In Scripture, History Is An Arrow
BY MARK SHEA
August 20-26, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/21/06 at 9:00 AM
And Jesus said unto the theologians: “Who do you say that I am?” They replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.” And Jesus answered them, “Huh?” It’s hard not to empathize with that old joke when we get into the details of Scripture scholarship.
It’s easy to become intimidated by a question like “What is the point of Bible study?” Some will tell you that the point is to gain a more thorough grounding in the worldview of the biblical authors in order to penetrate the formative layers upon which subsequent Christological conceptualization was founded.
Others will tell you that the point is to decode the narrative strategies by which the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuterocanonical sources were redacted by later editorial hands in response to pressures exerted on the post-Exilic community by both internal and external political forces in play during the middle of the First Millennium B.C.E.
Still others will say that biblical study is necessary in order to confront the forces of race, class and gender oppression which characterize the Abrahamic cultus at its root and which can only be resolved by a radical revisioning of the sacred narrative.
The Church’s answer to “What is the point of Bible study?” is much simpler and uses much shorter words: The point of Bible study is to get to heaven. To some folk, that seems crass, crude and simplistic. However, it has the great advantage of being true, nonetheless. Jesus came, ultimately, that we may have eternal life with God. That’s where we’re headed. That’s what all this stuff is about.
Because of this, Scripture does something that is unique in the pagan world: It thinks of time as a line and not a circle.
The Jews conceived of history as an arrow, not as a wheel. Instead of a myth of endless cycles and repetition, the Jewish Scriptures speak of a beginning when God made everything. They see history as going somewhere. They look not simply to the past, when the covenant was made with Abraham or Moses, but to the future coming of Messiah and ultimately to “that day” when the Lord will judge the world and set it aright. Christianity inherits this view of “ultimate optimism” and teaches its flock to cultivate it.
And so, Scripture is found to
contain a fourth sense known as the anagogical sense. This three-dollar word
refers to the sense of Scripture that has to do with our destiny in Christ and
the images in Scripture that prefigure such things as heaven, hell and
purgatory. So, for instance,
Paul sees images of royalty such
as crowns as signs of our heavenly destiny. Similarly, when Jesus uses the word
Gehenna to speak of hell, he is, in fact, doing the
same thing, since Gehenna refers, literally speaking,
The reason for that is that the
destruction of the
But likewise, the Church’s survival of the calamity of 70 AD is an image of the Resurrection, of the hope of eternal life for the believer, and of the Church’s ultimate victory on the last day, when Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead.
Scripture, said St. Thomas More, is a river that an ant can wade in and an elephant can swim in. All four senses of Scripture highlight this fact and help us see, imitate and follow Jesus — all the way to heaven.
Mark Shea is senior content editor
for Catholic Exchange
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