Thursday, March 24, 2016

Word Up!

            Since the end of January, I've been writing about how human beings wrote the words of Scripture as well as how they compiled and canonized those texts. Most people, I think, are aware of this reality; they recognize that the Bible didn't just drop from Heaven. Yet for some, there's still something a little unnerving about the human origins of something considered so sacred. How can we say this is the "Word of God" when clearly humans were generating and sanctioning these texts?

            To approach this, I must appeal to the Vatican II document, Dei Verbum. In 1965, the Church officially put forth this document (a.k.a. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) which explains the Church's long held – and sometimes not so well clarified – understanding of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It asserts that the Scriptures "have God as their author" but that "in composing the sacred Books, God chose and employed certain men, who, while engaged in this task, made full use of their faculties and powers..." (DV, paragraph 11). Now I'll admit, that does sound rather convenient to simply say, 'well God is still the author, but he used men kind of like scribes to get his message across.' If that was the case, you'd think the Scriptures wouldn't have so many embarrassingly violent laws, prophecies, and stories in them. But that isn't what Dei Verbum is getting at. The Scriptures were inspired, yes, but I don't think it means the human authors had the Holy Spirit whispering to them the exact words to write.

            One of the first things I think we need to understand is that God's Word is more encompassing than mere words on a page. God's Word is powerful. Consider that in ancient times when a king spoke, his word alone had the power to effect change. The king spoke, and schtuff got done. Sure, maybe the action was carried out by other people, but it was only because the king said it – as Pharaoh iconically says in the movie, The Ten Commandments:  "So let it be written. So let it be done." Likewise God speaks, and schtuff happens: "'Let there be light.' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3). God's Word is effective and creative! As it says in Isaiah: "Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth... So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11).

            Interestingly enough, I find that urban and prison slang has a better sense of the term "word" for our purposes today. In such contexts word can mean an "affirmation" (yep, mm-hmm, I agree), "approval," "truth," or "to speak the truth."[1] For example:

Me: That moment when Edith finally tells off Mary on Downton Abbey was priceless!

Fellow D.A. Enthusiast: Word!

            I would put a link to, so you can get an even better sense of the slang usage of "word," but there's some inappropriate language on that page, and I wouldn't want to scandalize my mother who I'm sure is reading this right now. (Hi, Mom!) You can type in the web address and can check it out at your own risk if you want, or just take my word for it. (No pun intended.)

            The point, however, is that 90s urban slang has its finger on the pulse of what "word" in the biblical sense is about, because in both cases it means more than just human language. From the perspective of Urban Dictionary, God's Word is like a resounding "Yes!" permeating all that is – "God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good" (Gen 1:31). God's Word is Truth. God's Word is positive. God's Word is living!


            Both the Greek and Hebrew terms for "word" have multiple meanings. The Greek word, logos – from where we get our word logic – can mean a lot of things: "reason," "divine utterance," or an "expression of a thought" being some of them.[2] Likewise, the Hebrew word dabar can mean a matter, event, or affair and also has a connection to reason.[3] God's Word isn't just the words that God speaks or those written down in Scripture; it's all of the reason, truth, thoughts, and ideas that are behind and communicated through those words. God's Word is God's self-communication! And what Dei Verbum is saying is that God used human beings, in a particular time and place, and of a particular culture with its own limited language, to communicate God's self in the Sacred Scriptures.

            Admittedly though, the fact that human beings were so closely involved in the process of divine revelation might drive some people nuts. With so much human particularity how can the scriptures communicate such an ultimate and universal message like the Word of God? But then – oh, and I just love this – this is precisely what happens in the incarnation, for Jesus is the Word made flesh (i.e. the Incarnate Word)! Jesus Christ is God revealed to us in a particular and limited time (early first century CE), place (Palestine), culture (Palestinian Jewish), gender (male), and age (I don't think Jesus lived much beyond his early thirties).

            One of the greatest and most delectable mysteries of the incarnation is that the infiniteness and universality of God was willingly emptied and made limited in time and space in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness... (Philippians 2:6-7a). So just as Jesus is God's self revealed in a human way (in weakness and with limitations), so too the Scriptures are divine revelation communicated in limited human language and culture. Or, as Dei Verbum so beautifully puts it, "For the words of God, expressed in human language, have become like unto human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like unto human beings" (DV, paragraph 13).

