The Bible

1. Why do numbers have such significance in the Bible? Also, to understand them, is it necessary to go back to the original languages?

2. You have said that Catholics do not read the Bible literally. Is there room in the Church for literalists?

3. If Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of the Messiah who would be called "Emmanuel" meaning "God with us", why was he named Jesus and not Emmanuel? And why was the name Jesus chosen?

4. Given some of your earlier answers, it seems to me that the Bible is beginning to lose its literal meaning, and that some day we might not even believe that the Resurrection was real, and that it just proves that Christianity works across all ethnic groups. Where do you draw the line?

5. I was recently engaged in a debate with a creationist friend about evolution. He believes that Genesis is the literal story of creation and therefore disproves evolutionary science. I wanted to know how you would respond to his claim.

6. Who was responsible for selecting what should be included in the bible since it was compiled long after Jesus died?

7. What happened to the other texts that were not selected for inclusion?

8. I have read the Old Testament and find it diametrically opposed to the New Testament in the viewpoints it presents, especially in terms of justice. Is this a correct reading?

9. Why does the Catholic Bible have more books than my King James?

10. In watching a documentary on Revelation, I became confused. Was the Old Testament still being written after Jesus died?

11. In one of your homilies, you spoke of the evolution in the Old Testament from polytheism to monotheism. I thought that the Old Testament showed a system of henotheism where one believes in a god without necessarily denying the existence of others. Is my understanding in error? Or would you say that the development in the Old Testament goes from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism?

12. In a number of homilies, you have stressed the fact that violence has never solved anything and will never solve anything, specifically referencing the current state of our world. You further suggest that God calls us to resist the urge to violence and always act in peace. Is this not hypocritical when He himself sent a flood into the world killing countless living people? Is this not a violent act? Is sending plagues into Egypt, killing the first born, not a violent act? How do you explain God's use of violence to achieve His objectives?

13. Where in the Old Testament does it say that a Messiah is in the future for the Israelites?

14. How is it that murder and violence are condoned by God in some sections of the Old Testament, contrary to his own commandment?

15. If Heaven is God's free gift to us, couldn't we say that Hell is God's way of showing us that we have free will in accepting his gift or rejecting it? Wouldn't it then mean that if we reject Christ, we would go to hell, as it would be an expression of our free will to do so?

16. I recently had a disagreement with a Baptist friend of mine about interpreting the Bible. I brought up the examples of Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark, suggesting that these were myth. He insists on interpreting it literally and I disagree. Although he is a good person, what can I say to him?

17. Why do you believe that Jesus didn't know he was going to be resurrected? He said that he was going to rise on the third day.

18. I am taking a class on the Old Testament and I am going to write my paper on the book of Job. I want to discuss the issue of how the righteous are often afflicted by God and those who know God have a certain burden to carry. Do you have any good references for such a topic? I often hear you quote others in your homilies so I wonder if you know any good references for the book of Job.

19. On one Passion Sunday you spoke about the fact that Jesus was 100% human as well as 100% divine, and that as a human being he did not know the future, specifically that he would be resurrected. If it is true that he did not know the future, how did he know that one of the twelve would betray him, and how did he know that Peter would deny him three time?

20. At yesterday's Mass the Gospel was taken from Luke. The passage about Lazarus being outside the door, begging for scraps. The man in the fine linens didn't help him. When they died, the rich man went to flames and Lazarus went presumably to heaven. In the homily, the priest, (a very nice guy, by the way. Younger priest, active with young folks, a good guy overall), said "people will try and tell you that there is no heaven or hell and when you die that's it....OR they may tell you everyone gets to heaven...but don't you believe it. Here in this gospel we have definitive proof of an afterlife and of a heaven and hell based on choices we make in life..."

Now, to my way of thinking today, it doesn't say the rich man was in hell. He could have been in purgatory. I think he was in a serious state of  purification/torment vis-a-vis his purgatory. Maybe I'm wrong. But it made me think of you. You see, before happening upon your website 7 or 8 years ago, I'd have gone into a tailspin from yesterday's gospel and sermon. I'd have been anxiety-ridden. You helped me think differently and it's improved my life. Thanks.

