I remember when I was in my first year at university, studying Old Testament, New Testament and Greek, how completely disenchanted I became with Scripture. Not in my prayer life, but for study. I didn’t know it then, but the faculty’s approach to Scripture was purely according to the historical-critical method and it bored me to death. Lectures examining sources and genres and fragments were painful to get up for on a Monday morning. And so, in my second and third year, I stuck to philosophy, history and doctrine.
Then, a few years later, I read Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. I can still remember the joy of clarity and understanding I experienced when I read the Foreword to this book outside one summer’s day. He starts off by explaining the indispensability of the historical-critical method (okay, okay, yawn…) but then goes on to say this:
… it is important … to recognise the limits of the historical-critical method itself. For someone who considers himself directly addressed by the Bible today, the method’s first limit is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method, and that means that it investigates the then-current context of events in which the texts originated. It attempts to identify and to understand the past – as it was in itself – with the greatest possible precision, in order then to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time. To the extent that it remains true to itself, the historical method not only has to investigate the biblical word as a thing of the past, but also has to let it remain in the past. It can glimpse points of contact with the present and it can try to apply the biblical word to the present; the one thing it cannot do is make it into something present today – that would be overstepping its bounds. Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit.
Suddenley, it was clear why my whole year of studying Scripture had been so excruciatingly dull – the historical-critical method was not enough! We need to understand the books of a Bible as a unity. We have to receive the final form that a Scripture passage comes in as the Word of God, and be less fixated with the supposedly more original fragments that predate it. Thank God, I thought, that the work of an exegete is more than just an archaeologist or historian as the year I spent studying Scripture suggested to me.
Now I am reading some wonderful documents which put everything into perspective. For example, try reading The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, or this address given by the then Cardinal Ratzinger to theologians in New York in 1988.
Our background knowledge of these issues as catechists (especially of adults and teenagers) is vital: we need to be able to answer questions about the historicity of different parts of the Bible, explain the dating and the historical contexts in which they were written which shed light on their meaning, as well as teach the divine-inspired “types” in Scripture – demonstrating that all of Scripture points to Christ and finds its meaning in Him.