1. How to Study Scripture with the Help of Scripture and the Desert Fathers

“Do you understand what you are reading?”…
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” 
(Acts 8:30, 31)


The “problem of biblical hermeneutics” – the question of how to interpret the scriptures – is by no means a recent one. Indeed, the Bible itself bears witness to the need for its careful interpretation, as illustrated by our epigraph.

What our epigraph also illustrates is the kernel of the central thesis of this article: namely, that the church’s scriptures are best understood from within the ecclesial context for which and in which they were written. The Bible, as “the church’s book”, needs to be studied in its own proper context – for a text, any text, out of context is a pretext.[1] Just as Darwin’s The Origin of Species is best read and understood in the scientific context, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is best heard and seen in a theatrical context, so the scriptures are best received and explored in an ecclesial context. Of course, Darwin can be read as philosophy and Shakespeare as history – but that would be a mistake. It is just as much a mistake to reduce the Bible to history or philosophy, or (worse still) to read it as science or “great literature”.[2]

But what is “an ecclesial reading”? How do we read and interpret the text of scripture in its ecclesial context? In Part One of this article we shall explore this question with the aid, primarily, of scripture itself, but also by drawing on the example and teaching of the desert fathers. Part Two will explore the same question – that of biblical hermeneutics – but from a more theoretical and heuristic perspective, by offering a hermeneutic model that complements the theological exploration offered in Part One.

Searching the Scriptures Together

Then he said to them, “You foolish men! So slow to believe all that the prophets have said! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about him…. Then they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:25-27, 32)

Biblical fundamentalism, naïve literalism, reductionist notions of sola scriptura, individual and private interpretation of “the church’s book”, are all highly problematic, not least of all because they are, in fact, unbiblical. The Bible is a serious, adult book. It requires more than just reading: it requires closereading, which is to say study. In the Second Letter of Peter we have this about the letters of Paul:

In all his letters there are some difficult passages, the meaning of which the uneducated and untrained distort, in the same way that they distort the rest of scripture, to their own ruin. (2 Pet 3:16)

Clearly, this is more than just a salutary warning about the difficulty of reading the letters of Paul as the reference to “the rest of scripture” makes clear: it is a key hermeneutical principle which applies just as much to how we read “the rest of scripture”, lest we read it “to our ruin”. In the same letter, the author also warns us:

First of all you must understand this, that no scriptural prophecy is a matter for one’s own interpretation; because no prophecy ever came from human initiative; rather God’s holy ones spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet 1:20-21)

Despite their brevity, these passages identify some of the most important principles of biblical hermeneutics: scripture is both inspired and relational at both its inception and reception; and it deserves, indeed demands, our most sophisticated effort to understand it. It is never a matter of (what too often passes for) “my simple faith”[3] coming up with an immediate and idiosyncratic interpretation. To really understand holy scripture we have to be guided by God’s own Holy Spirit; and in dialogue with one another, since that guidance is always in the context of relationship:

They said to each other: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us along the way, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

Note the emphasis on relationality and dialogue permeating this passage. Individualistic, simplistic, naïve or presumptuous reading of God’s word is rejected by the Bible itself, as a closer reading of the Bible, when it speaks about how to read God’s word, itself shows – sometimes quite provocatively:

And the Lord said, “Go and say to this people:
Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:9-10)

That this passage is indeed about “biblical hermeneutics” is supported by the fact that Jesus himself uses it to make a point about how to interpret his own parables (Matt 13:13ff); which is to sayeverything he says to the crowd, for, as Matthew makes clear, Jesus only ever speaks to them in parables (13:34).This has huge implications for biblical hermeneutics (at the very least in regard to how we interpret the Gospels); especially when we consider that parabolē is the Greek word used to render the Hebrew mašal, a word which denotes a well-known and widely used genre in biblical and inter-testamental literature and rabbinic teaching; a word that is best translated into modern English as: a subtle and complex saying, proverb or story requiring much careful interpretation – in short, ariddle.[4] This particular parable/riddle from Isaiah is used by Jesus to explain how to interpret Jesus’ own parables/riddles. And Matthew adds: “This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what was hidden since the foundation of the world.’ ” (13:35)[5]To see, and really see, things hidden since the foundation of the world, we must be willing to admit that we do not see (cf. John 9:39); to hear, and really hear, things forgotten and repressed, we must acknowledge that we do not understand – or else we cannot “turn, and be saved”: we cannot change if we do not know that we need to change; and unless we change, we cannot live; and finding life is the whole point of not just reading but searching the scriptures:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

The purpose of the scriptures – of the written witness to the word of God – is that we might change (metanoia) the way we see and hear; and by so changing, come to live.

