Like many good Catholics, I had never read the whole Bible.
In 13 years of Catholic grammar and high schools, I heard the big texts, mostly from the Gospels: Parables, the Passion, the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t recall hearing much about the Old Testament beyond the cool stories like Creation or the Flood that even non-religious people know.
(And we never called it Hebrew Scripture; it was always “the Old Testament.”)
Graduate study in medieval and church history didn’t bring me into contact with more than scriptural excerpts or proof texts.
One of the gifts of Vatican II was the opportunity to hear more of God’s word during the liturgy. Aside from the psalms, there was not much from the Hebrew Scripture heard at a Catholic Mass before the 1960s — and not much New Testament Scripture, either. A one-year cycle of readings drew on an astounding just 1% of Hebrew Scripture and 17% of the New Testament.
Then, in 1963, Vatican II’s liturgy document Sacrosanctum concilium opened to door to more of the Bible for Catholics in the pews. Eventually, a three-year cycle of readings expanded the selections for Sunday Mass and all were read out in the community’s language instead of Latin. Now, 14% of Hebrew Scripture (still a startlingly low number since it makes up about 2/3 of the Christian Bible ) and 71% of the New Testament are employed.
I’d been looking for an excuse to read the whole Bible through, first word to last, so in my mid-40s I decided to write a book about wisdom and age in the Bible. It took me four months to read the whole Bible, and it opened my eyes to all sorts of things beyond getting frustrated with the maddeningly thin pages in such a thick book.
You’re struck immediately with the fact that the Bible is an anthology: Different genres written by different hands and voices over many centuries and diverse contexts. It’s not long before you realize no one can say “the Bible says” and pull out a proof text to support their position — though they do all the time. Contradictions and paradoxes abound.
At times, life imitated Scripture. I’d heard the Ten Commandments a zillion times, but never while waiting for my name to be called in a jury duty pool. That experience made me think about coveting, honoring, and bearing false witness in a very real way. (Too bad I got dismissed.) It’s also a more emotional experience than I expected.
You find a roller coaster of highs and lows from the elation of Simeon and Anna meeting the baby Messiah to the crushing abandonment of the Hebrews in Babylon.
You’re struck quickly by how much more there is beyond religion and spirituality. It’s like Game of Thrones in the ancient Middle East: Politics, in-fighting, meddling, back-stabbing, lying, and cheating cut by long patches of narrative and then heart-breaking lamentations interspersed with soaring poems of praise.
And such repetition: Chronicles and Kings tell many of the same stories. Deuteronomy is like reading the tax code. Numbers is…numbing. But then the action is back: There’s an awful lot of sex (shall we politely call it “begatting”?) and violence. God can get pretty angry: Think of the Flood. It’s intimidating.
There were many surprises. Take Genesis. Who knew that Sarah and Pharaoh flirted — not once but twice? Or that Abraham and Sarah pretended to be brother and sister? And then, as it turns out, they were in fact half-siblings.
I’d never heard that Abraham married again after Sarah died, taking Keturah as a wife and having six sons with her. It was unsettling to learn that wise King Solomon ended his life as a fool, hoodwinked by his pagan wives into building altars to sacrifice to their many foreign gods.
It was also fun to meet Biblical people who were hiding in plain sight. Everybody knows Job, God’s faithful follower who loses everything but refuses to curse his Lord. But who has heard the name Elihu, in many ways the wise star of Job’s own Biblical book? Job’s friends nudge Job to abandon God, who apparently abandoned him.
It is Elihu, the youngest who held his tongue in deference to his elders, who speaks the truth. Wisdom does not necessarily come with age, Elihu teaches. It is living according to God’s plan and recognizing that God’s sense of timing is different than ours.
It’s comforting to encounter the whole range of basic human emotions. You realize these great Biblical heroes and heroines were just people trying to figure things out —like you and me. They are happy like Naomi is when her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth marries Boaz and they have a son named Obed. They are questioning like Mary who wonders how as a virgin she can become pregnant or Zechariah who’s struck mute because he doubts his elderly wife Elizabeth will have John, later the Baptist. They bargain with God, as Moses does in trying to get God to forgive the Hebrews worshiping a golden calf because they’d quickly forgotten their Red Sea escape.
Reading the whole Bible straight through also helped me appreciate the genius of the selections behind the liturgical seasons. Mass readings walked me through the rhythm of a year in the Church’s life: The patience and waiting of Advent, the solemn sadness of Lent, the joy of Easter and Pentecost, and the grinding everydayness of “ordinary time” the rest of the year. There is pain and glory, despair and exultation, but also the drudgery of daily decisions.
Above all, whether you read the Bible straight through or pay attention to the progress of the Mass readings through the liturgical year, there is encouragement: People keep screwing up yet are forgiven. David does well, then lets his lust and anger get the better of him. Rebecca and her son Jacob trick the old man Isaac into getting his blessing and cutting Esau out of his inheritance. Jesus allows Peter to walk on water, but Peter starts to sink when he loses faith. He proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God and then denies him three times. Yet all of these Biblical characters are forgiven.
Reading the Bible straight through is reassuring, in the end, because it tells a messy story about messy people sometimes in a messy way. It reminds us that the world has been a field hospital long before Pope Francis used that phrase to describe the church. As our pope often tells us — and as we see when we read the Bible — again and again, despite our failings, God tells us: Trust Me.
Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Kean University in Union NJ. His books include Renewing Christianity and his latest, Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible (both from Paulist Press).