How to get the most out of reading the Bible

By Father Daniel J. Harrington| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Scripture and Theology

How did your love for the Bible develop?
I became interested in scripture as a boy. I stutter sometimes, and when I heard that Moses stuttered-that he was "slow of speech and slow of tongue"-I looked it up in the Book of Exodus and found the story of God's call to Moses to speak on behalf of God. In this way I found God in the Bible, and that experience has always been with me.

Then, when I entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1958, I started reading the Gospel of John in Greek, and I never recovered-it was such a wonderful, thrilling experience. I also got some very good advice from one of my seminary teachers, who said that scripture was the coming field and that if he were my age, he'd get into scripture.

There's a certain intuitive sense that you get from reading these texts in their original language that a translation really doesn't allow. To me it was very intellectually exciting, but it was also spiritually exciting because I could find in scripture a set of analogies between my own life and what is described there. You can do so many things with scripture-literary study, historical study, archaeology, theology, and you can use it as I do for preaching and teaching.

Is preaching about scripture helpful to you in your teaching and research?
I've preached every Sunday for the last 27 years, and it's important for me as a biblical specialist to preach to people on scripture texts-to ordinary people who don't have a professional theological education. I'm trying to give people a sense of what the text says, the historical setting in which the text emerged, and what it might mean for their own lives in late 20th-century America.

The Second Vatican Council started us on a very important road that we need to stay with: becoming a more biblical church, and that doesn't happen overnight. Actualizing scripture in one's life means becoming immersed in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus' life, death, and Resurrection. If we can stay the course with this Second Vatican Council path of becoming a more biblical church and use the lectionary, which is a means toward that, preaching will improve.

There's a lot to be said for a theology of the Word of God, which historically has been a Lutheran concept. I remember one day reading an article on the prologue of John's Gospel by Ernst Käsemann, who was a famous German Lutheran New Testament scholar, and all of a sudden the idea clicked. I understood the Word as an active, dynamic presence.

Sometimes I give a homily that I think is really good, and people are yawning and just not getting it. At other times I'll say, "Oh, boy, I didn't do well on this one," but people will come up afterwards and say, "You really spoke to me today." That's the Word, that's not me, and often a homily that's poor for some reason or other communicates to a group or to individuals where one that's artistically presented and wonderfully expressed falls flat.

There should also be an educational component to the homily-otherwise a homily becomes "my favorite idea" warmed up over and over again. Unfortunately, for most people their only chance at religious education is the homily. On the other hand, it is a great opportunity because people are there to be encouraged and challenged.

What do you mean by "actualizing scripture"?
To actualize scripture means making it present, making it come alive, applying it to the present time. The underlying assumption is that the text of scripture is not simply an artifact of the first century but rather something that can and does speak to people today.

One way to make scripture come alive is what is called lectio divina-divine or spiritual reading-and this is a very old way of reading scripture. There are four steps. First, reading or lectio: What does the text say? This step is basically about giving the text some time to sink into the mind and heart.

The second step is meditatio-meditation. What does this text say to me? Who am I when I come to this text, and what does it say to me here and now? It could say a lot of things, and some of these I might need at the present time more than others.

The third step is oratio or prayer, that is: What do I want to say to God through the text? I might want to say, "Thank you," or "I confess all the wonderful things you have done for me."

There's some division about the fourth and final step. One school of thought describes it as contemplation-contemplatio-that is, simply enjoying the experience of reading this text. Another direction this step could go, and these are not mutually exclusive, would be action or actio: Is there anything that this text is challenging me to do in my life? Is there something that I should do or stop doing?

Lectio divina is a very simple framework in which people can pray with scripture. It's something that people can do in 15 minutes or for hours.

Another good starting point for praying with scripture is the lectionary, particularly the Sunday lectionary. During the week, either before or after Sunday, you can make that prayer your own because the lectionary is something that is fairly limited and concrete, and it gets you into a liturgical rhythm.

A lectionary has a theology behind it, and if we use the scripture text as a basis for prayer, the theology actually begins to work its way into the person, both as a member of a faith community and as an individual.

