The common human experience of seeking the meaning of words, discourses, and events is elevated to a scholarly level in the science of biblical interpretation. The meaning of a text distant by millennia from today's world is not always patent to the modern reader. Moreover, churches claiming a biblical base are constantly confronted with the multiplicity of scriptural interpretations given by other churches, some of them contradictory. Thus interpretation is required, and because the Bible is accepted as the word of God and because of the potential for greater Church unity, there is need to seek the highest degree of objectivity possible.
Development of Hermeneutics. Determining the author's intended meaning was until recently taken to be the role of exegesis, while to hermeneutics was left the task of making a contemporary application. Until the Enlightenment this distinction was virtually unknown, since most analysis of biblical texts was for a pastoral purpose. The arrival of scientific tools of analysis meant that Scripture could be examined like any secular text, with the supposed abstraction from any faith stance. Once that happened, however, the need was felt to find the relevance of the ancient text to contemporary life, whence the science—and some would say the art—of hermeneutics developed. The term actually appears for the first time in the 17th century, apparently by J. C. Dannhauer, Hermeneutica Sacra, sive methodus exponendarum Sacrarum Litterarum (Strassburg 1654). Today the distinction has once again become blurred so that exegesis is understood by many, including the Pontifical Biblical Commission (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church ) to be complete only when relevant meaning and application is derived. Hermeneutics in turn normally includes exegesis as an integral part of the interpretive process.
Biblical evidence of the need for interpretation is at least as old as Neh 8:8: "Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read." Indeed, the Bible itself shows later texts interpreting or reinterpreting older ones. This is true already in the Old Testament, as for example when Daniel reinterprets the 70 years Jeremiah prophesied for the duration of the Babylonian exile (Jer 25:11; 29:10) as now extending to 70 weeks of years, i.e., down to the time of the persecution by Antiochus the Illustrious (Dn 9:1–27). It is above all in the New Testament that the Old is interpreted in the light of the new event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says that not only the prophets but the law itself prophesied until John (Mt 11:13), reflecting his conviction, widely shared by the Jews of his day, that the biblical texts, even those not expressly prophetic, had a forward-pointing value and thus could be understood to be "fulfilled" in the present ministry of Jesus. This kind of pesher reading was common among the sectarians of Qumran, interpreting the texts as fulfilled in their community. They did not think of the texts, particularly the prophetic texts, as having a meaning for the time at which they were written but only as recording a divine secret awaiting interpretation by and application to the later community. While the NT has more respect for the original meaning of the OT, its primary interest is fulfillment in the paschal mystery, that is, in Christ and the Church. This affirmation of fulfillment in Christ, which is the literal sense of the NT, is what the Church understands by the spiritual sense. What is distinguished regarding the OT (literal and spiritual senses) becomes identical in the NT.
Spiritual Senses. In some cases the NT sees the OT realties as types finding their fulfillment in Christ or the Church. Adam, Moses, David, the Exodus, the paschal lamb, the temple, and Jerusalem are among those explicitly marked as such types. The Church knows certain persons and events to be types because they are so identified in the New Testament or in early Church tradition (e.g., Eve as a type of Mary). Typology alone does not exhaust the spiritual and prophetic potential of the Old Testament, at least according to those who propose a fuller sense for many of the OT texts. As a matter of fact, many OT texts, while focusing on a contemporary issue, are expressed in such a way as to be open, of themselves, to greater fulfillment. For example, when Isaiah pronounces his messianic prophecies (in Is 7, 9, and 11), he speaks in hyperbolic terms that the NT finds explicitly fulfilled in Christ. Or the word almah ("maiden," 7:14), which could mean nothing more than a young woman of marriageable age, is open, though not compelled, to being narrowed to parthenos ("virgin") by the LXX and taken in that narrower sense by Mt 1:23. This "fuller" sense is sometimes described as the sense intended by God but not seen, or not seen clearly, by the human author. Such a definition could, of course, license arbitrary interpretations. It must be qualified by including some intrinsic evidence in the text of such openness to future refinement.
