Unlocking the secrets of the Bible

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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.