What are other ways of actualizing scripture?
Another way of actualization is Ignatian contemplation, based on the method of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and this way really is a kind of modification of the lectio divina model. The twist basically is the use of the imagination. Ignatian contemplation asks the person to imagine himself or herself as part of the scene, to ask: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? And to identify with the different characters.

A third way of actualization involves preaching from the lectionary, which I have spoken of. One of the great achievements of the Second Vatican Council was the new lectionary. In the daily cycle of readings, we encounter almost all of the gospels within a year or so, and we read a lot of Old Testament and a lot of New Testament epistles. In the Sunday cycle, it's again a three-year cycle with the Old Testament reading as a kind of background for the gospels, the Psalms as a bridge, and a separate cycle for the epistles. The lectionary is a very effective tool because you see scripture's scope.

Bible-study groups are another way of actualizing scripture. There are all sorts of Bible-study groups, and it depends on what people want from them. Some want to understand the meaning of the scripture text, and so the group does a kind of study. Some use scripture as a starting point for shared prayer, while others want to include artistic expressionpaintings, collages, even drama in which you would make the biblical text into a dramatic scene.

What are the principal ways of studying the Bible?
Literary analysis is one. By this I mean using the literary elements we all learned in high school and college: words and images, context, characters, structure, and form. There are much more complicated systems of interpretation that people use these days-like structuralism and semiotics-but I don't find them particularly enlightening.

A second level of biblical interpretation is historical analysis. This can mean Old Testament background. It can also mean comparing parallel texts: in other words, other Jewish or Greco-Roman texts of the time that might shed some light on these texts. By definition, parallel lines never meet, however, so we're seldom talking about direct relationships between parallel texts. When you read something in a passage that sounds awfully similar to another, the first thing is to be cautious and say: Great minds think alike. You have to ask: Are we looking at a relationship of direct dependence or simply parallel lines?

The fact that people in biblical times were part of an oral culture is an important thing to remember as well. Books were few and far between, and talk was cheap. People had some familiarity with scripture, and they were intelligent and had what is sometimes called an anthological style. By that I mean creativity for these people was not saying something that nobody else has ever said; rather it was saying what everybody said but in a slightly different way. Old is good in this culture, new is suspect.

After you've done a literary analysis and a historical analysis, so what? Although I think it's very important to ask the "so what" question, not everybody has to ask it. There are people who study these texts in an academic setting who are not particularly interested in the so-what question-they're interested in these texts as historical artifacts. There are others who read scripture in a devotional way and get all sorts of wonderful and important things out of it, and they don't have to ask the so-what question either. But people who want to analyze these texts from a literary perspective and want to place them in their original historical setting can also ask: What's the payoff? What's the value of doing this? This means asking about the theological level: What are the theological themes of the passage?

Christianity is an incarnational religion-we say the Word became flesh and dwelt among us-a religion in which people from the very beginning believe that in Jesus' death and Resurrection they had experienced the transforming power of God. The circumstances, the place, the time are important because this is where and how and when the Word became flesh. So the theology of a passage has to be connected to its historical and literary contexts.

What would be a good example of the importance of studying the historical and literary context of a particular biblical passage?
Take Jesus' command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," which in the gospels is taken up in the Great Commandment discussion. The debate is between Jesus and his opponents, who say, "Summarize the Old Testament law"which is a standard topic of the time.

You've probably heard a homily or two that says, "You can't love other people unless you love yourself." True, but that's not really what was going on in the first century. What problems those people had with self-love and self-esteem and self-respect we'll never know. They didn't talk about these things back then. You have a culture in which things psychological are pretty much foreign, while we, on the other hand, live in a highly psychological age in which self-esteem and self-love are very important topics.

By having a sense of the historical setting of this text, you see that talking about self-esteem is not really a historical interpretation of the text. You see something of a different world where psychological values don't seem to be emphasized much, where people understood themselves more in relationship to other people.

The kind of values that were predominant in the Mediterranean world in the first century and still are to some extentthe idea of being part of a group that values honor and shame, of having a patron, the joining together of religion and society or religion and politics as opposed to the firm wall of separation between church and state-these are all things from a society that's very different from our own, and sometimes it's good to be challenged by that. There's a kind of cultural dialogue that can open up.

