There are varieties of methods, criticisms, interpretations, approaches, and theologies in biblical and theological interpretations. It is very easy for anyone to get confused. The plurality of methods, approaches, interpretations, Biblical books are complex in their text, language, culture, and history. So a variety of competencies is needed to interpret them. All the methods, approaches, and theologies help us to better understand the deeper meaning of the biblical texts. It was in the search for the true meaning of these texts that theological hermeneutics developed. From the 17th century onwards we see the development of ‘Hermeneutics’ as an important and independent discipline in classical philology and interpretation in general. In contemporary philosophy and theology ‘Hermeneutics’ plays a vital role. This is mainly due to the influence of the works of Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur.
There was a time when biblical interpretation was left entirely to theologians, historians, and philosophers. Now biblical interpretation is considered as an integral part of biblical studies. The Bible is not just an ancient text; it is the most translated of all books. It is sacred Scripture that was read in liturgical assemblies and was preached and commented upon for thousands of years by thousands of people. In our discussion we will look at these realities.
1 Why is biblical interpretation necessary?
Often people say: “Just read the Bible and do what it says!” The problem with this attitude is that different people, even though they read the same Bible, come to very different conclusions about what it actually says! Many people also tend to think of the Bible as “God’s little instruction book for life.” While this statement has a kernel of truth – the Bible certainly does contain much teaching on how to live – it is far more than just an instruction manual. It is the written record of God revealing in history who He is, what He is like, who we are, what we are like, and what He expects of us. This is the overall message of the Bible in a nutshell. The necessity and goal of Biblical interpretation are explained below:
v The Bible was originally written to people who lived in a different place, in a very different culture, at a different time and period of history, and who spoke different languages. It also contains several different types of literature (called genres).
v Because the Bible is God’s word in history revealed to people in history, each passage has n historical context – an particular author, audience, purpose and occasion. On the other hand, since the Bible is also the word of God, its contents are also eternally relevant.
v The goal of interpretation is not to come up with the most unique interpretation (unique interpretations are usually wrong), but to discover the original intended meaning of a passage – the way the original audience understood it. The task of discovering the original intended meaning is called exegesis.
v The key to doing good exegesis is reading the text very carefully, paying close attention to the details it describes, and asking the text the right questions. This is critical to finding the correct interpretation. Bad interpretation results directly from bad exegesis.
The terminologies frequently used in Hermeneutics are explained in this section.
The term hermeneutics comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein, meaning ‘to interpret, translate, explain, declare’ and from nominal hermeneutike meaning [‘the art of’] interpretation’. Its Latin equivalent is the verb interpretari, from which comes the noun interpretation. Hence, hermeneutics reflects the Latin plural ‘hermeneutica’ meaning the science of interpretation.
The term “hermeneutics” is derived from the name of the god Hermes, who in Greek mythology acts as the messenger between the gods and human beings. In this process Hermes makes intelligible to human beings God’s message which otherwise is not intelligible to them. In Listra, Paul was taken for Hermes (Acts 14:12) for between the crippled man and Barnabas it was Paul who spoke.
In the broader sense hermeneutics is the quest for meaning. In this broader context, the word hermeneutic has three meanings:
a) Interpretation by speech itself: Language expresses and interprets what is in one’s mind or even that which constitutes one’s identity, being and person. In biblical discussion we have to deal with the capacity of human language to express God’s mind, will, and person.
b) Interpretation through the translation: The process of translation from one language to another is a process that goes beyond the mechanical equivalents of words. It is concerned with the transference from one culture and worldview to another. This can also be a translation from an unintelligible language to an intelligible one (hermeneia of tongues, in 1 Cor 12:10, is a charistmatic gift with a revelatory dimension).
c) Interpretation by commentary and explanation: It is a more formal aspect. Here the interpreter gives systematic comments and explanations on the texts.
In the narrower sense, hermeneutics refers to the principles, method, and techniques used to interpret written texts. The biblical hermeneutical theory is in contact with the philosophical reflection on hermeneutics, it has, however, assumed its own itinerary due to the special nature of the biblical texts as an inspired normative book of faith.
The function of the interpreter consists in seeking for “that meaning which the sacred writer. in a determined situation and given the circumstance of his time and culture intended to express and did in fact express through the medium of contemporary literary form” (DV 12). Inasmuch as the intention of the author is found in the sense of the text, we must try to find the sense present in the text, because it is what the sacred writer intended and did express. What is important is what the text actually says and not that which the author may have thought but did not write.
The Greek verb Exegeomai means to draw out, to develop, to explain. Thus exegesis explains the text of the scripture drawing out its message and significance.
Until recently hermeneutics meant a theoretical reflection on meaning as distinct from exegesis, an art where the rules detected in hermenutics were applied practically. For us here, exegesis, refers to the analysis of a particular text of scripture to discover what the author wanted to say to his contemporaries, and hermeneutics refers to what the same text says to us today in a context different from the original one. Further, it is within the competence of hermeneutics to establish the principles, method, and techniques used to interpret written texts.
3. Text and the Process of Communication
The Bible contains texts almost 2950 years old, which were produced over a span of 1100 years. Even through the same methods and criteria used for the understanding of any ancient book are necessary and indispensable, for the Bible these are not sufficient. One must consider also the aspect of faith, as there are divinely inspired books of faith which are bequeathed to the Church as the norm and the nourishment of her life. So to understand the true significance that the Word of God is to have for us, we must also consider this added dimension in the interpretation of the biblical text.
Scripture reveals the will of God. Interpretation is essential in discerning this will. Morses, Prophets, Scribes, and many others have acted as interpreters of God’s will. Jesus himself is the supreme interpreter and revealer of God’s will. The NT writers interpreted the OT and the Christ Event. Even after the formation of the canon, the need for interpretation continued. Today, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church discerns the will of God as it is revealed in the Bible.
Phases of Biblical Interpretation
A discussion of biblical hermeneutics can be undertaken only against the background of a discussion of a general introduction to the Bible which includes a study of its inspiration, the unity of the Testaments, the Canon, the textual criticism, the manuscripts and the formation of the Bible, the history of biblical times, and the literary forms found in the Bible. Biblical interpretation follows from the understanding of the Bible as the Word of God expressed in the words of men. Therefore, our discussion must follow certain norms which account for this fact without overemphasizing or minimizing one or the other aspect.