21. I think I understand what you say about the devil. But if he does not exist, then how do you explain the temptation of Jesus in the desert? Was Jesus just suffering from some hallucination? And if the devil does not exist, where does evil come from? Did man's inhumanity to man originate with Cain and Abel?

22. CNN recently ran a story entitled John Dominic Crossan's "Blaphemous" Portrait of Jesus. The story tells of Crossan's work as a biblical scholar and his books that call into question long held beliefs about Jesus, such as his divinity, the way he lived, whether or not he worked miracles, etc. What about the doctrinal statements about Jesus? Is this not a danger to the faith of millions of Christians?

23. Who actually wrote the Bible? I was speaking with my boyfriend the other night and he asked me that question. I told him that the Apostles did. Then he told me that we don’t really know who wrote the Bible. Can you please clarify?

24. Your answer was helpful. However, how did God inspire people to reflect on important questions of their day?

Q 1: Why do numbers have such significance in the Bible? Also, to understand them, is it necessary to go back to the original languages?

A 1: In the Bible numbers can have both a literal and a symbolic meaning. It really depends on the type of biblical writing, e.g. Apocalyptic, as well the intent of the author. The intent of the author is discovered by examining the various elements of the work, such as the structure, content, etc. In this regard, numbers are similar to names or other words, e.g. "Emmanuel" means "God with us."

The most common and, for some, confusing experience of the use of numbers can be found in the Book of Revelation. Here, numbers have a symbolic meaning. Interpreting them literally, as fundamentalists do, means never really understanding what the book is saying.

A corollary to your question: In ancient Hebrew and Greek, each letter of the alphabet had a numerical equivalent. Therefore, to understand the meaning of "666" in the Book of Revelation, one needs to know which letters of which names added up to 666. Obviously, many names could total that number. Don't ask me who John was writing about--that would short-change a good study of the Book of Revelation!

Q 2: You have said that Catholics do not read the Bible literally. Is there room in the Church for literalists?

A 2: The Catholic Church is a big tent and embraces many people with different ideas. With regard to fundamentalists, however, there is a special problem. Since the teaching of the Church is based on a non-literalist interpretation of the Bible, enriched by modern scholarship, I cannot imagine a literalist either believing what the Church teaches or, for that matter, even want to be a part of such a Church. The ideas are nor harmonious. Nonetheless, there certainly are Catholics who tend to be literalists. I just don't understand their belonging to the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the Church is filled with sinners, at the same time that it teaches us not to sin.

Q 3: If Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of the Messiah who would be called "Emmanuel" meaning "God with us", why was he named Jesus and not Emmanuel? And why was the name Jesus chosen?

A 3: The name "Jesus" was common among the Jews of Jesus' time. The name means "God saves". In Matthew's gospel, the angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph and tells him to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Calling Jesus Emmanuel is much like calling him the Son of God. During Jesus' lifetime people saw many things in him and they acknowledged those things by different titles--Son of God, Teacher, Rabbi, Messiah, Emmanuel.

Q 4: Given some of your earlier answers, it seems to me that the Bible is beginning to lose its literal meaning, and that some day we might not even believe that the Resurrection was real, and that it just proves that Christianity works across all ethnic groups. Where do you draw the line?

A 4: The Bible is not losing its literal meaning. It was never intended to be understood literally. Over the last 100 years, scholars have been able to study the Scriptures with tools of literary criticism not previously available. The result is that we can now approach the Scriptures the way they were written and come to a deeper appreciation of them. This includes the fact that the Bible does not prove our faith. It grounds our faith by offering the witness and testimony of believers who came before us. Even the Resurrection, so essential to the Christian faith, is not proved by the Bible. We believe it, not because it is in the Bible. It is in the Bible because the early Christians, and we, believe it.

Q 5: I was recently engaged in a debate with a creationist friend about evolution. He believes that Genesis is the literal story of creation and therefore disproves evolutionary science. I wanted to know how you would respond to his claim.

