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: Church and state partner to carry out corporal works of mercy during pandemic and beyond

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In times of great need and crisis, we find strength in unity and collaboration, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, this truth remains within the Archdiocese of Denver.

For many years, the Archdiocese of Denver and local Colorado government officials have found ways to work together toward common goals and better serve the people of Colorado, which often includes carrying out corporal works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. And through the COVID-19 pandemic, these partnerships continue to be a crucial part of Colorado’s and the Church’s response to those in need.

The City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have a history of partnering to support people in need. During the pandemic, Mayor Michael B. Hancock and his administration have worked with the archdiocese to safeguard the homeless population and extend testing for COVID-19 to communities at higher risk of struggling with the virus.

“These types of true collaborative relationships really make the difference because you can call on your partners [and] you have established relationships that are built on trust and built on true engagement and true focus on a mutually agreed upon mission,” Mayor Hancock told the Denver Catholic. “Catholic Charities and the archdiocese have been just tremendous partners over the years with us.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver told the Denver Catholic that “the Catholic Church is motivated to care for the poor and needy by Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us.

“The coronavirus pandemic,” he added, “has highlighted this important work and underscored the essential role the Catholic Church plays in fostering a society that upholds the God-given dignity of every person.

“It has been a blessing to be able to work with the City of Denver over many years to serve these vulnerable populations.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and the Archdiocese of Denver have partnered with Mayor Michael Hancock and the City of Denver in the past to better serve people in need, and they’ve continued those collaborative efforts through the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Recently, on July 10 and July 23, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver hosted events in partnership with Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello to provide testing for COVID-19 and a mobile food pantry to the local community.

“We have been looking for opportunities to be in the communities, to do the testing, to meet people where they are. And we recognize that Latinos and African-Americans in particular have been most vulnerable to this virus,” Mayor Hancock said. “We needed to really just make sure we took the opportunities for testing to those communities.”

Then, on Aug. 6, Ascension hosted another event in collaboration with the City of Denver where the mayor’s office gave away free backpacks with school supplies, healthy food baskets, baby products, feminine hygiene products and more.

“I am very thankful for Mayor Hancock’s collaboration to help the people of Montbello,” said Father Dan Norick, pastor of Ascension Parish. “I also thank God for the people in Montbello who are caring for each other in these difficult times. May Jesus be praised!”

Mayor Hancock said that hosting these events at Ascension Parish made sense because of the established relationship the City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have developed over the years.

“When you’re looking for who you partner with during these opportunities, you turn to who’s most familiar with you and who you’ve had a trusting collaboration with,” he said. “And it just so happens the archdiocese and the parish there have been the ones that we’ve worked with over the years. So it was very natural. It’s a place where people are familiar and a place they trust.”

It’s not only during the pandemic that this partnership has been fruitful, though. A strong partnership between Samaritan House and the city has existed for quite some time, and this relationship has borne much fruit over the years. Samaritan House strives to be more than a just a homeless shelter, providing education, life skills classes and one-on-one support for its residents to empower them to break free from the cycle of poverty and support themselves independently.

In August 2017, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver cut the ribbon on the first all-women’s shelter in the city. Called Samaritan House Women’s Shelter, it follows Samaritan House’s established model of helping those experiencing hard times find a way out of poverty and ultimately, bring hope to their lives. Each night, it offers 225 beds for women who are in need of immediate shelter.

Back in April, Catholic Charities teamed up with the City of Denver and took the lead on an auxiliary women’s shelter set up at the Denver Coliseum. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Back in April, in response to the pandemic and out of a need to maintain social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver partnered to set up the Denver Coliseum as a 24/7 auxiliary emergency women’s shelter that’s that was able to accommodate up to 300 women. Catholic Charities staff took the lead at the shelter with full support from the City of Denver. The auxiliary shelter has since returned to the regular women’s shelter facility, but this collaboration between the city and Catholic Charities was crucial as cases of COVID-19 climbed in April.

“When the pandemic hit, Catholic Charities had to find a way to social distance the ladies in its Women’s Emergency Shelter,” said Mike Sinnett, Vice President of Shelters and Community Outreach. “We also had to provide them 24/7 care to honor the governor’s Stay-at-Home order and triage for the virus. Working with the City of Denver staff, we came together as a shelter community and obtained the use of the Denver Coliseum downtown. We were able to better provide social distancing, 24/7 shelter with three meals a day and other amenities, including showers and case management.

“We believe this effort with the city protected our most vulnerable community and helped prevent the spread of the virus. But more importantly, we made it safer for women experiencing homelessness during this pandemic.”

Featured image: Father Dan Norick hands out supplies during a community giveaway event hosted at Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello in conjunction with the City of Denver. (Photo provided)