Different literary genres (kinds of literature) are interpreted in different ways, so the first question to ask is: “To which category of literature does the text you are interpreting belong? Below are brief descriptions of the different genres found in the Bible:
Historical Narratives. These describe actual historical events from God’s perspective. They tell us what God is like (His character and nature), what God likes/dislikes, how He deals with people who obey and honour Him, and how he deals with those who disobey and hate Him. Narratives give us principles and lessons, not commands, patterns or laws. Historical Narratives are found in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. In the New Testament, they can be found in parts of the Gospels, and the book of Acts.
Poetry and Songs. These are expressions of emotion to God. They allow us to express to God our feelings of happiness, joy, trust, hope, security, as well as feelings of discouragement, guilt, suffering, fear, anger, despair and repentance. They also assist us in expressing our love and appreciation for God or our need for forgiveness. Poetry and Songs allow us to relate to God on our own level. They show us how to communicate with God and how to honour and worship Him. In the Old Testament, these writings are found primarily in the Psalms and Song of Songs.
Legal Writings. These writings indicate God’s high moral standard, His idea of justice, principles of common sense government, principles of common sense health and safety, and His pattern and order for acceptable worship. These laws are NOT directly applicable to Christians today i.e. they are not meant to be legalistic instructions and commands to Christians. Such legal writings can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Wisdom/Wise Sayings. These writings indicate God’s view of wisdom as opposed to man’s view of wisdom. They contain wise sayings, and practical advice on how to live life and avoid trouble and hardship. Wisdom literature can be found primarily in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job.
Prophecy. Prophecy is God’s message to a particular person, a particular group of people and sometimes to all humanity. It is not necessarily foretelling the future – in fact the vast majority of prophecy in the Bible speaks of the present. Prophecy is found primarily in the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi.
Teachings of Jesus. These are direct statements of truth from Jesus concerning the nature and character of God the kingdom of God/Heaven, what God expects of us, principles of righteous living, and the ways in which Jesus fulfils the OT prophecies. They are not exhaustive ‘DOs and don’ts,’ but rather, serve as examples and paradigms (patterns) from which we can derive underlying principles to apply in other situations. These teachings are found in parts of the Gospels i.e. Matthew – John.
Parables. Parables are stories with a punch-line. Parables are not so much illustrative, but rather, provocative. They are designed to draw people in and hit them with something unexpected, in the same way a joke does. Most parables have only one message or central idea, and even if multiple messages are present, one of them will be the chief idea. Note also that they are not perfect analogies! Parables are also found in parts of the Gospels.
Letters. These are generally occasional documents i.e. they were written with a clear purpose to a well-identified audience. However, some letters (called epistles) were written to a larger people group. The letter/epistle writer presents arguments to correct, rebuke, defend, instruct, praise and encourage their readers. Letters/epistles form the vast majority of the New Testament from Romans to Jude.
Apocalypse. This includes the book of Revelation, and also large parts of Ezekiel and Daniel. Revelation is a vision of warning and encouragement to the early church as it was going through immense persecution.
The most important factor in exegesis is context. Understanding the context is the key to understanding what you are reading. Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart also point out “[t]he only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text.”
There are two aspects of the context of a passage: the historical context and the literary context.
Historical Context. The Bible was written over a period of time dating from approximately 2000 BC (Job) to 95 AD (Revelation). It was set in a different country/continent and a vastly different culture and society from our own, therefore we must be careful not to make 20th century assumptions about the situation. Consult Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks in order to find out about the manners and customs of the various nations at that time in history. Use your imagination and try to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved. Make observations about who? what? when? where? and how?
Literary Context. This is the position of the text you are reading in relation to other texts. What verses come before? What verses come after? What situation, event, statement or argument led up to this passage? What situation, event, statement or argument followed or resulted from this passage? What book is the text in? Whereabouts in the book? What testament is it in? Why is the text in this position? Why is it in the Bible at all? What difference would it make if it was left out? Following are some suggestions on making observations depending on the genre of the passage you are interpreting:
Historical Narratives. Choose a complete narrative and read it in a single sitting. Make (mental) notes as you are reading, and ask: What is happening? To whom? When? Where? Why? (The most important question!) What can I learn about God? What can I learn about the other characters involved?
Poetry and Songs. Read a complete Psalm or Song in one sitting, taking (mental) notes as you are reading. What is being said about God? What is being said about humanity? Is the writer pleading for something? Are they pouring their heart out? If so, about what? Are they praising God? Are they angry with God? What mood does the writer seem to be in? Joyful? Happy? Angry? Fearful? Anxious? Distraught? Discouraged? Does the writer’s mood change?
Legal Writings. Read a collection of related rules/regulations in one sitting. What rules/regulations are being put in place? Why? What situations/circumstances do they cover? Are they for moral reasons or are they concerned with administration/ government and personal hygiene? Can you see any pattern being established? Is a feast, offering or ceremony being described? If so, what seems to be its purpose or significance? Never stop asking Why?
Wisdom. Read as much of Proverbs/Job/Ecclesiastes as you can in one go, taking (mental) notes as you read. Consider what you think the central message of the text is.
What advice is given? What warnings are given? What comparisons are made? Compare the proverb you are reading with other similar or related proverbs (similar or related proverbs could be anywhere in the book of Proverbs). If there are similar/related proverbs, how do the proverbs differ? Do they relate to slightly different situations? Do they address different aspects of a problem or situation? If two proverbs say the opposite thing (and there are several) why would this be? Do you think the statement made or the advice given is good? Why or why not? You must also remember that proverbs are not always globally applicable to every person and every situation. They are guidelines and “rules of thumb,” not absolute rules, statements of fact or direct promises.
Prophecy. Read a single prophecy (called an “oracle”) in one sitting. Try and establish the historical setting. What circumstances in history provoked this prophetic word from God? What does it say about God? Is the prophecy positive or negative? Is it a warning? About what? Is it a condemnation? For what? Is it an encouragement or a message of hope? About what? Is it a promise? To do what? Prophecy is some of the hardest literature to read. Knowing the historical context is essential to really to appreciate what is being said. It may be necessary to consult a commentary or Bible handbook if you are struggling.
Teachings of Jesus. Read a complete section of teaching (called a “pericope”) in a single sitting, taking (mental) notes about what is being taught. What message is He communicating? What subject is He talking about? What is He actually saying about it? Is it a command? Is it a warning? Is it an exhortation/encouragement? Is it a promise? Does it give us a better understanding of who God is? Does it give us a better understanding of what we are like?
