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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Catena Aurea

The Catena Aurea

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” – St. Jerome

          Scripture scholars and enthusiasts have a plethora of wonderful commentaries to choose from to enhance their understanding of the Bible.  But for my money, when it comes to the Gospels, at least, nothing beats St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain).
          What I love about this work, which is an in-depth commentary on the four Gospels, is that it is a compilation of the writings and commentaries of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church.  No line of the Gospels is ignored and it is a brilliant window into the minds of the early Saints and how they understood the Scriptures.
          The historical-critical method of Scripture study is a popular approach among many Biblical scholars today.  As a very brief definition, this method examines Scripture from the critical eye of historical study.  The Church affirms that it does have its place, if it is used as a way to enhance our understanding of Scripture, and not as a tool misused to try and discredit it. 
One example of the benefits we have gained through such study has been the understanding of the differences in the Synoptic Gospels’ timing of the Passover in relation to the Last Supper with St. John’s.  The Last Supper was a Passover celebration and yet, we are told by St. John that Christ died on the Cross at the hour at which the lambs were being sacrificed for the Passover.  How is this reconciled?
We have learned that there were two calendars in use by Jews at the time.  The Essenes would have celebrated Passover when Jesus did, at the Last Supper.  This interpretation is strengthened by the Scripture’s note that Jesus told His disciples to speak to a man carrying a water jug about preparing the room for the Last Supper.  Only in the Essene section of Jerusalem would a man be carrying a water jug, a woman’s job, since it was an exclusively male area.  Tradition holds the location of the Last Supper in the Essene section of the city as well.  Rabbinical Jews would have been slaughtering the lambs for their celebration of the Passover at the time of the Crucifixion.  So the Gospels, it turns out, have no contradiction on the issue.  Historical understanding brought us greater spiritual understanding.
          Of course, our study of history has only served to increase the historical value of the Bible.  The civilizations and leaders mentioned in Scripture are increasingly verified by archeological study, and many non-Christian sources validate events mentioned in the Bible.  Lee Strobel’s work The Case for Christ also shows that the Bible itself, from a purely historical perspective, should be looked on as the most trustworthy document we have from the ancient world.
          Often I hear, though, that we have a difficult time understanding Scripture because we don’t have the proper historical context or understanding of the genres of ancient writing.  There is some validity to that.  Context is certainly vitally important to properly understand what the Bible is really saying, and many scholars do a great job of providing the context that can enhance our understanding.
          I do occasionally have trouble with the arguments of Scripture scholars who use the claim that we lack an understanding of ancient genre to call into question the truth of certain passages of Scripture.
          I admit I am not qualified to cast judgment, so here is where I find the Catena Aurea so valuable.  Who would better understand the genre of the time: the Saints tied historically to that time, or Scripture scholars 2,000 years later?  This is why I have gained such insight from Aquinas’s incredible compilation.
          An example: Looking at St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s treatment of the Nativity, where is St. Joseph from?  According to St. Luke, Joseph was from Nazareth.  (Luke chooses to leave out the flight to Egypt, but an understanding of writing styles often used in Scripture allows us to realize that the language he uses does not therefore imply it didn’t happen.)
          In St. Matthew’s Gospel, however, after returning to Israel from Egypt, Joseph plans to return to Judea and only ends up in Nazareth because of the warning of an angel.  Which is correct?
          I’ve heard it said that this shows that the accounts can’t really be read as historically accurate.  Now I understand there are spiritual meanings to Scripture (based on the literal meaning, properly understood, as taught by Pope Leo XIII).  But this troubled me.
          However, the Fathers had addressed this issue (as they have every conceivable issue) as recorded in the Catena Aurea.  St. Matthew was writing his Gospel for the Jews.  And St. Joseph, like the Jews of St. Matthew’s time, would have expected that the Messiah belonged in Judea.  Therefore, the Fathers say, though Joseph was from Nazareth, as the Guardian of the Redeemer, he would naturally have felt that a return to Israel would mean a return to Judea.  The angel, however, warns him not to return to Judea, so he settles in his town of Nazareth.
          Since I have not the ability or authority to credibly cast aspersions on any Scripture scholar (except those clearly opposed to the Church, and usually identified by Her), I will not pretend to do so.  But I will say that the Catena Aurea, with its reliance on such spiritual giants, and compiled by one of the most brilliant men ever to live, has many times given me a greater understanding and appreciation of the holy Gospels.