But the Bible can only be read as sacred scripture, as God’s word, in relationship with the Word which is sent to accomplish God’s purposes (cf. Isa 55:11); and that means within the ecclesial relationship to the apostolic (“sent”) community of faith which hands on the very tradition we now call “scripture”. In other words, I cannot understand what I am reading “unless someone guides me”:

And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Kandake, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture he was reading was this:

“As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. (Acts 8:27-35)

This is a rare example of scripture directly commenting on scripture; and, more to the point, an example of scripture explicitly teaching us how to read scripture. It is, therefore, a most important and deeply revealing passage, deserving our close reading.

But before we do so, a word about how and why we are to do so, with a little help from the desert fathers.

A word from the fathers: the holy wholly other

Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of holy Scripture; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved. (Anthony n. 3)[6]

The close reading of scripture, “studying the sacred page”, and its centrality to the life of the Christian is, perhaps, nowhere more explicit or more ubiquitous a practice than it is in the life of the Christian monk[7] – and this despite the fact that so very little is said about biblical interpretation in the monastic texts that bear witness to the earliest sources of monastic life and spirituality (in particular the various collections of “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” we shall be drawing on here). But then that same observation has to be made about scripture itself: the handful of texts that explicitly deal with scripture in the scriptures share the same “reticence” (and the same terse incisiveness) we encounter in the sayings and lives of the desert fathers.

The “reticence” is of course only apparent. Anyone familiar with monastic life knows that scripture is an all-pervading spirit, permeating not just the thought and word, but, more basically, the action, life, heart and soul of monks. Monastic life itself is a kind of “living midrash”, a visceral lectio divina, an incarnation of the Word’s word. In deep accord with scripture’s own reflection on the divine word, monastic life, especially in its eremitic expression, says little about scripture; but what it says, says a great deal to those who have ears to hear – and next to nothing at all to those who hear and hear again, but fail to understand.

“Familiarity,” as the cliché goes, “breeds contempt.” Our over-familiarity with the term “holy scripture” has largely deprived it of its original meaning, and us of discovering scripture’s holiness; as our over-familiarity with particular texts (the “canon within the canon”) can blind us to the transformative potential of the Bible as a whole. The term “holy” originally denoted something asother and separate; something over-and-beyond the mundane and profane, above the temporal and secular; in short, holiness is about the transcendent, the “wholly other”.

You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (Lev 20:26)

It is this understanding of “holiness” that lies at the heart of monastic anachoresis (“withdrawal”) andcontemptus mundi (rejection of the world-as-we-have-made-it) which informs the specifically monastic approach to everything, including the reception of scripture.

Alas, the modern and postmodern (secular) reader tends to think of the term “holy scripture” as an obsequiously pious sobriquet for a largely irrelevant ancient text; as an ideologically loaded ensign in the contemporary culture wars – a kind of fundamentalist flag asserting its conservative and obscurantist protest against modernity and its reduction of all texts to critique, particularly postmodernity’s deconstruction of all “grand narratives”. “Holy”, in an increasingly, indeed militantly, antireligious and secularist world, has come to mean something altogether feeble, repressive, conservative and “other worldly”, rather than as something transformative, revolutionary, indeedsubversive and radically “other-than-worldly”; as something that has, to use a biblical term, “lost its saltiness”, its persuasive and pervasive savour – indeed its parabolic power to change the world – thus becoming good for nothing but to be thrown away (cf. Luke 14:34-35).

But holy – in the original sense of the word – is just what the scriptures must be if they are to make any sense at all as God’s word; certainly if they are to make the kind of sense to us that they made to those who wrote them, and for whom they were written, as God’s word; those who first heard them read and who made them their rule (kanōn) of faith. Unless we read these ancient texts, these “grand narratives”, as sacred texts, as holy scripture, from the place of “otherness”, from the margins, they will remain nothing more than antique curios or one more self-deluding melange of myths among all the others to be dissected in an academic pursuit of a “history of religions” or deconstructed in a comparative critique of “literary canons”. To put this in more familiar, Christian terms: unless we read the Bible christologically, from the perspective of the crucified and risen Jesus, we cannot possibly avoid misinterpreting it. Or to put it in even simpler, more biblical terms: unless we “take up the cross” and “follow Christ”, unless we go out and stand with the crucified victim “outside the city gate” (cf. Heb 13:12-13), we shall never understand God’s word.

