The Bible is not a "bible" (Greek: biblos or biblion, scroll or book, from which we get bibliography); it's a library, a collection of many books. When I'm in my right mind, I speak of the "Sacred Scriptures" instead of "Bible" as a reminder of the wide variety of authors, inspired by God, who addressed different audiences using many different literary forms (genres) for many different purposes. Despite the multitude of differences in the texts, the Sacred Scriptures are all inspired by the same Holy Spirit and express the same faith.
Exegesis means (more or less) "a method of interpretation" or "interpretation." The goal of exegesis, as I understand it, is to "get" (Latin, agere) the meanings "out of" (ex) the texts that God and the human authors intended the texts to have.
An exegete is someone who interprets a text.
There is no "scientific method" for determining the meaning of a text. Reading is an art, not a science.
To decode the Scriptures, we need to use the right code book.
The Scriptures raise questions that the Scriptures themselves do not answer.
- 1 Some guidelines for reading the Scriptures
- 1.1 Seek the original meaning
- 1.2 The Limits of Literalism
- 1.3 The Limits of Symbolism
- 1.4 Catechism: Four Senses of Scripture
- 1.5 Dealing with Differences
- 1.6 Limits of private interpretation
- 1.7 Textual Criticism
- 1.8 Form Criticism
- 1.9 Narrative Criticism
- 1.10 Redaction Criticism
- 1.11 Moleski's Diverse Duplicate Conjecture (DDC)
- 1.12 Accepting Unanswerable Questions
- 1.13 Seeking the Right Kind of Truth
- 1.14 Interpreting God's Anger
- 2 Interaction with Theology
- 3 Questions and Answers
- 4 Links
Some guidelines for reading the Scriptures
Note well: These guidelines reflect my personal outlook. They are not formal teachings of the Church and do not have anything like the status of dogma.
Seek the original meaning
The meaning of words change over time.
As a general rule, it is a huge mistake to use a later meaning to translate an earlier text.
So, for example, when the ancients spoke about the planets, they meant "stars that wander around in the sky." Today we know that the planets, like the earth, are not stars, but orbit the sun, which is a star. In the ancient world, the sun was not thought of as a star, because it appeared in the day time while the stars appeared at night.
It may be a serious mistake to say that the Scriptures are opposed to later developments in doctrine because there is a difference in meaning between the language of the scriptures and the language used by the Magisterium." So, for example, there is a huge difference between the Biblical meanings of soul and the Thomistic definition of the soul is the form of the body. It is wrong to imagine that the authors of the Scriptures rejected Thomas's use of Aristotelian categories, because Thomas wrote twelve centuries after the authors of the New Testament (1225-1274 AD). The authors of the Scriptures cannot have rejected what they could not have read.
Those who mistakenly treat the Scriptures as if they were a philosophical textbook make the same kind of mistake as those who read the Scriptures as a scientific textbook. It may well be that the Scriptural material can be used to inspire, illuminate, or modify philosophy, but that kind of argument must be made philosophically, not exegetically, i.e., by determining that there is a noticeable difference between an earlier and later meaning of words.
The Limits of Literalism
It is a mistake to take all of the Scriptures literally.' No verse in the Sacred Scriptures says "every verse in the scriptures is to be taken literally." The literalist approach to the Scriptures comes from non-scriptural, PROTESTANT traditions (1517 AD) which may be inspired in part by Islam (622 AD).
Literalist view: all of revelation is in the Scriptures and nowhere else. But literalists disagree among themselves. Neither of these two views is literally prescribed in the Scriptures:
- Anything not explicitly prohibited in Scripture is OK (e.g., Confirmation, sign of the Cross, vestments, candles, etc.)--Luther's approach.
- Anything not explicitly commanded by Scripture is not OK (e.g., Sunday worship)--Calvin's approach.
Catholic view: Scriptures are part of Tradition, not the whole. Luther (1517) said that we know God "sola Scriptura"-- through the Scriptures alone. But that statement is not in the Scriptures; if the Scriptures are the sole source of truth, then it is false to claim that the Scriptures are the sole source of truth because that is not what the Scriptures say about themselves.
Catholics believe is OK to demythologize the Scriptures--in the sense that we recognize we do NOT have to treat myths as if they were history or science. Bultmann (1884-1976) coined the term. I think he went too far. What he meant by "myth" was any supernatural act at all. He thought all of the miracle stories were myths. Cf. Nicene Creed (325 AD) for healthy demythologization.
The Limits of Symbolism
It is a mistake to take all of the Scriptures symbolically. From the presence of mythic, legendary, fictional, hyperbolic, poetic, non-scientific, non-historical material, some people make a hasty and unfair generalization: "If it's not all literally true, then none of it is trustworthy." This is just as childish and simplistic as the literalist approach; in fact, it is the mirror image of literalism. Both are based on a false understanding of the Scriptures. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally; some parts are meant to be taken symbolically; some are undefined, and you can make of them what you will (as long as you stay within the bounds set by dogma, i.e, irreversible teachings of the Church).
