Category Archives: Bible Scholars

Two TV Interviews with Bishop John Barres

I recorded two TV interviews with Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre and host Monsignor Jim Vlaun.

In this first conversation, we talk about the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture in general, the value of commentaries for Catholic faith and life, the long tradition of commentary writing, the growth in understanding of historical background, the need for the CCSS, the goals of Scripture study, Lectio Divina, and homily preparation.

Encounter – Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture Series, Part 1 from Catholic Faith Network on Vimeo.

The second conversation focuses on my volume in the CCSS on the Wisdom of Solomon. We talk about reading the Old Testament in light of the New (DV 16), the problem of over-specialization and the need for an integrated vision for Sacred Scripture, the date of Wisdom, the historical and literary background, Hellenistic Judaism, Alexandria, Solomon as a role model for Wisdom-seeking, the funeral reading of Wisdom 3, the hour of death, Wisdom’s critique of idol worship, the need to “love righteousness” (Wisd 1:1), and the illumination of the human intellect by the Wisdom of God.

Encounter – Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture Series, Part 2 from Catholic Faith Network on Vimeo.

Very Bloody Sacrifices


Recently, I had an email back-and-forth with my friend who was wondering about the bloody nature of Old Testament sacrifice.

The conversation begins with his inquiry:

I’ve been trying to learn details of how OT Temple sacrifices were actually done. I’ve found articles that distinguish the different types of sacrifices and describe what they are but nothing that gives a concrete picture of how they were done. On the principle that God taught the Jews how to offer sacrifice so they would be prepared to understand Jesus’ sacrifice of himself to atone for sin I’d like to learn more about what a First Century Jew would have seen and experienced at the Temple.

For example, commentaries and articles explain that a holocaust sacrifice meant burning up the animal completely. How did they actually burn up a full-grown bull completely? Seems like it would take a very large fire and take hours to fully reduce the carcass to ashes. If they offered ten bulls and 50 goats as a holocaust how did they do it? Seems like it would take all day and use a lot of wood. (The Romans are usually blamed for the deforestation of the region around Jerusalem. Was it actually the priests?)

Communion or peace sacrifices involved giving some of the meat of the animal to the worshipper that provided the animal to be eaten as a sacred meal. How was that done? Did the priest butcher the animal on the Temple Mount in front of the people, skin the animal and then carve it up into various pieces some of which were given to the worshipper to cook and eat. Where did the worshipper who brought a sheep from Nazareth go to cook and eat his part of the animal. Was eating their share of the animal a festive meal like Christmas dinner or a religious rite like the Passover?

If the apostles had understood what Jesus foretold they would have expected that Jesus was going to be the sacrificial victim to atone for the sins of the world and that they would eat of his flesh and drink his blood just as one did with temple sacrifices. What images and experiences would have been in their minds? When they later realized the full truth of what Jesus did and what it meant to eat his body and drink his blood how would that have affected them given their long exposure to Temple sacrifice?

Are there any books I could read on the subject? Any good articles or lectures?

My initial response, I’ll admit, did not answer every question, but here it is:

Your question is very important, and, unfortunately understudied. My sense is that Protestants, who make up the bulk of biblical scholars, care little for questions of liturgical procedure. These minutia are more interesting to Catholics, Mormons and Jews. One other problem is that many biblical scholars regard the ritual texts of the OT as mere fantasy and believe that they do not describe a real cult that actually existed.

A handful of scholars address the questions:

  • Haran, M. 1978. Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel. Oxford. (very expensive! A collection of the author’s earlier articles)
  • Jacob Milgrom –  a Jewish scholar who wrote multiple commentaries on Leviticus
  • Jonathan Greer – an evangelical biblical archaeologist –
  • Gary Anderson (at Notre Dame) has written quite a bit about OT sacrifice.
  • G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (an evangelical NT scholar, focuses on temple symbolism)
  • You might check out the work of the evangelical Leviticus scholar, Jay Sklar
  • Also of interest might be The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy by Margaret Barker.

Since the biblical texts are not specific enough, it only later in the Qumran material (Jubilees, Temple Scroll) and the rabbinic sources (esp. fifth division of the Mishnah, Kodashim: ; Available at Sefaria – ) that the details of the ceremonies are fleshed out. Again, for the rabbinic material, most scholars regard their comments as recalling an imagined past rather than actually describing real rituals. For some of that critique, turn here:

The classic text that tries to answer your questions is Alfred Edersheim’s The Temple—Its Ministry and Services ( ), but his work in general has been rejected as being uncritically and sometimes inaccurately reliant on rabbinic sources. However, he might be one of the best biblical scholar-authors at inspiring the imagination and filling out the picture.

