ROCHESTER — Wives should do whatever their husbands command; runaway slaves should be returned to their masters; and if you’re reading this story with sinful intent, you might want to pluck out your eye.
You probably don’t take the aforementioned statements seriously, yet a literal reading of the Bible suggests that these are all things God commands.
That’s why the Bible demands careful, thoughtful reading, according to Father George Heyman.
“The Bible provides a lot of things we can’t wrap our minds around — and a lot of joy as well,” Father Heyman said during an Aug. 2 talk at Johnny’s Irish Pub in Rochester.
Father Heyman is visiting assistant professor of biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford. The priest also teaches at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and is pastor of Catholic Community of the Blessed Trinity, comprising communities in Wolcott, Fair Haven and Red Creek.
His presentation, titled “Does the Bible Really Say Women Can’t Cut Their Hair?” was part of Theology on Tap, a series of discussions for young adults in their 20s and 30s. The series was sponsored this summer by the Winton-Culver Catholic Community.
Father Heyman asked the 30 or so people in his audience to tell him what biblical passages they found most confusing. Among those suggested for discussion were stories about Lot offering his daughters to a crowd that wanted to assault his angelic visitors and God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. During a discussion later in the evening, one woman noted she was intrigued by the fact that many Christians choose to interpret all of the Bible literally — except for those passages indicating that Jesus would be present in the Eucharist.
Father Heyman noted that the Bible offers many confusing passages, some of which were written to be taken symbolically or allegorically, while others were meant to be taken literally. What they all have in common, he said, is that they were written by authors influenced by their own circumstances and responding to God’s inspiration in their own ways. Although Catholic lectors proclaim “Word of the Lord” following readings of Scripture at Mass, that does not mean God literally dictated the words, he noted.
“If it’s the Word of the Lord, where did the words come from?” he asked rhetorically.
Father Heyman noted that the Bible is actually a series of books, written over several centuries, and that each book was written in response to different circumstances. How these books are read depends on the “interpreting community,” he added.
In a follow-up interview, Father Heyman elaborated on many of the points he made during his presentation at Johnny’s. For example, he noted that fundamentalist, or literal, interpretation of the Bible is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, one that came forth in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction to the growth of the historical study of Scripture. Catholics and certain Protestants were concerned about academic developments of the 19th century, fearing they would have detrimental effects on people’s faith, Father Heyman said. Since then, however, the Catholic Church, in particular, has come to incorporate the insights of Scripture scholars and historians.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses many of the themes Father Heyman addressed. In its section on Scripture interpretation, the catechism notes that God authored Scripture by inspiring its human authors. “In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating the content,” the catechism states. “‘For the fact is 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.'”
Father Heyman added that some of the church’s most recent thinking on Scripture studies was outlined in the 1993 document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The document noted that the church itself was at first “reticent” in accepting the developments in Scripture studies that have now come to be accepted, and indeed, appreciated. The document also sharply criticized fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.
“(Fundamentalism) fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods,” the document states. “It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations.”
Drawing on insights in the document, Father Heyman said that “the pre-understanding that we bring to all biblical texts is that they all point to Christ … Thus the biblical scholar applies the best of scientific analysis to a given text — linguistic, archaeological, historical, literary, sociological and anthropological — all the while keeping in mind that somehow Christ is present in the construction of the words, which allows the Bible to be the Word of God and the words of human beings.”