Teaching Scripture in the Classroom
The study of scripture in a classroom context takes the reader into the world of Jewish and Christian believers. Teachers need to develop reading and interpretation skills to appreciate the understandings of God and religious experience that are presented in Biblical texts.
The Catholic approach to interpreting scripture is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to the person in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words (n.109).
In order to discover the sacred author’s intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current.
“For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression (Dei Verbum, 12).
The Bible is firmly grounded in history; in the history of the Jewish people, the historical events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth and the history of the early Christian communities. However, at no time do Biblical authors claim to present objective history. Each book in the Old and New Testaments has been written from the bias of faith. The aim was never to write history but rather “to proclaim the wonders that God has worked in the midst of people and to interpret those events so that others might have faith” (Stead, 1996). Ordinary, everyday language is inadequate for such a task, so the Biblical authors made extensive use of symbol, metaphor and imagery. Therefore, for the teacher and student of scripture the question is not, ‘Did this (event) really happen?’ but rather, ‘What does this text mean?’
There are some important educational principles teachers need to keep in mind when engaging students with scriptural texts in the classroom learning and teaching of religion:
All teaching of scripture must proceed from a clear understanding that the Bible is theological interpretation of, and reflection on, historical realities and faith experiences.
There is no text without context. The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), affirmed the need to approach scripture critically using methods like the historical-critical method and literary analysis. For the teacher, engaging students in a critical study of scriptural texts involves research into historical issues raised in the text; identification of the text type and textual features; exploration of the setting, characters, structure, plot and attention to the context and function of the text, within the specific book in which it is located, as well as the Bible as a whole.
Catholics do not read scripture from a fundamentalist understanding. Such an approach begins with the view that the Bible, being the inspired Word of God, is error free, historically accurate and therefore should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. This is not the approach taken in the Catholic Church or in the religion classroom. Rather, the Catholic Church’s understanding of scripture accepts the Bible as the inspired Word of God and as the work of human authors who were conditioned by their time, place, culture and worldview.
Teachers avoid teaching something that has to be untaught at a later time. In other words, teachers of scripture need to have a solid understanding of the texts to be explored. Students need to be taught how to apply the same skills they are developing in critical literacy to their interpretation of scriptural texts. For example, in exploring the stories of the synoptic gospels, all students including those in the early years should be taught to think of the gospels as recorded teaching and preaching rather than biographies of Jesus.
A student’s prior experience and familiarity with scripture generally will significantly influence their capacity to effectively engage with scriptural texts. It is vital therefore that students engage with scripture in a wide range of settings, both within the classroom teaching of religion and in the religious life of the school.