What else would we miss if we didn't know about ancient Mediterranean culture?
Take, for example, our image of the Holy Family. If you look in the second chapter of Luke, Jesus is found in the Temple with the teachers. What kind of social assumptions does this story raise? They don't know he's missing until they've already started out on the journey. Well, who's traveling? A whole bunch of people, probably, and the men are probably separated from the women. All of a sudden someone asks, "Have you seen Jesus?" "No, I thought he was with you." So, this story would imply an extended family.

Is the biblical teaching on divorce another example?
In the Judaism of Jesus' time, you had debates about the grounds for divorcequestions that were taken up from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and other places in the Old Testament. What happens to people after they're divorced? They go back to their family-if they'll take them back-or they're on their own, and life for a woman on her own was very tough. It was a patriarchal society in which divorced women were very marginal characters.

You can also see that in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-12 exceptions are given to the teaching on divorce, such as porneia. What does that mean? It's not the technical term for adultery, but it probably means sexual misconduct on the part of a wife. Another interpretation of porneia is that it's a marriage within forbidden degrees of kinship, that is, a first cousin. Also, in 1 Corinthians 7, Saint Paul says that he has received from the Lord no divorce, but what happens if two people are married, one becomes a Christian, and the other spouse doesn't want to continue the marriage? Paul says that person is free. So you seem to have another exception to the no-divorce teaching.

What do you do with all of this? Do you make the teaching on divorce a binding law applicable to everybody at all times and places, or do you make it an ideal that's something you should strive for but if you don't make it, that's OK, too-or is it somewhere in between? I think you can say with some certainty that Jesus' teaching was: no divorce. I think you can say with some certainty that his teaching was something that helped women. I think you can also say that in the early church, this presented problems for which exceptions were made.

What then does the church of the 20th century do? Different churches have solved this problem historically in different ways, but it's hard to know whether there's ever going to be a satisfactory way of tying this all together. On the one hand, you've got this great and high ideal, and on the other hand, you have realities that happen to people particularly in societies like late 20th-century America, given the individualism that's part of our society. That "two become one flesh" is a very hard ideal for people in our society to even get a handle on.

What would be some of the most commonly held myths people have about scripture?
One is that scripture has no history, that it just comes to us out of the blue, that it comes to us directly from God. It does come to us from God, but I would say indirectly in a certain time and place, and that to respect that time and place is important to understanding the text.

A second would be that this book can solve all of our problems. It can solve some of our problems-but as a friend of mine insists on saying, "It's not that kind of book." Rather it is a witness to early Christian faith and how these people experienced God's transforming power in Christ. It gives us a sense of how we can share in that same experience of God's transforming power in Christ. It's not so much an answer book as it is a book that can shape a character, that can form a person.

Was Jesus unique in his use of parables?
Parables are a "wisdom" form of literature, and the word parable can mean a lot of things. They're not unique to Jesus. The rabbis, the later Jewish teachers, had a lot of parables about God in which God is compared to a king. There are distinctive features about Jesus' parables, however, particularly his using the parables as a vehicle for talking about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom is transcendent, it's God's kingdom, and it's future. How do you talk about something transcendent, something that is divine, and something that is future? You can't use ordinary definitions, so you use comparisons, analogies, pictures, and parables.

Do Jesus' monologues in the gospels reflect nearly word-for-word what he said?
The speech materials that we have in the New Testament from Jesus are short. They're summaries or epitomes. There's no indication that he went on for three hours, but there's no indication that he didn't either-we just don't know. For example, the Sermon on the Mount: If anybody gave that sermon today, the audience would have a hard time following it precisely because it's too rich. There are so many wonderful things in it, you'd say, "Stop, let me think about that one." It is a summary of all sorts of teachings that are put together in one form.

It's helpful to remind ourselves that this was an oral culture. Let me give you an example from my own experience. I remember being on an archaeological excavation in Israel, and the people doing the work were Arab workmen. They didn't have a radio, so they entertained themselves by having one guy give a speech while the other guys worked. He'd go on for about half an hour, and then somebody else would give a speech. In a culture in which people do basically boring work, they needed entertainment, and they provided their own entertainment by giving speeches and thus developed a kind of oral culture.