The early Church Fathers were the first to face the question, "Now that we are Christians, what is the place and meaning of the Old Testament?" They did not reject it outright, as did marcion, for obviously the New Testament appealed to the Old to substantiate its claims about Jesus. It was easy enough for the Fathers to accept the OT typology used by the New Testament, but what to do with other passages that seemed to have no prophetic or typological value, and in fact even seemed scandalous? It is a question that many readers even today have when they begin to read the Hebrew Scriptures for the first time. The Alexandrian Fathers resorted to allegory, already used extensively by Philo to make the Jewish scriptures attractive to the Hellenistic world. In this they found justification in the method used by Paul in his allegory of Sarah and Hagar (Gal 4:21–31). Though they were aware of the literal sense of the text, they had little appreciation of historical development or progressive revelation in the OT. Rather they sought to find there, in strangely different form, the Gospel itself. Thus in the story of Lot's intercourse with his daughters (an unedifying tale), Origen sees Lot as reason, his wife (who looked back on Sodom) as concupiscence, his daughters vainglory and pride. Through a combination of scripture texts he works up to that wisdom who is Jesus Christ.
If at times the Alexandrian insights are striking, they and those who followed at times elaborated fantastic allegories that were abusive of the text. By the time the Antiochian Fathers reacted to the Alexandrian allegorization, the method was so entrenched it was not abandoned even into the Middle Ages. In the West a distinction was made between what was called the literal or historical sense and the spiritual sense, the latter being divided into three: the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical. The allegorical interpretation demonstrated the truths of revelation, the tropological the ethical expectations derived from the text, and the anagogical the ultimate goal of the Christian life, the heavenly realities. For example, the literal Jerusalem was the terrestrial city, the allegorical Jerusalem was the Church, the tropological was the soul called to be the bride of Christ, the anagogical was the heavenly Jerusalem. When medieval authors spoke of the literal or historical sense, they simply meant what was happening in the text or the narrative. They did not mean what modern historians mean who search for "what really happened" according to the canons of modern scientific research. For this reason, even when a biblical author used metaphorical language, this was regularly considered to belong to the spiritual sense.
thomas aquinas both narrowed the typical sense and expanded the literal sense by shifting the focus to the author's intention. The literal sense is what the author intended to convey, whether he used direct or figurative language. This opened the literal sense to the possibility, the fullness of which would be seen only in modern times, of the author's having used various literary forms, including fictive ones, to convey his message. Thus, for example, while it is of interest to know whether Job really existed, the point of the dramatic dialogue, as in Jesus' parables, comes across whether the protagonist existed or not. Or again, John's extensive use of symbols in his Gospel is part of the literal sense, since it was his intention to convey his message in that form. This principle would have wide application in the OT, where modern research has revealed the authors using multiple literary forms. Thomas narrowed the typical sense by pointing out that the spiritual sense (of OT types) is always found somewhere (in the NT) in the literal sense.
A generation earlier joachim of fiore had introduced a dispensationalist method of interpretation, which in one form or another has survived until our day. Dividing all of history into three ages or dispensations according to the three persons of the Trinity, Joachim found in Revelation a rich field for imaginative connections with the events, past, present and future, in the history of the Church. Thus the heads of the Beast become the leaders of each of the seven ages of the world and the seven persecutors of the Church. Muḥammad is the beast rising from the earth. The horses in Revelation 19 are the military orders, the "first resurrection" is the foundation of the mendicant orders, and so on. This method, which is hardly different from that of qumran convenanters, has had a wide popularity in our day. The mainstream of Catholic tradition, however, has followed Augustine in taking the figures of Revelation either as referring to persons and events of the author's time or as being symbolic of the Church and its enemies of all times.
The Literal Sense, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The 14th and 15th centuries were marked by the degeneration of scholastic theology into dialectics with little grounding in the literal sense of Scripture. The aridity of this approach not only brought a reaction in the anti-intellectual devotio moderna (e.g., thomas À kempis) but laid the ground for Martin Luther's cry to return to the literal sense of the Bible. With the patristic tradition he held that the central theme of the Bible is Christ, but he maintained that Scripture stands above all other authority, be it tradition, the inner witness of the Spirit, Church authority or philosophy. Scripture is its own interpreter—a principle for which the Bible itself offers no textual support. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, with its doctrine of justification by faith, becomes the norm by which the rest of the Bible, even the books of the NT, are to be judged. This, in effect, established a canon within the canon. luther's insistence on the sufficiency of Scripture, and especially calvin's stress on the interior witness of the Holy Spirit, would lead to the Catholic accusation that such principles would amount eventually to private interpretation and relativism. On the other hand, if the literal sense of Scripture is the self-determining norm, then scientific exegesis becomes a crucial tool, and ultimately the only tool in arriving at a correct interpretation of Scripture. Thus began the explosion of critical studies and commentaries that has lasted to our times.