My conversation partner later supplied a great quote about bloody sacrifice in the time of Julian the Apostate, which illustrates the gruesome nature of sacrifices:

Ammianus writes that “he drenched the altars with the blood of too great a number of victims, at time sacrificing a hundred bulls at once . . . he was called a slaughterer rather than a priest by many . . . and though he took offense at this, he controlled his feelings and continued to celebrate the festivals.”  Yet even despite such a spectacle as this, the ordinary people stayed home. “In the temples, after he had spent a long time with his tunic tucked up and sweating like a slave at quartering his victims, he would suddenly realize that almost all the spectators had quietly walked away.”  (Bennett, Rod. The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church (Kindle Locations 3670-3674). Catholic Answers Press. Kindle Edition.)

I was able to offer up a few things in response:

  1. That many scholars believe the Temple in Jerusalem had a drainage system to evacuate all the animal blood from the sanctuary
  2. That you can actually find a handful of videos of Jewish (and Samaritan) animal sacrifice on YouTube:


Here are a handful of takeaways from this wide-ranging conversation worth thinking about:

  • Old Covenant animal sacrifice was technical and bloody. To perform it properly involved a lot of logistical challenges like large amounts of fire wood, sufficient numbers of priests, caring for animals before they were sacrificed and disposing of their blood and remains properly.
  • Early Christian perceptions of Jesus as sacrificial lamb would be shaped by Jewish experience of animal sacrifice at the Temple. The shocking, violent nature of his death could be interpreted in light of the public slaughter and sacrifice of animals at the Temple.
  • While many scholars disregard the OT sacrificial cult as a fantasy or as unimportant, a serious consideration of its technical execution can help bring together insights from archaeology (as in the work of Jonathan Greer), liturgy and biblical theology. In fact, recently NT scholars have started to see “cultic language” all over the New Testament literature, emphasizing the centrality of Temple-worship in the consciousness of the earliest Christians.

What Did Ezra Read?

Today, the mass reading comes from Nehemiah, which reports the event of the priest-scribe Ezra reading the law of God to the Jews who have returned from the exile to the land. Here’s the report:

And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. (Neh 8:3 ESV)

So the question is what exactly is he reading? Scholars have put in a lot of sweat equity trying to figure out what exactly the “Book of the Law” was–Deuteronomy? The P material? Some early form of the Pentateuch? But of course, being scholars, they resort to bookish ideas to try to solve this problem of the book. I thought I’d lend a hand by introducing modern technology. 🙂 (That would be a rather Catholic Bible Student kind of thing to do anyway.)

So…here’s where mp3 files come in. Back in the 60’s a mellifluous rabbi recorded himself reading the entire Tanak aloud and a very kind webmaster, has turned these recordings into mp3’s for all of us to enjoy for free. If we can grant Ezra about 6 hours from sun-up to noon to read, then how long would it take to read the Pentateuch in its present Hebrew form?

Using the Mechon-Mamre recordings as our baseline:

  • Genesis – 4:31:59 (4 hours, 31 minutes, 59 seconds)
  • Exodus – 3:14:39
  • Leviticus – 2:07:22
  • Numbers – 2:55:12
  • Deuteronomy – 2:43:28

So, if he read the whole Pentateuch, it would take 15 hours, 32 minutes and 40 seconds, with no breaks! So…he didn’t have time to read the whole Torah. But he could have read all of Deuteronomy and all of Numbers. Or he could have read all of Deuteronomy slowly with breaks and stops for moments of explanation. 

How much of the Pentateuch can you read from sunrise to noon?

Cardinals who are Biblical Scholars

Now that the cardinals have entered the conclave, there’s not much to be said about anything besides white and black smoke. So, I thought I’d add to the non-discussion discussion by listing the cardinal electors I can find who are biblical scholars in some respect.

Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, S.T.L. (Gregorian), S.S.D. (Biblicum)

Cardinal Thomas Christopher Collins, S.S.L. (Biblicum), S.T.D. (Gregorian)

Cardinal Dominik Duka, O.P., S.T.L. (Warsaw)

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, S.S.D. (Biblicum – Jerusalem)

Cardinal Patriarch Antonios Naguib, S.T.L., S.S.L (Biblicum)

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, S.S.L. (Biblicum)

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, S.T.L (Milan), S.S.L (Biblicum)

Cardinal Robert Sarah, S.T.L. (Gregorian), S.S.L. (Franciscanum)

Cardinal Peter Turkson, S.S.L., S.S.D. (Biblicum)

Note that this is not a definitive list, so if you notice any cardinal electors who are biblical scholars not on this list, post a comment!

