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What is Man? An Itinerary of Biblical Anthropology

Pietro Bovati, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Jul 23rd 2020

1“What is Man?” (Ps 8:5). An itinerary of biblical anthropology is a new document from the The Pontifical Biblical Commission (DPCB), currently it is available only in Italian from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

The study was requested by Pope Francis, who considered it necessary to bring clarity to issues of great importance for contemporary culture, drawing light from the Bible. There are many interesting aspects and innovations in the document; this contribution aims to illustrate them.

A first innovative element is immediately evident in the fact that the document is much more voluminous than previous pronouncements by the same Commission. The breadth of the discussion is justified by the theme addressed: the question, “What is man?” can only find an adequate answer by means of an in-depth analysis of the texts, images and stories that constitute the expressive contents of the entire Bible.

Scripture is in fact a complex whole made up of various types of literature that were written and reworked in different eras, with approaches and use of language that are not immediately convergent. To account for such a heritage requires the patience to examine elaborate literary pathways. It would not be appropriate (Christian) hermeneutics to take some quotations from the scriptural heritage in order to validate a predetermined discourse, set out as a true and normative outcome of rational procedure. The Word of God was not delivered to us to confirm what human reason has intuited and theorized: instead, it is the otherwise unheard of Revelation of the divine mystery, and we fail to obey the faith when we do not recognize in Sacred Scripture the matrix of authentic Christian thinking.

Thinking with belief

The Bible has a complexity that must be properly accepted by those who seek to faithfully transmit what God willed in creating the human being. Such complexity, both literary and historical, should not be simplified, perhaps under the pretext that people of today are not able to follow articulated arguments and developments. Certainly, it is necessary to respect the cultural conditions of the individual persons to whom we speak and the diversity of social situations and particular historical epochs; but the intention of sapiential communication is not to accept and consolidate the current status of consciences; rather, it seeks to enlighten the recipients of the message, so that the mystery of God may be savored and lived with increasing intelligence and joy (cf. Matt 13:52).

The document, among other things, is primarily addressed to those in the Church who wish to deepen their knowledge of the biblical message and have the competence and tools to grasp its value, so as to redesign in some way the transmission of theological knowledge. In the Faculties of Theology, and in the Religious Research and Teaching Institutes, the reflection biblical anthropology should become a sort of reference manual not just for some courses but for the whole formation process. This is because this document offers an advanced synthesis of the divine plan for humanity, with an expositive approach that, on the one hand, carefully examines what of God’s will is inscribed in the narrative of the origin of creatures and, on the other, considers human history with its intricate developments as the place where God’s plan tends to fulfillment.

Without presumption, the Pontifical Biblical Commission invites lecturers and all those who present themselves as teachers of faith in Christian communities to read and study this document with care, to embrace its elements for a deeper  understanding of the biblical texts, and also to assimilate its manner of proceeding as a sacred discipline which involves thinking with belief.

One hears from many quarters that the present “postmodern” world is no longer able to sustain elaborate cognitive processes. Perhaps one may wonder whether this is not the symptom of a devaluation of truth in the name of an easy and irresponsible relativism. There are, in fact, those who propose and adopt formulas of proclamation that resemble, at best, smart clichés that are comparable to advertising slogans and appreciated for their immediate emotional impact. The more provocative the formulations, the more incisive they are thought to be. The onerous process of thinking, reasoning, evaluating and discerning is thus dramatically replaced by suggestions without depth. This document from the Biblical Commission has a different purpose. It is not intended to provoke, but rather to help, patiently, to improve the cognitive universe of believers and researchers seeking truth, by asking questions and introducing reflective paths that favor the intellectual and loving dynamism of thinking, which is indispensable for a mature, responsible and demanding human conscience.

We are thus setting out here the DPCB’s global approach as a background against which to trace the material that unfolds over the pages of the document under discussion . We will now give a description of it, hoping that it will guide reading and study, and not replace personal commitment to take up the document.