Parables. Read a single parable and the surrounding dialogue in one sitting. Try to determine the central thought of the parable. What message is it communicating? Keep in mind the context. This is a big clue to identifying the central thought. What events prompted Jesus to tell this parable? How did the hearers react to it? Did they understand it? Focus on the central thought – don’t focus on all the minute details – they are not meant to be important. Read ahead – some parables are interpreted for you by Christ later on in the gospel.
Letters. Read them like any other letter. Start at the beginning – stop at the end. If possible, read a letter right through in one sitting. Identify the major issues/arguments of the letter. Focus on one of the major issues/arguments. What is the point of each paragraph? What does each paragraph contribute to the current issue/argument? Why did the writer include a particular paragraph? What difference would it make if it were not included? Don’t pay too much attention to the chapter and verse divisions or the chapter headings – they’re not inspired! Words/phrases such as “Now about”, “Concerning” and “Finally” often indicate a change of argument/subject.
Apocalypse. Read the books of Daniel and Ezekiel first. Revelation uses lots of imagery from these books. Identify as much as possible, the use of imagery (by comparing Revelation with Daniel and Ezekiel). What is the imagery used to communicate in Revelation? What kind of message is being communicated? Hope? Encouragement? Warning? What does the text say about God and about Jesus Christ? What does it say about Satan? What does it say about the Church (New Jerusalem)? You will definitely want to consult some good commentaries in these matters. Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to read and understand.
3.1.3 Prayer, Meditation & Wrestling
Prayer, meditation and wresting are things the reader should do throughout the entire interpretive cycle, not just before you begin or when you are about to deliver your talk/sermon/speech.
Meditation does not mean emptying your head of everything – quite the opposite in fact. It means filling your mind with all the information required to make decisions about what the text says, how significant it is and how it should be applied today. When looking at a difficult passage, you may need to really pray about, and wrestle with, the various alternatives.
3.1.4 Determining Meaning
What do the particular key words or phrases mean? Pay attention to those elements that are repeated in the current passage or used elsewhere by the same author.
What is the significance of a particular key word, phrase or sentence? Does the element carry any special significance given the historical and social context? What does it contribute to the overall meaning of the text? How would the meaning of the text be effected if this particular element was left out?
Is there a command to obey? Is there an error to avoid? Does the passage point out sinful behavior or attitudes that may be present in your own life? Is there an example to follow? Is there a promise to claim? Does the passage highlight an aspect of God’s nature and character which you had not seen before?
3.2 Presuppositions & Pre-understandings
No-one is ever completely unbiased. Every understanding presuppose pre-understanding or prejudice. In other words every process of understanding is gripped or conditioned by a prior structure of experiences. In hermeneutics, pre-understanding or prejudice is not something that is negative, but it is the necessary condition which makes understanding possible. In terms of hermeneutics, pre-understanding or prejudice may be described as a body of assumptions and attitudes which a person brings to the perception and interpretation of reality or any aspect of it. From this perspective it is very difficult to think of uniform understanding or knowledge, because understanding varies from person to person in accordance with his or her pre-understanding or prejudice.
Classical philosophers and theologians also acknowledge the role of pre-understanding. For example, Immanuel Kant admits some sort of pre-understanding in relation to perception. He insists in The Critique of Pure Reason that we have no certain knowledge of things in themselves but our mind give shape to them. According to Heidegger, understanding always touches on the whole constitution of being-in-the-world. He asserts further that the meaning does not lie in words; or in things, but in the remarkable structure of understanding itself. Rudolf Bultmann has rightly remarked that every interpretation incorporates a particular prior understanding. Now the question is “From where does the pre-understanding come?” or “How we possess a particular pre-understanding?” As we know generally pre-understanding comes from one’s own environment. Then, “what do we mean by environment?” Environment is a composite of several factors. It includes historical, psychological, economical, political, religious factors socio-familial relationships.
Another two questions that might be raised in relation to pre-understanding are the following (1) “Is pre-understanding common?” And (2) “Is pre-understanding static?” To the first question answer is both in affirmative and negative. On the one hand, pre-understanding is common in the sense that everybody has pre-understanding. On the other hand, pre-understanding is not common in the sense that the content of the pre-understanding differs from person to person. From the viewpoint of hermeneutics the second question can be answered only in negative. That is to say, pre-understanding is not static. Our pre-understanding is subjective and changes in every moment of our lives.
There are different types of pre-understandings. To have an overview of the different types of pre-understanding, a classification of the same would be appropriate. However, the divisions in this classification overlap each other, for we cannot compartmentalize them exhaustively. Actually what we do here is to approach the phenomenon of prejudice from different angles. Accordingly we have four types of pre-understandings.
- I. Informational Pre-understanding. It refers to the information that one already possesses about any given subject prior to approaching it. This is pre-understanding of the most basic kind. Terms such as prepossession and to a degree, preconception, prenotion, and predetermination are related to informational pre-understanding.
- II. Attitudinal Pre-understanding. This type of pre-understanding refers to the disposition with which one approaches something or the disposition that one brings to a given subject. The related terms are predisposition, prejudice, bias, life-hearing and life-relation.
- III. Ideological Pre-understanding. It indicates the ideological affiliation with which a person approaches something. For example a communist reading of the Bible will be different from the reading of a believer. This category would include both a general aspect and a particular aspect. The general aspect of the ideological pre-understanding points out the way one views the total complex of reality. And the particular aspect of the ideological pre-understanding shows the way one views a specific subject. The terms like worldview, life-attitude, life-posture, frame of reference, framework, horizon of understanding, etc. belong to the general aspect of the ideological pre-understanding and of view, viewpoint, perspective, stand point ,etc. belong to the particular aspect of the ideological pre-understanding.
- IV. Methodological Pre-understanding. This category refers to the actual approach which one takes in the explication of a given subject. For instance, a sociologist approaches something with a methodology proper to sociology a historian approaches an event with a methodology proper to history, and so on. In one sense, the methodological pre-understanding does function in the same way as any other type of pre-understanding and does influence the result of the interpretation. Yet in another sense, the methodological pre-understanding is considered as a tool that avoids the influences of other types of pre-understanding.
