The Role of the Catholic Biblical Scholar: An Ongoing Consideration

by Patrick Angiolillo

As one semester comes to a close and another opens its doors, students and teachers alike are gearing up for their continued quest for knowledge. With all the buzz of applications, papers, and conferences, it is not difficult for me, a Masters student, to lose opportunities to reflect on what exactly it is I and my fellow students—especially we students of religion or theology or divinity—are doing when we engage new semester with new texts and new questions.

I have come to no deep conclusions, no profound realizations about this process, this career, even. On one level—quite superficially, perhaps—we are engaging in historical investigations. Myself, especially, as a student of biblical studies, or the even more obscure Second Temple Judaism, am easily claimed as one chiefly concerned with the production, reception, and interpretation of ancient texts. As are my closest colleagues, although some perhaps prefer the dirtier side of things, digging through archaeological remains in order to answer sometimes the same but often quite different questions of our shared historical investigation.

But on a deeper level, I often wonder what it is we are doing, for ourselves or for our churches, or our communities. Perhaps some of my friends in ethics have more practical answers, as ethics—or at least my impression of it—is principally concerned with, well, generating an ethic, a code, an understanding of things such that we can prescribe and proscribe with the effect of bringing about the good (or The Good). Maybe that is a simplistic or stuffy, dated impression of ethics, but it nonetheless implies the fundamental practicality of the discipline. Those friends engaged in studies of divinity, too, have a practical edge over me. Training for CPE or learning the essentials of pastoral care, as well as engaging in broad theological study, have wide ranging applicability and very practical use. Helping a parishioner struggle through the death of a loved one, or helping a student understand an explanation of the Trinity are, for instance, beautiful expressions of the practical dimension of these disciplines.

But then there is the biblical scholar. The one who squirrels away with her Hebrew Bible or Greek New Testament and spends hours translating passages already translated thousands, if not millions, of times over by innumerable scholars before her. The one who investigates biblical passages and writes papers on minute details of language, syntax, vocabulary, and meaning. The one who cringes at the thought of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and who would probably be quick to explain that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was decidedly not an apple, even in the imagination of the author. The one who, like myself, always stresses the originality of the text, and the importance of taking it at face value. What is her role in this world of theological investigation and the contemporary church?

As already mentioned, no specific answer is as yet apparent to me. But my experience stokes the embers of the question. On the one hand, I shudder ever so slightly when I watch a nativity play that conflates the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth, but on the other, I marvel at the ambiguity of a Greek preposition like entos (ἐντὸς) in Luke 17:21 and the multiplicity of potential interpretations of its meaning. The academic study of the bible and other related texts, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, has led me on more than one occasion to question the validity of my Church’s historical claims on the life of Christ, and the subsequent theology developed out of these claims. But I have never wavered so far as to deny these claims, or my faith altogether. True, too, is that this study has also led me to appreciate with a great and deep appreciation the intelligence of the ancient authors of our scripture. Not only intelligence, but their humanity, their plain and simple humanity. Anger, sorrow, pride, and lust drove humans past just as they do humans present. What is more, the humanity of these ancient authors is inextricably tied to their faith. Faith in God’s providence, God’s justice and judgment, God’s righteousness and loyalty. Indeed, in God’s love and desire, God’s wants and needs, God’s role in the life of humankind. Their faith ran deep in antiquity as it does for many of us today the world over.

These realizations have brought me to my knees in wonder and awe, both for those who composed these texts millennia ago, but also for the God who created these individuals, who created this species of which I and you and we are all a part—a species of being that can strive to know—to know our environment, but more, to know one another, and indeed to know our very selves. This fascinates me. I am sure one of my friends studying Theological Philosophy (or is it Philosophical Theology?) here in my divinity school could explain the metaphysics of such a yearning, born of our human essence, as it (probably) were. But this little concerns me. The product of the yearning seems more fun. The texts of the bible, and those which were unfortunate enough to not reach canonicity, are the products of human yearning, human curiosity, human participation in divine creation. And the details, nuances, inconsistencies, and problems of these texts are the tangible evidence of human thought through the course of history. Indeed, they are a link to the very breath of a living man some millennia ago who was inspired to write what we today call sacred scripture. How beautiful!

I think we owe it to these authors, as well as to ourselves, to give serious consideration to these ancient texts: admit of their problems, and attempt to understand them to the best of our ability. Admittedly, I am not as yet a biblical scholar. I think of myself as a budding investigator in a long line of august and esteemed men and women much more capable and quite more intelligent than myself. But I will continue to defend the importance of the historical investigation of biblical texts. Perhaps my place, and that of my colleagues in biblical studies and archaeology, is not in the pulpit, or beside the sickbed of a parishioner, but it is still within the walls of the church, and it is no less important, or practical, than those of the strictly trained ethicist or moral theologian. On the one hand my colleagues and I are historical investigators, and this is not something to hide, but on the other hand, we are members of the dynamic church and must be more than just historians.

I have not completely come to understand the precise role of the contemporary religious biblical scholar, but the leather is, so to speak, still stretching out in this pair of new shoes. What I do know is that the ancient texts we have come to enshrine in lectionaries and missals, and even in study bibles and commentaries, are living, breathing texts, and are the remains of living, breathing humans—our brothers and sisters in this great journey of human life sparked by divine will and want. I will continue to be awed by this realization, by the profound humanity of the ancient texts of the Bible. Perhaps, then, my deeper role than historical investigator, my practical role in the life of the church today, although quite different from that of the priest or theologian, is to inspire others to this same wonder and awe for the humanity of our divine scripture… But maybe we have to go to the Trinitarian theologian first on the question of that particular gift of the Holy Spirit!