the book’s explanation of Exodus, which “recounts the foundational historical events by which God formed the people of Israel into a nation and entered into covenant with them. These events are commemorated, celebrated and sacramentally experienced in the liturgy of Israel as well as in the New Covenant liturgy” (199). Likewise, we enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through Isaiah, known as the fifth Gospel, “read more frequently [during the Mass] than any other Old Testament book but the Psalms and . . . rivaling the four Gospels in its frequency” (758). The mysteries of the Old Testament, though rooted in ancient history, remain living witnesses and guides into the realities of our salvation.
As part of our efforts to grow in discipleship, we need to continue the renaissance of biblical studies in the Church. If you have gone through the Great Adventure timeline or read a shorter overview of the biblical narrative, such as Walking with God or A Father Who Keeps His Promises, and you want to go deeper, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible will serve as a great guide. It’s very readable and engaging, even as it wades into scholarly questions. This weighty introduction will prove a crucial resource for entering more deeply into the Bible.