Unlocking the secrets of the Bible

Jared Staudt

The Bible doesn’t keep secrets in terms of deliberately hiding details from us. Its meaning, however, comes alive for those with faith, who can understand its supernatural message. We also can miss important biblical details by being so far removed from the original historical and cultural context. I previously reviewed a coauthored book, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, by the great Catholic exegetes John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, who unlock so many hidden details for us. They both have recent books that help us to read the New Testament through “Jewish eyes,” how its original audience would have seen it.

The Role of Mary, Mother of the Messiah

Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah (Image/Augustine Institute, 2018) draws not only upon the Old Testament to understand Mary’s place in salvation history, but also upon “ancient Jewish traditions outside the Bible that may have circulated at the time of Jesus. In particular, there are Jewish phrases, customs, practices, and beliefs reflected in both the New Testament and these extrabiblical Jewish writings” (195-96). This approach pays dividends, as Pitre shows how the New Testament draws upon the Old to portray Mary as the New Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, the Queen Mother of the Messiah, a perpetual virgin, miraculous mother of Jesus and the Church, and the new Rachel.

The book contains helpful charts that lay out parallels between Old Testament passages and those in the New related to Mary. For instance, one points to the similarities in terminology between Genesis’ description of Eve and John’s portrayal of Mary in his Gospel (29). Another compares vocabulary used to describe the Ark to Luke’s description of the Annunciation and Visitation (58). One fascinating chart looks at how Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be born outside of normal labor and its pains, but also how the pains mentioned by John in Revelation speak of how Mary shared Jesus’ pain in birthing the Church (144; also 146). The last chapter explores a lesser known parallel to the matriarch Rachel, looking at how her sorrowful motherhood of Joseph and Benjamin turned into a mystical intercession for Israel’s later suffering, pointing to an Old Testament type for Mary’s intercession for the Christian faithful (177). All of these parallels provide biblical support for the Catholic understanding of Mary’s role in salvation. “From a Jewish perspective, the idea that God would give a special place and power to the prayers of a living and sorrowful mother,” especially the mother of the Messiah, “is not only plausible but also compelling” (183).

The Historical Context of Judaism during the Life of Christ

In the Gospels, we meet two common sects of the Jews: the Pharisees and Sadducees. In addition, there was a third major sect, the Essenes, that do not appear by name in any of the Gospels. They are described in detail by the Jewish historian Josephus, though they did not receive much attention until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beginning in 1946. We now know enough about the sect to see how their unique way of life relates to many details of the Gospels. In fact, digging into the details of the prayer, ritual, and communal life among the Essenes sheds much light on the historical background of Jesus’ teaching.

John Bergsma has unlocked the important background of the Essenes for us in Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity (Image, 2019). Bergsma convincingly demonstrates, by using the scrolls, how many things scholars have attributed to later Christian developments grew more organically out of the Jewish context of the time. Topics, such as messianic expectation of a new covenant, the mission of John the Baptist and the gathering of the Church take on new light by looking at the Essene background.  Bergsma explains how “the Essenes were not the ‘parent’ movement of Christianity, but rather the Qumranites and the early Christians were ‘siblings,’ both born from the faith of ancient Israel, both communities formed to await the coming Messiah(s). In structure, liturgy, and theology, the Essenes and early Christians were remarkably similar, but they diverged sharply on a few very important matters” (226-27).

Jesus and his disciples seem to be in agreement with the Essenes on the following points:

• The central role of Baptism as a transformational experience.

• Criticism of the leadership of Sadducees and Pharisees, including their control of the Temple.

• Holding a meal of thanksgiving with bread and wine that demonstrates membership in the community.

• The indissolubility of marriage and the importance of celibacy.

• Celebration of the Passover by an older solar calendar, versus the lunar calendar followed by the Temple leadership (which explains the apparent discrepancy in dating the Last Supper in the Gospels).

They were in disagreement on these points:

• The predominate focus on men in Qumran’s membership.

• The need for complex ritual purity and the extreme importance of this purity in Essene life.

• The inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant brought by Jesus.

• The identity of the Messiah (as both priest and king in the line of Melchizedek) as found in Jesus, the Son of God.

Bergsma’s book is eye opening, showing how Jesus both fulfilled the expectations of many Jews of his day and also transcended their hopes by giving his divine life for our salvation.

The Enduring Significance of the Ten Commandments

Bergsma also notes how the Qumran scrolls help us to interpret Paul in relation to the controversial point of “works of the law.” Paul speaks of salvation through faith rather than works of the law, leading Luther and other Protestant interpreters to reject the necessity of good works for salvation. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide the only other ancient reference to “works of the law” and, in their text, the term pertains to issues related “either ritual cleanliness or liturgical regulation. Nothing pertains to the Ten Commandments or the moral law” (213). Bergsma points to scriptural evidence that Paul meant the same: circumcision and dietary laws cannot lead to salvation. He comments, “If Paul were arguing against the need for ‘good works’ in the life of a Christian, then he would object to people doing acts of love or mercy in order to try to be saved—something he never does” (214).

In addition to this crucial historical context, another recent book, Father Brian Thomas Mullady’s The Decalogue Decoded: What You Never Learned about the Ten Commandments (EWTN, 2019), provides a more theological reflection on why we need the commandments. Father Mullady also demonstrates the continuity of Israel and the Christian life: “The First Commandment is the foundation stone of the community of Israel, and indeed of man himself. . . . The Commandments, though generally framed in terms of prohibitions, are really about this: our dignity and the relationship of love that God offers us” (15). Both Testaments focus on the centrality of a loving relationship with God. Certain things like ritual purity have lost their original purpose, but others, like the commandments, continue to frame how we relate to God, giving him and our neighbor the love and respect they deserve. Following the path of the commandments deepens human dignity and allows us to enter into true happiness. The commandments are all “about rediscovering the image of God in man—in you. . . . The Ten Commandments offer us nothing less than the code to unlocking the full potential of our humanity by restoring the integrity of all the powers God has given us” (117).

All of these books unlock the meaning of Scripture for us, not just by providing us information, but by helping us to relate to Jesus and Mary and to walk with them in faithfulness.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.