New Testament Re-interpretation of the Old Testament
The Christian claim that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament depends in large measure on analogical interpretation of the material in the OT. I hazard a guess--that is to say, make another conjecture--that there aren't any NT quotations from the OT that depend solely on the literal interpretation of the text quoted. (Once again, I'm too lazy to prove that this is or is not the case.)
Patristic Approach to the Scriptures
- "Adam ... is the type [τύπος] of the one who was to come" (Rom 5:12-14) .
The Typological (Analogical) Interpretation of the Scriptures: this is a common technique in both the OT and the NT. The authors notice similarities between earlier and later events or persons. The earlier instance is interpreted the "type" or "antetype" or "prototype" of the later. So, for example, Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Melchizedek, David, and other OT characters prefigure or foreshadow aspects of Jesus' life and ministry. There is not a perfect fit from the old stories to the new, but it is "close enough for gummint work." Through this analogical method of noticing suggestive similarities, passages get ripped out of their old context and applied to a new context; some of these scriptural uses of scripture are more persuasive than others.
Catechism: Four Senses of Scripture
- According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
- The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."
- The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.
- 1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.
- 2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".
- 3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.
- A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:
- The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
- The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.
- "It is the task of exegetes [interpreters] to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God."
- But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 1, 10, ad I.
- Cf. 1 Cor 10:2.
- 1 Cor 10:11; cf. Heb 3:1-4:11.
- Cf. Rev 21:1-22:5.
- Lettera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia; Augustine of Dacia, Rotulus pugillaris, I: ed. A. Walz: Angelicum 6 (1929) 256.
- DV 12 § 3.
- t. Augustine, Contra epistolam Manichaei, 5,6:PL 42,176.
Dealing with Differences
Some differences make a difference; some differences make no difference.
I don't care about the differences between Genesis 1 & 2, Mt & Lk, the synoptics & John, or the Resurrection Narratives. They all agree on core truths: God made ALL things; all that God made is good; God is the author of sexuality and marriage; Jesus is God, the Son; Jesus is the Christ; Jesus died and rose for our salvation; Jesus is Lord.
The hateful sentence (don't write like this in formal essays!):
The Sacred Scriptures were written
- at different times
- in different places
- by different people
- in different languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic)
- using different literary techniques (different genres or forms of writing)
- for different audiences
- addressing different concerns
- expressing the same faith
- under the inspiration of one and the same God.
Limits of private interpretation
19 Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
20 Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,
21 for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.
- "The Anglican Communion is dead as is every other Christian sect that rejects the magisterium. When you reject your moorings, you have no choice but to drift. It's not that complicated, even in the real world."
Conflicting Texts: textual critics study the Sacred Scriptures word-by-word. They catalogue all of the differences between the manuscripts. These textual difficulties affect perhaps 10% of the Scriptures at most. These are the texts that are hard or impossible to translate.
In order to read (interpret) a passage correctly, we must recognize the form of writing (or genre) used by the author.
It is a mistake to take passages literally that were intended to be interpreted figuratively (e.g., "Let the dead bury the dead").
It is a mistake to take passages figuratively that were intended to be taken literally (e.g., "This is my Body").
Conflicting Stories: These conflicts are at the literal level. They deal with the journalists' questions which define the basic elements of the plot: who, what, when, where, how, and why.
- Two stories of Creation (Gen 1 & 2)
- Two flood stories tangled together (Gen 6-8)
- Infancy Narratives (Mt & Lk)
- Jesus' Public Ministry--synoptics (Mt, Mk, Lk) vs. John
- Synoptic Problem: How can three gospels so much alike (compared to John) be so different from each other?
- Passion Narratives
- Resurrection Narratives
- Multiple versions of Paul's conversion (his letters; Acts)
- Conflicting canons of the OT--TNK vs. LXX
The Catholic Church accepts the inspiration of all of the books of the Church's canon "in all their parts" (Dei Verbum §11). The Church does not teach that each book has only one human author or that the legendary authors of a book are necessarily the true authors, as in "the books of Moses," the different sections of Isaiah, the seconding ending of the gospel of Mark and the second ending of the gospel of John.
If different authors or editors contributed to the canonical version of a book or a collection of books, then the Church believes that their work was just as inspired as that of the original author.
Moleski's Diverse Duplicate Conjecture (DDC)
Whenever the same story is told more than once in the Scriptures, there are differences between the versions. This is a conjecture rather than a theorem because I'm too lazy to prove or disprove it. I would have to read the whole Bible, chart all of the repeated stories, then show the differences between the versions. That's a lot of work, and "work" is a four-letter word. If you find a story in the Scriptures told more than once in exactly the same way, please let me know.
Accepting Unanswerable Questions
Some questions have no satisfactory answer. The Sacred Scriptures raise many questions that the texts themselves do not answer. The Church does NOT know everything about everything; it only knows what God has revealed in the deposit of faith. For many questions, the proper answer is "Only Heaven knows--we don't know."
Seeking the Right Kind of Truth
A story need not be true to be true.
