Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two New Catholic Commentaries: on Ephesians and Second Corinthians - Farewell Dinner for M. Roger Paul

This picture of a pile of books reminds me of my sitting room at home: I have far too many books that I have just dipped into, browsing has begun but reading has not been completed.

Despite this, I love to receive new books, which happened last week when the two latest volumes in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scriptures series, produced in collaboration with an evangelical publishing house (Baker Academic in Grand Rapids, Michigan): Second Corinthians by Fr. Thomas Stegman, SJ of Boston College and Adam Cardinal Maida Chair of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary's Peter Williamson's volume on Ephesians (disclosure: I am one of the series' consulting editors).

Catholics are not known for buying and reading through a biblical commentary on a particular writing, and this series hopes to change this. The publisher's list price is US $19.99, but Amazon.ca was listing each volume at the discounted price of Cdn $16.60. Perhaps they'll be available in Ottawa at the St. Paul's University bookstore or the book room at St. Patrick's Basilica if enough people ask for them.

What I like about the series and a reason I agreed to serve on the board of advisors is that authors intend to show links between Scripture and Tradition (including the Magisterium's interpretations) in keeping with a Catholic understanding of study of God's Word.

Thus, the volume on Paul's second epistle to the Church gathered in Corinth contains ten illustrations such as Gustave Dore's sketch of Paul preaching; the routes between Ephesus (from which Paul wrote) to Corinth (to which he travelled by land and sea); ruins of the Apollo temple in Corinth; etc.

There are also sidebars on 43 topics such as "levels of heaven and paradise in Jewish writings", "siege warfare in the ancient world", and "St. Maximus the Confessor on imitating God's generosity"; and 78 pastoral topics (holy kiss, ministry of authority, prayer for fellow Christians, resurrection as grounds for hope and thorn in the flesh).

Stegman has a striking presentation of the difference between Paul's position of advancing his apostolic credentials (commendation of self, where God proposes and the apostle is the object of God's action) and that of his opponents (self-commendation, where the self comes first in spiritual self-promotion).

I was interested to read over Stegman's position on the scholarly theory that 2 Cor is a compilation of several smaller letters joined together, and was pleased with his argument for accepting the epistles as it is.

Similarly, I was pleased to read Williams' argument that Ephesians was written by Paul rather than by a successor. However, I could not read it in the book, as he thought the matter was too recondite for most Catholics/Christians reading the commentary. However, he refers readers interested in the topic to go online for a 7-page treatment, which I printed out, delighted in reading and folded into the cover of my volume.

Here is the conclusion to the seven bonus pages on the web site:

Finally, we must ask the question, if Paul did not write Ephesians, who did? Usually works written in the name of a great author are inferior, characterized by clumsy imitation and derivative thinking (see 3 Corinthians or the Epistle to the Laodiceans, available online). But among the letters attributed to Paul, Ephesians is equaled only by Romans in its profundity and confident development of theological ideas expressed in earlier letters.

If not Paul, who was this theological genius of the late first century? We must not underestimate Paul’s theological flexibility or circumscribe his literary skills too narrowly. Ephesians differs from the other Pauline letters by its use of an eloquent demonstrative and deliberative rhetoric to reinforce and deepen key points of Paul’s teaching in a circular letter directed to predominantly Gentile Christian communities.

Which is easier to imagine: that a disciple or “school,” working with earlier writings would be able to produce a work like Ephesians twenty years after his death or that Paul had the theological imagination to develop his own insights during the enforced idleness of his imprisonment and had the rhetorical skill to express them, assisted, perhaps, by literate coworkers such as Luke?

While the arguments proposed against the authenticity of Ephesians raise reasonable questions, they are not compelling separately or together. Nevertheless, the opinion that Paul himself authored Ephesians, like all literary-historical judgments, remains at best a probability rather than a certainty. For Catholics and most Christians, the point that is certain and that matters most is that whoever its human author was, the Letter to the Ephesians remains God’s word to us.

The purpose of the series, which presents the volumes published in 2008, reads as follows:

The CATHOLIC COMMENTARY ON SACRED SCRIPTURE combines outstanding biblical scholarship with lively faith to help Catholics interpret Scripture and apply it to Christian life today. In seventeen volumes, the series aims to provide readable, informative commentary on each book of the New Testament. The CCSS responds to the desire of Catholics to study the Bible in depth and in a way that integrates Scripture with Catholic doctrine, worship, and daily life. Because of this, it is an invaluable resource for pastoral ministers.

Central to the commentary’s approach are the theological principles taught by Vatican II for interpreting Scripture “in accord with the same Spirit by which it was written”—that is, interpreting Scripture in its canonical context and in the light of Catholic tradition and the analogy of faith (Dei Verbum, 12). The CCSS helps readers grasp the meaning of texts both in their historical and literary context and in their relationship to Catholic doctrine and life in the present.

The first two volumes published in November 2008 have met with an enthusiastic response among Catholics and some Protestants as well. Clergy and laity have praised the usefulness of The Gospel of Mark and First and Second Timothy, Titus for personal study and lectio divina, the spiritual reading of Sacred Scripture.

* * * * * *


On Saturday evening, I joined a large gathering to toast Mr. Roger Paul on his retirement as Director of Education and Secretary of the Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l'Est ontarien (CSDCEO)at the Hammond Golf Course dining hall.

The guest of honour and myself

There were speeches and presentations, signalling monsieur Paul's achievements as an educator, innovator and leader (collaborative leadership being his specialty)....

Abbe Andre Samson, a priest of the Archdiocese and professor in the Education faculty at the University of Ottawa

On January 1, Mr. Paul will take on new challenges as director of la Federation nationale des conseils scolaires francophones (FNCSF).

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