With the arrival of the enlightenment, this search for the literal sense, and behind it the historical reference, resulted in establishing the professor's lectern as a parallel pulpit, free from any control save that of the academy. But even there a great deal of disagreement prevailed, especially in the interpretation of the biblical narratives. Although there was a strong conservative wing that took the miracles as happening exactly as narrated, there were others who sought to explain them as natural occurrences that were narrated as supernatural events. Others, such as reimarus, maintained that the accounts of the miracles were deceptions. Others interpreted the narratives as religious or moral truths in story form. Still others maintained that the biblical authors were captive of the mythological world view, so that whatever they described was inevitably presented in the clothing of myth. In the 19th century it was common to interpret Jesus as a great teacher of moral living, but nothing more. It was commonly agreed, of course, that no external authority, such as tradition or the Church, should be consulted. In this the positivist were in sync with the mood of the Reformation.
The Catholic Response. The Catholic Church reacted slowly but authoritatively to these developments. Writings of the rationalist critics were put on the Index of Forbidden Books, Pope pius ix issued his syllabus of errors in 1864, and Pope leo xiii warned of the errors of liberalism in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus. But few Catholic scholars were prepared to meet the historical critics on their own field, nor were they at first encouraged to do so. In 1943, however, Pope pius xii issued his encyclical divino afflante spiritu, which affirmed the centrality of the literal sense of Scripture, upheld the authority of the original texts, the importance of textual criticism and of taking into account the different literary forms used by the authors, and the contribution of the auxiliary sciences. This encouraged Catholic biblical scholarship and opened the door to a Catholic biblical movement unparalleled in the history of the Church. The Second vatican council in its Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum ) incorporated many new insights developed since 1943, integrating the achievements of biblical scholarship in an atmosphere that lacked the polemics of the preceding century. Revelation is God's communication not of mere truths but of his very self through words and deeds that are mutually illuminating; the Word of God is Jesus himself, to whom Scripture is the witness; tradition is the process by which revelation is handed on; tradition develops, perception of revealed truth grows, and while the magisterium has the final authority in determining the teaching of Scripture, the experience of all the faithful contributes to the process of understanding and transmission of the Word of God.
Meantime, new theories of biblical interpretation were coming onto the field (see below, Philosophies of Interpretation ), and meetings of scholarly biblical associations were peppered with presentations using methods that varied from the traditional historical-critical, to textcentered, to reader-centered. Such a diverse array of methods led the pontifical biblical commission in 1993, on the centenary of Leo XIII's biblical encyclical, to publish The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, a comprehensive review and evaluation of past and current methods of interpretation. At the risk of oversimplification in a discipline where there is considerable overlapping, these methods can be organized under the following headings.
The Text as It Stands. These methods look at the text without reference to its prehistory, author, audience, or possible historical reference. Narrative criticism first determines where the text begins and ends and then looks at the function of plot, character, setting, and other techniques such as irony. It is interested only in what the text reveals about the implied author and implied reader, not the actual author or the actual reader. This method has been developed on the model of secular literary criticism. It has proved especially helpful in uncovering the theological interest of the text. As a method it is not interested in whether the character or events related actually existed, which is, of course, one of the interests of the believer and the primary interest of the historian. Rhetorical criticism assumes that the text wishes to persuade (which most biblical texts do). It then examines the various techniques used. This method can lead to a greater appreciation of the power of the text. The ancients generally did not distinguish between content and expression the way moderns do. They felt that truth should be expressed persuasively. The value of rhetoric is its power to move the emotions and elicit conviction and action. Structural criticism, also known as semiotic analysis, considers the relationship of the elements of the text to each other, as binary oppositions, contraries, contradictories, confirmations, etc. It assumes that every text follows a "grammar," that is, a certain number of rules or structures or codes. It is thus useful in showing the internal coherence of texts. Its usefulness is limited to intra-textual analysis, since it has no interest in the extra-textual world, that of the referent, the author or the reader. Deconstruction, a form of poststructuralist criticism, is connected with the name of Jaques Derrida. His method is confined to the text itself and opposes any extra-textual concern. He goes beyond structuralism in that he maintains that the meaning of every utterance is indefinitely deferred (for which he coins a French word différance ), i.e., the text provides an unlimited series of signifiers without ever leaving the world of the text. This means that the text has no realworld referent and therefore means nothing. Obviously this system is incompatible with Catholic biblical interpretation or any interpretation that reads a text for its lifetransforming message.
