The Formation of the Biblical Record

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The Bible should not and cannot be simply identified with revelation. As a living, interpersonal event, revelation takes place or happens. God initiates, at particular times and places and to particular persons, some form of self-communication. The divine initiative achieves its goal and revelation occurs when human beings respond in faith to the divine self-communication they experience.

As such, the scriptures are not a living, interpersonal event. They are written records which, after the history of divine revelation had begun and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, came into existence through the work of some believers at various stages in the foundational history of God's people. This is to say, Catholics (and other Christians) believe that God's Spirit prompted certain people to set certain things down in writing. Thus the scriptures differ from revelation in the way that written documents differ from interpersonal events that took place and take place. It makes perfectly good sense to say with exasperation, 'I left my copy of the Bible behind in the London Underground.' But we would have a good deal of explaining to do if either of us were to say to a friend, 'I left revelation behind in the Underground.'

In the history of the Bible's composition, the gift of revelation and the special inspiration to write the scriptures were not only distinguishable but also separable. This is another way of illustrating the difference with which we are concerned. Either directly or through such mediators as the prophets and, above all, Jesus himself, revelation was offered to all the people. The gift of God's saving self-communication was held out to everyone. The special impulse to write the scriptures was a charism given only to those who under the guidance of the Holy Spirit composed or helped to compose the sacred texts. To be sure, the scriptures were intended for everyone. But the charism of inspiration was given only to some persons.

Even in the case of the sacred writers themselves revelation and the charism of inspiration did not coincide. Opening themselves in faith to the divine self-manifestation and remembering the revelatory events (e.g. the deliverance from Egyptian captivity) and words (e.g. the divine messages through the prophets) of the past was one thing. Being guided by the Holy Spirit to set down certain things in writing, i.e. the gift of biblical inspiration, was another. God's self-revelation impinged on the entire life of the sacred writers. In cases that we know of, the charism of inspiration functioned only in limited periods of their lives. Thus divine revelation operated in Paul's life before and after his call/conversion around AD 36. Around AD 50 he wrote his first (inspired) letter that has been preserved for us, 1 Thessalonians, and then composed his other letters in the 50s and into the early 60s. The divine self-communication affected the whole of Paul's life, the charism of inspiration only the last decade or so of his apostolic activity.

Reflection on the content of the Bible offers another angle on the distinction between revelation and the inspired work of the sacred authors. The Bible witnesses to and interprets various persons, events, and words that mediated the divine self-revelation. The Letter to the Hebrews opens by acknowledging the incarnate Son of God as the qualitatively superior climax in a long series of mediators of revelation (Heb. 1: 1—2). A wide variety of events manifested God's loving designs for human salvation: from the call of Abraham and Sarah, the exodus, births of royal children, the Babylonian exile, through to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, with the outpouring of the Spirit. Prophetic utterances, parables, creeds (e.g. Deut. 26: 5—9; Rom. 1: 3—4), hymns (e.g. Phil. 2: 6—11), kerygmatic summaries (e.g. 1 Cor. 15: 3—5), and, supremely, the words of Jesus himself serve to disclose the truth of God and human beings. When we read the scriptures with an eye for the persons, events, and words that convey and witness to the divine self-revelation, we will have much to find.

At the same time, however, the Bible also records matters that are not so closely connected with revelation. The language of human love and courtship fashions the Song of Solomon, which—paradoxically for a scriptural book—contains no explicit religious message. Alongside many lofty prescriptions to guide the worship and life of Israel as a holy people, Leviticus includes numerous regulations about wine and food, about the sick and diseased (in particular, lepers), about sexual relations, and many matters that can hardly be derived from some special divine revelation. This book, which was written under the inspiration of the Spirit and took its final form in the sixth or fifth century BC, contains pages of rituals and laws, which usually look as if they come from old human customs rather than from some divine disclosure. The Book of Proverbs records the moral and religious instruction that professional teachers offered Jewish youth after the Babylonian exile. The wisdom of the ages seemed based on the lessons of common human experience, and is in part (Prov. 22: 17—24: 22) modelled upon the Instruction of Amenemope, an Egyptian book of wisdom. Where religious faith supports Proverbs' view of an upright human life, Ecclesiastes seems to use reason alone to explore the meaning of human existence and the (limited) value of our life which ends in the oblivion of death.

Whole sections of the Bible speak more of the human condition and less directly of divine revelation. The fact that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit operated in the writing of some book does not automatically point to a high 'amount' of divine self-disclosure showing through that book. Some of what the inspired Bible records can seem a long way from God's saving self-communication. See, for instance, the story of a concubine's murder and the subsequent revenge of the Benjamites (Judg. 19: 1-20: 48) or Saul's visit to the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28: 1-25). Under the special impulse of biblical inspiration, the sacred writers have recorded such stories of human failures, sins, and atrocities—episodes that show how people failed to respond to God's overtures but which have little to witness positively and directly about divine revelation itself. In brief, an inspired record is one thing; its revelatory content is another.

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