DENVER, Colorado – These biblical commandments probably sound familiar: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
These might not: Do not shave your beard with a razor. Do not wear garments of mixed fibers. Stone adulterers.
In a new television show on CBS, main character Chip Curry, a film critic for a New York paper and soon-to-be father, sets out to improve his moral life by following every law in the Bible – all 613 of them – as literally as he possibly can, with the help of his ‘God squad’, which includes a rabbi and a Catholic priest.
The premise of the show is based on the 2007 New York Times bestseller A Year of Living Biblically, in which author A.J. Jacobs describes his real-life journey of taking the Bible as literally as possible for a year.
While the results in the show and the book are largely comical and portrayed in good humor (at one point a pebble is chucked at a cheating spouse), following every law ever given by God to the letter is nearly impossible, and not what Catholics are called to do, biblical scholar Andre Villeneuve told CNA.
“Good luck if you really want to try to live the Old Testament completely literally,” Villeneuve, who has a doctorate in biblical studies and teaches at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colorado, told CNA.
“It would mean you would have to stone your son if he’s rebellious and doesn’t listen to you. You would have to stone adulterers. You would have to check every time you approach a woman that she’s not on her period because you’re not allowed to touch her,” he said, “a lot of these things that have to do with purity which are really frankly awkward and would be really problematic, if not impossible, to observe.”
The problem with such literal fundamentalism, he said, is that it doesn’t read and interpret the Bible in light of salvation history and in light of the intent of the laws given by God.
“The 613 commandments in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Bible, they were given to Jews to begin with, so it’s ridiculous for anyone, whether a Catholic or Christian, to say they’re going to live by all of these commandments, because they were never given to Gentiles,” he said.
Some of these commandments still stand, however – most notably, the 10 Commandments. When Christ came and established a new covenant, the apostles decided which laws were still meant to be followed by Christians, and which laws pertained only to Jews, Villeneuve said.
“What the (apostles) did is…they saw the law as divided into three categories – the moral laws, the ceremonial laws, and the judicial laws,” he said. “So what has been considered to be universal and perennial and never to be changed are the moral laws, which are the 10 Commandments and their interpretation.”
The ceremonial laws related to Jewish worship, and the judicial laws related to matters such as what kind of compensation you can expect if your neighbor’s animal comes onto your property, are not binding for Christians.
Catholics can distinguish which laws of the Bible to follow and what it means to follow them by reading the Catechism and following the teachings and traditions of the Church, Villeneuve noted.
“The easy answer … is that today we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the third part is called Life in Christ, or the Moral Law. That’s where you can see the Catholic interpretation of the Ten Commandments in light of Jesus’ teaching, and the apostles and the teachings of the Church,” he said. “It’s essentially extracting what is universal about the commandments without taking up all the specific commandments that were given to Jews in their times and culture.”
Even the Jews do not follow and interpret all of the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible exactly literally, Villeneuve noted.
As an example, he pointed out that the law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” may seem cruel at face value, but it was never interpreted literally, even by the Jewish people.
“It doesn’t mean literally gouging out an eye, it means what is an eye worth as far as livelihood, quality of life … and therefore your neighbor should compensate you by so much, by paying you back,” he said. “It’s read and interpreted in a way that’s not literal.”
“The bottom line is that the fundamentalist reading of scripture doesn’t work; even the Jews don’t live that way,” Villeneuve added.
“We don’t read scripture in a vacuum, we don’t believe in ‘sola scriptura’ (the Protestant doctrine of ‘scripture alone’), but it’s always read in light of Christian tradition and the teachings of the Church and the magisterium.”