It is very apparent that the culture of our own day is an extremely skeptical one. Those that practice any religion, particularly Christianity, can be viewed by the secular world as just hanging onto old stories or myths. One only needs to look at the traction the mythicist movement has gained among the general public in the last twenty or so years, which denies the fact that Jesus Christ was a historical person who walked the earth.
Never mind that virtually every academic scholar dismisses the mythicist theory. The fact of the matter is that many of our peers, co-workers and family have serious doubts about Jesus and the Church he founded, all on the basis that the mysteries contained in the Bible are just stories. Many TV shows and books now reduce religion to nothing more than a social construct created by humans.
Take the fictional religion of “The Faith of the Seven” in the popular book and television series Game of Thrones. It mirrors the Catholic Faith in many respects, but it’s entirely made up and the viewers know it is. Therefore, it’s not hard to see why many people make the small leap to thinking the same thing about the one, God-ordained religion.
So if the author of a popular series could craft such a religion through stories, why couldn’t someone else thousands of years ago? Fortunately, we know by faith that this isn’t the case with Christianity. However, to prove this isn’t the case and articulately defend this Faith we need to seek out intelligent expositions of that Faith.
A Firm and Substantial Defense
This is where we need to step back and make sure we are equipped to speak with our peers in dialogue on the subject. When we are approached or faced with claims that our Catholic Faith is nothing more than mere folklore, are we prepared to do what St. Peter directed us to do?:
“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”1 Peter 3:15-16
Throughout my college days and immediately afterward, it was very hard for me to articulate why I believed what I believed; why Jesus was true God and true man and why the salvation we received from him was realized at a specific time in human history; an actual, historic event.
A Distinctly Catholic Approach
Now I know why it was so difficult for me to articulate my Catholic faith back then. Oftentimes, unaffiliated truth seekers, agnostics, and atheists, (and even lukewarm or lapsed Catholics) have no idea what to think about practicing Catholic Christians. We often get lumped in with fundamentalist Christians who often take everything in Scripture literally, and don’t to mind the four senses of Sacred Scripture. While we as Christians must keep in mind that “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 116), we also have to remember “that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression” (Dei Verbum, 12).
Sometimes, our Protestant brothers and sisters, particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, can forget these facts, yet Catholic and Orthodox tradition has maintained these distinctions over the centuries. And particularly for Catholic Christians, we have the Magisterium to help guide us, which is always at the service of the Word of God. As Pope Benedict XVI said, recalling St. Jerome:
“We can never read Scripture simply on our own. We come up against too many closed doors and we slip too easily into error.”
Let’s take a look at both human history and the guidance of Holy Mother Church in answering the questions we often receive from our peers regarding the truth claims that Scripture makes. Far from being an assortment of fables and folk tales, what is transmitted in Sacred Scripture presents both historical and moral truths that modern man must hear and take into account.
Here are five sources every Catholic should know as we encounter honest seekers with questions throughout our daily lives. These sources will help us offer the firm and substantial defense of our faith in Jesus Christ that all Christians are exhorted to give.
1. Ancient historical documents referring to Israel
One charge that many Christians might hear is that many of the figures in the Old Testament did not exist. Sometimes it’s even claimed that the nation of Israel as it is described in Scripture did not exist. Do such claims stand on firm ground? One thing that scholars have noticed is the many different records from non-Hebrew civilizations that speak of Israel or figures that are found within the pages of the Bible. These have origins in such cultures as the ancient Egyptians, Moabites, and Phoenicians.
For our purposes, we should at least be aware of a few of these important archaeological finds. One of those would be the Merneptah Stela. A “stela” or “stele” was a monument often erected in the ancient world, made of stone or wood, often commemorating some type of event, from funerals and burials to military conquests. The Merneptah Stela represents one of the latter types of monuments.
The inscription made on this stela was produced by the Egyptian king of the same name, reigning between 1213-1203 B.C. This particular record is significant, because this is the earliest known extra-biblical source that mentions Israel. Below is the relevant portion of the inscription:
“The princes are prostrate, saying, ‘Peace!’
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
Hatti is pacified;
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt."
The term “Nine Bows” referred to the enemies of the Egyptians. In reading the book of Exodus, we see how Israel had become subject to the rule of Egypt. But there’s something interesting about the way Israel is described here. Catholic apologist and author Jimmy Akin goes further:
“The inscription on the stele is significant not just because it refers to Israel but because of the way it refers to it. Egyptian writing uses a set of symbols—known as determinatives—to help the reader identify the kind of thing being described …
“On the Merneptah Stele, when Israel’s name is given, a determinative indicating a foreign people is used. This determinative is usually used for nomadic peoples that do not have a settled location, suggesting the inscription was made during the period of wandering before Israel was settled in the land. That would suggest that the Exodus occurred in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.).”
We know from Scripture that Israel was a nomadic tribe for many years before it became an actual kingdom. Historical records such as this help to pinpoint certain dates in the Bible. As we can see, this gives us a good timeline of when the Exodus actually happened.