A 5: Unfortunately, this is a debate that neither of you can win. Even though the Bible is neither a science, nor a history book, there are people who insist on reading it literally. These people will continue to believe that the Genesis story is a literal description of how God created the universe. Unfortunately, this means that usually any discussion such as you had is an exercise in futility, as the saying goes.

If you want to try to engage in an educated discussion about creation, you might begin by pointing out that the Book of Genesis actually offers two creation stories--chapter one and chapter two--and they cannot be reconciled into one account. That alone would seem to discount a literalist interpretation, for how do you choose which one to believe? A simple phrase for appreciating the complementary roles of science and religion is: "The Bible tells us that God created the world. Science tells us how God created the world."

At the beginning of such discussions it would be good to ask the other person if the Bible can be submitted to the same principles of literary criticism that every other writing is. If the answer is no, there is, unfortunately, no real discussion that can follow.

Q 6: Who was responsible for selecting what should be included in the bible since it was compiled long after Jesus died?

A 6: Only the New Testament books were written after Jesus died, and some of them shortly after his death and resurrection. From a Catholic perspective, the “canon” or list of scriptural books was determined in the middle of the fourth century by the Council of Nicea. This dealt primarily with the New Testament Books. However, for many years there remained differing collections of books in the Old Testament. The final (current) canon in the Catholic Bible was declared at the Council of Trent. The guiding principle for acknowledging canonical Scripture was the long and universal use of books in the church for public reading. The books that we now have in the bible fit that criterion.

Q 7: What happened to the other texts that were not selected for inclusion?

A 7: As with the previous answer, books that did not fit that principle were not included. The additional books you sometimes here about were either lost, or never considered inspired by previous generations of Jews and Christians. In either case, they were not used in the Church's public reading, and that was the guiding principle.

Q 8: I have read the Old Testament and find it diametrically opposed to the New Testament in the viewpoints it presents, especially in terms of justice. Is this a correct reading?

A 8: The Old and New Testaments are both the Word of God--God's self-revelation. On the surface they may seem to be at odds, or as you say, diametrically opposed to each other. We must remember that God did not speak through a Dictaphone. Both Testaments are attempts on the part of believing people to express their faith that God was a part of their lives in their times. In the process, their reflections are conditioned by the times in which they lived. Understanding, even of God's presence and action in our lives, is a process that takes time. The two testaments unfold over time. For us as Christians, we believe that the New Testament, or more specifically Jesus, is the fulfillment of the Old. God's revelation continues and reaches its fulfillment in Jesus. In that context, concepts of justice evolve with the human race and with our deepening understanding of God's love.

Q 9: Why does the Catholic Bible have more books than my King James?

A 9: The New Testament is the same in both so-called Catholic and Protestant Bibles. The difference occurs in the Old Testament where the Catholic edition of the bible includes Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom (of Solomon), Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch. There also are additional parts of Esther and Daniel. These books were preserved in Greek through the translation of the bible known as the Septuagint. It was a translation made by Jews before Christ and was commonly accepted by the Early Church.

As a reaction to the Christian use of the Septuagint, a group of Rabbis at the Council of Jamniah (circa A.D. 100), decided to create a canon that included only the 39 books that were preserved in Hebrew.

Some of the other seven books were originally written in Hebrew, but not preserved in that language. Large parts of these Hebrew books have now been discovered. The Catholic Church has always held that these books are part of the canonical Scripture--a position that was defined at the Council of Trent.

The Reformers wanted to translate the bible from the original languages of Hebrew and Aramaic. Since the additional seven books could not be found in Hebrew at that time, and since Luther believed that the canon of 39 books was universally accepted by Jews these books were left out. Discoveries during the last century indicate that the disputed seven books were in use by some Jewish communities. Today, most Protestant scholars consider these books to be inspired, and so many "Protestant" bibles include them under the title “Apocrypha”.