The holy subversive one

An Ethiopian eunuch slave is, at first blush, no more likely an exemplar of “holiness” than a “good” Samaritan is that of a good neighbour (cf. Luke 10:33-37); or a “good” thief that of a candidate for canonisation (“Today you will be with me in Paradise” – Luke 23:43); or even a “Galilean” that of a prophet, much less the Messiah (“Can anything good come from there?” – John 1:46; “search for yourself; prophets, do not, in fact, arise in Galilee” – John 7:52). But an Ethiopian eunuch slave is exactly what the author of the Acts of the Apostles presents to us as our model of how to read holyscripture meaningfully.

According to Acts, the ideal/model reader of holy scripture is the thrice alienated “other”: (1) an “Ethiopian”, which, from a Jewish/biblical point of view, means an obvious foreigner, an alien, someone “other” by virtue of his “race”;[8] (2) a “eunuch”, which, from any point of view, means onesexually mutilated, and therefore one alienated from the community (cf. Deut 23:1, Lev 21:20); and (3) although he is a “minister”, or “high ranking official” (dynastēs), in the service of “the Kandake, the queen of the Ethiopians”, he is in fact a slave – albeit a high ranking slave in the service of a foreign power (but, notice: a woman’s eunuch slave, adding a further dimension of “shame” for an already “mutilated” male in a deeply misogynist world). This unrelenting stress of “otherness” is highly suggestive, and, if we attend to it carefully, deeply revealing.

But what is ultimately more important and revealing is that he is reading the prophet Isaiah speaking of a sacrificial victim. Little wonder that our thrice alienated “other” does not understand what he is reading – at least, at first, and alone. But what a wonder – some may even think “scandal” – that it is only by joining the likes of this “other” that we will ever come to understand this text ourselves.

A word from the fathers: “I do not understand”

The first hermeneutical lesson we must learn from this scriptural exemplar of how to read scripture is that he knows that he doesn’t know the meaning of what he is reading – a lesson well known and understood in the monastic tradition of the desert. Here is a saying from the Alphabetical Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:[9]

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’ ” (Abba Anthony, n. 17)

A similar point is to be gleaned from another saying, this time from the Systematic Collection of theSayings:[10]

They said of a hermit that he went on fasting for seventy weeks, eating a meal only once a week. He asked God the meaning of a text of the holy Scriptures and God did not reveal it to him. So he said to himself, “I have worked hard and gained nothing. I will go to my brother and ask him.” Just as he had shut his door on the way out, an angel of the Lord was sent to him; and the angel said, “The seventy weeks of your fast have not brought you near to God but now you are humbled and going to your brother, I have been sent to show you the meaning of the text.” (Humility, n. 72)

What each of these stories, in their different ways, is telling us is perhaps the most important preliminary lesson we need to learn if we are ever to understand scripture: never presume you understand by your own effort. Rather, in all humility – which is to say honesty – let us acknowledge our ignorance and our need for others; or we will merely impose that ignorance on the text we are reading in the form of our own unchallenged and unexamined presuppositions, prejudices and agendas. Let us instead be willing to learn, to dialogue, and to be challenged by the question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Humility here is synonymous with the wisdom of knowing that we do not know, and therefore with asking the right question: “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

Who shall guide me?

That “someone to guide me” is, according to the Acts of the Apostles, personified in a man called Philip. If this is indeed the apostle Philip (and we assume that it is, since this pericope occurs in the “Acts of the Apostles”), then he is the same Philip whom the Greeks approach in John’s Gospel at the climactic moment of Jesus’ own mission (“Now the hour has come”; cf. John 12:20ff). He is also the one who, at the beginning of that mission, brought the very Jewish Nathanael (“sitting under a fig tree”, the very model of a Jew studying Torah) to Jesus, declaring Jesus to be the Messiah spoken of in “Moses and the Law”, in other words, scripture (cf. John 1:41ff).[11] But even if it is not the sameperson,[12] it is the same name (“Philip”) and the same issue (reading scripture), and therefore makes the same hermeneutical point (since in both cases the issue is around how to read scripture), irrespective of whether Philip’s interlocutor is the archetypal “insider” (Nathanael “under the fig tree”) or the epitome of the “outsider” (the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah). And what is that “hermeneutical point”? The name “Philip” is a thoroughly Greek one. There is nothing Hebrew or Jewish about it. And yet the apostle is himself a Jew. What we have here in the apostle Philip, then, is a Jew with a Greek name; who, in John’s Gospel, is approached by the Greeks who wish to be brought to Jesus. What we have is a bridge-builder between the Hebrew and the Hellenic worlds: an insider with an outsider’s perspective.

