I remember reading somewhere recently – I’m afraid I forget where – the claim that the Catholic Church has, for the last 2,000 years, been trying to pull the wool over believers’ eyes by claiming that Jesus is divine when it knows full well that he cannot be. Such conspiracy theories about the Church are commonplace, of course, but this particular one refers specifically to some passages in the scriptures where Christ admits to ignorance or else seems to get things wrong.
A classic example of this would be Matthew 24:36, in which Christ says, apparently of the end of the world, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. And indeed, that verse is not read at Mass: the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent in Year A begins with the following verse. Very suspicious! It’s not even read at a weekday Mass. On the other hand, on the First Sunday of Advent the following year, we do hear Mark 13:32, which is completely identical.
Now, it is true that there are passages in the scriptures that make uncomfortable reading for Christians. Some are hard to reconcile with orthodox doctrine, like the one I have already mentioned. Others might emphasise aspects of Christ’s teaching that make us feel uneasy – mention of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the unquenchable fires of hell, for example, may seem to many people a little outdated at best. (Matthew’s Gospel is especially brimming over with such teachings.) Worse still, perhaps, are the passages of the Old Testament where the Lord commands the wholesale destruction of foreign cities, with all their women and children (eg Deuteronomy 7:1-2, Joshua 6 throughout…) or the stoning of misbehaving teenagers (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
It is also true that many of these OT passages are never read in church. I suppose it would not be too hard to come to the conclusion that the Church has tried, if not to stage a wholesale cover up, then at least to draw our attention away from these passages in favour of those that are more congenial. To a certain extent this is perfectly justified: there is much in the Bible that is never read, simply because it is far too long to get through it in any reasonable cycle of readings, and no-one is desperate to hear about all the names of temple musicians (1 Chronicles 25), or how many camels, donkeys and mules came to Jerusalem from Babylon after the exile (respectively 435, 6,720 and 245 – I’ll let you find this for yourselves as a fun puzzle).
Nevertheless, the Church does encourage the reading of scripture outside the liturgy. Every Christian should make this a part of their prayer life, and we should consider joining – or setting up – a scripture reading group such as the one we have in Holy Cross parish in Leicester, where we certainly do not skip over the tricky parts.
And indeed it is often the tricky parts that ultimately can be the most helpful, if we are willing really to engage with them. Passages such as the one I started with force us to ask questions about Jesus’s knowledge as a man versus his knowledge as God, about the relationship between ignorance and the human condition. Similar passages where Christ seems to promise that the second coming is imminent – imminent 2,000 years ago – have led me and others to think hard about how prophecy works, and the relationship between the divine plan and human response to the promises of God. We wrote up some of our conclusions in When the Son of Man Didn’t Come by Hays et al.
As for holy war and ethnic cleansing and the stoning of rebellious children, to my mind these passages are the hardest of all, and I continue to struggle with them. Part of the answer will be to read these things allegorically, and it is pleasing that some of the ancient and medieval methods of interpretation are undergoing a renaissance now. But the literal meaning still matters.
I know that there are some wrong responses: we cannot surely say, “Normally this would be wrong, but it’s OK if God commands it in a specific instance.” I think that would be a very slippery path. Neither will it do to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, things are different now.” Morality does not change, even if circumstances do. Most of all, we cannot pretend that such things are not found in the scriptures. The Bible is not for covering up, but for opening up – and so opening up our minds.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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