I would recommend the following bibles: The New American and The New Jerusalem--both of these bibles are published under Catholic auspices and therefore include all the books; The New Revised Standard Version and The New English--both of these are published under Protestant auspices and are available "with Apocrypha". In order to make certain that any non-Catholic bible you have includes all of the books, look for ones designated "with Apocrypha".

Q 10: In watching a documentary on Revelation, I became confused. Was the Old Testament still being written after Jesus died?

A 10: No. The Old Testament was not still being written after Jesus died. You might have received some confusing information about the various books that make up the Old Testament. While they were all written before Jesus, the canon, i.e. the list of the books to be included in the Old Testament, was not determined at the time of Jesus. That was done later. In fact, it was this lack of understanding that led to the two different editions discussed in the previous question. At the time of the Reformation, Luther asserted that the Old Testament canon (list of books) was already determined at the time of Jesus. That, however, was not the case, as the discoveries at Qumran and other sources now verify. Although certain books e.g. Exodus, were used by all Jewish communities, use of other books varied from community to community. For Catholics, the final determination was made at the Council of Trent.

Q 11: In one of your homilies, you spoke of the evolution in the Old Testament from polytheism to monotheism. I thought that the Old Testament showed a system of henotheism where one believes in a god without necessarily denying the existence of others. Is my understanding in error? Or would you say that the development in the Old Testament goes from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism?

A 11: Polytheism is the belief in more than one God. Archeological evidence has confirmed this polytheism in ancient Israel, certainly prior to the 8th century BCE (Before the Common Era). From at least the 6th century forward, it is undisputed that Israel is a monotheistic religion.

Your explanation of Henotheism is correct. However, this term is a modern invention. It was developed by historians attempting to reconstruct the religion of ancient Israel, without identifying it as polytheistic. Therefore, there would be no evolution from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism. This reconstruction of the belief of early Israel is tenuous at best. There is no need to apologize for the polytheistic elements in Israelite faith prior to the monarchy. After all, the development of the religion of Israel is gradual, and without question monotheism emerges by the 6th century BCE.

Q 12: In a number of homilies, you have stressed the fact that violence has never solved anything and will never solve anything, specifically referencing the current state of our world. You further suggest that God calls us to resist the urge to violence and always act in peace. Is this not hypocritical when He himself sent a flood into the world killing countless living people? Is this not a violent act? Is sending plagues into Egypt, killing the first born, not a violent act? How do you explain God's use of violence to achieve His objectives?

A 12: Since your question initially arises from your experience of Mass at the Catholic Center, you may know that I have a favorite rhetorical question to begin some of my homilies: "What kind of God do you believe in?" The question is not an idle one. I think that it informs all other aspects of our faith.

I cannot explain a God of violence, since I do not believe in that kind of God. The examples you raise from the Bible are not literal stories. God never destroyed people with a flood or sent plagues among the Egyptians. In fundamentalist Churches one might be led to believe such nonsense. However, authentic Christian Faith is not fundamentalist. In the Catholic Church, as in many others, we have the benefit of exceptional Scripture scholarship. Our Church teaches us not to read the Bible literally, and biblical scholars share with us knowledge of different kinds of writing throughout the Bible. This enables us to recognize and understand the use of myth in our sacred writings.

It is important to get this knowledge straight right from the beginning of the Book of Genesis with its various creation myths that reflect a profound sense of God's presence in our lives. We are then in a position to develop a much more enriching understanding of God. That in turn might lead to a more challenging and demanding human existence both in how we relate to God and to one another.

Q 13: Where in the Old Testament does it say that a Messiah is in the future for the Israelites?

A 13: The word "Messiah" means "anointed". Originally it was used as a designation for the king and the priest. Some passages seem to suggest that Messiah designates the nation or the patriarchs. In Greek the word Messiah is rendered "Christos", from which we get the English word, Christ. Your question seems more oriented toward the idea of messianism, which is very difficult to specify in the Old Testament. It represents a construct of ideas in which the future of the human race, or of Israel, is guaranteed even in the face of evil. This is seen in the Book of Genesis after the fall of Adam and Eve. Another development of messianism occurs in the promises and blessings given to the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis.

