The Pontifical Biblical Commission was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to study the question of the proper interpretation of Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution that deals with the transmission of the word of God.
The commission was asked to place particular focus on what the Church means when it says that the Bible is inspired and without error. Their work has recently produced a long-awaited document entitled "The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture: The Word That Comes From God and Speaks of God for the Salvation of the World."
The document takes up questions that have long troubled Catholics — violence, the status of women, historical errors, etc. in sacred Scripture in the context of the question of divine inspiration. It also deals with questions such as “Who authored what books?” (e.g., “Is Hebrews by St. Paul?”) and whether books like Tobit and Jonah should be considered historical or fictional. It brings to a conclusion the proceedings related to the Synod of Bishops on the Bible (2008) and demonstrates the freedom that Catholic exegetes have, while at the same time firmly upholding the inspiration and truth of Scripture and the proper way of understanding it.
The problem is very straightforward. The Church says, “Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth, which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 107). But at the same time, Scripture has numerous statements that are difficult or impossible to square with known facts or developed Catholic moral teaching. How are these to be understood?
The first thing the commission does is reaffirm the teaching of the Church about how to situate Scripture in the context of the Catholic understanding of Revelation. The Catechism tells us (in contradistinction from, say, Islam and even many Protestant iterations of Christianity) that “the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.’ If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures’”(Catechism, 108). Accordingly, the commission says, “The other definitions of God in the biblical writings are oriented toward the Word of God made man in Jesus Christ. This incarnate Word becomes the key to their interpretation.”
And so, as Jesus himself says, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead; and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Scripture’s purpose is therefore not to be the Big Book of Everything, but to point us to Christ. So, for instance, it is not intended as a science book and is not in “error” when it uses measured poetry and liturgical imagery drawn from Temple worship to describe the seven days of creation. Its purpose is to show the construction of the universe as a macro-cosmic temple, with man and woman as the image of God at the heart of God’s creative purpose.
Conversely, such imagery links creation with the worship of God, who has revealed himself to Israel in the covenant and rites of Moses. And both creation and the cultic worship of Israel point forward, by the inspiration of the Spirit, to the ultimate Revelation, Jesus, who identifies the Temple with his body when he declares, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:29).
Layers of Meaning
The document looks at three issues: the inspiration of Scripture, the truth of Scripture and challenges that arise from Scripture itself. To do this, it keeps in mind the distinction between Revelation (“the fundamental act of God by which he communicates who he is and the mystery of his will”) and inspiration (“the action by which God enables certain persons, chosen by him, to transmit his revelation faithfully in writing”).
How the inspired biblical author communicates the truth of Revelation varies widely and relies on a huge assortment of different literary forms, such as poetry (Psalms), court chronicle (2 Samuel), theologized history narrative (1 and 2 Kings or the Gospels), fiction (Tobit or the parables of Jesus), myth (Genesis 1-11), apocalyptic literature (Revelation), legal codes (parts of Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus), genealogical accounts, proverbs and so forth. It is essential to know what kind of literature you are dealing with if you are to read what the author is really asserting, the way he is asserting it and what is incidental to the assertion.
In addition, the Church has always recognized that Scripture has multiple “senses.” This includes not only multiple senses due to human puns and plays on words, but also multiple senses due to the fact that, as Augustine says, the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New. So we can read, for instance, the story of Moses being commanded to make a bronze serpent as a miraculous cure for snakebite in Numbers 21:4-9, and the literal sense is that Moses was commanded by God to make a bronze serpent to heal rebellious Israel after they had repented their rebellion. But Jesus will reveal that the sign has a deeper meaning: his own crucifixion and glorification, in which he also will be lifted up as the serpent was — to heal us from the ultimate snakebite of the serpent in the garden (John 3:14). Reading with these layers of meaning in mind is essential to “getting” what is really being asserted in a text.
In addition, recognizing what does and does not matter to an author is crucial to avoiding false difficulties.
For instance, three synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians 10 all record a narrative of the Institution of the Eucharist, yet none record the words of Jesus in exactly the same form. The foolish conclusion of the fundamentalist, whether atheist or Christian, is that this proves inerrancy is false or, worse still, that the whole Christian story is thereby exploded.
The sensible conclusion is that the Gospels make no claim to be tape recordings of the exact words of Jesus. Common sense tells us that when four separate sources — either eyewitnesses or very close to them — evince a 99% agreement about the words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper, the smart money is on that being an accurate summary of what happened and that it is a sufficient record “for the sake of our salvation.” Claims that minor discrepancies mean Jesus never existed and nothing happened are like claims that differing eyewitness accounts of what happened at Dealey Plaza prove John F. Kennedy never existed and his assassination is a myth.