The founding story

The first option of the Biblical Commission was to take the founding account of Gen 2-3 (integrated with Gen 1) as the programmatic starting point for the entire document. On the one hand, the Creator’s project for the human being is presented here, and on the other hand, the essential aspects of the human person and the conditions of life in historical reality are programmatically announced. Among other things, these initial chapters of Sacred Scripture, which are considered fundamental by the entire Christian tradition, are examined and commented on by every treatise of theological anthropology, and they also constitute an essential part of any study that intends to propose the biblical vision of the human person. Consequently, instead of assuming a priori a systematic scheme – perhaps a requirement for dogmatic theology – the Biblical Commission has preferred here to follow the very indications of Sacred Scripture, thus adopting a form that we could call “narrative theology.” This wise approach also expresses a concrete obedience to the revelation attested in the Bible.

Already in this initial exegetical operation some significant contributions of the DPCB in the anthropological field have emerged, starting with the way of translating the Genesis text. We point out, for example, that it has become commonplace to say that man was created “in the image and likeness of God,” while the biblical text properly says that God made the human being (’?d?m) “in his likeness according to his image” (Gen 1:26); and with this terminology the biblical author did not juxtapose two distinct concepts, but intended to emphasize the privileged and exclusive similarity between the human creature and the Creator, as the original foundation of the dialogue between the two subjects, a prelude to the covenant and the hoped-for destiny of communion, as in the relationship between father and son (Gen 5:1) (Nos. 46; 49).

Another example concerns the translation of Gen 3:1. There are translations that put the first statement of the serpent to the woman in this way: “Is it true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”; in this way the tempter would blatantly lie and, insinuating that man is forbidden to eat, would make the Creator appear as an enemy of human life. There is, however, another way of translating the text, so that the serpent’s question is more subtle: “Is it true that God said: ‘You must not eat from all the trees in the garden’?”; in this way the serpent does not utter a falsehood, “but brings out the fact that man is set a limit, being denied access to the totality, because something has been confiscated by God. The temptation then relates precisely to the prohibition as such, and indirectly prepares the question as to ‘why’ such  a prohibition” (No. 299).

More important are the interpretations of the various aspects of the original biblical story. Again in this area, to underline some innovative contributions of the document, let us look at just a few points. There is a “traditional” interpretation of Gen 2:21-23 that states the woman was created after the man (male), from his “rib.” In the terminology of the biblical narrator is carefully examined (as in No. 156, where the translation of the Hebrew term [??la’] as “rib” is criticized), and an alternative reading of the event is suggested: “Until v. 20 the narrator speaks of ’?d?m regardless of any sexual connotation; the generic presentation makes it necessary to give up imagining the precise configuration of such a being, let alone resorting to the ‘monstrous’ form of the androgynous. In fact, we are invited to undergo with ’?d?m an experience of non-knowledge, so as to discover, by revelation, what a marvelous miracle God has worked (cf. Gen 15:12; Job 33:15). No one actually knows the mystery of their origin. This phase of non-vision is symbolically represented by the act of the Creator, who “brought down a torpor on ’?d?m, who fell asleep” (v. 21): sleep does not have the function of total anesthesia to allow a painless operation, but rather evokes the manifestation of an unimaginable event, namely, from a single being (’?d?m) God forms two, man (’îš) and woman (’išš?h). And this is not only to indicate their radical similarity, but to suggest that their difference urges us to discover the spiritual good of (mutual) recognition, a principle of communion of love and a call to become ‘one flesh’ (v. 24). It is not the loneliness of the male, but that of being human that needs to be helped, through the creation of man and woman” (No. 153).