The most familiar concepts of messianism occur in the Psalms and in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In some of the psalms, the reference clearly is to the king, but in other passages no historical king is referenced, and these are usually interpreted as referring to an eschatological messianic ruler. In Isaiah there appear two themes of messianism, one based on the Davidic ruler whose kingdom is defined by he presence of Yahweh, and the other a non-political moral regeneration in which Yahweh is seen as the true creator of the messianic kingdom.

While there are other references to messianism, these provide a significant foundation for understanding the concept of the Messiah in the Old Testament.

Q 14: How is it that murder and violence are condoned by God in some sections of the Old Testament, contrary to his own commandment?

Q 14: The answer to that question lies in how the Old Testament, and the New Testament for that matter, came into existence. For that I would refer you to my other answers about the Bible. Here I would just remind you that the Bible is not the words of God given through some kind of dictation. It is the reflection of a believing people about God and their relationship to him and to one another. In trying to understand how God was present in their lives, they sometimes got it wrong. God does not condone violence, even in the history of Israel.

Q 15: If Heaven is God's free gift to us, couldn't we say that Hell is God's way of showing us that we have free will in accepting his gift or rejecting it? Wouldn't it then mean that if we reject Christ, we would go to hell, as it would be an expression of our free will to do so?

A 15: Although I have stated that Heaven is God's free gift to us, it is not as if God has offered a menu of choices. The concept of gift here is not meant to suggest that we can refuse to accept the gift. The word "gift" is used to emphasize that we do not earn salvation, or as one Cardinal William Levada, currently the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith once said while teaching in the seminary: "We cannot take Heaven by storm." There is nothing that you or I can do that will force God's hand in forgiving or saving us. As a matter of human living, we do have a choice. Often in our lives we choose to reject God's gift, just as we refuse to reject God's judgment that we (and all people) are good and made in God's image. This is what is meant by accepting or rejecting the kingdom, that is, God's power in our lives. When it comes to heaven, however, that is not a choice we make. Even for those who reject the kingdom while here on earth, those who refuse to accept God's reign in their lives, and refuse to build the kingdom, heaven is our inescapable destiny. Our free will is not an issue in regard to heaven. It is a critical issue in regard to how we live our lives now, and whether we make it possible for the kingdom to grow and God's reign to be effective.

Q 16: I recently had a disagreement with a Baptist friend of mine about interpreting the Bible. I brought up the examples of Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark, suggesting that these were myth. He insists on interpreting it literally and I disagree. Although he is a good person, what can I say to him?

A 16: You are right about not taking the Bible literally. Your friend may be a good person, but let me assure you that it is nearly impossible to speak at any length about the Bible with a fundamentalist. You will always be speaking on parallel planes. Know that you are correct in stating that the Bible cannot be interpreted literally. Your two examples of Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark are perfect. They are both mythological stories. They have a point to make that is true, but they are not history. You may have read a statement elsewhere in my writing. It is a quote I learned from a very good Scripture scholar. "The Bible does not tell us how God created the world. It tells us that God created the world." Our faith assures us that God is the creator, and that we are not here by accident. However, it is the role of science to tell us how it all came to be.

Q 17: Why do you believe that Jesus didn't know he was going to be resurrected? He said that he was going to rise on the third day.

A 17: One potential problem with people picking up the Scriptures and just reading them is not knowing how they came to be or how to interpret them. Although it is a good idea for people to read and be familiar with the Scriptures, we need the help of scholars in order to know how to interpret them. In the Gospels, we have very few of the words of Jesus. This should come as no surprise, because each of the four Gospel writers had a different theological purpose and none of them was writing a history or life of Jesus. The authors reflect in their writing what the Church had come to believe about Jesus by the time each of the Gospels was written. For example, on the Second Sunday of Easter, we have the story of doubting Thomas. When Thomas encounters Jesus as alive, his response is "My Lord and my God." That is a statement of faith that developed over a long period of time, namely that Jesus was God. That is not a statement that any of the disciples could have made just days after Jesus' Resurrection. So it is with the so-called predictions of his Resurrection. Jesus did not know that he was going to be raised from the dead. That faith of the Church is projected backwards into the Gospels to enable the readers to move along with the faith of the Church as they read through the Gospel narratives. In fact, this also should not be a problem. If Jesus had known that he was going to be raised, it would have rendered his agony in the garden a sham. It was precisely because he did not know the future that his trust in God is so remarkable and stands as an example for us to follow.

