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What is Man? A Journey through Biblical anthropology, by the Pontifical Biblical Commission

11 June 2021

John Barton considers a study of the answers to it given in scripture

THE Pontifical Biblical Commission has done all Christians, not only Roman Catholics, a great service with this book-length guide to biblical ideas of what it is to be human. The title may cause both offence and confusion: offence, because it is non-inclusive, directly translating the original Italian, which, of course, refers to the question in Psalm 8.4; and confusion, because in ordinary English “anthropology” is the name for one of the social sciences, whereas in theology, as here, it means the understanding of human nature. But, once past the title, any reader can see that this is a rich, comprehensive, and open-minded exploration of the biblical presentation of humanity in its various aspects, which deserves to be carefully pondered.

The document is arranged in four long chapters: “The Human Being Created by God”, “The Human Being in the Garden”, “The Human Family”, and “The Human Being in History”. It is structured by beginning each chapter with a reflection on the opening chapters of Genesis, which helps to give a certain unity to the whole, and also results in a preponderance of Old Testament themes, though the New Testament is by no means neglected. It is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive work. Although connections are drawn with modern concerns throughout, the principal aim is to present the biblical material on its own terms, and not to relate it over-hastily to questions facing the Church today.

At the same time, contemporary concerns naturally influence which themes are most emphasised. Ecology naturally appears prominently. There is also an extensive section on homosexuality, examining all the relevant biblical evidence in detail. While no support can be found in the Bible for same-sex marriage, and this is clearly stated, the argument edges very close to the conclusion that the Bible offers no absolute prohibition of homosexual acts. Similarly, it is shown that ending a marriage for good reason is not excluded. The Commission even suggests that St Paul would not have opposed remarriage after divorce. Above all, it emphasises the cultural gap between ourselves and the biblical world, besides maintaining that that world remains relevant for us. The “cash value” of recognising the gap is left slightly vague, perhaps deliberately. The document also emphasises the equality of the sexes to a greater extent than perhaps can be strictly justified on biblical grounds alone: certainly, it makes the most of the evidence that husband and wife are to be seen as equal partners.

More conservative Catholics, and others, can be expected to react rather coolly to some of this. But the biblical exegesis is very sound, and it provides, as is its intention, an excellent basis for teaching and research in biblical anthropology and, indeed, theology.

The Commission deals with awkward statements in the Bible in various ways, but primarily by arguing that they are “symbolic”. Thus, the food and sacrificial laws point us to deeper truths and are not to be taken literally, and miracles such as the feeding of the five thousand are important because they show that God provides for his creation. This is a traditional Christian approach to “difficult” passages in the Bible, amounting in effect to allegorisation. A Jewish reader would be unlikely to accept the reduction of the “ceremonial” laws to types and shadows in this way, but it may be part of the price that has to be paid if the Old Testament is to remain part of Christian scripture.

Indeed, the whole approach to reading the Bible is distinctively Christian: the very premise that the Old Testament is about humanity in general, rather than concerned with the people of Israel in particular, represents a non-Jewish angle on the text. Even the central place accorded to the story of Adam and Eve (also, of course, interpreted metaphorically, not literally) accords with Christian but not with Jewish tradition. I should have liked to see rather more on the way Jews interpret the texts that we have in common. That said, there is no trace of anti-Semitism in the document, and nothing that could be called supersessionist: while Christ is seen, as in all Christian tradition, as inaugurating a new covenant with the human race, there is no suggestion that the covenant with Israel is abrogated or ignored.

Any committee-produced document, especially one that eschews all references by name to the scholars whose work is drawn on, risks a certain anonymity of style. (We are not even told who the members of the Commission are.) It also tends, in the nature of the exercise, to over-reconcile the variety of viewpoints to be found in the Bible, though the authors are perfectly willing to concede that there are tensions. While avoiding the suggestion that there is only one anthropology in the Bible, the entire document treats everything in the Bible as true at some level, and does not criticise any biblical position.

Because the deutero-canonical/apocryphal books such as Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) are included in the Catholic Old Testament, these works are cited freely. This has the effect of harmonising the Testaments more than would be the case if the Hebrew Scriptures were being used without the Apocrypha, since these rather late works are closer in their theology to the New Testament than the earlier books in the Hebrew Bible. Teachings of Jesus in John are freely combined with those in the Synoptic Gospels, with no recognition that this might be problematic. The internal consistency of the Bible is thus somewhat exaggerated.

But this is a fine work of biblical scholarship, and should be read by all interested in what the Bible has to teach us about the human condition. It is irenical without being bland, and constructive without forcing the evidence.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, and an Anglican priest. His most recent book is
A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths (Allen Lane, 2019).


What is Man? A Journey through Biblical anthropology
The Pontifical Biblical Commission
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