We shall conclude our pre-understanding or prejudice by listing how it influence our interpretation and understanding or how does it function in terms of interpretation and understanding.
(1) Pre-understanding may function as either a negative or positive influence on interpretation. It negatively influences our interpretation by distorting or misleading our perception of things. It positively influences our interpretation, as it is the necessary precondition or frame of reference to understanding something.
(2) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation consciously, or unconsciously. When a person is aware of the pre-understanding that is at work in his or her interpretation, that pre-understanding is consciously influencing his or her interpretation. When the situation becomes just the contrary, the pre-understanding influences one’s interpretation unconsciously.
(3) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation rationally or irrationally. If a pre-understanding is formed out of the sound interaction with one’s own environment, it will influence his or her interpretation rationally. Whereas, if a pre-understanding is the outcome of some panic or neurotic reactions, it will influence our interpretation irrationally.
(4) Finally, pre-understanding may be open-ended or closed. If a pre-understanding gives room for further correction and alteration, it is an open-ended pre-understanding. If a pre-understanding does not admit any correction or alternation, it is a closed pre-understanding.
Hermeneutics and Cyclic Communication
No understanding takes place in isolation. Understanding is not knowing the individual words in a sentence or in a text and their meanings separately, because individual words in a sentence or in a text cannot convey the fullness of its meaning. A text is a web, a well – knit frame in which different words are structured properly. Furthermore, understanding is a whole system of interrelated beliefs and practices. Hence understanding happens only when we realize the interconnections that exist between the words of a sentence or of a text. Then understanding is holistic.
If hermeneutics is taken in its wider sense, that is, not merely as formal rules controlling the practice of exegesis but as something concerned with the total process of understanding, then biblical hermeneutics can only be developed as part of an all encompassing theory of communication. In its most basic form, communication can be described as the interaction between sender, message and receiver. There are three contexts in which each text needs to be considered: a) the world that precedes the text; b) the world of the text itself; and c) the world that follows the text.
In the biblical texts, the message/medium is the written word. The text represents the solidification of a previous encounter between sender (Moses/Jesus) and receiver (Israel/Disciples). In the process of becoming a written text, the message may pass through various stages (oral tradition, pre-literary forms, etc.), but the text also represents the first stage in the process of reinterpretation. The reinterpretation has as its aim a new communication event this time between the texts and the contemporary receiver. In the case of biblical texts, the original sender is no longer present and interpretation necessarily comes out of the interaction between the text and receiver.
Today’s main hermeneutical problem arises from the knowledge that every human expression, whether literary or artistic, religious or philosophical, contains a set of meanings given to it by the author, and when this set of meanings moves into the world of another subject, it must be interpreted in such a way as to convey the original intention of the author.
In practice, the texts mediate between two events: the one which produced the text (the prophet, the audience, the scribes etc. come into the picture) and the one flowing from interaction with the text (the reader, the interpreter etc.). Certain considerations are to be made when dealing with the biblical material:
- The biblical texts are historical in a double sense: a) They are historical documents in their own right, with their own history of composition, tradition, and preservation b) They also refer to certain specific historical events (e.g. Monarchy, Exile)
- The present reader is not the first reader of the text. The text, enriched by the redactors, is the text for interpretation.
- Clarity concerning the purpose and the context in which the reading takes place is important. The kerygmatic or proclaiming nature of the text presupposes a new understanding as the ultimate goal of the reading. It is the interpretative community of believers who constitute the context of such a reading.
- Although the text is dependent on prior readings, the text itself functions as a separate entity within the interpretation process.
- As the original author is not present, the interpretative interaction takes place between the text and (present) reader. The present text is both the end of the process of text production and the beginning of the process of reinterpretation.
- Understanding the original speech event is the prerequisite for its appropriation in the contemporary situation.
The process of reading and interpreting the Bible should be cyclic. A reader approaches a passage of scripture with presuppositions (e.g. the Bible is the inerrant word of God) and usually has a pre-understanding about what the particular passage can or cannot mean. These presuppositions and pre-understandings, along with the context, influence the reader’s understanding of the passage, and help them derive their interpretation. This interpretation then effects the reader’s presuppositions, and becomes part of their pre-understandings the next time they read this passage. If our exegetical information, reasoning and judgments are thought through again and reassessed each time we go through the cycle then the accuracy and correctness of our interpretation will improve.
Early Biblical Interpretation
Reinterpretation of the OT in the OT Itself
Israel had always re-interpreted Scripture in the light of new problems and new exigencies, and even the re-interpretations became part of the Scripture. The literary formation of many of the books shows that biblical literature has in fact developed through the contribution of such re-interpretations. For instance, the Yahwistic history of the patriarchs and Moses of the 10th cent. is taken up and re-narrated in the 6th cent. in the manner and according to the theology of the priestly (P) author.
In many aspects the Deuteronomic Code (Dt 12-26) is a re-interpretation, an actualization, and adaptation of the Elohistic ‘Code of the covenant’ (Ex 20:22-23:3), reflecting the changes in the economic and social aspects of the settled life of Israel in the land of Canaan. These changes were characterized by the divine rights upon the land and the people, the preference of the week, and the poor who have to be protected. It reflects the Deuteronomic theology. The book of Ben Sirach is often an existential reflection on the ancient texts: Sir 3 is a comment on the 4th commandment; Sir 15 is a comment on Gen 3; Sir 17:1-12, on creation (Gen 1); Sir 34;21-35:4 reviews the theme of cult and social justice.
In prophetic literature one can see the superimposition of the interpretation of the original oracles, for example, in the re-interpretation of the exodus (see Is 40:1-11; 17-20; Ps 78;105). In all these, one can detect the meaning sense of the Scriptures which reveals both their ancient and new character at the same time. The sense looked for is not exactly the one which was understood by the first readers; rather, what is looked for is that meaning the current reader can discover in view of his contemporary problems and in the light of the revelation taking place in the time between the ancient writer and the present reader. What is treated is the actualization of the ancient books, which in Judaism took the form of midrash.
Judaism of Inter-testamental Period
The Synagogue and rabbinic school were the ambient wherein the biblical interpretation thrived in Judaism. This reading of the Torah, called darash, meaning investigation/research, is aimed at bringing the meaning of the text up-to-date. The homily and the paraphrasing translation (targum) of the text were the means of actualizing interpretation. The rabbinic schools tried to adapt the Law to the changed circumstance. Their authorized interpreters were the soferim ‘the doctors of the law’ – scribes (Sir 39:1-8) who many times appear in the NT passages (Mt 23; 13:52). They have also left traces in some of the biblical comments found in Qumran.
