You may remember my mentioning, in 2016, a professor of New Testament named Amy-Jill Levine. I have been thinking about her Jewish perspective on how Christians respond to their own Scriptures, and I remember especially her question to Christian pastors: “Do you know the Bible, or just the lectionary?”
First of all, you and I as Catholic Christians can take great pride in the 50 years that we have had our Sunday lectionary, which allows us to proclaim the Scriptures on a three-year cycle, and the weekday lectionary, which has a two-year cycle for Ordinary Time and a one-year cycle for the other seasons. Our lectionary is the basis for Sunday lectionaries which have been adopted by numerous Christian denominations.
We all know that our familiarity with the Sunday Scriptures has gone through much evolution. I don’t think I caricature early lectors (including me) when I remember that we tended to hold to a standard set by Walter Cronkite. We did not have the noise of teletype machines in the background. Even so, we were journalistic in shying away from putting much emotion or drama into our delivery. On the other hand, “That’s the way it is” seems to be in keeping with presenting the Bible.
Looking back across 50 years, I recognize that my faith has been shaped by my regular hearing of the proclamation of the Word of God at Mass. By now we know the difference between “reading” the news and “proclaiming” the Good News. We know that we are to study the Scriptures deeply and proclaim them with deep feeling.
But to get back to Levine’s question. Even with our current lectionary cycles, we do not begin to hear the entire Bible at Mass, even if we go regularly to weekday Mass. So, yes, it must be a priority for us to read the entire Bible on our own. This is an even greater priority for proclaimers and preachers of the Word of God.
I have read the entire Bible twice. Both of these projects took place, however, in the 1970s. Since then, I have found myself compelled to look deeply into the texts I am going to preach on. This has left little time for another broad survey.
I am looking forward to reading a new English translation of the Hebrew Bible as done by Robert Alter and published in 2019 by W.W. Norton. One aim of this new translation is to convey some of the effects of the Hebrew language to readers in English.
Here is an example, from Genesis chapter 1. In English we are told that, when God began to create, he looked out upon a “formless waste.” In Hebrew the expression is tohu wabohu, a rhyme! Alter manages to use alliteration as he translates tohu wabohu as “welter and waste.”
I trust that there are numerous such touches to be found in Alter’s new translation. I hope to make this reading my closest approach to the broad Biblical surveys of decades ago.
Some of us might question the need to approach the Bible for its “literary” or “poetic” qualities. We are, of course, wary of a reductionism which would assert that the Bible is “only” literature or “only” poetry. Picking up and studying the Bible with the eyes of faith, however, we must start with an appreciation for the Bible’s literary and poetic value. From that point of appreciation, who knows where God will take us!