A story need not be true (as history or science) to be true (theologically): "All Scripture is inspired by God to reveal those truths necessary to salvation" (Vatican II, DV 11). As Cardinal Baronius said in the days of Galileo, the Scriptures are "intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
Interpreting God's Anger
Wherever God appears angry, I suggest that:
- God's anger is always reasonable. His wrath is always directed at people who deserve to be rebuked (sinful Israel, the enemies of Israel, sinful Christians, the enemies of Christians). God is perfectly just.
- God's anger is always a function of His love for His People. God reveals our sins only so that He can destroy that which would destroy us. God is love (1 Jn 4:8).
- God's mercy allows us to make reparation (amends) for our sins. God does not cancel the debt; He provides everything we need to pay it in full. Those whom we have injured have a right to expect reparation, just as we do when we are the injured party. God forgives our sins and requires that we make reparation for them--only then will we be reconciled to those whom we hurt. We understand this perfectly well when we are the injured party; we resist this when we are the guilty party.
Interaction with Theology
Higher-Level Issues--problems in *hermeneutics: What do the Scriptures really MEAN? What did they MEAN to the original authors and audiences? What do they MEAN today? What does God MEAN by them? How do we know what they MEAN?
- Competing theologies of the Israelites: angelology, demonology, theological anthropology (Scriptural views of humanity), theology of evil, theology of life and death, covenant theologies, interpretations of sacred history, apocalypticism, theodicies (theologies of evil), etc.
- Radical re-interpretation of the OT (TNK/LXX) by the NT.
- OT unitarian concept of God vs. Trinitarian interpretation of the NT.
- Sundry Christologies (theories about Jesus) in the NT.
- Various conjectures about Atonement (Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? Why do believers have to suffer and die?).
- Different versions of Christian apocalypticism (the Rapture, millenarianism, Second Coming [Advent]).
- Competing prescriptions for how to read (interpret, exegete) the Scriptures.
- Hermeneutics: the study of principles of interpretation (part of theology, philosophy, aesthetics, cognitive psychology, AI research in computer science, etc.) or (perhaps) "the science of meaning." The word comes from the Greek word for "interpreter" which, in turn, is related to Hermes, the messenger-God (and a prankster and thief).
Questions and Answers
What do you think of this essay, particularly its assertion that dogma is more certain than Scripture study?
The dogmas of the Church largely amount to solemn definitions of how we are to read and interpret the Scriptures. There are vast number of problems in the Scripture about which we have no certitude. A few easy examples:
- Joseph and Mary's home town (Mt: Bethlehem, Lk: Nazareth).
- The Last Supper (Mt, Mk, Lk: the Passover meal; Jn: the day before Preparation Day).
- Date of Jesus' death (Mt, Mk, Lk: the day after Passover; Jn: Preparation Day).
- Divinity of the Holy Spirit (the evidence in Scripture is very weak and easily controverted).
Are there any orthodox biblical scholars you would recommend?
Francis Martin is magnificent.
Anything from Ignatius Press is reliably orthodox.
In online reading and discussions, I have noticed that sola scriptura soon becomes sola philologica and solus doctor. That is, an approach of "Scripture alone" really means that historians and linguists (with their passing, debatable theories) determine the content of the Christian faith.
Many Protestants seem to still use a "magisterium" of sorts, but one which is not really acknowledged and which, despite its huge role in determining Protestant doctrine, formally claims no infallibility.
All Protestants are self-referentially inconsistent. They maintain many of the Church's authoritative teachings while authoritatively denying the authority of the Church to teach authoritatively.
In principle, all Protestants are their own pope. That's why non-denominationalism and churchless "spirituality" are so popular today. People are drawing out the logical conclusion of "private judgment."
It's funny how, when I've challenged Calvinists online concerning the canon (e.g. "How do you know, for certain, that Romans is divinely revealed?"), they quickly resort to a kind of fideism, quoting things like John 10:27 ("My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.") which /any/ Christian group could cite if they didn't want to have an argument. It's basically an appeal to one's own election.
Yes. You could also call it a form of gnosticism: people claim to just "know" that the Scriptures are the word of God, without acknowledging that this faith is dependent on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
I've read that the French Oratorian Richard Simon began his Old Testament research as an apologetic effort against Protestantism. He argued that, on a textual level, the differences in the Bible (e.g. Masoretic text vs. Septuagint, different readings of the same verses, vagaries in our knowledge of the Hebrew language) meant that sola scriptura was impossible in practice.
I think he's right.
Note, too, that "sola scriptura" is a non-scriptural doctrine.
If it is true that all doctrine must come from a literal reading of the Scriptures, then "sola scriptura" is false.
The basic divide in Protestant interpretation of the Scriptures began with the issue of whether any innovations not explicitly prohibited by the Scriptures were acceptable (e.g., the seven sacraments and the liturgical celebration of them). That was Luther's view. The Calvinists said that anything not explicitly commanded by Scripture is unacceptable; hence the reduction of the sacraments to two (Baptism and Eucharist) and the radical reduction of the liturgy to its bare essentials.