St. Francis in Prayer Before the Crucifix, El Greco, 1585-1590

            By the way, as a Franciscan and a graduate of the University of the Incarnate Word, incarnational spirituality is a particular fancy of mine almost by default.

Chapel of the Incarnate Word at UIW. Go Cardinals!

            I guess the bottom line of what I'm getting at is that God's word is fleshy business, and the Word of God is revealed to us in two very human ways: obviously in the human person of Jesus, but also in the very human language and culture of Sacred Scripture. Either way, though, the word of God is more than the words on a page. It is living, and God wants to write it on our hearts. As a biblical studies nerd, I am fascinated by all of the humanness of Sacred Scripture, and I'm eager to learn more about its historical, anthropological, and literary context. Yet for all of its human qualities and limitations, I do not criticize it as irrelevant or even dated. I know that the Word of the Lord continues to speak the Truth; It continues to reveal God's self. But in order to listen to it, I must look upon and accept the human face of Scripture, and, likewise, I must look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the human face of God.

            I know that this week is Holy Week and that it would be all the more appropriate to recommend to you readings from the Passion or Resurrection narratives of the Gospels.* So, if you have the time, by all means please sit with those passages! Of course, I also recommend attending the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter where you will also hear those readings. However, it makes sense, given today's topic of word, to read John 1:1-18. Yes, I agree, this reading seems out of place for Holy Week, but whatever. I've got to run with the inspiration I'm given. It's a short passage, but as you read it meditate for just a bit on that profound mystery of the very Word of God becoming flesh. Consider how God spoke through the Law and Prophets, yet finally in Jesus was fully revealed. Consider also how Jesus fulfills the Scriptures and is the very lens for interpreting them. Contemplate, especially as we enter deeply into the sacred mysteries of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection – what we call the Paschal Mystery – how these events in the life of Christ reveal God's grace, truth, and glory.

            As always, I welcome questions and comments on Facebook, Twitter, e-mail (, or in the comment box below. I pray that you all enjoy these high holy days of the Christian calendar and have a blessed Easter. I leave you today with the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians for you to consider the next time you hear the lector at Mass say, "The Word of the Lord."

           "We too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).


* Passion and Resurrection Narratives:
Matthew 26:1-28:20
Mark 14:12-16:20
Luke 22:1-24:53
John 18:1-21:25

[1] Urban Dictionary, "Word," last modified October 14, 2005, accessed March 20, 2016.

[2] Bible Hub, "3056. Logos," accessed March 20, 2016,

[3] Bible Hub, "1697. Dabar," accessed March 20, 2016,

Friday, March 4, 2016

Making the Cut: Where did the Bible come from? Part V

            Two weeks ago I wrote up a whirlwind tour of the books of the New Testament (NT) and just barely scratched the surface of who wrote these texts and when. The big question that has often been asked of me, though, is Who decided what got in? How did these 27 books become the NT? I'll be honest, the answer to these and similar questions is complex, but, since I'm ready to move on from this "Where did the Bible come from?" series, I'll try to be as succinct as possible. (I hear a sigh of relief.)

            First, a couple of things to keep in mind:

1.) Faith in Jesus Christ preceded the writings of the NT.

2.) The Church, (i.e. the community of believers and followers of Christ) existed before the Christian Scriptures were composed.

3.) Most, if not all of the books of the NT were written for audiences that already believed that Jesus was the Christ – albeit, these audiences probably needed some theological clarification about their beliefs and how they should live, which is what prompted many of the NT writings to begin with.

            A fine example of some of the above points are the early Christian hymns and creedal statements that were incorporated into the Scriptures. If you take a look at Philippians 2:6-11 (one of my favorite passages in Scripture, by the way) you have what appears to be a hymn about Christ that was possibly used in community worship. What it says about Jesus is so fitting and true, that Paul integrates it into his letter to the Philippians. Whether it was sung or not is beside the point, but try to imagine this as a song, short and catchy enough for people to learn it and sing it by memory. Of course, memories were probably a lot more adept back then because people didn't have buttons, phones, and Google remembering everything for them. Thus a profound truth about Christ issued from the community of believers and was passed down orally through this lyrical poem before it ever became "Scripture" as we know it today. In effect, this Truth was handed down to believers through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by means of *drum roll* Sacred Tradition.

