John, a cradle Catholic, has lukewarmly practiced his faith for his whole life. However, he has begun to realize that there is more to this life than earthly things, and so he begins to re-engage in his practice of Catholicism. Perhaps he begins to watch EWTN or read a Scott Hahn book or listen to a talk by Patrick Madrid. His enthusiasm for the Church and our Lord increases and he goes out and buys a Catholic Bible so that he can draw closer to Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. He knows reading the Bible regularly is important, but because he has no real biblical training, he depends on the footnotes of his Bible to help him to understand what it means.
But then he notices that the footnotes constantly question the veracity of biblical accounts, imply that certain Catholic beliefs are not really biblical, and in general do everything they can to question the inerrancy of the Bible. At this point, John doesn’t know who to trust or what to make of the Bible.
How often has this scene, or something quite like it, played out in the past few decades?
Why is it that the footnotes in most Catholic Bibles are so bad? Instead of bolstering our love for the Scriptures, they seem to want to denigrate it. There are a variety of reasons, but I think much of the problem lies in two fundamental presuppositions most Scripture scholars (who write the footnotes) have, presuppositions that are founded on Enlightenment thinking and are rarely questioned:
1) Religious thought develops in a strictly linear fashion
One of the basic assumptions of Enlightenment thinking is that everything develops – biological life, political thought – and that this development always goes from simple to more complex. This is one of the reasons so many moderns arrogantly look down on previous generations – we are clearly more developed in every way than our forefathers, so we have little to learn from them. This strict development is also assumed for religious thought – what men and women believe today is necessarily more advanced than what they believed centuries ago.
This idea impacts biblical studies in that it is assumed that any text that appears to be more simple MUST chronologically precede a text that is more advanced. Thus the Gospel of Mark MUST come before any other Gospel, because it is supposedly more “simple”. But more importantly, this means that Paul’s writings, which came over 20 years after the death of Christ, MUST involve some advancement from the original teachings of Jesus.
But there is no evidence that religious thought develops in a strictly linear fashion, from simple to more complex. In fact, the history of religious thought shows that it is dominated by certain bright lights which are far ahead of their times and which takes many years – even decades and centuries – to process. For example, the writings of St. Paul are far more advanced than those of St. Clement of Rome, who lived after Paul, and the writings of St. John are far more advanced than those of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who lived after the beloved disciple. The same could be said in comparing Paul, Augustine and Aquinas – in different ways each of the three is more advanced than the other two – there is no strict line which advances from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas.
And of course Jesus is the brightest light of them all. Instead of seeing later religious thinkers as more advanced than Jesus, we should instead realize that he was way ahead of his time, and future thinkers had to digest what he preached and that this takes centuries (and actually will never end).
2) There is a fundamental disconnect between an event and its later presentation
Rudolf Bultmann was one of the most influential biblical scholars of the early 20th century. One of his main assumptions, which was based on Enlightenment thinking, was that historical events had to be separated from their later written presentation. Thus the event of Christ healing a sick person is fundamentally different from Matthew or Mark or Luke or John writing about it. In other words, we can’t trust that the written presentation really reflects what actually happened.
Furthermore, there is a disconnect between the written presentation and later interpretation. So the Church’s interpretation of a passage is not directly linked to the written word, but is instead something that must be disconnected from it and studied in isolation from the text itself.
This leads to setting up the Scripture scholar as the final arbiter of “what really happened”. Only they can discover what in a text is later embellishment or interpretation and what reflects the actual historical event. For some scholars, this means that we can never know what really happened, but for others it allows them to make the biblical text a playground in which they dissect the text so that it says what they want it to say.
The problem with both of these presuppositions is that they neglect the role of the Holy Spirit. As Catholics, we believe that our understanding of doctrine does develop over time, but this development is not some linear, mathematical process which is simply guided by human reason. The Holy Spirit guides the Church throughout time, and He at times inspires certain men or women with insights which defy a simple linear development. So the whole idea of “simple to complex” is not applicable to the development of Christian doctrine.
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit inspires the presentation of the events as found in the Sacred Scriptures and then later guides the Church in her interpretation of those writings. When Matthew was writing about the events of Jesus’ life in his Gospel, he was assisted by the Holy Spirit so that those events were accurately depicted (even if theologically presented). Likewise, when the Church reads Matthew’s Gospel and interprets it, the Holy Spirit ensures that the Magisterium does not err in its official interpretation.
Unfortunately, most Bible editors – and especially editors of Catholic Bibles – do not recognize the powerful role of the Holy Spirit but instead make false presuppositions which influence their understanding of the Sacred Text. If you want to see how a scholar approaches the Scriptures without these false presuppositions, and within the mind of the Church, there is no better place to start than Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth series.