Q: Okay, so what is the Christian account of how revelation occurred?
As Elmer Fudd might say, “Vewy, vewy swowly.” Divine revelation didn’t happen in a blinding flash—such as God dropping the Summa Theologiae on top of a mountain and waiting for people to invent the Latin language so they could read it. (Though He could have given them magical spectacles that would translate it for them….) It seems that God preferred to slowly unfold His personality and His will for us through the course of tangled, messy human history. We might wonder why, and call up the divine customer service line to ask why in heck human nature arrived in the mail without the instructions. I don’t pretend to know what He was thinking here, but I find it aesthetically fitting that our knowledge of God evolved in much the way that animal species did, over a long time and by fits and starts, with sudden leaps whenever God saw fit, until finally the world was ready to receive the final product: in creation, man, in revelation, the Son of Man. God seems to prefer planting seeds to winding up robots.
So we start with traces of a primitive monotheism among some scattered peoples of the world—which might have been long-faded memories of what Adam told his children about the whole “apple incident,” combined with crude deductions that boil down to “Nothing comes from nothing.” But mankind pretty much wandered around with no more than that for quite some time, and this was when he employed the inductive method to discover the hemorrhoid god.
The first incident in Jewish-Christian scriptures that suggests God revealed Himself to us after that is the rather discouraging narrative of Noah. According to the story, the human race went so wrong so fast that God decided to backspace over most of it, leaving only a single righteous family, trapped on a stinky boat with way too many pets. When they landed, they had no more idea of what to do with themselves than the cast of Gilligan’s Island, so God gave them instructions: We call this the Covenant of Noah. The Jews believe that these are the only commandments God gave to the Gentiles—7 of them, instead of 613—and that the rest of us can please God just by keeping them. That’s the reason that Jews don’t generally try to make converts. (Who are we to run around making things harder for people? Feh!) The Jewish Talmud enumerates the 7 laws of Noah as follows:
- Don’t worship idols.
- Don’t kill the innocent.
- Don’t steal.
- Don’t fornicate.
- Don’t blaspheme God.
- Don’t eat pieces of animals while they’re still alive.
- Resolve your disputes through impartial judges.
Most of this sounds fairly obvious and commonsensical—though we might wonder why it was necessary to tell people to stop pulling off pieces of live animals and eating them. They must have gotten into some pretty bad habits while they were still stuck on that ark.
Q: That ark must have been the size of Alabama…
I know, I know.
Q. …to fit all those elephants, hippos, rhinos, tree sloths, polar bears, gorillas, lions and moose…
Okay, smart guy.
Q. …not to mention breeding pairs of more than 1,000,000 species of insects. Sure they’re mostly small, but those creepy-crawlies add up.
Spoken like a true-believing member of Campus Crusade for Cthulu, complete with a bad case of acne and involuntary celibacy. Maybe you should focus on Onan instead of Noah.
Look, there’s a reason why Catholics don’t read the bible in an exclusively literal sense, and haven’t since the time of Origen (+253). The Church looks at the books of scripture according to the genres in which they were written (history, allegory, wisdom, prophecy, and so on). And this story, clearly, was intended as allegory—which means that on top of some historical content (and there’s flotsam from flood-narratives in the basement of most ancient cultures) the writer piled up details to make a point. Unlike liberal Protestants, we don’t use this principle to explain away Jesus’ miracles and the moral law. Nor are we fundamentalists who take everything in the bible literally—except for “This is my body,” (Luke 22: 19) “Thou art Peter,” (Matthew 16: 18) and “No, your pastor can’t get divorced.” (Cleopatra 7: 14) The Church responded to biblical criticism with appropriate skepticism at first, and accepted the useful parts (like reading original languages and looking for ancient manuscripts), without throwing out the traditional mode of reading the bible in light of how the Church Fathers traditionally understood it.
Q. Why should the Church be the interpreter of the bible?
In the case of the New Testament, the Church had transcribed the books; shouldn’t we own the copyright to our own memoirs? When the list of accepted gospels and epistles was drawn up, there were more surplus candidates milling around than in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, before a primary—some of them inspirational but probably inauthentic, like the Protoevangelium that tells the story of Mary’s childhood; others creepily gnostic, like the “Gospel of Thomas,” which has Jesus using His “superpowers” to wreak revenge on His schoolmates. (That gospel is always popular, since it shows Jesus doing exactly what each of us would really do in His place.) The decision on which books were divinely inspired was based largely on the evidence of the liturgy: which books had been used in churches for services in the most places for the longest. As I like to tell Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to my door: that bible you’re waving at me was codified by a council of Catholic bishops who prayed to Mary and the saints, baptized infants, and venerated the Eucharist. So you could say that as the original, earthly author and editor, the Church has a better claim of knowing how to read it than the reporters at National Geographic—who every Christmas or Easter discover some new and tantalizing scrap of papyrus containing gnostic sex magic tips or Judas’ “To-do” list.
In the case of the Old Testament, the Church draws heavily on how Jews traditionally read their own scriptures—but with one important and obvious difference. We are the descendants of the faction of Jews who accepted Christ as the Messiah and evangelized the gentiles, all the while considering themselves the “faithful remnant” who’d remained true to the faith of Abraham. So we see throughout the Old Testament foreshadowings of Christ, for instance in Abraham’s sacrifice, and Isaiah’s references to the “suffering servant.” The Jews who were skeptical of Jesus believed that they were heroically resisting a blasphemous false prophet who’d tempted them to idolatry. As the Church spread and gained political clout, and Christians began to shamefully mistreat the people from whom they’d gotten monotheism in the first place, there surely was genuine heroism entailed in standing firm. I often wonder how many Jews would be drawn to Jesus if they could separate Him from the sins committed against their great-grandparents in His name….
The version of the Old Testament that Catholics and Orthodox use is different from what Jews use today. Our version, based on the Septuagint translation into Greek, is somewhat longer, and includes some later documents that Jews accepted right up to the time Saint Paul converted—books that illustrate a lot of the mature developments in Judaism which led up to the coming of Christ. The very fact that Christian apostles were using these books may have led the rabbis to eventually reject them. (Since the biblical references to Purgatory can be found in these books, Martin Luther and the Anglicans also excluded them.) Ironically, the Book of Maccabees exists in Catholic bibles but not Jewish ones, and right up until Vatican II we had a Feast of the Maccabees—which means that you could call Chanukah a Catholic holiday. But don’t tell the judges in New York City, or they’ll pull all the menorahs out of the schools.
This piece is an excerpt from The Bad Catholic’s Catechism (Crossroad, 2012).