GIF from

            The Catholic rebuttal to Martin Luther's insistence on "Scripture alone" is that both Scripture and Tradition "form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."[1] But what is Sacred Tradition anyway? Let me be quite clear that it is not customs or disciplines in the Church –like not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Those things are "traditions" with a lower-case 't' and have little to do with essential beliefs and teachings of the Church. Just remember that if you accidently eat meat on Friday this Lent. Rather, Sacred Tradition is that "living transmission" of the word of God "accomplished in the Holy Spirit" through the Apostles and their successors, which "includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God."[2] Basically, it's the faith and Truth in which the Church believes that has been passed down orally by the Apostles and their successors.

            Why this lengthy – and somewhat boring – tangent about Sacred Tradition? (Bless you, by the way, if you're still reading.) It's because the composition of the NT and the selection of which books became canonized rests on this issue of Tradition. Sacred Scripture and Tradition are not opposed to or in competition with one another. That would be ridiculous! Rather the two inform and complement one another. Tradition is informed by the written Word, and Scripture was written as a result of oral transmissions of the faith and is interpreted in light of Tradition. It's like love and marriage... that go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell you brother: you can't have one without the other. Thank you Frank Sinatra.

            So as I mentioned in the last post, the earliest NT writings were the letters of Paul. Such writings, though some were intended for particular audiences, were shared among many other local church communities. Moreover, like the Torah and Prophets, which were obviously considered sacred by the early Church, these Christian writings were read aloud in liturgy when the community came together for worship. Likewise, the Gospels and the other NT writings were used in this way, and many of them were cited by leaders in the early Church in their own letters.

            According to Luke Timothy Johnson – without whose book, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, this post would not be possible (gotta give props where props are due, folks), "As writings were exchanged, local churches began to build collections that were more extensive than those written specifically to them."[3]  Eventually, local churches within the catholic (and by catholic I mean universal) Church had collections of Christian writings; some books of which were common to most local churches, but other books were favored by a minority. So while some of these collections agreed on certain books, like the letters of Paul, they differed on others.

            Surprisingly, however, evidence shows that within the early Church there was actually a great deal of agreement on which Christian writings were considered sacred. An early Latin document known as the Muratorian Fragment contains a list of canonical books that includes the four Gospels and Acts, the letters of Paul, the first two letters of John, the letter of Jude, and Revelation. While it leaves out some books from today's canon (3 John, 1 & 2 Peter, James, and Hebrews), it also included some books that are not in our NT: for example, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas. (Ever hear of these books?) However, it concedes that the Shepherd of Hermas should not be read in worship, and it was debatable as to whether the Apocalypse of Peter should be or not.[4]

Image from

            In a roundabout way I have so far hinted at some of the criteria the early Church deferred to in the complex and lengthy process of selecting which Christian writings would be part of Scripture. Here are some of the standards that influenced the canonization process.

1.) Did it have apostolic historicity? Did it seem to derive from the apostles or at least those who knew them? Again, much like the books of the Jewish canon, the older a text was the more authority it carried. Books written too late would not make the cut.

2.) Did it conform to the tradition of faith that had been handed down to them? That is, did it reflect the faith they had come to believe and know to be true, or did it reflect a heretical teaching? Thus, my lengthy tangent about Sacred Tradition.

3.) Was it read publicly in liturgy? Or better yet, should it be read in liturgy? It seems like the Shepherd of Hermas was a popular, early Christian text and not a bad one to read, but it apparently didn't have the authority to be read in church.

4.) Was it used widely among the universal Church, or was it only accepted or rejected by a handful of local churches?

5.) Did it have "universal pertinence"?[5] In other words, was it applicable to all of the Church in every place and in all times?

