The Old Testament Renewed

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I was a religious studies minor at the University of Virginia, which meant my Biblical Studies classes – such as Old Testament – were defined by secular scholarship that sought to undermine the historicity and divine origin of Holy Scripture. I was an evangelical back then, and yearned for an effective counterpoint to this scholarship, affirming the good or useful in it, while still seeking to be faithful to traditional conceptions of the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. With the recently published A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, by prolific Biblical scholars John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, Catholics now have just such a resource.

This introduction to the Old Testament is an invaluable resource for clergy, students, and laypersons alike. This is because Bergsma and Pitre – who are also renowned catechists – operate on so many levels. As they explain, their aim is to contextualize their research through four dominant themes: (1) historical exegesis and theology; (2) faith and reason; (3) Scripture and Tradition; and (4) Reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. Each book of the Hebrew Bible is summarized, analyzed, and explained through these four lenses, and the results are impressive.

As anyone who has suffered through a secular Scripture course can attest, the default position for many scholars is a prejudice against the Bible as history. This is particularly palpable when comparing such scholarship to that of other historical periods and texts, especially those that don’t make universal claims about God, absolute truth, or morality. Though Bergsma and Pitre obviously do not fall into this camp, they evince a remarkable amount of charity and thoroughness towards this scholarship, carefully reviewing and evaluating its most predominant manifestations.

Much of this will likely be uninteresting to those unfamiliar with the now generations-long cottage industry of scholarship that proposes, for example, that the Torah was written and edited by four different competing Jewish schools of thought, or that David and Solomon never existed, or that the book of Isaiah was written by three different people. Yet anyone eager to know how to address such claims – which are often at odds with Catholic tradition – will be delighted by the authors’ justice and equanimity. I was particularly amused by the fact that one bogeyman of my own undergraduate days, John J. Collins, is frequently cited by the authors as a scholar whose work attacks the historicity of the Bible.

For those less interested in these debates, readers should at least understand the following overarching principle. As much as we should pay attention to secular scholarship, we should be mindful that the consensus of the academy on Scripture has shifted dramatically from one generation to another. New texts, new archaeological findings, and even new historical theories have consistently upended what was once thought a “settled” issue.

One example suffices: the book of Daniel (which Wikipedia notes is “historical fiction”) mentions the Babylonian king Belshazzar. For centuries, scholars thought Belshazzar was also an historical fiction, until an archaeological find in 1854 provided proof of his existence.

Bergsma and Pitre discussion of faith and reason is also commendable. In their study of Genesis alone, they provide an excellent summation of how to understand the creation account in reference to science; if the flood was global, local, or mythical; if millions of Israelites really participated in the Exodus; and how to understand Israel’s total destruction of Canaan. This is important, both for devout Catholics seeking to understand how to unify their faith with truth or for providing an effective apologetic to skeptics.

In reference to the oft-cited “injustice” of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, the authors are worthy of quotation:

The theological question of God’s justice in permitting the death of persons innocent of sin among the Canaanites needs to be referred to the Cross of Christ, which is the definitive hermeneutical principle for understanding both God’s justice and his mercy in salvation history.

Given the wealth of reflection in Catholic Tradition on the Old Testament, Bergsma and Pitre are only capable of providing the most salient themes. Here they also succeed in spades. There are of course reflections on how Eve is an archetype for Mary, and how the flood is a type of baptism.

I myself had never heard of the parallels between the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 and Mary: Proverbs 31:29 says of her, “many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Of Mary, of course, it is said, “more blessed are you than all women.” (Luke 1:42) Also fascinating is a consideration of the Song of Solomon as a type of Mary Magdalene’s search for Jesus after his crucifixion and burial.

This, of course, bleeds into seeing the unity between Old and New Testaments. The prophet Isaiah foretold of one of whom “the government will rest upon his shoulders.” Tradition has interpreted in this Christ’s carrying of His Cross, the means by which he established His Church.

Alternatively, a careful study of the book of Sirach will prove a remarkable unity between the teachings of Jesus ben Sirach and Jesus of Nazareth.

There is much to praise in this hefty tome (1,060 pages!) – instructive diagrams, tables showing how the Old Testament is used in the lectionary, and sidebar articles on subjects of interest. As a former Protestant seminarian, I was as impressed by their reliance on good Protestant scholarship as I was by their effective – but not overdone reliance on – luminary Scripture scholar Scott Hahn. On that final note, it would appear that Bergsma and Pitre view Hahn’s Kinship by Covenant and K.A. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament as some of the best works on the Old Testament, given their appearance in many chapters. Yet this introduction to the Old Testament, for students, clergyman, or laypersons running Bible studies, will alone suffice as an indispensable resource for years to come.

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.