The commission makes similar arguments for the historicity of the miracle and Resurrection narratives. They grant that there are discrepancies in the accounts, but note that the core assertions of the authors nonetheless are founded on real and extraordinary events witnessed by the sources of the Gospel narrative, especially with the Resurrection narratives.
In a word, Jesus truly rose from the dead bodily; however, the details of the stories of encounter with the risen Christ are told in different ways, drawing details out of a mass of early traditions, in order to address the theological and pastoral needs of different communities in different situations.
The pastoral situation of inspired authors writing theologized history cannot be underestimated. The past is always being reread in light of the present. So, for instance, just as the trials of the pilgrims took on new significance for Americans during the Civil War (leading Abraham Lincoln to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1864, 250 years after the landing at Plymouth Rock), so the story of Abraham’s wanderings took on new significance for Israel after the traumatic experience of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire and the Jews’ resulting homelessness. It was then, more than 1,000 years after Abraham, that the stories which had been long preserved in Israel were finally put together by the inspired authors and editors of the Torah. And, of course, in addition to speaking to the situation of the Jews at the time, they were finally edited into what we now call the Book of Genesis; they also (under inspiration) point forward to the ultimate fulfillment of the promise to Abraham: the coming of the “seed of Abraham,” who is Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:15-18).
Scripture is therefore — like the incarnation of God in Christ and like his revelation through the treasure in the jar of clay that is the Church — both a fully human and fully divine word of God that points to Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man.
This is why St. John Chrysostom speaks of the “condescension of eternal Wisdom.” That condescension includes entering into the culture of a Bronze Age people and working within it in order to ultimately transcend it (and all human thinking, including our own) in the mind-boggling breakthrough of God into human history that is the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of God in Jesus Christ.
Accordingly, “the protagonist in salvation history is neither Israel nor other peoples, but God,” says the commission. Israel’s history, like the Church’s, is a record of struggle with that reality. The same people who speak with the awareness that they are Chosen People also speak with the awareness that they fall badly short of their call and leave behind (in sharp distinction to the official record of boasting that marks, for instance, Assyrian or Egyptian records) a tradition of scathing self-critique, all ultimately focused on the awareness that self-salvation is impossible and looking forward to God’s deliverance from sin on that day when the Messiah comes to deliver them and the world.
It is in this light that the Old Testament is to be read. So, for instance, the lex talionis (the law of the eye for eye and tooth for tooth) has to be seen, not as an arbitrary vendetta, but as prescribing limits to acts of reprisal: an eye an eye and a tooth for a tooth, not a life for an eye or your firstborn’s life for a tooth.
Similarly, biblical legal penalties that have since been outmoded by “procedures of justice more respectful of the inalienable rights of the person ... serve to point out the gravity of certain crimes which require appropriate measures to avoid the spread of evil.” The point is not that the death penalty or mutilation are eternal goods, but that murder and theft are permanently wrong, while our ways of punishing them have changed and developed.
In a similar way, Jesus perfects the law against adultery in John 8:1-11, yet decouples it from the demand for the blood of the adulterer by the appeal to the higher law of mercy.
Likewise, the Old Testament concept of herem (in which Israel exterminates whole populations) is notable, not because it remains a permanent feature of Jewish belief, but because it does not. What is remarkable is that ancient Israel outgrows this, while modernity is in constant danger of reverting to it. A Bronze Age impulse that herem is necessary “to remove evil and thus to safeguard the common good” is not foreign to a modern culture that responds to grave acts of evil with cries like “Nuke ’em till they glow.” Only the Bronze Age culture had no benefit of further revelation such as “Love your enemies,” a command that is often honored more in the breach than in the observance in postmodernity.
The point is this: In Scripture, the understanding the dignity of one’s enemies, and the distinction of persons from tribes, is a gradual but real progression. The same Bible that speaks of wars of extermination against Israel’s enemies will also canonize books like Ruth (which is all about a foreigner who becomes an ancestor of David and thus of the Messiah) and Jonah (which is about an Israelite prophet whose hatred of the truly horrible Assyrians is trumped by God’s saving love even for these terrible people). And, of course, both the Davidic and prophetic traditions are ultimately ordered toward Jesus Christ, who himself becomes the victim of the sins of all in order to save all.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission also notes that another difficulty, the treatment of women in Scripture, while at times problematic, is also governed by such passages as Galatians 3:28, in which Paul declares that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, and Ephesians 5:21, in which Paul says that all believers must “be subject to one another.”
The point then is that while Paul respects the normal social order of his day, he does not absolutize it. Ultimately, for Paul, relations between the sexes are founded “in agape, whose model is the love of Christ himself for his body, the Church.”
In the end, the commission’s document does not intend to be the last word in biblical interpretation of difficult biblical passages (and we have only scratched the surface of this more-than-200-page document here). But it provides valuable tools for the Catholic student of Scripture who wishes to approach Scripture with the mind of the Church and the best scholarship available.
Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.