The interpretations of the Sadducees and Pharisees were different. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, both Qumran and the Sadducees declined in importance, while the pharisaic movement survived. In the interpretation of specific texts, the rabbis employed certain rules, which were authentic hermeneutical principles.
- Targumim: An Aramaic translation often interpretative of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was first oral and then written.
- Midrashim: commentary on scripture, often in homiletic form. The term ‘midrash’ comes from the term darash (= to seek) and we can distinguish a four-fold meaning: a) a literary form (genre) which uses the biblical text with great freedom (e.g.,the midrash of the book of Wisdom on the book of Exodus); b) a literary form which treats biblical personalities with great liberty, presenting them as historical, although they are either mythological or fictional (e.g., the books of Tobias, Judith, Esther, Jonah and narrative section of the book of Job, etc); c) those Jewish literary works, called midrashim, which are homiletic or exegetical comments on different books of the Bible; d) Midrash a term which is also applied to the research method used, by the Jewish exegetes. Thus Midrashim includes the totality of principles, techniques, and procedures used by the Jews in the interpretation of Scripture. Midrash is both hermeneutical and theological in nature.
Midrash has two divisions: a) Halakah b) Haggadah
Halakah: Halakah is a commentary on scripture which deals with legal texts (plural halakot. halakah comes from halak, to walk), and therefore, ‘the rule of be having’ or ‘norm’. Usually translated as ‘law’, it denotes a specific ruling, a legal statement or discussion, the general category of legal material which provides rules for moral, juridical, and ritual conduct.
Haggadah: It is narrative commentary on Scripture which deals with morals, ethics and daily life. The term haggadah is derived from the Hebrew root ngd ‘to show, announce, tell, testify, declare, make known.’ Haggadah mainly explains the historical and prophetic sections of the OT, enriching them with legendary motifs with a moral scope. It deals with the non-legal text in rabbinic literature.
- Pesharim: It is a type of line-by-line interpretation often allegorical. In the Qumran, one read the ancient biblical text and applied it to the present, introducing the comment with the words: ‘its interpretation is,’ where the Hebrew word for interpretation is pesher (pesharim; ‘explanation’) and it occurs only once (Ecc 8:1) in the OT. Until the Qumran discoveries this was an unknown type of biblical interpretation. It is used in the sense of interpretation and realization. Now this word is used to signify: a) a Qumran biblical commentary written in pesher-like form; b) the formal term used to introduce the expository section of this kind of commentary; c) the literary genre of these commentaries; and d) the particular exegetical method of the Qumran commentaries.
Elements of the halakic and haggadic modes of interpretation can be seen in the NT. Jewish interpretation is especially helpful to understand the interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Bible. To these typically Jewish principles of interpretation we can also add the allegorical method. This method, which is of Greek origin, was used particularly by Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BC-50 AD) to adapt the Hebrew Bible to the Hellenistic culture of his time. The Christian interpretation of the Alexandrian school followed the allegorical method.
New Testament Interpretation of the OT
Jesus is the true and definite exegesis of the Father: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). The Gospels show Jesus as the interpreter: ‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). He does not simply explain the Scriptures, but he reveals their sense because they speak of him (Jn 5:39,46). The Scriptures reach their fulfillment in him (Jn 19:28-30) and the newness of his teaching (Mk 1:27) and authority (Mk 1:22) are in tune with the fulfillment theme.
In interpreting the Scriptures, Jesus used the interpretation techniques and methods of his time. Discussing divorce, for instance, he bases himself on Gen 2:24 with a new halaka. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” Mt 19:6, thus declaring that the Mosaic Law and rabbinic tradition which tolerated it has ended. On the discussion of the resurrection (Mt 22:23-32) he appeals to Ex 3:6 (“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”) arguing in the haggadic manner that “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” In his discussion with the scribes he uses the rabbinic style of argumentation (see Jn 10:34-36).
The NT authors also made use of the interpretation processes of the Jewish people of their time. The exegesis of the apostolic Church, especially St. Paul (see Gal 4:21-31-the two wives of Abraham), draws from the rabbinic and Alexandrian sources, halakah, haggada, pesher and allegory. In addition to the already existing elements of interpretation, the authority of the Word of God and its richness introduces something radically new: the fulfillment of the OT in Jesus. The NT interpretation of the OT has its basis in Jesus as the Messiah the Son of God.
The aim of the NT authors was not to present a chronicle of Jesus’ life. Rather, they presented the life of Jesus in such a way that it appealed to the faith of the people, and the Christ Event, with its culmination at Pentecost stood as the key to their interpretation. For them Christ is the New Adam, the New Moses, and the Church becomes the New Israel and the Christ Event is the New Exodus. The book of Hebrews uses typological midrash. Jesus is greater than Moses (Heb 4); Jesus is the great high priest (Heb 4-8); Earthly and heavenly sacrifice (Heb 9); Jewish law as a type (Heb 10:1) etc.
Hermeneutics in the Early Church
The early Church interpreted the OT by using the Christological key as she considered Christ to be the fulfillment and the point of arrival of the OT. Hence, while interpreting the OT, their primary intension was not to understand the original Hebrew text but to understand Christ. And their interpretations were not in Hebrew. There are various models of interpretation that the early church and the later Church fathers used for interpretation:
- Typological Interpretation: Some reality or personage of the OT is seen as the type of Christ or of the Church (antitype). (See Rom 5:14;1 Cor 10:6-1 Pet 3:22).
- Literal Interpretation: It looks for the explicit sense of the text.
- Spiritual Interpretation: Its aim is to understand the hidden meaning of the text. It has its roots in 2 Cor 3:15: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed”. Here Paul never intended to contrast between the OT and the NT or between the literal sense and the spiritual sense, although by the 3rd century, it is in this way that this text was made; the spiritual sense came to include both prophetic and typological meanings.
- Allegorical Interpretation: Allegorical interpretation seeks something other than the ‘surface’ (literal) meaning. This meaning is ‘deeper or hidden”. The letter to the Hebrews is a classical example of this type of interpretation.
- Pedagogical Interpretation: It aims at interpreting every Law as intended to lead to Christ (Gal 3:24) – a task now completed.
