You probably do not know his name, or even that he existed, but Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) impacts your work every time you teach the Scriptures. Wellhausen was a Protestant German biblical scholar who is best known for the Documentary Hypothesis. Still puzzled? Simply put, Wellhausen addressed the centuries old doubts about whether Moses himself actually composed the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. He proposed that at least four authors—more likely, schools of authors—composed the Pentateuch, and probably the entire Old Testament, coming from different centuries and theological/historical outlooks. This theory, known as (literary) “form criticism”, is generally accepted today in all mainstream Christian scholarship, including that of Roman Catholicism. So, if you took an Old Testament course and did not learn about the J, Y, P and D traditions—get your money back!
The same systematic study has been applied to the Gospels, in a somewhat different fashion, after World War II. Scholars today compare the four Gospels to each other to see how each evangelist reworked the original Apostolic preaching. Remember, there is a 35 year gap between the death of Jesus and the first written Gospel, our B-Cycle hero St. Mark’s. This kind of study is called Redaction Criticism or editorial Criticism, which examines the literary style and theological outlook of each writer for the heart of the Revealed message.
One of the first major outcomes of this new scriptural message was a much greater appreciation of the term “kingdom of God” (or reign of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, depending upon the evangelist.) As you read St. Mark this year and hear him proclaimed in our current liturgical season, the mention of the Kingdom of God is frequent, and its signs abundant. Next Sunday's Gospel, for example, highlights how the power of God’s new kingdom extends into the world of demons. All of the Gospels speak of the Kingdom—St. John depicts Jesus as telling Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” The Our Father texts pray for the “coming of the Kingdom.”
And yet, the Kingdom remains elusive. Mark’s Gospel depicts the signs and wonders of Jesus as indicators that in some sense the Kingdom of God is already here, and yet Mark is the most forceful of the Gospels in predicting the awesomeness of its arrival in the future. Scripture scholar John Meier observes that the concept of “the kingdom of God” is unparalleled in Old Testament writing and in the contemporary thinking of Jesus’ time, giving us reasonable confidence that the term did originate from the lips of the historical Jesus.
Study and teaching of the Kingdom of God as the term is used in the Gospels is critical to faith formation in a number of respects. In the first instance, the very idea of a coming fulfillment, a visitation by God the Almighty (probably synonymous with the “Second Coming”} is the “wild card” of Christian existence, just as it was in Jesus’ contemporary Jewish milieu and the reason that Jewish leaders sought to kill him. The judgmental mysterious shadow of the Kingdom is an authoritative power to be reckoned with; or, as Mark put it, Jesus “taught with authority.”
The ever present reality of God’s coming Kingdom prevents Christianity from settling into a routine apathy of observance and mediocrity. The coming Kingdom will divide us into sheep and goats, wheat and weeds. We are accustomed to pushing thoughts of the end times into an indefinite (read: ineffectual) future. John’s Gospel, written some years after Mark’s, raises the ante: Jesus declares in John that a man’s decision to accept Jesus in the present moment is his “judgment.” Put another way, John’s point is that the Kingdom of God arrives at the moment we are confronted by the Word of God, and we make our choice at the moment of hearing. I believe it was the famous Protestant scholar Rudolf Bultmann who defined successful preaching as rousing in the hearer the desire to be baptized or born again. Mark and John, in different ways, are both clear that the future Kingdom is also now.
We talked earlier this year about the selection of the Sacred Scripture for the Catholic Lectionary of Readings, and I noted that the entire Bible, not even the four Gospel units, is proclaimed in the full three-year cycle. I have always entertained the idea that some passages of the Gospel have not been included in the Sunday Cycle for the simple reasons that they are shocking, perhaps incomprehensible, and extremely challenging to preach upon. Lest anyone is scandalized by this observation, I can tell you that whenever I took up the family Bible in my own home as a kid, I was reminded by my German relatives that the Bible was something of a dangerous book to be read independently. In all my years as an altar boy and Mass participant in elementary school, I can never recall anyone recommending from the pulpit a regular personal reading of the Bible. In fact, in truth I don’t hear such advice much today, either.
The Catechism of the Church, however, could not be blunter: “Access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.” (para. 131). With even more emphasis the Catechism states: “The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (para. 133) The Catechism includes here both the Hebrew or Old Testament books as well as the New Testament. The Catechism’s words are directed to all the baptized, not simply catechists and other Church ministers.