Q 18: I am taking a class on the Old Testament and I am going to write my paper on the book of Job. I want to discuss the issue of how the righteous are often afflicted by God and those who know God have a certain burden to carry. Do you have any good references for such a topic? I often hear you quote others in your homilies so I wonder if you know any good references for the book of Job.

A 18: Perhaps no book of the Bible is as disconcerting as the Book of Job. It is one attempt to deal with evil and the apparent injustice of the innocent who suffer. There are two resources you might find helpful. The first is a book entitled, “Answer to Job” by C.G. Jung. The second is an imaginative work entitled “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” by Robert Sutherland.

Q 19: On one Passion Sunday you spoke about the fact that Jesus was 100% human as well as 100% divine, and that as a human being he did know the future, specifically that he would be resurrected. If it is true that he did not know the future, how did he know that one of the twelve would betray him, and how did he know that Peter would deny him three times?

A 19: For Christians, Jesus is both 100% human and 100% divine. Theologians speak of these two natures of Jesus as being held in "Hypostatic union", i.e., neither Jesus's divine nature could over power his human nature, nor the other way around. It is difficult for many people to come to terms with, but if we accept this very important part of our faith, we can realize that Jesus of Nazareth was a person like us in all things but sin (as Paul wrote). Then it is easier to understand that Jesus could not predict the future simply because he was also God.

The Gospels actually do not help in this matter. The first of the four canonical Gospels written was Mark, and it was approximately 30 years after the death of Jesus. During that time the Church had ample time to begin an understanding that is still deepening to this day. Over time as the Church came to understand the breadth of who Jesus is, as well as the extent of what the Church is, those understandings began to be written backward into the Gospel texts. In that same process, some things that had happened in the life of Jesus and had been handed on through oral tradition, became part of the written stories of the Gospels as well. This does not make all of them factual stories. In Biblical times the meaning of a story was more important that the facts. That would seem to be a reversal of the approach we take today and that might explain why it so difficult for some people to grasp the limitations in the knowledge that Jesus possessed.

This is not meant to suggest that Jesus had no premonitions or insights into his impending death. He was, after all, in close prayer and communion with his Father. Jesus was able to read the signs of his times, and as such it is perfectly logical to think that Jesus understood that continuing the work of his father would lead to rejection and possible death. Even though there is no evidence that Jesus knew he would be resurrected, it was his close relationship with the Father that enabled him to so completely trust God. Regardless of what would happen after dying, Jesus knew God would take care of him and so he placed himself into those loving hands.

Q 20: At yesterday's Mass the Gospel was taken from Luke. The passage about Lazarus being outside the door, begging for scraps. The man in the fine linens didn't help him. When they died, the rich man went to flames and Lazarus went presumably to heaven. In the homily, the priest, (a very nice guy, by the way. Younger priest, active with young folks, a good guy overall), said "people will try and tell you that there is no heaven or hell and when you die that's it....OR they may tell you everyone gets to heaven...but don't you believe it. Here in this gospel we have definitive proof of an afterlife and of a heaven and hell based on choices we make in life..."

Now, to my way of thinking today, it doesn't say the rich man was in hell. He could have been in purgatory. I think he was in a serious state of  purification/torment vis-a-vis his purgatory. Maybe I'm wrong. But it made me think of you. You see, before happening upon your website 7 or 8 years ago, I'd have gone into a tailspin from yesterday's gospel and sermon. I'd have been anxiety-ridden. You helped me think differently and it's improved my life. Thanks.