- Fulfillment Interpretation: Interprets that the OT promises and prophesies were fulfilled in Christ, especially the messianic and eschatological prophesies.
- Historical-salvific Interpretation: This was used by Paul in Rom 9-11 to indicate that God has not changed his way of acting in calling the gentiles.
- Apocalyptic Interpretation: This used the OT as a source of allusion to build a Christian apocalyptic vision with the Risen Christ at the centre.
The early church fathers, using quotes from the OT and NT, also added their own interpretations. These had a literal and allegorical sense, as well as polemical and apologetic motives.
Ancient Christian Schools of Interpretation
Theological School of Alexandria
In Alexandria, Philo had already made great use of Greek philosophy to interpret Sacred Scripture as the voice of the Divine Logos, and the Gospel as the fulfillment, or actualization of the law. For the Alexandrian school, the interpretation of the Bible proceeded on two levels: a) the immediate comprehension of the text; b) the hidden or more profound sense of the text, to discover this allegory is indispensable. The Alexandrians considered the historical narrations as pure allegory (e.g. the 30 stages of the exodus of the Israelites in Num 33 are for Origen the successive moments the Christian soul has to pass through from sin to God). Origen (182-254), the greatest exponent of this school, made hermeneutics a proper and true science.
In particular this school tried to find the corporal (somatikos) sense (=literal sense) which could be adapted to the simple and uneducated reader, and the psychic or moral (psychikos) sense which was suited for those who were advancing in perfection, and the spiritual or mystical (pneumatikos) sense meant for the perfect. This system was applied above all to the OT, so that all the personalities and events of the OT were messianically interpreted.
In the allegorical interpretation we see a profound reverence for the Scripture and a desire to find its manifold depth. To this end they used the symbolic method, often disregarding the common significance of the words and resorting to all sorts of speculation. The most important contribution of the Alexandrian school was that of underlining the unity of both the testaments through the allegorical method. This method would reach its maximum influence in the medieval theory of the four senses.
Antiochean School of Syria
The Antiochean School had a hermeneutics much different from that of the Alexandrian school. The Antiocheans interpreted the texts principally using: a) literal sense and b) historical and grammatical sense. The true head and the most important figure of this school was Diodore of Tarsus (+ before 394). For him and for the Antiocheans the fundamental sense is the literal sense, but some events or personalities or realities can also have typical sense and prefigure the messianic gifts. The literal sense, which is unique, opens itself to a new and more profound reality, even though it is not independent of it. Perception of this typical sense was ‘theory’ or ‘vision’. JohnChrsostom (344-407), Theodore of Mopsuestia (350ca – 428), and Theodore of Cyr (+458) were representatives of this school. The great merit of this school is that it gave a scientific basis for biblical exegesis.
The Sense of the Bible
Augustine of Dacia (+1282) sums up the hermeneutical principles of the fathers, distinguishing the four sense as: littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas [quid speras] anagogia. (The literal sense teaches facts which you have to believe which you have to do and where you are headed). For example, the city of Jerusalem illustrates these principles, which in its literal sense is the historical city, allegorically, the church; morally, the soul; and analogically, the heavenly Jerusalem.
These four senses of the Bible can be classified into two: the literal (historical sense) and spiritual sense of the Bible. This distinction is also found in medieval exegesis as well: storia, allegoria, tropologia (moral), and anagogia. In the global context of Scripture the interpreter can discern a history, as a series of interventions in the history of salvation, and this history itself conceals the mystery of Christ (the spiritual sense of the fathers). This spiritual sense has three levels: allegorical (symbolic, Christological-the truth revealed, ‘that which you have to believe’), tropological (moral – the way of life commended, ‘that which you must do’), and anagogical (eschatological-the final goal to be achieved, ‘where you are headed’).
According to St. Thomas “all the sense are based on one, namely the literal, from which alone an argument can be drawn, and not from those which are said by way of allegory…. Yet nothing is lost to sacred Scripture because of this, because nothing necessary for faith is contained in the spiritual sense, which Scripture does not clearly pass on elsewhere by the literal sense.”
In the middle Ages literal sense was understood as the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture, as distinct from the spiritual sense (sensus spiritualis) contained in the Scripture. In modern literary discussion, ‘literal’ refers to the sense perceived in reading, as meaning flows from the dialogue between the text and the reader. We use literal sense as ‘the sense’ which the human author directly intended and which the written words conveyed. The adverb ‘directly’ would distinguish it from those meaning by which the author’s words may have been understood later (in the larger context of the Bible or when read in later times) but of which he was unaware.
Concerning the books which had a long history of editing and redaction of earlier written works (e.g., Isaiah-its composition took 200 years, with new sections being added to the original, some of which modified the meaning of the original text), the search for the literal sense includes both the sense of the original before editing and its sense after the editing. Moreover, the concept of ‘Author’ in this description of the literal sense must be understood rightly. Many of the books are anonymous or pseudonymous; Most of them are the product of complex growth and collective contribution. None of the canonical Gospel writers identified themselves by name.
Despite this, the reference to that author’s intention affirms that those who produced the biblical books had a message for the readers of their times. It is important for us to have this message in mind when we read texts and to ask what they now mean for us. What the text now means may well be more abundant, but it should have some relationship to what it meant to the first readers.
Written words conveyed:- Priority must be given to the text. The author’s intension does not become a sense of the Scripture until it is effectively conveyed in writing. Jesus did not write a Gospel, but the evangelists did. Most often we do not know the context in which Jesus actually spoke his words. The literal sense of a Gospel passage is the meaning attributed to Jesus words by the individual evangelist, with the result that the same words can have different meanings according to the different contexts in which each evangelist set them.
The literal sense of the Bible is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human. As the Bible is the fruit of inspiration, what is expressed in the text is also intended by God, the principal author. Efforts are necessary to know the literal sense. The authors of the Bible used forms of literature typical of their times and hence their literal sense is not as obvious as it is in the works of our own time. Therefore one must make realistic efforts to grasp what the authors of Sacred Scripture is trying to communicate. The principal task of the exegete is to analyse the material, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view of defining the literal sense with the greatest possible accuracy. There is the need to acquire professional knowledge of biblical geography, archaeology, culture and of the way in which the texts were transmitted.
