Religion-beat professionals: Yet another reference work that belongs on your desk

Our previous religion-beat Memo puffed “The Study Quran,” a truly path-breaking production.

The Religion Guy now outpoints a  standby that belongs on the desks of journalists who don’t have one of the two earlier editions: “The Catholic Study Bible” (Oxford University Press, available in paperback for US$39.99).

The volume includes the latest (2010) version of the New American Bible, the official English translation used in the U.S. Catholic Church, alongside numerous articles and detailed verse-by-verse commentary from a 20-member team. The new edition adds, for instance, surveys of archaeological finds regarding the Bible, by Ronald Simkins of Creighton University in Omaha (Old Testament) and Dominican Sister Laurie Brink of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union (New Testament).

In addition to keeping this book handy for future reference, newswriters could use it as a hook to analyze trends in Catholic scholarship on the Bible. The book bears the hierarchy’s  declaration that all material “is free from doctrinal and moral error.” Yet a spot check indicates the latest edition continues and somewhat reinforces the secular and liberal Protestant sort of scholarship that influenced the first two editions.

A fascinating in-depth project could compare the Study Bible’s approach with the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s conservative declarations from 1905 through the 1962 opening of the Second Vatican Council, as indexed right here.   

Among other things, prior commission decrees affirmed Moses as the “substantial” source of the first five Old Testament books; single authorship for Isaiah’s prophecy; the historical veracity of Genesis 1-3, the Book of Acts, and the Gospel of John; and that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written prior to A.D. 70.

Today, those sorts of views are largely confined to conservative Protestant or Orthodox Jewish scholars.

The Catholic Study Bible hails the “coming of age of Catholic biblical scholarship” in recent times. It says the Bible “is not itself a work of history” and that the scriptural writers “were not concerned about whether the tales and traditions were reliable or plausible.” It states that the narratives in the Bible’s first five books “do not demonstrate a concern with factual reliability” and didn’t reach their current form till after 538 B.C. Isaiah is called an anthology of poems that included writers who lived long after the prophet. And so forth.

Looking at a few telltale Bible passages: 

-- Isaiah 7:14 is quoted in Matthew 1:23 to substantiate Jesus’ conception and birth to a virgin, Mary. But the Study Bible teaches that Isaiah spoke of “a young woman of marriageable age without specific reference to virginity.”

-- The church teaches Mary’s lifelong (“perpetual”)  virginity, yet Matthew 1:25 says husband Joseph “had no relations with her until she bore a son.” The commentary says “until” does not “imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it.” Mark 6:3 says Jesus was the “brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” The commentary thinks Mark “may have understood the terms literally” but in Semitic usage “brother” could mean half-brothers, nephews or cousins.

-- In Matthew 5:32, Jesus forbids divorce “unless the marriage is unlawful.” The commentary says that “seems to refer to blood or legal relationship” and “most scholars agree” only violation of the incest laws in Leviticus 18 is meant.  (Protestant and Orthodox exegetes offer different interpretations.)

-- “Inconsistencies” make it “difficult to accept” that a single person wrote the Gospel of John, and there are “difficulties” with “any theory of eyewitness authorship.”

-- On the two New Testament letters attributed to Catholicism’s first pope, the Study Bible reports that “some modern scholars” say a “later writer” produced 1st Peter, and there’s “wide agreement” that 2nd Peter was “written by a later author.”

-- And speaking of the first Pope, the commentary does not discuss the undeniable fact that -- unlike most pontiffs through history -- Peter was married (see these Protestant proof texts: Matthew 8:14-15, Luke 4:38-39, 1 Corinthians 9:5).

Such examples signal there’s good story potential here. Will local Catholic bishops recommend the use of this text with laity? It would be interesting to check.

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