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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

The Paulist Biblical Commentary

Edited by Jose Enrique Aguilar Chiu, Richard J. Clifford, S.J., Carol J. Dempsey, O.P, Eileen M. Schuller, O.S.U., Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup, P.S.S.,

Reviewed by Dr. Eugene Fisher

This excellent volume represents a major accomplishment in Catholic biblical scholarship in the 21st Century. It summarizes biblical scholarship for those who are not academics, though academic biblical scholars will be delighted to read it as well. As noted biblical scholar Donald Senior, C.P. of Catholic Theological Union notes in his introduction, it is written from a pastoral point of view, for those who “turn to the Scriptures in their ministry: preachers, religious educators, teachers, liturgy planners, spiritual directors,” and those who fill numerous roles in parishes and dioceses, in other words the educated laity (p. xiii).

The book contains “pastorally sensitive” commentaries on each book of the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, following the Catholic canon of the books to include and the order in which they are presented. This differs a bit from Protestant and Jewish biblical texts, though this too is explained.

There is an ecumenical flair to the commentaries, since solid biblical scholarship in the 21st Century takes into account the work of all those who consider the books of the Bible to be divinely inspired: Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Senior notes at the end of his introduction that biblical scholarship is still a work in the making, that the goals of Catholic biblical renewal have not been fully achieved. But as he says, the volume is “a remarkable resource and instrument of the Spirit's ongoing work among us. Thanks be to God!” (ibid.)

The volume contains helpful maps indicating the geography of the Near East before and after the Exodus, at the time of the monarchy of Israel, during the period of the New Testament, and tracing the journey's of St. Paul. At the end (pp. 1615 to 1650) there are general articles dealing with the Bible in the life of the church, the history of the Biblical period, the development and canonization of the texts of the Bible, Jewish and Christian traditions of interpreting it, monotheism, and the Christian Bible as we know it today.

Interspersed in the chapters dealing with each book of the Bible are overview essays on the Pentateuch, Wisdom Literature, Prophetic Literature, the Gospels, and St. Paul's Life and Theology. The authors of the general articles and those dealing with each book of the Bible are in the main Catholic, with the notable exception of that on the Jewish tradition of reading the Hebrew Scriptures.

The chapters differ in how they are conceived and organized, depending on the nature of the book being discussed. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., presents Genesis, with and introduction to the book as a whole, then its literary characteristics, authorship and composition, a summary of the religious understandings of the patriarchs and matriarchs, its ancestral narratives and how what is in fact pre-history is understood, an outline of the book as a whole, a brief bibliography, and a commentary on each section.

The chapter on Exodus defines its literary setting within the Pentateuch, its audience as well as its authorship, literary characteristics, a four-part summary of its theology (which is a key to the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole), its continuing influence on Judaism and Christianity, bibliography an d overall commentary, again section by section, with an emphasis on Covenant and its requirements. This continues as the basic pattern for each book of the Bible.

I highly recommend this book for all educated Catholics, and note that it will prove of interest to Protestants as well. I do have a couple of caveats, however. The first is its us of “Old” Testament to describe the books of the Jewish Bible and those included in the Septuagint but not in the Jewish Bible. There is nothing “Old” about the Hebrew Scriptures. They are the inspired word of God and are forever new, in all meaningful senses of that term. Indeed, the notion of calling these books “old” goes back to the early Church and to heretics like Marcion of Pontus, who argued the “old” books had been superseded and replaced by the books of the “new” testament. Many Catholic biblical scholars today therefore prefer to use “Hebrew Scriptures” or “the Hebrew Bible” to refer to this major portion of the books of the Bible, even while continuing to use the term “New Testament” for the Christian books. One can see this in the articles of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

Second, I would say that putting almost 1,700 pages into a single volume, weighing over six pounds, with two columns on each page and relatively small print, while it may have saved a bit of money on printing costs, renders it a rather difficult book to read. It might cost a bit more to have the book in, say, three volumes instead of one, with larger print, but it would have made it far easier to handle and to read. It is worth the effort, of course, but in a book designed for pastoral use one would have thought of the practical importance of maximizing its accessibility to readers, physically as well as intellectually


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