The problematic aspect inherent in the “commandment” (No. 273), in particular in the form of the “prohibition,” is carefully dealt with in the exegetical commentary on Gen 2:16-17, so as not to favor the idea that God arbitrarily opposes human desire; in reality the Creator manifests his liberality by making available to the creature “all the trees of the garden” (Gen 1:11-12; 2:8-9), and yet he limits “the totality of the offering”. God asks man to refrain from eating the fruit of a single tree, situated beside the tree of life (Gen 2:9), but distinct from it. Prohibition is always a limitation placed on the desire to have everything, on that longing (once called ‘lust’) that man feels as an innate drive for fullness. Consenting to such longing is tantamount to making the reality of the donor ideally disappear; therefore, it eliminates God but, at the same time, it also determines the end of man, who lives because he is God’s gift. Only by respecting the command, which constitutes a sort of barrier to the univocal unfolding of his own will, does man recognize the Creator whose reality is invisible, but whose presence is marked in particular by the forbidden tree, forbidden not out of jealousy, but out of love, to save man from the madness of omnipotence” (No. 274).

The fact that the serpent spoke to the woman instead of the man (as narrated in Gen 3) is often interpreted as a cunning scheme of the tempter who chose to attack the more vulnerable, more easily deceived person. However, it can be recalled that in the Bible the female figure is the privileged image of (human) wisdom: “if one assumes this perspective, Gen 3’s comparison does not take place between a very cunning being and a fool, but, on the contrary, between two manifestations of wisdom, and the ‘temptation’ is related precisely to the high quality of the human being, who in his desire to ‘know’, risks the sin of pride, claiming to be God, instead of recognizing himself as a son, who receives everything from the Creator and Father” (No. 298).

One last example. It is customary to hear that God intervenes in dealing with the sin of ancestors by castigation (Gen 3:16-19). Punishment is in fact considered a dutiful act of justice, and this would be an adequate reading of the biblical text. It should be noted, however, that the first decision of the Creator is the curse of the serpent, associated with the promise of victory that the woman’s lineage will achieve over the insidious threats of the tempter (Gen 3:14-15). What is more, the sufferings that afflict the potential of women and men are to be considered as wise dispositions willed by God because they are useful to human beings in that they favor in the creature that humble disposition of the heart which is the way of life (No. 320).

The outline of the DPCB

In the document, the Genesis account of the origins of the human being is divided into four pericopes, respecting the narrative rhythm of the text itself. Hence the structure of the DPCB is divided in four chapters, which concretely illustrate the essential components that contribute to the presentation of the human being according to the divine design.

The first chapter presents man as God’s creature (Gen 2:4-7), made of “dust” and living by divine “breath.” Thus two thematic motifs are introduced: that of the precariousness, finitude and mortality of the human being, and that of his spiritual potential. In this way not only the “nature” of the human being is outlined in the biblical text, but also the founding principle of his desire for life.

The second chapter illustrates man’s place in the garden (Gen 2:8-20): in other words, his earthly condition; the aspects of nourishment, work and relationships with other living beings are discussed here. There are also notes on the intimate connection between these elements that characterize human action and contribute to delineate man’s responsibility to adhere to the divine project.

The third chapter has as its general theme the human family (Gen 2:21-25), that is, the interpersonal relationship between human subjects, which has its founding nucleus in the spousal relationship, and develops in the complex web of family and social ties. This important section of the document deals with issues that are the subject of public debate, such as the male-female relationship and other sexual orientations, forms of marriage and its problematic expressions, the call to obedient submission in the family and public context, violence and fratricidal war. Some contemporary themes (including so-called “gender theory”) are totally outside the cultural universe of the Bible; on others Scripture offers general indications that can and must be developed in the theological and pastoral spheres.

The fourth chapter has as its theme the history of man (Gen 3:1-24), who, subject to divine command, disobeys by choosing a path of death. This story, however, is marked by divine intervention, which makes history an event of salvation. The importance of this theme for biblical anthropology should not be underestimated. In fact, “the Bible tells the story of man with God, or rather God with man. In order to give an account of this expositive modality and to grasp its meaning, it is not enough to make a presentation of biblical anthropology according to a static scheme, even if it were one fixed from the original moment; instead, it is necessary to see man as the protagonist of a process, in which he is the recipient of favors and the active subject of decisions that determine the very meaning of his being. You cannot understand man except in his global history. And, in this regard, we should not adopt a naive evolutionary model (which presupposes inevitable progress), let alone resort to schemes of decline (from the golden age to present misery); nor should we assume the idea of cyclical repetition (which would attest to the continuous return of the same). Scripture speaks of a history of the covenant, and in it there is nothing taken for granted; rather, it is the astonishing revelation of the unexpected, the incredible, the wonderful and even the impossible (according to men) (Gen 18:14; Jer 32:27; Zech 8:6). A series of encounters and passages allows us to glimpse the meaning of history in the divine construction of a new alliance, where divine action accomplishes its masterpiece, because man freely consents to be made a sharer of divine nature” (No. 11).

