Along with belief in God as One Supreme Being, Judaism also bequeathed to Christianity a firm belief in the Revealed Word of God: God’s Word as enshrined in Sacred Tradition and God’s Word as preserved in Sacred Scripture. In a world where a pad and pencil are kept in the handy kitchen junk drawer and weighty documents can be printed at the click of a computer key, the value of the written word in the ancient world is difficult to imagine. Books, or scrolls, were rare and prized possessions in early civilizations. The early Jews encased their revered scrolls in a case similar to a Catholic tabernacle. A large collection of scrolls was an inestimable treasure; such a library was almost akin to a temple.
The widespread appreciation of books in ancient times actually encouraged the notion and possibility of a Sacred Text, of God revealing himself through the written word.
The Bible, at least the Hebrew Scriptures, was well accepted as Sacred Writing by the time Jesus and his disciples and the early Church came on the scene. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s celebrated canticle, the “Magnificat,” is clearly a tissue of quotes from the Old Testament, phrases Mary had heard over and over as she attended synagogue services as young girl. One of Jesus’ first public encounters with his Jewish kinfolk was his proclaiming the Sacred Text of Isaiah to his neighborhood synagogue at Nazareth. St. Paul, whose writings would later contribute much toward the Christian Scriptures, offers wise and enduring advice to his young co-worker Timothy to be read at this coming Sunday’s Mass: “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
One of the many gifts bequeathed to the present generation by the Second Vatican Council is a hearty endorsement of the Sacred Scriptures at the heart of the Christian life. The Council teaches: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the Body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the Bread of Life from the table both of God’s Word and of Christ’s Body. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” And not only did Vatican II endorse the Scriptures in theory, the Church also authorized them in practice. Modern day Catholics are privileged to hear a passage from the Old Testament, a reading from the New Testament and a proclamation from a Gospel every Sunday and on every major holy day. Over the course of a three -year cycle, just about every book of Bible is announced at least in part for the edification of the faithful. For many centuries, the Sunday Gospel passages came only from St. Matthew and the Old Testament was never read on Sunday. By widening the breadth of Scripture proclaimed to the laity at Sunday Mass, the Church clearly intended that the Bible be more widely known and appreciated. The Council Fathers wrote: “Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the Word of God, which “lasts forever” (Is. 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25).”
The Council happily and wisely decreed: “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” It is true the Catholic Church has always been cautious about the Bible being easily misinterpreted. Some reformers viewed this restraint as censorship. Yet, the long history of the Church proves otherwise. The early Christian Church welcomed the Greek translation of the old Hebrew Bible, called the Septuagint, because the Greek language was the common language of the time. Then, in turn, the Church welcomed St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin for the same reason. The word of God became more accessible in the vernacular of the day. Zealous reformers in the late Middle Ages did often twist the Scriptures to their own destruction so Catholic eagerness for wide dissemination of the Scriptures cooled.
Nonetheless, Roman Catholic appreciation of the written Word of God has been experiencing a slow, but progressive, and certainly necessary advance since the Council’s hearty endorsement a half-century ago. As St. Paul wrote about God’s Word: “Be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient!” Nowadays, both contemporary and traditional translations of the Bible abound. And of course, today the entire Bible is as handy as one’s cell phone!
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