Book explores what Bible says about being human

A recently released book explores what the Bible says about being human. “What Is Man? An Itinerary of Biblical Anthropology,” is the result of five years of study by scripture scholars and theologians on the Pontifical Biblical Commission. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cindy Wooden, Dec. 18, 2019, Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church believes the full meaning of human life, human relationships and human history is impossible to grasp without reference to God, but what else does the Bible say about being human?

The 20 scripture scholars and theologians on the Pontifical Biblical Commission spent years studying the question and came up with what the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith described as the first attempt to systematically read the entire Bible and draw out what it means to be human.

The result is a 336-page book, published in Italian, “What is Man? An Itinerary of Biblical Anthropology.” It is designed as a launching pad for further biblical, theological and philosophical study.

The basic vision of the document is informed by the opening chapters of Genesis — the creation stories — which the scholars said emphasize that human beings are special creatures called into relationships, first with God, then with each other as spouses, as parents and as brothers and sisters, including in the largest, global sense.

Far from picking and choosing individual passages to support an argument, the commission members note many places where biblical passages contradict each other and where the Bible seems to speak approvingly of behavior that does not match what Christians and Jews today would recognize as God’s plan for humanity, particularly regarding human dignity and equality.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the doctrinal congregation and president of the commission, said that in a time of questions and of changing beliefs and customs, the Catholic Church wants to promote “authentic progress according to God’s plan.”

But the questions and contradictions that arise within the Bible or from a certain way of translating or interpreting it “invite us to assume a humble and constant work of research, reflection and transmission” of Christian teaching, the cardinal said.

In humanity’s search to answer the questions “What is man?” and “What is the purpose of life?” millions and millions of people have looked to the Bible, a book “composed by a plurality of authors, although attributed to the same source of inspiration,” the Holy Spirit, the commission said.

The book insists that the Catholic approach to seeking answers in the Bible must be “obedience to the word of God,” but also to “the totality of Scripture,” rather than picking and choosing verses.

From that kind of study, the scholars wrote, the Bible does not give “a definition of the essence of man, but rather an articulated consideration of his being a subject of multiple relationships.” So, they said, you can understand the human person only by examining his or her relationships.

For believers, the first is the relationship with God, the creator, who made man out of dust and breathed life into him — two actions that situate the human person as being less than God, but having an intimate, life-giving relationship with him.

But things get more complicated very quickly when the Bible recounts in Genesis 1:27, “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” and in Genesis 2:22 when God casts a deep sleep over the man, removes a “rib” and makes a woman.

The biblical commission members, insisting the verses “do not intend to be accounts of what materially occurred,” noted that many interpretations of those verses have been used to subjugate women.

And, in fact, they said, the word “adam” in the Hebrew text sometimes is used as a proper name and sometimes refers simply to a human being.

A careful reading, they said, shows “it is not the solitude of the male, but of the human being that is rescued through the creation of man and woman.”

In God’s plan, they said, love is the impulse and command at the basis of all human relationships — in marriage, between parents and children, brothers and sisters — and of the solidarity and service that should exist among members of the human family.

“Even where there is postulated a certain equality between subjects — like in the relationship between husband and wife, as well as in relations between members of a civil or religious community — the Bible notes there is always a component of difference — or ‘inequality’ — that can give rise to envy, rivalry, oppression,” they wrote.

And love is what transforms those differences or inequalities into “an element of cohesion” and an occasion for giving of oneself and one’s time, they said.

On the question of marriage, the scholars said that “the anthropological perspective that the Bible promotes is that which recognizes in the loving relations between a man and a woman the realization of the plan the Creator wanted for the human being.”

But the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of “problematic aspects,” including male-female relationships that people today would call exploitative, such as culturally influenced practices like polygamy and concubinage, arranged marriages, mistreatment of women and an acceptance of divorce.

The scholars also looked at the treatment of homosexuality in the Scriptures, noting that “the Bible does not speak of the erotic inclination toward a person of the same sex, but only of homosexual acts. And those are treated only in a few texts, which are different from one another in literary genre and importance.”

The book dedicated several pages to the account in Genesis 19 of what happened in Sodom and the account in Judges 19 of what happened in Gibeah. In both cases, it said, what is condemned is not “a sexual transgression,” but pride and aggression toward a stranger or strangers needing assistance.

In the Old Testament, “only in the Book of Leviticus do we find a precise list of prohibitions regarding immoral sexual acts and among these is listed homosexual relations between males,” the book said. The point of the list, it continued, is to “safeguard and promote an exercise of sexuality open to procreation.”

The scholars cautioned, though, that Christians must preserve “the values the sacred text intends to promote, avoiding the literal repetition of that which bears traces of the culture of the time.”

The contribution of science and the reflection of moral theologians will be necessary to take the investigation of homosexuality further, they said. “In addition, pastoral attention will be required, especially with individual persons, to carry out that service of good that the church must assume in its mission on behalf of men and women.

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