The development of the various themes

The DPCB takes from the founding story the main thematic nuclei that contribute to define what man is according to Scripture. It submits each of these reasons to an organic treatment, using in an orderly and systematic way the attestations of the Tôrah, the prophets and the wisdom traditions of Israel (with a specific consideration of the Psalter, as the place where the praying dimension of man is expressed), culminating in the fulfillment of Revelation in the Gospels and in the Letters of the New Testament. This is the only way to develop an authentic work of Biblical Theology, respecting the literary genres of Scripture and rigorously assuming its symbolic and narrative expressiveness.

Such a way of proceeding brings out the richness of the biblical tradition and, at the same time, brings out how different points of view are needed to express the multifaceted nature of the truth. Let us give an example to illustrate this assumption.

The first element that, according to the Genesis account, qualifies the human being is transience, being “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7). The relevance of the motif is demonstrated by the fact that it is present throughout biblical literature; in fact, almost like a leitmotiv, the affirmation is repeated that man is like the grass of the field that soon withers. But the different biblical texts welcome the experience of finitude with specific emphases, and this already within the sapiential literature. In fact, in the Book of Job death, acutely defined as “the king of terrors” (Job 18:14), arouses the protest of the innocent man, who feels unjustly afflicted and is not content with the traditional theodicy considerations formulated by his “friends.” The wise Qoheleth, on the other hand, repeating insistently: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2), “invites us to welcome with simplicity and gratitude the passing joys of a life marked by the ephemeral” (No. 26). The Book of Wisdom, for its part, precisely by evoking the violent death of the righteous, discloses to man a destiny of immortality (cf. Wisdom 3:4).

In the prayer of Israel, attested in the Psalter, we find in part the dramatic accents of Job’s lament, but also the confident abandonment of the believer to the Lord’s saving benevolence (Ps 16:9-11). An echo of this perspective resounds in the prophecy, which proclaims: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field […]. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:6-8). The Lord Jesus is the supreme manifestation of this loving power of God that helps human frailty, but it should be remembered that “it is ‘eternal life’ that Christ gives” (Mark 10:30; Matt 25:46; John 3:15-16:36; 10:28; etc.), not a temporary remedy for infirmity or a delay in the tragic epilogue of existence” (No. 38). For this reason the Apostle Paul can even “boast” of his weaknesses, because in them the power of God triumphs (2 Cor 12:9-10); the resurrection of the flesh thus becomes the mystery of faith and hope awaited with perseverance by believers.

The brief considerations we have just made are only intended to give an idea of how the various chapters and parts of the document proceed to illustrate individual aspects of biblical anthropology. We cannot, of course, continue along the same lines; that would be sketchy, possibly boring. On the other hand, each summary impoverishes the original text and, when it comes to Sacred Scripture, this can be offensive. But if a synthesis, however imperfect, can stimulate one to undertake a personal reading of the Bible, then it has achieved its main purpose. In this regard, the DPCB is full of biblical quotations whose expressive power constitutes the most persuasive incentive to return to taste the Word of God directly.

Entering the biblical pages is an experience of growing fascination and enlightenment; every facet of truth is composed with the others, in a demanding harmony. If, for example, one looks at how the sapiential literature considers human work, one is surprised by the insistence with which energetic commitment is recommended and laziness is condemned (No. 123); if one questions the tradition of the Tôrah, the central commandment appears to be that of the “Sabbath,” which prescribes periodic abstention from the toil of one’s hands and the enjoyment of God’s creative work (Nos. 113-116). In another area, the way of conceiving the family in the texts of the Old Testament does not coincide with the Gospel vision; but without the anthropological perspectives of the first covenant, one cannot understand the teaching of the Lord who calls to perfect love.

