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God, The Author of Scripture | Preface to God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.

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This book is the work of an amateur. An "amateur", from the Latin amare, is one who hastens toward the things he loves, without constantly checking that the ground he treads on is solid, recovering by his next step the balance he lost in the last, uncertain one. Yet in spite of this too simple apology; the pages that I now offer for publication cause me a little misgiving. I am afraid that in writing them I have succeeded only too well in forgetting what I know about textual or literary criticism. When I set forth certain precepts of the law, the Elohistic and Deuteronomic codes intermingle without the least constraint. Traits in the character of Moses are gathered from Yahwistic, Elohistic and sometimes priestly traditions as though it were quite in order to unite their witness without learned preliminary discussions. The Books of Exodus, Ezekiel and Revelation converse together like old friends, without any introduction. I am therefore afraid that those who peruse these pages may be shocked to find me regarding the Bible as the work of a single author. I am aware that a work cannot be called serious--in the critical sense--if it springs from such an old-fashioned idea. So it must be clearly understood that in this sense the present work is not serious.

However, I bring myself to publish it because I have come to the conclusion that reams written in an overcritical spirit run the risk of concealing the fundamental nature of Holy Scripture: a word of God spoken to his people today, spoken to you and me. Just before writing the ten chapters of this book, I spent ten whole years studying the Palestinian recensions of the Greek Bible made during the first century of the Christian era. This work is now in the hands of printers in Holland. [1] I do not belittle it, but I confess it brought me no new light whatsoever on the impact that the Word of God must have on my life. One could take a painting and write the story of the successive varnishings and cleanings it has undergone and discuss the changes of emphasis these have led to. One might write the history of the progress of the cracks in the Mona Lisa and seek to discover when it was that the crack joining the inner corner of the right eye to the right nostril first appeared, or the slightly winding one a little to the right of it. This has importance, for these two cracks make it difficult to perceive the transition from the nose to the cheek, both of which are equally clear, and yet are placed on two different planes. Since the Bible is the word of God, it is only right that much time and trouble should be given to the study of the various transformations undergone by its text. But the enlarged photographic effect thus produced has little connection with the viewpoint of lectio divina.

To take another example, the meaning of that strange figure nowadays called the Winged Victory of Samothrace is not revealed by the story of its mutilations or the remaking of its right wing and the left side of its torso. In its mutilated and half-restored form, the Winged Victory "exists" for us much more--though in quite a different way--than it did for those who contemplated it new in the temple of the Cabiri during the second century B.C. The rediscovery in 1950 of the palm of its right hand and the comparison of this with the fragments of fingers preserved in the museum of Vienne shed no light on the significance of our Winged Victory, whose unique characteristic suggests a bursting into the future, her headless bust borne up by wings to which the absence of arms gives true meaning. If the sculptor had produced his statue with neither arms nor a head, we should be shocked by so harsh a surrealistic conception. But the hazards of its decay have stripped it with impunity of all that detracted from its true meaning as a bastion of Greek civilization in our ageless Western culture. To grasp the idea of its flight, our attention must be fixed on the left wing, the only authentic one; but it is the mass of the restored right wing alone that enables the left wing to suggest soaring flight instead of want of balance.

Our Bible also, as the Churches of Antioch, Rome and Alexandria inherited it at the time of their foundation, is something unique, heir of a thousand transformations. Some books have been lost, others considerably altered. Centuries overlap, voices intermingle. Yet in this precise form it is for us the word of God. The Holy Spirit has willed to give it to us in this state; and if critical research is useful in helping us understand the steps by which it reached this state, its object should not be to replace it by a more primitive version. We must recognize that the form of the Christian Bible toward the end of the first century is its mature form, and that it possesses an internal coherence willed by the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration brought it to that maturity in which it was to become the sacred library of the people of the new and eternal covenant. And the kind of reading properly suited to this Holy Scripture is lectio divina, that is, a reading that looks upon the Bible as the work of a single author: God.

A work of "biblical theology", therefore, can be attempted only on two conditions:

1. The refusal to isolate a book, or even a Testament, since the Bible as a whole is as vitally integrated as a drama in five acts.

2. To keep the mind fixed on what God tells us of himself. If we fail to observe the first condition, we have no right to call our theology biblical; if we fail to observe the second, our biblical study cannot be called theology.

I will not insist on this paradox to the extent of saying that it would be better to ignore the literary prehistory of the sacred texts. But at all events, we must not be led astray into shifting and uncertain criticism. It is enough for the biblical theologian to know on which of the Victory's wings he prefers to concentrate; but I think little is to be gained by talking about it. Criticism can only help us to keep the relationship between the various texts in due perspective; occasionally this will set the synthesis of the whole in higher relief. On other occasions, however, nothing is to be gained by emphasizing the "relief" element, and a more telescopic perspective will bring out the fundamental unity of God's word. Whereas criticism comes near to certainty only by means of the precision of its minute analyses, biblical theology depends on the ability to form certain broad views, whether it is a matter of integrating ideas that are apparently opposed to one another, or of unifying what seem to be the heterogeneous stages of some development.