Far from being about institutional power and mind-control (as is often asserted by a militantly antireligious agenda), an ecclesial and apostolic interpretation of scripture is about reading in dialogue with those who, like the crucified Lord, are at once at the centre (of God’s people) and on the margins(of the world) – “in Jerusalem”, yes; but “outside the city gates” (cf. Heb 13:12-13). In short, “ecclesial reading” is done by insiders with an outsider’s perspective.

This insider/outsider dynamic is played out in numerous ways in the passage from Acts – indeed, from the very start. It is initially “the angel of the Lord”, a messenger of God’s word, who sends Philip out of the city along a “desert road” (Acts 8:26) to meet the thrice marginal other who is also on his way outof Jerusalem, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah (which we later learn is about the sacrificial victim). In short, and apart from anything else, what we have here are the two prototypes, Philip and the eunuch (and the one archetype: the sacrificial lamb), of anything but political power exercising ideological mind-control from an institutional centre. Indeed we would be entirely justified to see in these two the icon of a monastic teacher and disciple meeting in dialogue over the word of God, teaching us how to hear that word “at the margins” (of the world) and “from the heart” (of the church).

Furthermore – indeed, ultimately – it is the Spirit, and no mere “angel”, who commands Philip to “go up and join” the Ethiopian eunuch in this enterprise (8:29). God’s word is always God’s word; and it is always to be encountered under the inspiration of the Spirit, whether at its angelic inception or its spirited reception. Biblical inspiration is no less a part of scripture’s telos than it is the source of itsgenesis.

But no less important is the ecclesial context of dialogue – and at both the teleological and the generating ends of the process. And not just any kind of dialogue; not even the simple question-and-answer kind of dialogue; but dialogue as framed by the penetrating question giving rise to another question, an equally revelatory insight-through-question:

“Do you know what you are reading?”
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30, 31)

Scripture is the product of ecclesial dialogue through questioning, inspired by the Spirit at its inception; and its interpretation is the product of such dialogue throughout the history of its reception. Or as the Ethiopian says so much more simply and lucidly: come up and sit with me (cf. 8:31). A genuinely ecclesial reading of scripture is an invitation from the “marginal other” to rise to the challenge of dialogue on equal terms through the process of honest, probing, indeed relentlessquestioning. And that is what we need to do with respect to our “ecclesial reading”: we need to look at the world from beside the marginal other, and engage the apostolic tradition in honest dialogue-in-question, precisely because the apostolic tradition is the deposit of insight gleaned by the biblicalinsider who shares the marginal outsider’s perspective.

Only now, once the basic hermeneutical principle has been established, are we ready to read the actual text. Only once we are clear that to read scripture meaningfully we must acknowledge our ignorance, take our place at the side of those who are on the margin (the Ethiopian), and engage in honest, open, questioning dialogue with the apostolic tradition (Philip) in an ecclesial context of reading (side-by-side) – then, and only then, does the author of Acts give us the text to read:

“Beginning with this scripture …”

“As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.” (Acts 8:32-33, quoting Isa 53:7-8)

The choice of this passage is neither accidental nor incidental to its hermeneutic intent; and neither are the exegetical difficulties surrounding the passage (including the problem of just how best to translate it).[13] For the purposes of this article, however, we shall confine ourselves to the hermeneutical issue in the role of the sacrificial victim. As demonstrated by René Girard and the scholars who have taken up his basic insight, the role of the victim is central – we might say crucial – to the Bible’s interpretation not just of itself but, indeed, of everything that it seeks to unveil.

