Patrick’s goal is to provide Catholics with Scriptural evidence for the distinctively Catholic doctrines they hold. Given Patrick’s impressive resume, I expected to find well-reasoned arguments presented in his book “Where is that in the bible?”; however, that was not the case. Patrick begins his book by telling us an anecdotal story about a theological discussion he had with a couple of his protestant friends that forms the foundation for many of the arguments he later presents. He tells us that, as he discussed questions of biblical interpretation with his friends, he convinced them that many different interpretations were equally valid. Armed with this new understanding his friends soon abandoned their protestant faith and joined the Catholic church. The following is an excerpt from the story he tells:
“How can you be so sure that your particular interpretation of Scripture is accurate?” This question hung silently in the air between us for a moment.
Steve said, “Scripture is clear. We don’t have to worry that we don’t understand it. Its meaning is clear.”
“Is it? Are you certain you have the right interpretation?” I asked, eyebrows arched.
They nodded vigorously. So I used this exercise to show them why I as a Catholic look not just to Scripture alone, as they did, but also to the Church and its living Tradition of interpreting Scripture.
Let’s say someone wrote these words a hundred years ago: “I never said you stole money.” As Steve and Mike did, anyone you asked would say he understands the meaning of that sentence. Six short words, nothing complicated. But do you understand the meaning for sure? Perhaps the person who wrote it meant to say: “I never said you stole money.” Implying that someone else said it. Or maybe he meant: “I never said you stole money.” He thought it, he suspected it, but he never said it. Or, “I never said you stole money.” He said your neighbor did. Or, “I never said you stole money.” He meant that you lost the money, or you squandered it, or did something thing else with it he didn’t approve of- but you didn’t steal it.”
While Patrick’s story makes a good sound bite, it fails the most basic rule of hermeneutics i.e. a text must be understood within the context of the passage from which it was taken. Without context most small phrases can be understood in a wide variety of ways. In his example, he has simple demonstrated that taking words out of context can result in a gross misunderstanding of its intended meaning and this is something every scholar already acknowledges. The goal of good hermeneutics is to understand the intent of the author and that often requires hard work. It isn’t simply looking at a text and deciding the meaning you like best (eisegesis), it is digging in and searching for evidence that demonstrates what the author himself intended to say (exegesis). As an example, let’s see what happens when I take the words from the example that Patrick provided, i.e. “I never said you stole money,” and place them within a larger context.
“John allowed his friend Tom, who had been released from prison, to stay with him in his home as Tom began to rebuild his life. One day John came home, and upon seeing that money he had left on the dining room table was gone, he asked his friend about the missing money. In fear, Tom responded, saying “I didn’t steal it!” His friend replied, “My dear friend, I never said you stole money, I just wanted to know what had happened to it.”
Within the context of this passage, the phrase we just read becomes far less ambiguous because the context provides boundaries that limit the possible meanings from which we may choose. And even in this light, there is still much more context that we do not know; context encompasses much more than just the words on the page from which a phrase was taken, and the better we understand the whole context, the more clarity we will have in our understanding of what the author intended to say. The more we learn about the author, his intended audience, their culture, and the circumstances that prompted his words, the easier it becomes to understand his words as he intended them to be understood. While our understanding of the context is often incomplete, and this sometimes prevent us from identifying a single possible meaning, a good understanding of the context, even when incomplete, will always eliminate many wrong interpretations. Understanding any text, including the Bible, is not the free for all suggested by Patrick; there really are good tools we can use to provide boundaries that differentiate between valid interpretations and invalid ones, but it sometimes requires us to put in a little effort.
Let’s now take a look at some of the arguments that Patrick presents in his book. The first argument we will examine is his claim that Hebrew and Aramaic lack the vocabulary used to describe close relatives like “uncles” and “cousins.” Here is what he says:
“In Hebrew and Aramaic languages, as they were spoken at the time of Christ, there was no word for cousin or uncle or some other close relative. All close relatives were referred to simply as “brother” or “sister.” And though in Greek there are specific words for these relationships, it is quite reasonable to assume that the Greek word for brother (adelplios) was employed even in instances where it would be more precise to call someone a cousin or a nephew. This was because it reflected the culture’s use of the word brother in a wider sense.”
In reality, Hebrew does have a word for “uncle” and Aramaic has two. Additionally, both Hebrew and Aramaic describe a “cousin” as a “son of an uncle.” Here are some references from early Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts that demonstrate that these familial relationships could be described by words other than “brother” in all three languages.
או־דדו או בן־דדו (Lev. 25:49 Hebrew)
His uncle or the son of his uncle (i.e. cousin) [English Translation]
או אחבוהי או בר אחבוהי (Lev. 25:49 Aramaic Targums OT “commentary”)
His uncle or the son of his uncle (i.e. cousin) [English Translation].
או דדה או בר דדה (Lev. 25:49 Syriac [Aramaic OT])
His uncle or the son of his uncle (i.e. cousin) [English Translation]
ומרקוס בר דדה דברנבא (Col. 4:10 Peshitta [Aramaic NT])
And Mark is the son of Barnabas’ uncle (i.e. cousin) [English Translation]
Note also that the Greek also makes these relationships clear.
ἀδελφὸς πατρὸς αὐτοῦ ἢ υἱὸς ἀδελφοῦ πατρὸς (Lev. 25:49 LXX)
his father’s brother (i.e. uncle) and the son of his father’s brother (i.e. cousin) [English Translation]
Μᾶρκος ὁ ἀνεψιὸς Βαρναβᾶ (Col. 4:10 GNT)
Mark, the cousin of Barnabas [English Translation]
Contrary to the claim Patrick has made, if they wanted to speak of a relationship other than “brother,” the had the words to describe those relationships in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and they used them in other places in Scripture.
Patrick also makes the claim that if Scripture had intended to communicate that Jesus had siblings, the author would not have used the definite article “the,” suggesting that the use of the definite article proves that Jesus was an only child. Here is what he says:
“Scripture only refers to Christ as “the” son of Mary, but never as “a” son of Mary, which we would expect if there were other “sons” of Mary.”
Neither in Greek, nor in English, is there any expectation that using the definite article when speaking of a child precludes the possibility that other children existed, and examples we find in Scripture strongly contradict this proposal. For example, we recognize that the Apostle Peter’s brother was Andrew (Matt. 10:2) and yet Jesus says to Peter “You are Simon the son of John. (Jn. 1:42)” Jesus’ use of the definite article doesn’t leave us wondering whether Peter was an only child because we recognize that language doesn’t work that way. Furthermore, Patrick’s argument becomes especially weak when we realize that that there is only one reference to “son of Mary” found in Scripture (Mk. 6:3). In this light, Patrick’s argument is completely meaningless.
The vast majority of the “proofs” presented in Patrick’s book, mirror the two I have presented above. Many of his arguments crumble because they begin with a faulty foundation (as in the examples above). This is a book that will “speak to the choir” as they say, but it is uncompelling for anyone willing to examine his arguments with more than just a cursory glance.