To distinguish the theologian's point of view from that of the critic, let us take another comparison. A newspaper reproduction of a photograph consists of a number of black-and-white dots. Imagine a reproduction that can scarcely be made out because it is blotchy, uneven and far too dark. The critic will make an analysis of the reproduction, carefully counting the black dots in one section after another. The theologian will hold the reproduction at arm's length in a good light and half close his eyes in the hope of making out some image. Since we are looking for an image to give meaning to the whole reproduction, the second method is the only sound one. Similarly, the way we should read the Bible will depend on whether or not the Bible has a meaning as a whole. If it has no meaning, the critic's analysis will be able to set down the bewildering heterogeneous details only where the darker shades predominate. But if the Bible does have an all-embracing meaning, analysis will have to give way to a general view, which implies that one must step back and bring both eyelid and iris into play. A keener look will be given only to certain details to check, in a particular case, the probability of an interpretation suggested by the more general effect. The texts used by the theologian in support of his general views will benefit by being presented in translations of varying degrees of literalness, depending on whether the intention is to show the tone of a whole passage at a glance, or to bring out some characteristic detail by a kind of photographic enlargement.

But it is by no means easy to take a sufficiently synthetic view of the fifteen hundred pages that make up the average Bible. To achieve such an end, one must begin by tirelessly delving into the whole Bible, so that it becomes engraved on the memory in broad, distinct outlines. When one is examining a particular text, the general outline must always remain in one's mind, so that a particular intuition may find its appropriate echo in some verse several hundred pages away. To take up a concordance and study a word analytically may help in giving precision to certain data, but it can never replace that casual conversation that goes on in the memory between the voice I am listening to today and another voice that I was listening to in a different part of the Bible several months ago, which I did not understand at the time. Moreover, if the verse that I am reading today--and which I have often read before, thinking I understood it--now speaks with a new voice, it is because several months ago I was struck by the tone of the other verse that I did not then understand. Now I become aware of a dialogue between the two, which previously I did not suspect.

It is not enough just to read and reread the Bible if we want it to speak to us. Let us go back to our comparison of a newspaper photograph that is hard to decipher. It would be easier for me to make out the meaning of this image if I already knew the reality it represents. In a way, one can even say that it is only possible to make out something one is capable of recognizing. I could recognize, even in a very bad reproduction, the features of a face well known to me, because these features are already engraved in my mind. The smallest shadows and reflections will have meaning if the object represented already dwells in my memory. But realities that are of no real interest to me do not remain as faithful guests of memory. For a voice to be recognized, it is not enough that we should have already heard it; it is at least necessary that it should have spoken to us in its normal tone. The man who has not yet identified the tone of God's word in his life will not be able to decipher the word of God in Holy Scripture. I shall never succeed in getting on to the wavelength where his voice can be recognized unless my loving silence is already at home on that wavelength.

Now that these principles have been put forward I cannot pretend to have applied them in the present work. It was only in the course of the work that they progressively came home to me, and I have tried to state them only now that this book is finished. I did not start out on these chapters with a preconceived plan, but here is the order they have ended up by taking: after briefly introducing the Christian to the Bible, and more particularly to the Old Testament, the first two chapters enter, by way of a beginning, into the problems of revelation and reparation that characterize the whole Bible. The eight chapters that follow do not strictly speaking deal in a uniform way with eight successive stages of God's work. Rather they give eight views on the Bible taken with filters that pick out certain colors in a multicolored whole. Just as a color reproduction is made by superimposing several one-color impressions from selective negatives, each of which is a photograph of the whole image, so, it seems to me, a balanced biblical theology can be obtained only if the reader's mind puts together several selective views taken from the entire biblical panorama. In each of these views, one part of the image will appear in special relief, since it is richer in the color chosen by this particular filter. And so I find that I have classified these views in the chronological order of the elements that they particularly emphasize. For example, in the third chapter what stands out most clearly is the coming of Moses on to the scene, while it is the Decalogue that gives character to the fourth. The fifth is concerned with the golden calf. The sixth brings out the personality of David and the seventh that of Hosea. The message of Jeremiah occupies the eighth. At the center of the ninth, the Holy Grail shines forth. In the tenth, we listen to the voice of the Paraclete.

We all know that faithful color reproduction is a difficult matter. The difficulty here is even greater, because the spectrum of the Word of God is not that of ordinary white light. It is far from easy to identify the elements that make up that perfect silence of colors which is the true light. We cannot simply focus a lens and capture on an impartially selective film one element in the spectrum of the Bible's essential radiance. One dominant color will tend to swamp the rest. A missing color will betray its absence by the consequent overemphasis of one of the others.

The text of this work has already been published in almost identical forms as ten articles in La Vie Spirituelle, from November 1961 to April 1963. The first eight were a much-edited version of the first six lectures in the Cours de Science Religieuse given in 1960-1961 in the Aula of the University of Fribourg. In this edition, a few glosses and further biblical references have been added as notes.

Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
Fribourg, Switzerland
March 10, 1963


[1] Fr. Barthélemy refers to his study of the early history of the transmission of the text of the Old Testament, a 'study that made use of the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. It appeared as Les Devanciers d'Aquila (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 10; Leiden: Brill, 1963).--ED.

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Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P., was an internationally recognized expert on Old Testament studies and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He was the author of a number of scholarly works on the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Old Testament. His work on the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as other scrolls, such as the Dodekapropheton (Twelve Prophets scroll) found at Nahal Hever, revolutionized the study of the historical development of the Greek texts of the Bible. For 35 years he was a professor of Old Testament at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

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