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. (Acts 8:35)

A “christological reading” of the Bible is not about reading the story of Jesus back into the ancient texts of the Hebrew revelation in order to prove that Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah of Jewish expectation. It is not about “proof-texting” the New Testament with the Old. A christological reading of the Bible is about discovering what was always already there in the sacred texts of Israel “since the foundation of the world” but, alas, remained hidden, because our own wilful forgetting concealed it from us: namely, that the victim buried beneath the cornerstone of human civilization(s), the foundation of the world as we make it, is, in fact, innocent (cf. Matt 23:34-35). To read the Bible christologically is to read it from the point of view of the innocent victim: from the cross of Christ. It is about discovering that God, the only true God, revealed in the paschal victim, has never had anything whatever to do with our distortions of sacrifice (as sacred gift) into the sacrificial system of “sacred violence” – better known as (pagan/generic) religion. In the final analysis, to read the scriptures (and everything else) in the light of Christ, and him crucified, means finding that it is God, and God alone, who is the giver of the sacred gift: Christ, God’s own Self in Person, and our own true Self as one-with-God. In short, the only valid purpose of reading the Bible is the purpose of life: theosis through participation in the cross and resurrection of Christ, or “baptism”:

And as they went along the [W]ay they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Behold, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptised?” (Acts 8:36)

Of course, the “legal” answer to that question is: “Just about everything about you!” But the good news of Jesus is: “Nothing in heaven or on earth!”

… and they both went down to the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him; and when they came up from the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:38-39)

Once the apostolic witness has fulfilled his mission, he is taken away by the Spirit who enabled him to accomplish his task; and the marginal-other now become one-and-whole goes “on his way rejoicing”.

“Beginning with Moses and the prophets …”

Now that very same day, two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. And it happened that as they were talking together and discussing it, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but their eyes were prevented from recognising him. (Luke 24:13-16)

The same pattern, the same “hermeneutic”, operates in the Emmaus story as in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch: a journey out of the city; dialogue along the way; a “chance meeting” with a “stranger”; incomprehension; and the key to it all, the innocent victim:

He said to them, “What are all these things that you are discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast. Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him, “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.” He asked, “What things?” They answered, “All about Jesus of Nazareth, who showed himself a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not all: two whole days have now gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they could not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.” Then he said to them, “You foolish men! So slow to believe all that the prophets have said! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself. (Luke 24:17-27)

In virtually every ancient religion, ritual sacrifice is one of its defining features (followed by myth justifying the sacrifice, and law/taboo/prohibition regulating the sacrificial system); and at the root of ritual sacrifice there is, of course, always a victim – whether the “sacred king”, the first-born heir, the vanquished enemy, the mysterious stranger, or the specially cultivated pharmakon, “scapegoat” or effigy.[14] That YHWH eschews sacrifice, desiring instead mercy and justice (cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Prov 21:3), is a revelation that only very gradually (and imperfectly)[15] begins to break through in the scriptures and in the liturgy of ancient Israel (especially the atonement liturgy during the period of the First Temple)[16]– until, that is, the coming of Jesus (cf. Matt 9:13; 12:7).

In Jesus the blinding light of this revelation – that the victim is innocent, and that God has nothing whatever to do with the “sacred violence” of the sacrificial system – breaks through into our history in person, in the flesh, as God incarnate.[17] Jesus is the “final sacrifice”, the “ultimate victim”, because with his own self-sacrifice all sacrifice (of others) ends precisely because he is God: he dis-illusions the world, he “takes away” our sinful delusions that God requires our sacrificial “sacred violence” in order to be appeased. Even the idea that we have to give an expiatory victim to God in atonement for our sins (or indeed that we have anything at all that we can give to God) is radically subverted: all that God wants from us is love – love for God and love for our neighbour; and not because God is needy, because God needs our love, but because we need to love if we are to become what we already are by God’s grace as the imago Dei.

The biblical revelation is that God certainly does not want our neighbour’s bloody corpse “in atonement for our sins” – or the deluded play-acting of religious substitutionary ritual sacrifice the Bible bluntly calls “scapegoating”. On the contrary: such “atonement”, far from “appeasing God”, is the very “sin of the world” by which the world bestows its own peace upon itself. Such “sacred violence” is the hidden foundation of the world as we make it, not as God would have it be. Indeed, this is precisely what the prophetic forerunner points to when he declares at the very beginning of John’s Gospel (before the incarnate Word has uttered a single word): “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (cf. John 1:29) – the “Lamb of God”, note, not a “lamb for God”.