Even though there usually exists only one literal sense, one must still know that the human author can refer to more than one level of reality at the same time, especially in the case of poetry. Biblical inspiration does not exclude this capacity of human psychology and language. For instance: Jn 19:28 (‘I thirst’- bodily and spiritual level); Jn 19:30 (‘delivered his spirit’- lit. ‘Jesus died’ and the implicit allusion would be ‘He gave the Spirit to the Church’. Giving of the Spirit to the Church is the literal sense in Jn 20:22).
Even when a human utterance appears to have only one meaning, divine inspiration can use the expression in such a way as to create more than one meaning. This is true in the saying of Caiaphas “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50; see also vv. 51-52). Caiaphas meant that the nation could thereby avoid many troubles on the part of the Romans (political reason), whereas John meant “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (religious reason). Either way, this passage of John belongs to the literal sense, as is made clear from the context itself.
In the attempt to find the literal sense one has to take into account the dynamic aspect of many texts. For example, the meaning of ‘royal psalms’ (e.g., Ps 2;72; 101;110;132) should not be limited to the historical circumstance of their being written. When speaking of the king, the psalmist at one and the same time evokes both the kingship as it actually existed and the idealized vision of kingship as God intended it to be. The text carries the reader well beyond the institution of kingship its historical, actual manifestation. Ps 110:1 “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (quoted in Mk 12:35-37). This messianic (prophetic) sentence can be applied to every king of Israel (son of David), but can be applied in a perfect way only to Jesus.
Historical-critical exegesis has too often tended to limit the meaning of texts by binding it too rigidly to precise historical circumstance whereas modern hermeneutics know that human speech gains an altogether fresh status when put into writing. Written text has the capacity to be placed in new circumstances, which will illuminate it in different ways, adding new meaning to the original sense. This is especially operative in the Bible as the word of God. All this does not, however, mean that we can attribute to a biblical text whatever meaning we like, interpreting it in a wholly subjective way. One must reject every interpretation as unauthentic which is alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text.
4.1.1 Important Auxiliaries to Get to the Literal Sense
v Knowledge of the history of the biblical era: This history of the people of God must be integrated into the history of the Near East. We cannot divorce God’s action from that of history because God acts only in concrete times and circumstances. This history must also include sociological aspects-not only information on royal courts, international politics and wars – the very structure of the social life of the people involved in the biblical story must be analyzed so as to understand the biblical era in all its ramifications (aspects).
v Knowledge of biblical languages and literary styles: Some familiarity with the structure and thought pattern of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic is essential. Knowledge of Hebrew tenses, with their undefined time designations and lack of temporal precision opens the prophecies to the present and to the present fulfillment. For instance, words such as hesed (covenantal kindness mercy) and aletheia (truth) receive only a part of their connotation in translation.
v Reading the Scripture should involve an understanding of what the original author meant, since his message for his times was certainly part of God’s inspired communication. The primary duty of the human author was to be intelligible in his era. What he writes communicates meaning to us today, but he did not envision our circumstances and he did not write for our times. Hence, in the effort to draw a message from his text for our circumstances, we must ask whether we achieve true communication or only an illusion in which we impose on the text what we want to find (eisegesis).
v In the quest for the literal sense of any writing, it is important to determine the literary form the author was employing. The Bible is a library with all the diversity all the diversity we would expect spanning a period of more than 1100 years. Hence it is necessary to classify the books according to the type of literature they represent-this is what is meant by determining the literary form.
The first question we must ask when we open any book is : “What type of literature do we have before us?” (This method of determining the literary form, in fact, existed even in ancient times-the Jewish divisions as Pentateuch, Prophets, and Sapiential literature testify to this). In the Bible there are also many varieties of poetry: a) epic poetry-some narratives of Pentateuch and Joshua; b) didactic poetry-Prov, Sir, Wis) Iyric poetry-Pass, Cant. There are also many forms of history: a) factual analysis, seemingly by can eye-witness (the court history of David-2 Sam 11-2 Kg 2); b) court records (Kg and Chr); c) romanticized and simplified epic history of the national saga (in Exodus); d) tales of tribal heroes (in Judges); e) tales of great men and woman of ancient times (in the patriarchal accounts of Genesis); f) prehistory. This is seen in the Genesis narratives regarding the origin of humanity and of evil which borrow from the lore of other nations, making them vehicles of monotheistic theology. In the prophetic books we meet prophecy and apocalyptic. Apart from these, there are tales, parables, allegories proverbs, maxims, love stories, etc.
Once the reader has determined the literary form of any biblical book or passage, that standard applicable to the form helps to clarify the literal sense (that which the author meant). For instance, if Jonah is understood as a parable, the reader would know that the author is not presenting a history of relationship between Israel and Assyria, nor the story of a prophet in the belly of the whale; rather, it is a prophetic book which communicates the profound truth of God’s love for the Gentile nations. Similarly, if Josh 10:13 is part of a victory song, readers will judge it not according to rules of strict history nor give it the same historical credence allotted to the history of David’s court.
In the past, the failure to recognize the diversity of literary forms of the biblical books, and the tendency to misinterpret Bible as scientific historical pieces etc. created great problems in Hermeneutics. There are factual history, mythology, fiction, and almost all the intermediary types in the Bible. This should not be seen as destroying the historicity of Bible. One need not think that this would weaken or challenge its inspiration. DAS (Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943) says: “God could inspire any type of literature that was not unworthy or deceitful, i.e., ‘not contrary to his holiness and truth.’
More than Literal Sense
By ‘more than literal sense’ we mean the scriptural meaning that goes beyond the literal sense, a sense that is not confined to what the human author directly intended and conveyed in the written words. This ‘more than literal sense’ is especially pertinent to the Bible. It is because a) Bible is a collection of books by many authors and b) it is the Word of God.
a) The books of individual authors were joined together into a collection called the Bible centuries after they were written. This was a new arrangement, which could have scarcely been foreseen by the original author (Luke thought of his Gospel and Acts as a unified work, but it was divided in the canonical process. There exists no evidence that the author of John with his claim of unique witness would have thought that his work would be placed alongside and on the same level with the other works called Gospels). The juxtaposition of the books provides connections in the Bible that no single author would have made, thus enlarging the meaning originally intended.
b) The Bible is God’s word to audiences of all times. This continuing biblical engagement of readers/hearers with the Word of God uncovers meaning beyond those which were envisioned by the human author in his local and limited circumstances. The quest for the dynamic aspect of the word should not deviate from exegesis to eisegesis (the imposition of a meaning to a text that is alien to it).