Other important inscriptions to look to would be the Tel Dan Stela, referencing explicitly “the house of David” in the ninth century B.C., as well as the Mesha Stela, which calls to mind the account given in 2 Kings 3 when Jehoram, King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, makes a treaty with Jehoshaphat, the King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
2. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament
Before we get into some magisterial documents, it would next make the most sense to move from secular historical sources, to the work that biblical scholars have been doing in recent years, particularly of those that are faithful to the Church. Although it was just released in the last year, this introduction to Sacred Scripture by Doctors John Bergsma and Brant Pitre is absolutely essential for the person that wants to respond to many of the claims already outlined above.
Now this might be intimidating with over 1,000 pages, but it is extremely readable, even for the layperson who has no background in theological or historical studies. Bergsma and Pitre explain the vision of this wonderful introduction from a truly Catholic perspective, especially as it pertains to history:
“[It is] important for there to be an in-depth introduction to Scripture that is both thoroughly informed by contemporary scholarship and explicitly written from a Catholic perspective of faith and reason, embracing what might be called an ‘ecclesial’ method of biblical exegesis …
“Inspired by the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini, this introduction aims to bring together the following aspects of scriptural study: historical exegesis and theology, faith and reason, Scripture and Tradition, and the Old and New Testaments …
“The reason for the emphasis on history in a Christian introduction to the Bible is simple: Christianity is a historical religion, and divine revelation is inextricably bound up with the ‘deeds and words’ performed by God ‘in the history of salvation.’”
Each book of the Old Testament is given the spotlight, and keeping in mind the four senses of Scripture, this introduction brings many considerations to light. The Magisterium of the Church is weaved into each section of the book, and it is to some of these magisterial documents in particular that we turn our attention to now.
3. Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI
Echoing the words of our Lord Jesus in the Gospels, he did not leave us as orphans after he ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit has come to guide the Church, particularly through the Magisterium of the Church. The Catechism sums up the Church’s Magisterium in this way:
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ …
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.”CCC 85, 86
While it’s important to know the history surrounding the books of the Bible, we must also realize that there are theological truths that the Church is able to transmit to the faithful, through the help of the Holy Spirit. As was mentioned above by Bergsma and Pitre, Pope Benedict’s Verbum Domini is one of these proclamations made by the Magisterium. It is an Apostolic Exhortation which speaks “on the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.”
The main portion that one should focus on, especially on this topic we are dealing with presently, would be the first part of the exhortation entitled “Verbum Dei”. While acknowledging that the Second Vatican Council had called for an emphasis on the historical context and literary styles in understanding what was written in Scripture, he also points out that “Scripture must be interpreted in the same Spirit in which it is written”. Here he teaches that there are “three fundamental criteria for an appreciation of the divine dimension of the Bible”:
“1) The text must be interpreted with attention to the unity of the whole of Scripture; nowadays this is called canonical exegesis; 2) account is to be taken of the living Tradition of the whole Church; and, finally, 3) respect must be shown for the analogy of faith (VD 34).”
Attention must be given to both the historical and theological aspects of the Bible. Our questioning friends might want material evidence for everything found in Scripture, but we must read the Bible in context at all times, and this includes keeping theological considerations at the forefront of any deep dive into Scripture. This exhortation makes for great reading on the subject.
4. Providentissimus Deus
Here we travel a bit back in time to 1893 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on the study of Holy Scripture. Pope Leo XIII’s look at how Scripture should be studied is still incredibly helpful for us today. Within the document, he makes clear the distinction between the literal and allegorical sense. What some outside the Church might consider mere stories, we as Christians must realize that even those passages which are to be read in the figurative sense still transmit great moral truths to us:
“Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the holy Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience, they knew to be most valuable. The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honorable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties.”PD 15
Other important sections of this encyclical to highlight would be sections 6, 13-15, and 20-22.
5. Dei Verbum
Fast-forwarding a bit, we move on to the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. All Catholics should at least once in their lives read through Dei Verbum in its entirety. This document of the Second Vatican Council helps us to understand how to correctly interpret Scripture. What might seem like fantastical folklore to some may very well be (and often is!) communicating deep truths essential for Christian living. Numerous factors must be taken into account, as the document states:
“For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
“But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.”DV 12
This is the beautiful thing about our Catholic Faith: it’s never “either/or”, but rather “both/and”. We must study the history behind Scripture, but then interpret the Word of God in a “sacred spirit”. To do one without the other is to greatly err.
More We Do Not Know
In closing, we must squarely face the questions that are asked of us by the world at large. Every Christian needs to know Scripture in an intimate way. It’s the living God communicating directly with us! But thankfully, he also communicates with us in other ways. By synthesizing all these sources of revelation together, we come to a greater understanding of Sacred Scripture. As each and every one of us delves into Scripture more deeply, we should reflect on Pope Leo XIII’s advice:
“No one should be so presumptuous as to think that he understands the whole of Scripture, in which St. Augustine himself confessed that there was more that he did not know, than that he knew ….”PD 23
We will never exhaust the depths of Scripture in this lifetime, but we can always use the opportunities that we are given throughout our daily grinds to come to a deeper appreciation and knowledge of God’s revelation to this holy people.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.