A 20: I am very pleased I was able to assist you. As for the priest yesterday, there are several problematic issues. Let's start with the Gospel story itself. It is just that--a story. This particular passage is an attempt to draw out some kind of compassion from people, regardless of their own means, for people of lesser means, especially the sick. As a side comment, this particular Gospel story is a colossal failure in modern America. But back to the story. It is not a factual event. Perhaps worse, the priest demonstrated a phenomenal lack of Catholic teaching and understanding about the Scriptures, namely, that we do not interpret the Bible literally. And even if we did, this is still just a story--even a literalist interpretation cannot sidestep that reality. It should also be noted that modern scholarship is not restricted to the Catholic Church. Scholars from multiple Protestant denominations, as well as the Anglican Communion, teach the same about the Scriptures. They simply cannot be taken literally.

A second problem with the priest's homily is that he appears not to have a very educated or developed notion of hell. In this story about the rich man and Lazarus, the translations do not use the word "hell". They speak of "Hades" or the "netherworld". It is simply not correct to equate these terms. In fact, among the most popular English translations the word hell occurs (depending on which translation you use) between 13 and 15 times in the entire bible. The NAB, NJB, KJV, NIV--13 times; NRSV--15 times. Even in those very rare uses, hell, as we know and understand it today, was simply not a Biblical concept.

It is unfortunate, and I am more than a little embarrassed, that I have to defend Catholic Scholarship to priests who are so careless. He may very well be a nice guy. I am certainly not in a position to judge his character, his personality, or even his intentions. I can state that his education is deficient, and I do suspect that there is some attempt to control the decision making of people through fear, rather than, as I believe Jesus did, to inspire change. To be fair, if intimidation is one of this your priest's motivating factor, there is a depressingly long history of it in the Christian faith and in the Catholic Church, specifically.

I believe that the the Scriptures are far more supportive of the notion of universal salvation than they are of a condemnation that arises from and results in some modern understanding of hell.


Q 21: I think I understand what you say about the devil. But if he does not exist, then how do you explain the temptation of Jesus in the desert? Was Jesus just suffering from some hallucination? And if the devil does not exist, where does evil come from? Did man's inhumanity to man originate with Cain and Abel?

A 21: First of all, let's take a look at the temptation stories in the Gospels. The Gospels do not comprise a history book. They are theological reflections on the person of Jesus and his mission in the world. The temptation stories demonstrate Jesus' dependence on God and his refusal to replace God with any other power. In that regard they serve as remarkable examples for us. As we have probably all discovered, it is too easy to supplant our dependence on God, whether we choose rely on some political powers or economic system. Whether we choose our own instant gratification, or take comfort in the honor others bestow. Jesus chose none of these. He emerged from temptation with a stronger reliance on God.

As to the origin of evil, that is far more complex. Although the story of Cain and Abel is an attempt to explain the devastating effect evil has on us, even to the point of tearing apart our families, evil pre-dates Cain and Abel. Some people see evil as originating in the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This is, first of all, part of the poetry of Genesis. Even so, it is important to note that the serpent is never referred to as the "devil" or "Satan". The Book of Genesis does not portray the serpent as the source of evil. It would be more accurate to suggest that Genesis sees evil as being with humans from the beginning. If there is an origin to evil, it would be in the inability of Adam and Eve to resist temptation. In that sense, evil emerges from within us. Jesus' refusal to give in to his temptations assures us that we also can resist the temptations we encounter, thus reversing the effects of the weakness or "sin" of the first humans.


Q 22: CNN recently ran a story entitled John Dominic Crossan's "Blaphemous" Portrait of Jesus. The story tells of Crossan's work as a biblical scholar and his books that call into question long held beliefs about Jesus, such as his divinity, the way he lived, whether or not he worked miracles, etc. What about the doctrinal statements about Jesus? Is this not a danger to the faith of millions of Christians?

A 22: Many of Crossan's critics are overreacting. There is a great fear among people when they are challenged to confront what are, for them, foundational beliefs. This fear crosses all religious boundaries and even surfaces in other areas of our life, such as family, community and politics.