Both in pre-Christian Judaism and post-Christian rabbinic circles the quest for a ‘more-than-literal-exegesis’ was just as common as in Christian circles. In the early Christian writings of the 2nd cent., we find evidence of a very free spiritual exegesis. Exegetes such as Tertullian and Justin searched the OT for proof texts referring to Christ, and they interpreted these passages in a way that went far beyond the literal sense. Origen did not disregard the literal sense but was interested in a sense that could make Christians see the OT as their book. His allegorical interpretation was based on the thought that the OT was Christological in many passages.
Spiritual (Christological) Sense
Spiritual sense, as understood by Christian faith, is the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery and of the new life which flows from it. The paschal event has established a radically new historical context, which sheds fresh light upon the ancient texts and causes them to undergo a change in meaning. The spiritual (Christological) sense does not change the literal sense, but rather makes it explicit or fulfils it. We cannot exclude from the Bible, especially from the OT, this Christological sense, the possibility of a higher fulfillment:
Gen 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel”. This is the first promise of a redeemer (and of his mother).
2 Sam 7: 12-13: “…I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
This text must be now taken literally, because Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). Exegetes who have a narrow, ‘historical’ view of the literal sense, will judge this as an interpretation alien to the original. Those who are open to the ‘dynamic’ aspect of a text, instead will recognize here a profound element of continuity as well as an element of discontinuity: Christ rules for ever, but not on the earthly throne of David. It is therefore quite acceptable to reread the Bible in the light of the Christ Event. See also Is 52:13-53:12; cf. suffering servant in Acts 8.32.
While there is a distinction between the two senses, the spiritual sense cannot be stripped of its connection to the literal sense; the latter remains the indispensable foundation. Otherwise one could not speak of the fulfillment of the Scripture. In order for fulfillment to be accomplished, a relationship of continuity and conformity is essential. It is also necessary that there be a transition to a higher level of reality. The paschal lamb of Ex 12:46 (Ps 34:20) and Jn 19:36 are examples of such a transition.
Spiritual sense is not to be confused with subjective interpretation stemming from imagination or intellectual speculation. The spiritual sense results from setting a text in relation to real facts which are not alien to it: e.g., the paschal mystery, in all its inexhaustible richness, which constitutes the summit of the divine intervention in the history of Israel, to the benefit of all mankind.
It is “the deeper meaning of the things written about in the Bible when they are seen to have foreshadowed future things in God’s work of salvation.” The typological sense usually belongs not to the Scripture as such, but to the realities (persons, places and events) expressed by the Scripture. The reality which foreshadows is called ‘type’ and the future realty that is foreshadowed is called ‘antitype’. Type and antitype are on two levels of time and only when the antitype appears the typological sense becomes apparent. Type is imperfect and the foreshadowing is related to God’s plan of salvation. E.g., Adam (type) is the figure of Christ (cf. Rom 5:14); the flood (type) is the figure of baptism (1 Pt 3:20-21).
Actually the connection involved in typology is based on the way in which Scripture describes the ancient reality (cf. the voice of Abel: Gen 4:10; Heb 11:4; 12:24) and not simply on the reality itself. Consequently, in such a case one can speak of a meaning which is truly Scriptural. 1Cor 15:45 (Jesus as the new Adam); Rev 12:1-5 (Mary as the new Eve); Manna of Ex 16:4,15; Ps 78:24 and Eucharist in Jn 6:31-32; Rev 2:17 etc. are not equal realities. E.g., though the manna was miraculous nourishment, it was not the bread coming down from heaven as is the Eucharist.
Bronze serpent on the pole (Num 21:9) and the lifted Son of Man (Jn 3:14) is another pair of example. Here one must know that it was not the bronze serpent on the pole that gave salvation, but a vision (act) of faith.
Sense plenior is the deeper meaning of the text, intended by God, but not clearly expressed (intended- R.E. Brown) by the human author. This is known as one studies a text in the light of other biblical passages which utilize it or in its relationship to the internal development of revelation: Unlike the typical sense, but like the literal sense, sensus plenior is primarily concerned with the words of scripture rather than with ‘things’. This concept was first employed by Andre’s Fernandes in 1925. It is used to refer to the idea of the fulfillment of the OT in the NT.
The catholic understanding of biblical inspiration distinguishes between God as primary author and the inspired human author as the secondary author. Such an understanding helps one to see how God could have moved a human writer to formulate an idea, the sensus plenior which would only becomes apparent in the light of subsequent use of such a formulation and of which the original human author would have had no inkling.
Sensus plenior is then a question of:
a) The meaning a subsequent biblical author attributes to an earlier biblical text, using it in a context which confers upon it a new literal sense.
E.g., Mt 1:22-23 “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us”. The prophecy quoted here is Is 7:14. In the Issaianic text the prophet does not in fact speak of a ‘virgin’. The Hebrew word used is alemah (=young/ adolescent woman, a girl just married), which was the wife of Achaz, who bore Hezekiah. To speak of a virgin Hebrew has another word at its disposal, I betulah (Is 23:4, 12; 37:22). The Hebrew original alemah was translated in LXX with parthenos which really means ‘virgin’. By using the LXX translation, the evangelist gives a fuller prophetic sense to Is 7:14.
b) The meaning that an authentic doctrinal tradition or a conciliar definition gives to a biblical text.
E.g., Rom 5:12-21: the definition of the doctrine of original sin by Trent provided the fuller sense of Paul’s teaching about the consequences of the sin of Adam for humanity.
When the control by an explicit biblical text or by an authentic doctrinal tradition is lacking, recourse to a claimed fuller sense could lead to subjective interpretation deprived of any validity. In effect, sensus plenior is only a modern way of expressing a certain kind of spiritual sense in given instance where the spiritual sense is distinct from the literal sense. It has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, the principal author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of language so that it will
Express a truth, the fullest depth of which the authors themselves did not perceive. This deeper truth will be revealed in the course of time: a) through further divine interventions which clarify the meaning of the texts-Jn 19:37 clarifies Zec 12:10; Rev 1:7; b) through the insertion of the texts into the canon of the Scripture. In these cases a new contexts is created, which brings out fresh possibilities of meaning that had lain hidden in the original context.
Categories: Biblical Theology