John Paul II on the Mission of Bible Scholars

John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission upon receipt of their document, the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In that speech, he outlined a few points regarding the mission of biblical scholars that I found helpful and motivating. Unfotunately, it’s not in English on the Vatican website, but it is in French. There’s an English translation of some excerpts here. Here are a couple quotes:

“To this end, it is obviously necessary that the exegete himself perceive the divine Word in the texts. He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.” (sec. 9)

“In order better to carry out this very important ecclesial task [the explanation of Scripture], exegetes will be keen to remain close to the preaching of God’s word, both by devoting part of their time to this ministry and by maintaining close relations with those who exercise it and helping them with publications of pastoral exegesis.” (sec. 11)

-John Paul II, “Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” In  The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (trans Dean P. Bechard; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002) 175, 177.

In the first quote, John Paul highlights the importance of arriving at the meaning of the text intended by God, the so-called “divine meaning” or the “theological meaning” (a phrase often used by Fr. Frank Matera in describing the exegete’s aim). To me, this concept is very helpful in understanding what biblical exegesis is all about. It really does have a goal that is realizable. Sometimes it seems in the face of the immense stacks of exegetical books in theological libraries that no one will ever figure out the meaning of the Bible! I mean, if people have been seriously working on it for 2,000 years and still feel the need to publish more and more books about it, where’s the hope for a resolution? But the Bible does have meaning, one that can be discovered and related and believed in. John Paul also frames the task of exegesis well as a matter of “perception,” and a kind of perception that is informed by prayer, spiritual life. So the exegete could never be replaced by a robot. Rather, his personal spiritual life is somehow involved in the act of perception of the divine meaning of the biblical text.

In the second quotation above, John Paul highlights the pastoral dimension of the exegetical task. Exegetes, he says, either ought to be preachers themselves or to help preachers in their exposition of God’s word. Lots of Bible scholars, I think, do not see themselves this way at all. But here John Paul insists that biblical scholars ought to be engaged in publishing pastoral exegesis–i.e. popular works–not just scholarly works. He adds after the sentence I quoted above, “Thus they will avoid becoming lost in the complexities of abstract scientific research, which distances them from the true meaning of the Scriptures. Indeed, this meaning is inseperable from their goal, which is to put believers into a personal relationship with God.” (sec. 11, p. 177). So, in John Paul’s mind, there is a distinct possibility of BIble scholars becoming lost! That would not be good. However, I wonder if John Paul had some biblical scholars in mind that he had met in his lifetime–ones who were obsessed with weird little details of Hebrew poetry or archaeology and unable to inspire anyone’s faith. That would be a bad place to be, a lost, uninspiring Bible scholar, trapped in the ivory tower and unable to communicate what he knows to regular people who want to be in a personal relationship with God. I’ll have to think about this one for a while.

Lagrange on Catholic Bible Interpretation

Fr. Marie-Joseph LagrangeMarie-Joseph Lagrange, one of the founders of the Ecole Biblique, was one of the most important Catholic BIble scholars at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Today, I came across a lecture he gave on what Catholic biblical exegesis is all about. It’s interesting from a historical perspective since it is before Vatican II and before Divino Afflante Spiritu. Here’s a little excerpt for some flavor:

H, then, Scripture had been the only
means to assure the preservation of a doctrine
which is much richer than the ” weak and needy
elements ” of the old Law, God would have
provided very poorly for its preservation. The
answer of tradition is more complete and more
precise. The New Testament contains neither
a creed nor a sacramentary. And doctrine is
preserved in the Church as an ever living and
acting faith.

Precisely ! it will be said. This faith lives,
consequently it evolves, hke all human things.
With time it will give to the questions put before
it answers more complete and more precise.

Granted, but this development is not a deformation.
The Church, in virtue of a supernatural
logic, which is at the same time perfectly rational,

regards the truth, which she has received from
God Himself, as having an immutable character,
and she is intent on transmitting it just as she
received it in its substantial elements.
But do not forget that we are deahng here with
this question of the development of doctrine only
from the viewpoint of the exegete. The difficulty
that is urged regards only the sincerity of interpretation.
It may be thought that the exegesis of the
Church, being imposed upon her by her dogma,
will lack sincerity since it will lack hberty. The
objection does not apply to Cathohc exegesis.
The danger it calls attention to may exist only for
a society which has no other rule of faith than
the Bible, and is bound to find therein all the
truths which it professes. But such is not the
case with the Church. Why should she torture
texts to get from them what she can get from
tradition? A Cathohc may and must beheve in
dogma not enunciated in Scripture, as, for instance,
in the perpetual virginity of Mary. He
is not, then, obhged to have recourse to any
violent form of exegesis. The texts remain undisturbed. (pp. 38-39)

You can get the whole text of his lecture on “The Exegesis of the Catholic Church” in a 1920 translation in a book called “The Meaning of Christianity” on Happy reading!

