Waking Up To the Real Nature of the Bible (Personal Reflections Pt. X)


I don’t exactly remember what I thought about the Bible before beginning its formal study the year after receiving my B.A. in Philosophy (1961),

Ironically, although I had been in the seminary all those years (since 1954) the formal study of “religion” hadn’t at all been central in. the curriculum.

Yes, we attended Mass every day (and twice on Sundays). And there were all those daily chapel activities and devotions: morning and evening prayer, afternoon rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament before and after meals, nightly Benediction, conferences by the seminary spiritual director, etc. There were also those inspirational readings I mentioned accompanying breakfast and lunch in the “refectory.”

But formal study pretty much concentrated on languages (Latin, Greek, and French) and normal secular studies associated with high school, on the one hand, and on the other, college courses associated with a Philosophy Major.

So by the time I began the formal four year (and post-grad) theological curriculum (1962) my understanding of such matters, including the Bible was fairly uninformed. I’m sure I thought the Bible was the very word of God valid for all time.

That began to change with exposure to the teachings of Fathers Eamonn O’Doherty and Jack Moriarity, both of whom introduced us to modern scripture scholarship which emphasized the history behind the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. They introduced us to form criticism and redaction criticism as well.

Form criticism made us aware that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. Literary forms found there include myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, miracle stories, birth accounts, letters, apocalypse, annals of kings, law, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, etc.  None of that, really, is history as we understand it. And if we read poetry, for instance, as if it were history we’ll commit huge interpretational errors.

Just realizing that can change one’s entire approach to the Bible. It did mine.

I remember sitting each day for classes in “Old” and “New” Testament in our aula maxima on the second floor or our Major Seminary on 1200 Brush Hill Road in Milton, MA. The entire student body – those about to be ordained, and the three classes behind them – took those classes together. There were probably sixty of us. So I found myself edified (and intimidated) by the good students among my elders whose questions and observations always seemed so sage, perceptive, and sometimes daring.

For a long time, I pretty much kept quiet. But the wheels were whirring at top speed inside my head. For a biblical literalist like me, it was all hard to swallow

For instance, I recall the day during our study of the Gospel of Luke that the penny dropped for me that the Three Wise Men never existed. It was all a “midrash,” we were told, on the part of the gospel’s author (whose real identity remains unknown). Midrashim, it turns out, are usually fictional stories meant to elucidate particular biblical texts or beliefs.

“Say what?” I thought. “The next thing you’ll be telling me is that the resurrection never happened.”

Well, that day never came – from the actual teachings of my Scripture Profs. But it sure did for me. So I remember one day screwing up the courage to ask Father Eamonn about it in class. I asked, “Is it possible, Father, that gospel stories about what’s called the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus were also simply creations of the early Christian community to reflect their gradually dawning consciousness that Jesus’ words were true: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me’ and ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst?’ In other words, might the resurrection, like the tale of the Three Wise Men also be a midrash?”

I awaited Father O’Doherty’s answer with bated breath. Perhaps my question wasn’t clear enough, I feared.

Well, the question was clear enough. Father O’Doherty paused a few moments. Then he responded: “No,” he said. And that was the end of it! He moved on.

Now that might give you the impression that Father Eamonn wasn’t a good teacher. Quite the contrary. I’m confident in saying that nearly all of my peers recall him as their most influential Prof during our four years of theological training. I agree with them. Eamonn imparted to us not only essential facts about the Bible, but an entire approach that stuck with us all.

In my case, his classes provided me better than any other a firm basis for what I would learn in Rome during my doctoral studies there (1967-’72). – and for what I internalized subsequently as I continued my studies with liberation theologians in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the  developing world. Of course, I’ll have more to say about that later.

But for now, I must tell you about Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. Again, it proved extremely effective. However, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find in the best treatises on pedagogy.

The other day, I was looking at the basic primary source text we used in his New Testament classes.  It’s Augustinus Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (pictured above). It’s the entire New Testament in its original language, Greek on one side of the page and Latin on the other. Originally published in 1948, its footnotes are filled with scholarly critical apparati. – mostly pointing up and evaluating variant readings of the Greek texts. I[n itself, that’s interesting. We were actually dealing with texts very close to the originals (none of which, it turns out, have survived. Instead all we have are copies of copies of bad copies. But that’s another story.)]

Besides the text itself, what was even more interesting to me were my notes in the margins of each page. Each was jam-packed with cursive scribblings in my smallest possible handwriting – so small, in fact, that I needed a magnifying glass to review some of them last week.

And that was evidence of Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. It involved (1) his lecturing to us each day reading mostly from his notes, (2) our transcribing notes as fast as we could, pausing occasionally for someone to ask questions, (3) Our transferring those notes into the margins of the relevant texts during out study periods, and (4) Recopying those detailed marginal notes onto exam papers in response to our teacher’s exam questions.

To me, in retrospect, that sounds pretty much like what the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, excoriated as “Banking Education” – where teachers make deposits into the “accounts” of students who subsequently make withdrawals at exam time to purchase good grades.

But here’s the funny part: it worked! Father Eamonn wasn’t a particularly dynamic teacher. But what he taught us was so interesting and well-organized that we learned important lessons from a process that seems like pure regurgitation. Put that in your pedagogical pipe and smoke it!

Ask any of my peers. All of us love Eamonn. And we remain grateful to him to this day.

(Next Week: a full account of what I learned about the Bible over the years – in two dozen points)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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