Father John Dietzen
Catholic News Service

Q. During Advent, our parish Bible study group is discussing the Annunciation, Nativity and other seasonal topics. The conversation turned to how much we really know about when things happened in the Bible. […]

How do these huge time periods relate, for example, to the stories about Adam and Eve? When exactly did God create our first parents? (Louisiana)

A. We have no idea when or how God created the first human beings. Historical sciences, despite their remarkable modern discoveries, still cannot pinpoint when, or even where, the first “humans” appeared on earth. Nor can the Bible tell us.

To see why this is true, we need to keep in mind a few facts about Catholic understanding of the Bible.

First, we believe that the Scriptures teach “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (Second Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution on spanine Revelation, No. 11).

This means, for example, that we do not read the Bible as if it were a book of scientific history or anthropology. The truths of faith that God reveals to us in the Genesis stories of creation are many, for example. God created the world, including humans, as a free act of His love, and God desires to share His goodness and life.

In other words, we always need to approach the creation stories, as all of Scripture, very carefully to separate what is “for the sake of our salvation” from the vehicles of language and culture — the images, allegories, fables, parables and other literary devices — God uses to convey His messages of revelation to us.

The most recent exhaustive and nuanced Catholic document on the “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” is the 1993 publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, with that title. While inspiring the authors of the Bible, it states that God made use of all the ways language can express ideas. At the same time, God recognized the limitations of human language; no human words can ever adequately express any of these spanine mysteries.

“Proper respect for inspired Scripture,” the document says in its conclusion, “requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning.”

With that in mind, the (Catholic) New American Bible notes in its introduction to the first chapters of Genesis that the truths contained in these chapters must be clearly distinguished from their literary garb.

Forgetting those cautions can lead to some awesomely eccentric beliefs. During the 17th century, for example, Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland, carefully adding up figures from the book of Genesis, determined that the world was created in 4004 B.C.

Later, English biblical scholar John Lightfoot of Cambridge University “proved” that the exact moment of God’s creation of Adam was “Oct. 23, 4004 B.C., at 9 o’clock in the morning.”

That’s the kind of weirdness that can happen when we try to squeeze the Bible for information it was not meant to give.

Questions may be sent to Father John Dietzen, Box 3315, Peoria, Ill. 61612, or e-mail: jjdietzen@aol.com.