I do raise an eyebrow from time to time at what some parishes consider Bible study. I participated some years ago in a parish study group; the format involved about 20 of us sitting in a circle. The leader read a passage, possibly from the Sunday reading. We were told to go around the circle and each give a view of what the reading meant to us. There was a very elderly lady next to me for whom this posed quite a challenge, but she gamely gave it her best shot. Then, knowing that I happened to be a Scripture teacher, she turned immediately to me and anxiously inquired. “Did I get it right?”
This lady, God bless her, had inherited what many Catholics believe to be the nature of the Bible: a historical narrative with crystal clear right and wrong answers. The idea that the inspired Word has an infinite nature to it that only the reading, prayer, meditation, blood, sweat and tears of private study will gradually reveal is a foreign concept. Bible study groups, in my view, are pastorally fruitful when they serve as (1) organized study groups under a mentor, something like a graduate seminar, where the leader guides individual studies, provides background and resources, and keeps everyone on the reservation in terms of the Catholic Tradition of Bible interpretation; or (2) a faith nurturing environment in which participants can express the inspiration received by the studied Word and how they are putting it to use in their baptismal lives today. In other words, informed faith sharing.
I hasten to add, here, that we do not study Scripture individually to invent new egocentric interpretations. The Church enjoys two millennia of devoted churchmen, saints, scholars who have given their lives to seeking the wisdom of God’s word. Scripture study takes us into their experience. On following Tuesdays we can look at some strategies to begin our journey into the awesomeness of God’s holy Word.
The renewal of the Catholic Mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on April 3, 1969, made major revisions in the way that the Sacred Scriptures were proclaimed in the Eucharistic celebrations. In the previous missal the Sunday liturgy contained two Scripture readings: a selection from one of St. Paul’s Epistles, and a selection from one of the four Gospels. The same cycle of readings was repeated annually.
In 1970 Catholics around the world began to hear three Scripture proclamations at Mass. The first came from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament; the second from St. Paul, and the third from one of the Gospels. The Church introduced a three year cycle of readings to expose worshippers to a broader expanse of the revealed Word. I would like to put to rest, though, an oft repeated “blogger mythology” claim that Catholics will hear the entire Bible over the three year cycle. Far from it. If a Catholic went to Mass 365 days a year, that is, weekdays and Sundays over the entire three year cycle, he or she will hear 13.5% of the Hebrew Scripture and 71.5% of the New Testament. For Sundays only, the figure is considerably less. I am grateful to Father Felix Just, S.J. for his statistical breakdown. Cursory hearing of Scripture at Mass is not “Scripture study.” That is our work.
More to the point, the developers of today’s liturgical format designated that year A, B and C are devoted to specific evangelists. Thus, we are currently in Year B, which is the year of St. Mark. By the 1960’s the Church enjoyed enough confidence in its scholars to catechize its members to the unique nature of each Gospel through the Mass, and the importance of understanding the themes and emphases unique to each Evangelist. This, liturgically speaking, this is our year to follow “Mark’s Jesus,” so to speak, and what an intriguing and disturbing message emerges when this Gospel stands on its own two feet.
As you might expect, I will talk at considerable length about Mark’s Gospel on many Tuesdays to follow. But a few highlights need to be noted here. Mark’s Gospel is historically the first, and it was a major source for Matthew, Luke and John who wrote years later. This Gospel, probably written in the 60’s A.D. (at least thirty years after the crucifixion) is the only Gospel written before the Fall of Jerusalem. It is arranged around very primitive oral traditions of the first sermons of the Christians: that Jesus was a man sent by God to proclaim a new reign of forgiveness of sin, that God’s new reign was demonstrated by the deeds and works of Jesus. Because of the radical claims of Jesus, he was put to death, and any follower who took up his message would likely die with him to await God’s vindication. Even Jesus’ own townspeople thought he was crazy, or at least at the lunatic fringe.
Note what is not in this Gospel: no Christmas narrative, virtually no parables, no Sermon on the Mount, few prolonged teachings or disputations. The Resurrection account is all of eight lines and ends in confusion; three subsequent authors added protracted and less startling endings. For centuries Catholic scholars looked askance at Mark (though never questioning its revealed nature) as possibly deficient in comparison with the other three Gospels. It is only in modern times that we have come to understand this first Gospel as a reflection of how Jesus impacted his earliest followers.
This is not a comforting Gospel. Preaching and catechesis involving Mark is challenging. Listeners are disquieted. Talk of faith, abandoning all, carrying the cross, and trusting in life after the grave— this is the thrust of Cycle B, the year of Mark. If nothing else, do not succumb to the temptation of watering down the inspired intent of St. Mark.