When we read about Saint Paul, what do we learn about the context of his missionary activity? Well, he was a tent maker, or probably more accurately, a leather worker. He was surrounded by people who were doing their leather work, too, and what more interesting thing to do while you're filling up the time than have somebody give a speech? I suspect a lot of Paul's missionary activity was done in the workplace precisely as a kind of entertainment.

What is your evaluation of the work of the controversial Jesus Seminar that's making its academic study of Jesus?
Let's speak positively and then speak negatively. Positively, I think this group of scholars is on the right track in emphasizing Jesus as a wisdom teacher. For the Jesus Seminar, Jesus is a wisdom teacher and that's pretty much it. And so whatever isn't what they define as wisdom teaching doesn't make the grade. Jesus was a wisdom teacher-but he was more than that, and that's where I would part company with them.

A second thing is that they are bringing to the floor some texts that have been neglected, like the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas and the emphasis on the Q source, which is a collection of Jesus' sayings that is used in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. If you want to study early Christianity, you need to cast a wider net than simply what's in the official canon of scripture.

Negatively, many members of the Jesus Seminar are professors of religious studies-and the Jesus who emerges from their study sounds a lot like a professor of religious studies. One has to wonder if this isn't another example of people finding a Jesus who's a reflection of themselves. Also, the voting method of the Jesus Seminar-its members decide on the authenticity of Jesus' words by casting red, pink, grey, and black beads-sounds silly and even laughable. But I guess it's an American thing to do-to vote, that is.

There's a certain circularity here, both of goalthat is, finding the Jesus that they started out withand also of methodology, that is, using only materials that will give you this kind of Jesus.

Personally, I find people who are going in another direction more helpful, people like John Meier in his book, Marginal Jew (Doubleday, 1991, 1994) and N. T. Wright, who wrote Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1997). They see Jesus very much within first-century Judaism. They're both convinced, as I am, that we can know a lot about Jesus-not all we'd like to know, but a lot-and that it's important to pay attention both to what he taught and what he did. He has to be understood within the context of first-century Judaism, but he ought not to be reduced to that or made the prisoner of it. Rather, he's a marginal Jew or an eschatological prophet of Israel.

I don't necessarily agree with everything Meier and Wright say, but they're basically on the same wavelength as orthodox Christianity, although not everybody will find all they have to say orthodox. Their results are useful for theology, whereas I find the results of the Jesus Seminar really not useful for theology.

What kind of text are the gospels?
I wouldn't say gospels as a literary form are unique-because people in antiquity at least would have seen them as something like a biography. But people in the first century, it should be remembered, when they wrote a biography didn't set out to write what the hero did on a particular date. They were interested in these people as examples to be emulated or to be avoided. They were interested more in the significance of people's lives than in the details of people's lives. And in a sense, the gospels about Jesus fit this category.

What makes a gospel is the word gospel"good news." It originally referred to the summary of the good news-Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again-and only after these apparent biographies had been composed did the term become the name of a Christian book. The gospels are mixtures of historical, theological, and literary elements, and sometimes it's hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

What sense do you get in the gospels of Jesus' personality?
It's a hard question to answer because personality is a 20th-century Western psychological category. I think we have to be aware that first-century authors weren't interested in sketching the personality of Jesus.

What can we know about him in the sense of his interests and attitudes? Obviously, he was touched by a profound experience of God so that the kingdom of God becomes the central task of his life. He's certainly on fire with God. He sees himself as having a special relationship with God that other people can share.

He must have been an attractive person to have attracted disciples. We often think of the fishermen, the first ones called, as people who didn't have anything better to do, but that's not true. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee then-as today-was an important industry. These people had good jobs, and they had their own businesses. They had homes and people working for them, so they were leaving a lot. How attractive must that person have been to have called people away from their stable family situations and from their fairly well-paying jobs?

I think you could describe him as a person committed to his religious tradition, that he's very much a part of Judaism, that he's steeped in scripture and yet he sees in scripture something that is alive, something that is to be actualized.

I think all of his teaching showed a great concern and sympathy for marginal people-poor people, women, lepers, people who were suffering from various physical afflictions. What shows is a willingness to help those marginal people to share his experience of God.

Want to read more on Catholic biblical scholarship? Here's the full text of Vatican II's and the Pontifical Biblical Commisions.