“Today we are going to study the Psalms, these texts of the Bible made to be proclaimed, recited, and we are going to see how these testimonies of people who have experienced God speak to us about them. » Thus begins, on this winter morning, Sophie Ramond’s course in exegesis of the Old Testament, at the Catholic Institute of Paris. She insists: “Without doubt we can even say that the entire Bible is above all a book of testimonies, of encounters with God. » In front of her, a studious assembly which includes numerous seminarians and nuns, lay students and a few older adults.
Among the latter, Agnès Chavasse, responsible for training and evangelization at the diocese of Nanterre (Hauts-de-Seine), comes to improve her skills: “I need it to grow. Understanding the Psalms from within opens doors to my ability to embrace my pain, my moments of doubt and joy. By working on the Bible, I immerse myself in the mystery of faith. And the more I know it, the more it opens, because we cannot circumscribe the divine word. »
Agnès Chavasse also believes that studying the Bible allows us to better perceive the links between the Old and New Testaments: “I no longer listen to liturgical texts in the same way.” His vision of works of art was also deepened. “When I admire the altarpiece of the mystical lamb of Ghent, I hear in my head the verse from the book of Isaiah 53:7: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter.””
Sitting a little behind her, Jean-Luc Deschoux, a retired executive, has embarked on this “part-time” university course: “I don’t disconnect my intellect from my faith,” he said. nourishes the other. And now that I finally have some time, I wanted to deepen my reading of this fascinating book and better understand the New Testament in the light of the Old, because the references are constant. These studies also help me to take a step back from certain books like Joshua, full of violence, and others, like Genesis, complicated to explain to my grandchildren – who have heard of the theory of evolution. I must put them in the context of the ancient societies to which the scribes who wrote them belonged.”
Because the Bible, “a vast library of 73 books where God speaks to us through the genius and the weaknesses of a plurality of human authors”, as presented by Father Cyprien Comte, president of the French Catholic Association for the study of the Bible (Acfeb), was not written in a day but rather… in a thousand years!
Many historians – through, among other things, archeology – and exegetes – who dissect the text – believe that part of the books of the Pentateuch (the Torah), was undoubtedly formatted for the first time, in earlier in the 8th century BC, in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. By recording the founding stories in writing, it was undoubtedly a matter of asserting the identity of the Hebrew people who were under attack from the Assyrians. “We do not know if Moses existed from a historical point of view, explains Sophie Ramond to other students who are beginning a “Bible path”. But when God gives the tablets of the Law to Moses, therefore texts written, this already tells us Israel’s commitment.”
Biblical scholar Marie-Laure Durand insists: “The Bible is above all this immense founding dialogue between God and his people, then between God and us who continue the exchange.”
A text many times expanded
In the 7th century, under the kings of Judah (in the southern kingdom), in Jerusalem, the texts were rewritten and others added, notably those of the great prophets. Including the Book of Jeremiah, which recounts this writing process in its chapter 36: Jeremiah dictates to his secretary Baruch the words that God spoke to him. Then this scroll of parchment is destroyed by the king of Judah. Then Jeremiah dictates a new version to which other words are added. “There we have, recounted in the Bible itself, this work of the scribes and these processes of rewriting where, little by little, the text is increased. Proof that the Bible is, from the beginning, a living tradition,” comments Father Cyprien Comte, himself a Jeremiah specialist.
Then the southern kingdom fell in 587 BC into the hands of the Babylonians, who deported some of the elites (i.e. priests and scribes) to Babylon, in Mesopotamia. It is a moment of serious political and religious crisis for these people who have lost everything. They find themselves confronted with a very different culture which will, however, partly inspire them.
“When things are not going well, we reread old stories to find meaning in the crisis, or even rewrite them to better unify. The Hebrews try to understand who they are by seeking God in their history,” explains Marie-Laure Durand. “We feel the need to go back to the origins,” adds Sophie Ramond. Thus two stories from Genesis coexist, the first of which is of Babylonian inspiration.
Other texts were born in this moment of exile or just after: “Deuteronomy and certain prophets explain the crisis by the disobedience and infidelity of the people to God, while certain Psalms on the contrary accuse God of having rejected his people , she adds. At the same time, prophetic speeches announce a return from exile and a restoration of the Temple, and Leviticus sets out new purification rituals. »
Are the multiple discourses which sometimes contradict each other, the different versions of the same story which coexist, not a sign of an inconsistency of the message? “Certainly, we find everything and its opposite in the Bible,” warns Sophie Ramond, “and the texts are in tension with each other. But because it is not a question of “ready-to-think”! We must accept to hear this plurality which nourishes our faith and our culture. » “The whole outlines a symphonic truth,” adds Father Cyprien Comte. This is why, in the New Testament, we also find four Gospels, each of which has its “emphasis” and each of its own necessity: From the beginning, John shows us a more divine Jesus, Mark a more human Jesus…”
Writings for living the faith
This “fluid” process of writing continued while the Jews, returning to Jerusalem, lived under Persian (538-332 BC) then Hellenistic (332-142 BC) authority. ).
The texts of the New Testament were written under Roman domination (since 63 BC): Epistles, Gospels and Acts of the Apostles were written between 40 and 120 AD, when the contemporaries of Jesus began to disappear and wrote down their testimony for the emerging communities. “In all periods, moreover, none of the authors had the idea that they were composing a chapter of the Bible,” remarks Sophie Ramond. But everyone knew that they wrote to be useful to their community and that these texts were authoritative for their faith, helping them to live it. »
Very faithful copies
In the centuries that followed, the Jewish canon like the Christian canon became established. “Which does not mean that everything stands still,” warns Father Cyprien Comte: “the texts continue over the centuries to be read, proclaimed, copied, commented on, interpreted, translated…” First in Greek, then in Latin and, from the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, in the different languages of Christianized countries. Of course, the “original” manuscripts no longer exist. But we know – thanks to discoveries, in the 20th century, of biblical parchments and papyri in Qumran, in Israel, near the Dead Sea, or even in the Egyptian desert, dating back to the 3rd century BC – that the copies of copies remained very faithful, whether of the Old or the New Testament.
“Each era appropriates the Bible, which is a way of transmitting the tradition, of increasing it,” explains the biblical scholar, emphasizing the need to study it, “and to study it together” in order to better find, in the oral exchange, the multiple reading keys. For Sophie Ramond, theologians even have a duty to draw resources from the Bible to meet contemporary challenges. She cites as an example chapter 28 of the book of Job, which evokes the risk of destroying Mother Earth through the overexploitation of minerals and whose echo echoes up to our time in ecological crisis.
Marie-Laure Durand wants to reassure the non-professional reader of the Bible: to approach such a monument without fear, she gives two pieces of advice: “Replace each text in its context: who wrote it? When ? For who ? » The introductions to current editions of the Jerusalem Bible or the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible (TOB) are there to help the reader as well as many introductory works to the Bible. However, she adds, we must also “look at it with new and simple eyes to concretely find its meaning without being too influenced by previous speeches”. Sophie Ramond, with humor, wishes her students to let themselves be disturbed and shaken up: “The Bible must remain a dangerous text for all of us! » she concludes.
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