The Unusual Case of Henry Poels (Post #1)

In June of 1909, the pope himself dismissed a priest from teaching Scripture at the Catholic University of America. The firing came in the wake of the Modernist crisis, the decision of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) which upheld Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (June 27, 1906) the publication of Lamentabili (a. k. a., The Syllabus of Errors, July 3, 1907) and the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Sep 8, 1907).

Henry Poels was a Dutchman and he had been hired by CUA in 1904 to teach Old Testament. At this time, Charles P. Grannan was dean of the School of Theology and Daniel J. O’Connell was the rector of the University. There was some initial confusion over Poels’ status in the university. Grannan and the faculty supported him while O’Connell was skeptical of his leanings. It seems that Grannan and O’Connell were often at loggerheads.

Poels was a consultor to the PBC when it issued its decision on Mosaic authorship. The PBC was Leo XIII’s brainchild. As an arm of the magisterium, its purpose was to establish official Church positions on biblical topics. It only promulgated a few official decisions in its early history and these have resulted in some controversy, which I have written about here on this blog. The text of the PBC’s decision from June 27, 1906 can be found online in English and Latin. It basically rejects the idea that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, accepts the possibility that Moses may have used assistants to write it, grants that he may have used prior sources, and affirms the critical study of textual problems.

Fr. Poels planned to teach a class on “Hebrew Institutions, as seen in Law and History” in the Fall 1906. But after the PBC’s decision he thought he could not teach the course in good conscience, so he offered a course on “the Biblical Question” instead (Poels 14-15). Why? Well, he differed from the PBC. Poels states his position thus:

  • I could not and cannot conscientiously teach that Moses was the actual author of the first five books of the Bible, as we have them to-day. In this view I do not stand alone, for, as a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of Old Testament scholars–yea, practically all the Old Testament critics, of any name, are agreed on this point (Poels 15).

Poels found himself in an odd situation. Being a man of honor, he could not “follow the policy of other Catholic Professors…who, thinking as I did, continued their professional duties” (Poels 15). He wanted affirmation. If he had let the issue lie, mostly likely nothing would have happened. But he wanted to make sure he was in a good place and so his troubles began.

He visited Rome in the summer of 1907 to find the affirmation he was looking for. He met with Cardinal Satolli and asked if his disposition would be acceptable if he held that “generally speaking, the institutions, mentioned in the Pentateuch, were of Mosaic origin, although the documents in which these institutions are described, and in their present literary form, did not all actually come from the pen of Moses” (Poels 16). Satolli deferred judgment, so Poels met with Pope Pius X himself.

Poels described his situation to the pope. He related that the question of Mosaic authorship has bearing on every dimension of Old Testament study. The pope acknowledged that according to natural law, he must obey his conscience, but according to church law, he must obey the PBC. So the pope suggested Poels teach in another area. His companion and interpreter, Fr. Genocchi suggested that this would be inappropriate since university professors should be specialists in their area. Pius X then directed Poels to follow the advice of Fr. Genocchi and Fr. Janssens. (Janssens was the head of the PBC.)

Poels was a bit confused. He felt he ought to teach in another field, but Genocchi and Janssens urged him to hold his post as an Old Testament professor at CUA. Poels accepted their advice, but asked that they would inform the pope. Both Genocchi and Janssens had audiences with the pope and informed him of the advice. Poels was apparently a bit nervous about the whole thing, so he wrote Genocchi whose reply did not satisfy him. Then he wrote Janssens to ask him to confirm that the pope was privy to the advice for Poels to retain his chair. Janssens met with the pope and “talked over your case a long time quite alone with the Pope” (Poels 49). Janssens states that, as long as Poels would show no contempt for the PBC and its decisions, “the Pope permits you to retain your professional chair.” Additionally, the pope said “Tell him that I send to him with love my fatherly blessing” (Poels 49). At this point in May of 1908, it seemed the whole question was resolved and Poels could finally sleep well at night.

But as history would have it, confusion ensues, many more characters get involved and the Rev. Dr. Henry Poels would have many more sleepless nights. However, the rest of the story will have to wait for another post.

Sources on Henry Poels:
Ellis, John Tracy. The Life of Cardinal Gibbons. Vol. 2. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1952. pp.171-182.
Fogarty, Gerald P. American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History From The Early Republic To Vatican II. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989. pp. 78-119.
Poels, Henry A. A Vindication of My Honor. Leuven: University Press: Peeters, 1982