It seems to me that some of Crossan's claims about Jesus are a stretch, and that he presents too dogmatic a picture of Jesus, as if his insights are absolute. That would appear to be the same problem that many religious groups and authorities have. Clearly, Jesus is greater than the ability of the human mind to grasp--at least for those of us who consider him to be divine, the promised savior, etc.

Still, we are continually learning more about Jesus. The Gospels, themselves, are statements of faith in Jesus. They are not a history or "life" of Jesus. At the same time they contain elements of history that enable us to pursue an understanding of Jesus by understanding the world in which he lived and the circumstances he had to confront. Everything that can be said about Jesus has NOT yet been said and never will. So, comprehending the ideas and insights of others (even those who do not fully hold to our beliefs) should not be a crisis in faith. We do not need to accept everything that someone else says, even when that person is a scholar. It is part of the experience of being on an unfinished journey.

There is another dimension that Crossan brings to faith in Jesus that goes beyond his historical reality. I believe that even if the insights of Crossan are eventually rejected, or in the future are proved to be inaccurate, he does a great service by humanizing the person of Jesus. It has always amazed me that essential to the Christian Faith is a belief that Jesus is equally human and divine. What amazes me is that the vast majority of Christians will accept the divinity, but not the humanity. We emphasize the divinity of Jesus to such an extreme that the equally orthodox belief in his humanity is diminished almost to the point of rejection.

Perhaps many people who struggle with the humanity of Jesus do so from an unintentional Calvinist belief that humanity and the flesh are fundamentally evil. That is not only a rejection of authentic Christian doctrine, it is also an insult to the God who would choose to become human--precisely what Christianity claims happened in the Christ event.

A more thoughtful approach to Crossan's work would be to nuance his insights into the life of Jesus in an attempt to more fully understand who Jesus really was and is. That, I believe is what Crossan himself is trying to do.


Q 23: Who actually wrote the Bible? I was speaking with my boyfriend the other night and he asked me that question. I told him that the Apostles did. Then he told me that we don’t know who wrote the Bible. Can you please clarify?

A 23: The Bible was written by many people over hundreds of years. Much of the Bible is an attempt on the part of ancient Israelites and Christians to reflect on their life situations and how God was involved in their lives; to reflect on their relationship with God and on their relationship with others. Since events, interpretations and understandings change over time, there are contradictions in the Bible. This does not mean that the Bible is not true. It simply is not history or science. The people who wrote it did their best to answer the questions they faced in their time, and sometimes those answers were different from previous generations.

Sometimes fundamentalist Christians will say that God wrote the Bible. That is true only in the sense that God inspired people to reflect on the important questions of their day. In the process, they did not write history. Frequently, they did not even write fact. But they wrote truth. Meaning, that in their writing we can divine some of the truth about God and life. Much as we do in the work of poetry or fiction. These can still tell truth about life. As for the Scriptures, scholars have helped us to identify the names of some of the authors, the dates during which they wrote, and the circumstances and situations they faced.

Although we speak of the Bible as the Word of God, it is better to say that the Bible is the Word of God in the words of the men and women who wrote it.

Q 24: Your answer was helpful. However, how did God inspire people to reflect on important questions of their day?

A 2: In traditional language, we would say that someone is "inspired" by the Holy Spirit. However, that is a spiritual term for which there is no objective validation. People can be inspired in many ways, including the desire to understand God, or to advance science, or to contribute to the arts (painting, music, poetry, etc). At least in terms of religion--of reflecting on God's activity in our lives--the source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit.

The question then arises, how can we be sure that someone is inspired, or that what they write is true or is from God? For Christians, the Holy Spirit dwells within the entire community of the Church. While certain individuals, or groups of individuals can be wrong about certain aspects of the Faith, the entire community cannot be wrong. Therefore, if someone's work is inspired, it must be in harmony with what the Christian community, as a whole, believes. This is why there were books written in Biblical times that were not included in the Bible--because they contradicted what the larger Church believed.