            I don't want to over-simplify this complex process of canonization. It is not like the early Church fathers got around a poker table with this list of criteria and a deck of potential NT books, folding if the text didn't meet enough standards and laying down royal flushes if it did. That would have been rather entertaining if it had been the case, though, I must say. And to that end I would love to see a tapestry much like the one of dogs playing poker with Athanasius, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Origen seated around the table instead.* In any case, as the early Church discerned which books ought to be considered Scripture alongside those writings inherited from their Jewish ancestry, these standards were surely factors that guided this organic process of canonization.

It's not how it happened, but it's funny to imagine nonetheless

            It should be noted that not every book we have in the NT was readily agreed upon by every local church. There was much debate concerning the inclusion of the Book of Revelation (not surprisingly, as that book's trippy) and even some hesitancy around the Gospel of John. These books obviously made it in, but some were vehemently rejected. The Muratorian Fragment is adamant that certain letters attributed to Paul which actually derived from a heretic named Marcion as well as the Gnostic writings of Valentinus and Basilides should be not be accepted at all.[6] Early Church fathers like Eusebius, Irenaeus, and Athanasius all railed against writings considered heretical.

            How I would love to say a few things about the heresy of Gnosticism and its writings, but I'm running long as it is. I will say, however, that if you're wondering about such texts like the so-called Gospels of Peter, Mary Magdalene, or Judas, I will tell you straight up right now. Those and other such "gospels" were A.) not written by those to whom they were attributed, for, as I mentioned in my last post, writing under a different name was quite common back then. B.) These books were written much later than the NT writings, probably in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. And C.) they derived from heretical Gnostic beliefs and teachings that ran contrary to the orthodox Tradition that had been passed down in the early Church. I hope to devote a post to Gnosticism and their writings in the future, because it's a sick and twisted heretical movement, though admittedly quite fascinating, but let's just leave it there for now.

            So okay, some books were readily accepted, some debated, and some unequivocally nixed. At what point, then, did the early Church have a canonical list of the 27 books of the NT that we know and love today? In his Paschal Letter (367 CE) the bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, includes those 27 books and even refers to them as the "springs of salvation."  In 397 the North African Council of Carthage decided on such a list that included those 27 and no more, stating that these "are to be read in church as divine Scripture." These 27 books for the most part went unchallenged until the Reformation of the 16th century, but the Council of Trent in 1546, as well as the Church of England shortly thereafter, reaffirmed the authority and canonicity of these books.[7] 

          So there you have it. As I mentioned in the last post, the books of the NT were composed within about a hundred years after Jesus' death and resurrection. And then less than three hundred years after that it was pretty much decided which Christian Scriptures would be part of the biblical canon. Ain't that something?

            For this week, since much of this post had to do with the complementary nature of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, I suggest reading 2 Timothy 2:1-26 and 3:10-17. In these passages we hear Paul writing from prison to encourage one of his successors, Timothy, to remain steadfast to the Gospel he has preached and is now in chains for proclaiming. He urges him to resist false teaching but not to engage in useless and quarrelsome debates, correcting opponents instead with kindness. He affirms Timothy's life of faith, love, patience, and endurance in suffering and reminds him to remain faithful to what he has learned and what he knows from Scripture. As you read this passage, considered what you have come to know and believe from the faith that has been handed onto you. What do you know to be true – about God, Jesus Christ, life in the Spirit, our relationship with God and one another? How has it "trained you for righteousness," made you more loving, peaceful, patient, or less quarrelsome? How has it brought you into conflict, and how have you responded? What about the Christian faith and Gospel message challenges you, and how might you pray to God for perseverance?

            I will be taking another hiatus from blogging for the next couple of weeks in order to work on some other things for this project, but I greatly appreciate your readership and spreading the word about Bible Codega. It has been a tremendous help as I complete the practicum for my M.A. I still encourage questions and comments via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or the comment box below. And while I might not put up a new post for some time, I'll still be responding to questions. Until next time, may you have a blessed remainder of the Lenten season and happy reading of Scripture.

Peace and all good!

[1] Dei Verbum,  10 §1.
[2]  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 78. and Dei Verbum, 8 §1.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 597.
[4] Ibib., 600-601
[5] Johnson, 600.
[6] Ibid., 601.
[7] Ibid., 603.
* For the record, I'm pretty sure Athanasius, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Origen were never even in the same room altogether.