In the new economy of salvation, it is not the dead bodies of our victims, human and substitutionary, but rather our own “living bodies” – ourselves alive – that is the only “sacrifice” God desires; and not in expiation of our sins, but out of love, which we are enabled to give “by the mercies of God”, since it is God’s mercy, God’s love for us, that enables us to make this gift of ourselves in faith:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2)

Renewal of the mind in Christ

To sum up so far: The Bible is “holy scripture” in so far as it achieves its “holy” purpose: to inspire, to animate, to transform. It can only achieve this purpose insofar as its “holiness” is “otherness”, an irreducible transcendence; indeed, a subversive strangeness. To approach the Bible “barefoot” as the discalced Moses on the holy mountain before the burning bush is to engage the mystery on its own terms, on holy ground, at its irreducible fiery heart, transforming and liberating, forging anew as it purges the old, revealing without exhausting. And with Moses it is to discover a call and a mission to look beyond self to the other: “I am who I am … but you are to go to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and say, ‘Let my people go!’ ”

The Bible, as “God’s word”, is never about “me”; it is always about “us” – it is radically relational, social, “ecclesial” – literally, of a community of those “called out” (ek kaleō). Only those who find themselves called out (ekklēsia) and sent out (apostolē) can engage the Bible as God’s word, as holyscripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

To do that we need to acknowledge that we do not know what we are reading, unless someone comes up and sits by us and guides us: the apostolic and ecclesial someone who, as an insider to the story, has an outsider’s perspective because he accepts the invitation to “come up and sit beside” the marginalised other. And then, in the course of their “holy discourse”, through penetrating questioning and dialogue, the story has a chance to transform us, to give us life.

(The actual process of what happens when we start to read will be explored in the second part of this article.)


Drasko Dizdar

[1] The proper context for the Tanak, or ‘Hebrew Bible’ is, of course, the Jewish community (itself an ‘ecclesia’ in the generic sense of the term, therefore making the point being made here no less valid). But the ‘Old Testament’, though composed of almost exactly the same writings (indeed, for Reformed Christians it is exactly the same), is by no means the same ‘book’ as the ‘Hebrew Bible’, since its coupling with the ‘Christian/New Testament’ changes it as utterly as oxygen is changed into water by the addition of hydrogen, or as a child is conceived by the union of sperm and ovum, or as blue changes red to purple.

[2] Equally it would be a mistake to claim that evolution has no philosophical implications or that Shakespeare invented Julius Caesar; as it would be to claim that only Jews and Christians can read the Bible. The only point being made here, however, is that reducing the Bible to something it was never intended to be is a mistake because it fails to respect its integrity and particular identity as an interlocutor in the process of ‘meaning production’. We shall return to this point in Part Two of this article.

[3] For “simple faith” read “simplistic fideism” – which should never be confused with a faithsimplified, in the sense of purified, by the anything but simple process of refinement, purgation and suffering that are inevitable, and necessary, in an adult journey of faith and discipleship.

[4] Cf. Sir 39:1-3: “[The one] who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients, and will be concerned with prophecies; he will preserve the discourse of notable men and penetrate the subtleties of parables; he will seek out the hidden meanings of proverbs and be at home with the obscurities of parables.”

[5] Referring this time not to the prophet Isaiah, but the Psalmist: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old …” (Ps 77[78]:2)

[6] The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1975), 2.

[7] I use the term “monk” to refer to both men and women who live the monastic life.

[8] Ethiopia was once considered to be one of the outer frontiers of the known world; cf. Esth 1:1; Ezek 29:10; Jud 1:10; Zeph 3:10.

[9] The Desert Christian, trans. Benedicta Ward, 4.

[10] The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 166.

[11] NB: “Nathanael” and “Bartholomew” are usually identified as the same person; and in Luke’s list of the twelve, Philip precedes Bartholomew, which adds some weight to what may appear to be a weak link between the Philip of the Johannine Gospel and the Lucan Acts. But, in any case, it is the use of thename, and its connotations, which is significant for the point being made here.

[12] It may be the Philip numbered among the seven “deacons” (Acts 6:5), and elsewhere called “the evangelist” (Acts 21:8), who is probably not one of the Twelve (although that, too, is, of course, debatable).

[13] These exegetical difficulties and translation problems deserve an article to themselves; but for our purposes it is important to note that the choice of this text in this context is rich in hermeneutical implications concerning the need for sophisticated critical study.

[14] See the work of René Girard, especially Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).

[15] Consider, for example: “by offering your gifts and by burning your children as sacrifices, you have been polluting yourselves with all your foul idols to this very day” (Ezek 20:31).

[16] See Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T & T Clark International, 2003), and my own book, Sheer Grace: Living the Mystery of God (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2008).

[17] Cf. the story of St Paul’s conversion, Acts 7:58–9:28, which frames the story of the Ethiopian eunuch.

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