The Collegeville Bible Handbook(Collegeville Liturgical Press, 1997)

IF A HANDBOOK is defined as a type of manual or other reference work offering information about a particular subject, then The Collegeville Bible Handbook fulfills that definition in spades. This handy one-volume edition represents a condensed version of The Collegeville Bible Commentary published by Liturgical Press.

The purpose of both works is to fulfill Vatican II's teaching that Scripture and its meaning should be available to all Christians (cf. Dei Verbum, 22). Whereas the Commentary provides popularly written but more extended analysis of biblical texts, the Handbook offers summaries of main theological themes and contents of each biblical book. The order of topics treated in the Handbook follows that of the Commentary to facilitate cross-referencing of covered material.

That the Handbook is a condensation of the Commentary ensures use of the most recent advances in critical Catholic exegetical scholarship. Many highly respected contemporary Catholic exegetes (e.g., Daniel Harrington SJ, Richard Clifford SJ, Alice Laffey, Pheme Perkins, Lawrence Boadt CSP, John Collins, etc.) contributed to the Commentary. Their scholarship, which employs the newest advances in history, archaeology, and literary criticism helps to establish more clearly the Ancient Near Eastern cultural environment out of which the Bible grew. This carries out the dictates of Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which requires Catholic exegetes to use appropriate ancillary sciences to discern the underlying theological message of Sacred Scripture.

The table of contents provides a multi-color legend that seeks to identify broadly the differing sections (or literary genre) of each book. This same color coded legend is used at the top of each page of the text so that one can recognize—broadly speaking— the type of literature each biblical book represents. Some of the colors are, unfortunately, too similar (e.g., the red of the New Testament historical books and the maroon of the Pauline and Catholic epistles) to make quick identification of literary type.

There are 70 short chapters with a brief (two-page) general index at the end. Each chapter contains an introductory explanation of the biblical book or books (e.g., 1 & 2 Samuel, Kings, Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are treated together, as are Ezekiel and Daniel) and that situates it in historical context, identifies the source or literary genre, and main theological themes. Following the introduction is the commentary section that is subdivided into parts identified by chapter and verse. The specific chapter being addressed is cited at the top of each page which is extremely helpful in skimming the handbook for particular biblical texts. Spread throughout the text are many helpful maps, timelines, artist's renditions (e.g., of Solomon's Temple, etc.), and photographs, all of which bring the biblical text alive. They also underscore the fundamental theological truth that Christianity's foundation is in fact historical; God acts in human history bringing his providential plan of salvation to completion.

The Handbook is written in terms easily understandable by the non-specialist. In this way it educates laypeople about the Bible's historical, religious, and cultural background and combats the errors of fundamentalism, which interprets the text literally.

Prior to the Enlightenment (17th century) the entire Bible was taken as literally and historically true. Given its divine inspiration, the Bible does relate divine truth, but it does so using many human writers (Scripture's secondary authors), who express themselves differently and recount truth in different ways.

Instructing laypeople on these ideas is central to gaining a deeper understanding of the Bible and its theological message, as well as helping to dispel some doubts about faith caused by scholars’ misuse of scientific method. Knowledge, it is said, is power. Educating the laity empowers them to better hear and understand the Word of God.

In that way we might begin to reverse Voltaire's famous expression. “If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated [by making him in our own image].”

Understanding God's word enables us to live as God wants us to, and to let God truly be our God.

Stigmatine Father Pius Murray is a professor of Old Testament and library director at Pope John XXIII National Seminary, Weston, Mass.