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The curious thing about the Bible is the way it reads itself.
BY MARK SHEA
Part 5 in a series
The curious thing about the Bible is the
way it reads itself.
Modern and postmodern folk, having
talked themselves out of trusting Scripture so that they can more credulously
swallow whatever some dime-store novelist tells them, spend most of their
energy (should they ever get around to reading the Bible) fretting over the
most elementary aspects about the text.
So, if we propose to the modern
mind that Mark wrote Mark or Isaiah had something to do with the authorship of
Isaiah, this is often greeted with hoots of derision as simplistic
fundamentalism and the question “How do you know?” asked by people who, like
jesting Pilate, do not stay for an answer.
But if the National Geographic dusts off a piece of parchment styled by some
anonymous fourth-century scribe as the “Gospel of Judas,” it is taken as
self-evident that this piece of paper was written by Judas and that it, as the
saying goes, “shakes Christianity to its very
The authors of the Bible, however,
are not moving in such a topsy-turvy mental universe. Nor was the Church that
chose the books that we have in our Bible. They actually had a living contact with
the Spirit who inspired the Scripture as well as the community which wrote,
edited and collated it by the power of that Spirit.
They didn’t sit around fretting,
“What gives the Church the right to decide what goes in the Bible?” any more
than you sit around fretting what gives you the right to decide what goes in
your family photo album.
Instead, they took it for granted
that whatever they read in the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that,
what was more, it was all about one thing: Jesus Christ
and his Church.
This seems odd to us moderns, but
it’s a fact nonetheless. Ancients didn’t waste a lot of time wondering whether
Moses really parted the sea. They took it for granted that he had (perhaps
because they had more recently seen Jesus walk on the sea). Likewise, because
they had recently seen Jesus multiply loaves and fishes, they had little
trouble buying the story of the manna in the wilderness.
So instead of fussing about
whether the events of the Old Testament happened, they spent their time
pondering what it all meant.
Their big clue was given by Our
Lord himself, who assured them that everything in “Moses and the prophets” was
actually about him (Luke 24:44-47). Yet, of course, at no point do Moses and
the prophets say, “In 1,300 years, look for a man named Jesus to work miracles,
die, rise from the dead, found a Church, and ascend into heaven until his
second coming.” So what’s going on?
What’s going on, according to
Augustine, is that the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and the Old
Testament is only fully revealed in the New Testament. In other words, God
didn’t just speak to us using signs called words; he spoke to us using signs
ranging from people to miracles, historic events, clothing, furniture, and all
the rest of the bric-a-brac of the Old Testament.
The manna in the wilderness was
real and filled stomachs. But that’s not the end of the meaning of manna. If
you want to know what God was pointing toward, says Jesus, look at him, for he
is the Bread of Life (John 6). If you want to know why God used such a strange
mode of exit for the Hebrews escaping from Egypt, then look at the sacrament of
baptism, because the waters of the Red Sea that gave new life to Israel and
killed their enemies are a foreshadow of the waters by which we die to sin and
are raised to new life in Christ (1 Corinthians 10).
One handy tool for helping us see
these secondary meanings in Scripture is the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass.
Pay attention to the Old Testament reading and the Gospel. Very frequently you
will discover that they are connected by what the Church calls the “allegorical
sense” of Scripture.
That is, you will discover that an
image of Christ or His Church is hidden in the Old Testament reading and
illuminated in the New. That’s what the author of Revelation is getting at when
he speaks of a sealed “scroll” (representing the Old Testament) that cannot be
read by any mortal creature, but only by “a Lamb standing, as though it had
been slain” (Revelation 5:6).
Only in light of the crucified and
risen Jesus does the full meaning of the depths of the Old Testament become
Next week, we will continue
exploring those depths as they show us, not just Jesus, but our call to
discipleship in word and deed.
Mark Shea is senior content editor