Have you ever wished that there was a biography of Jesus Christ that answered all the niggling little questions you’ve had about our Lord?
Just what was Jesus doing during those twenty-odd years between his visit to the temple in Jerusalem at age twelve and his re-emergence into the public eye at his baptism in the Jordan? How did Jesus and the disciples support themselves while they were on the road throughout Palestine? Why did Jesus command people not to tell anyone he had cured them?
Strictly speaking, the evangelists never intended the Gospels to be a complete biography of our Lord. As the Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, stated:
Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion, commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. . . . The commission was fulfilled, too, by those apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing (7, emphasis added).
The primary purpose of the Gospels, then, is to pass on divine revelation: to be a written source of “saving truth and moral teaching” for the Church. Nonetheless, the Gospels are an invaluable source of information about the life and public ministry of our Lord. In fact, all the questions I posed above are answered in them:
- St. Luke states that during the so-called “hidden years” Jesus lived in Nazareth with his parents, where he “was obedient to them . . . and Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51-52).
- Luke also tells us that Jesus and the apostles were supported financially by women who had been healed by Jesus “of evil spirits and infirmities” and who followed the apostolic band in their travels (Luke 8:1-3).
- One reason Jesus wanted those cured to keep quiet about it was because the cures brought out multitudes of curious people, which hindered his public ministry to some extent (Mark 1:40-45). Another reason was because the miracles agitated the religious authorities (John 11:45-53), which in turn hastened the time of his passion and death (John 2:3-4).
Familiarity with the details of our Lord’s public ministry that the Gospels provide goes beyond merely satisfying our curiosity, of course. Catholic apologist Frank Sheed contended that knowledge of our Lord’s earthly life helps us to know Christ more intimately and protects us against creating a Christ made in our own image:
Not to know the two years or so of the public ministry, not to have lived through every incident of it, is not to know God-made-man as he dwelt among us. . . . If we do not know him as he lived among us, acted and reacted and suffered among us, we risk not knowing him at all. . . . And we shall end either in constructing our own Christ, image of our own needs or dreams, or in having no Christ but a shadow and a name (To Know Christ Jesus).
After the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Church returned to Ordinary Time. The major focus of Ordinary Time is the public ministry of our Lord. In 2018, Ordinary Time runs from January 9 to February 13 and from May 21 to December 1, and these would be excellent times for us to study with new zeal the life of Jesus.
There are a variety of ways to dive into Bible study. If your parish has an established Bible study group, that would be a fine place to start. Study groups allow for the mutual exchange of ideas and can provide access to materials, such as commentaries, that might be difficult or expensive to obtain on your own. (One drawback, of course, is that you are limited to studying what the group decides to study.)
If you don’t have access to a parish Bible study, there are other options. You could gather together a few Catholic friends for a home reading group. Many people enjoy book clubs. What if you and your friends decided to gather in your home once a month to read and discuss one of the Gospels or a life of Christ? If you’re not able to gather in person, you could gather through social media by setting up a Facebook discussion group.
Bible study with others is helpful because it provides opportunities for Christian fellowship and for personal accountability. But it’s also possible to study on your own. Just ten minutes a day, either in the morning or in the evening, is plenty of time to read through the day’s Scripture readings, with a special focus on the Gospel.
One of the challenges Catholics have in starting Bible study is finding good supplementary resources to help them understand Scripture in a manner in keeping with the Church’s doctrinal teaching. Here are a few resources I recommend:
- A subscription to a magazine that provides the daily readings, commentary on the readings, prayers from the divine office, the prayers of the Mass, and which can be used as a missalette at Mass. Magnificat is popular with many Catholics and is used by Catholic Answers staff at our daily Mass.
- A subscription to a magazine that focuses more directly on Scripture study. These can either be themed to individual books of the Bible or to the daily readings. The decline of Catholic print media has reduced the number of magazines still in publication that are devoted to Bible study, but The Word Among Us is still available and is a fine resource.
- If you have a smart phone, an app for a favorite Scripture magazine or to the divine office can make keeping up with your daily reading even more convenient. Many magazines also offer digital versions for your e-reader or tablet.
- A good life of Christ by a trusted Catholic author is essential. One of the drawbacks of reading the Gospels in daily bite-sized chunks is that you quickly lose sight of the big picture of Christ’s earthly life. My favorite life of Christ is Frank Sheed’s To Know Christ Jesus. Other possibilities include Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth (the first volume, which is dedicated to the public ministry) and Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ.
The Gospels may not be merely biographies of Jesus Christ, but they are reliable portraits of the earthly life of the Son of God. Study of them can be a lifelong endeavor, but it is a project well worth undertaking. As one of the Church’s first Scripture scholars, St. Jerome, insisted, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”