And only by accepting the problem that accompanies the story of the “brothers” in the accounts of Genesis can one understand the importance of the Law of Moses concerning fraternity and, even more so, the message of Jesus. Each piece of Scripture therefore has its own importance, even that which, at first glance, appears obsolete, improper or useless, because “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

Exegetical clarifications, integrations, in-depth analysis

In addition to presenting as faithfully as possible the message of the biblical pages about the human being, the Biblical Commission considered it appropriate to include (with a smaller typeface) several contributions useful for the understanding of biblical anthropology. A simple overview will serve to show the richness of the topics covered.

It was necessary, in certain cases, to give some clarification of the vocabulary used by the Bible about the constitutive dimensions of the human being (Nos. 19-20), the expression “in the image of God” (No. 46), the noun ’?d?m (No. 152), the terminology of the commandments (Nos. 271-272; 285; 293). And in the DPCB there are also exegetical analyses, such as those on laws concerning the relationship with animals (No. 141) or on Paul’s pastoral indications in matrimonial matters (Nos. 179; 204; 206). We point out, in particular, the correct interpretation of Sodom’s sin (Nos. 186-188); in fact, in the biblical story the city is not blamed because its citizens are subject to disgraceful sexual cravings, but is rather condemned for its lack of hospitality toward the stranger, with hostility and violence deserving condign punishment.

Several additions were considered useful to complete the discussion on topics not directly evoked by the foundational story. So we find paragraphs of various kinds, such as the one concerning angels (No. 75), wealth (No. 128), wild animals (No. 146), the levirate law (No. 173), the symbolic expressions of the covenant (No. 197), the genealogies (No. 209-211), the rite of circumcision (No. 213), authority figures in Israel (No. 221), biblical regulations on war (No. 252), the devil (No. 297), the value of dress (No. 323). Compared to what can be found in bible dictionaries, the DPCB’s contribution has been to place these issues in their context so that their relevance and value can be better perceived.

Of greater interest to scholars are the reflections that prepare or complete the analysis of scriptural texts. The considerations on the specificity of “human” nourishment (No. 77) open up the discussion of the biblical pages, which in various ways urge us to ask ourselves the question of what food makes man live. The paragraphs on “Likeness and Difference” (Nos. 154-155) introduce notions that are decisive for anthropology, also in relation to sexuality. The relationship between man’s work and his duty to care for creation (Nos. 104-108) makes us reflect on the responsibilities of human activity in the contemporary world.

Among the various contributions, we are particularly interested in pointing out the pages that deal with the way Scripture presents God’s intervention in history when sin is manifested (Nos. 325-333): the mode of “judgment,” which leads to condemnation, does not constitute the most truthful form of restoration of divine justice; rather, Scripture attests that the Lord, as a partner in the covenant, takes on the guise of the accuser (in the procedure of rîb) in order to promote the conversion of the sinner and graft on this his act of forgiveness: “The final event of the rîb thus takes place as a renewed encounter between the beneficial will of the Father and the free consent of the son, an encounter of truth that brings out the love of the Lord and his saving power. The whole prophetic message of the Old Testament is the promise of this event, and the whole New Testament is the attestation of the blessed fulfillment of what had been announced as the meaning of history, with a manifestation that is not limited to Israel alone, but extends to all peoples, gathered under the same seal of mercy, in a new and everlasting covenant” (No. 333).

“The Word of God is light: it opens to horizons of hope because it reveals God who acts in history with his infinite power of good. When it admonishes, the Word effects healing; when it commands, it transforms hearts; when it promises, it rejoices. Whoever receives the Word of God is flooded with consolation” (No. 13). The DPCB is intended to be a humble service to such an extraordinary outpouring of good.

Fr. Pietro Bovati is secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission

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