The World behind the Text. While the previously discussed methods focused on the text without reference to the text's history, more traditional methods continued to approach the text diachronically, much the way archaeologists move from one level of excavation of a site to another. Textual criticism seeks to determine as accurately as possible the original form of the Hebrew or Greek text. This involves comparing and evaluating manuscripts, parchments or papyri, making judgments or at least educated guesses, in cases where readings differ, as to which is the original. Teams of scholars have thus produced critical editions of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek NT with the textual apparatus listing textual variants, and have provided evidence for their judgments, for example in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, edited by Bruce M. Metzger.
Source criticism seeks to determine the written documents a biblical author may have used. The most obvious example of this is in the widely accepted two-source theory for the synoptics, that is, that Matthew and Luke used Mark and a sayings source called Q in the composition of their gospels.
Form criticism, on the other hand, is more interested in the oral prehistory of the text and the life-situation (Sitz-im-Leben ) that occasioned it or shaped it. The method involves first identifying the form of the pericope (miracle story, pronouncement story, apocalyptic saying, etc.) and then tracing its history (Formgeschichte, "history of forms," is the word the German scholars used) to its present place in the Bible. Originally introduced in the OT by Hermann gunkel, it was applied to the NT notably by Rudolf bultmann and Martin dibelius. Bultmann's commitment to "demythologizing" the NT and "remythologizing" it in terms of existentialist philosophy made his project suspect in Catholic and conservative Protestant circles but his highlighting of the role of the early Church in the shaping of the Gospels was a major contribution to NT studies. It is now universally accepted that the Gospels grew out of a long oral tradition in which the deeds and sayings of Jesus were remembered for their usefulness in the ongoing life of the burgeoning communities and were adapted as needed by the new circumstances in which the communities found themselves.
Historical criticism seeks to uncover what facts and events are recoverable by the tools of modern historical research. Here archaeology, epigraphy, papyrology, the study of the history of contemporary peoples, and similar historical disciplines serve as points de repère for assessing the historicity of biblical accounts. The Bible was not written according to the norms of modern historiography; it is primarily a religious document, a witness to the faith of the Jewish and the Christian communities. Both communities claim their roots in history (e.g., "suffered under Pontius Pilate" in the Nicene creed). At present there is considerable dispute concerning the historicity of the earlier events narrated in the OT. In NT scholarship, the likelihood of an event or saying of Jesus being original is considered to be enhanced when one or more of the following criteria are present: (1) Multiple attestation: the saying or event appears in more than one source. (2) Dissimilarity: if a saying or an event stands out as unparalleled in contemporary Jewish or Hellenistic sources or is not clearly a development by the later Christian community. (This criterion is a minimalist one, because it finds only a Jesus who is neither Jewish, Hellenist, nor Christian!) (3) Embarrassment: if a saying or event evokes a detectible discomfort in the Gospel tradition, it has likely not been invented by the Christian community. Jesus' baptism by John is frequently cited in this category, since a community bent on exalting the holiness of its hero would not have invented his submission to a baptism of repentance.
Sociocultural criticism, a discipline only recently developed, looks at the environing world in which the text took shape, particularly the values that were at work in the culture (s) of the day, many of which differ remarkably from today's developed world. Thus, for example, honor and shame, patron-client relations, dyadic personality, labeling and deviance, sickness and healing, were viewed in a quite different way in biblical times. These studies have been very helpful in illuminating biblical passages, as long as contemporary sociological models are not imposed on the ancient world.
Redaction criticism looks to the history of the text to see what changes an author may have made of his sources and how he has creatively arranged the pericopes. Like narrative criticism, to which it is closely akin, redaction criticism can highlight the theology of the author by means of the contextual settings in which he has placed stories and sayings. For example, the author of Matthew 18 has gathered sayings of Jesus that have to do with community. By placing in the center Jesus' parable about the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, he has created a powerful mosaic showing how Jesus' pastoral concern is to be shared by the community. Luke delights in diptychs, that is, placing two stories next to each other for their mutual illumination. Redaction criticism thus gives a wider view of the teaching of an evangelist than is available in the isolated pericopes used in the lectionaries of the Roman liturgy.
The World around the Text: Canonical Criticism. If redaction criticism studies the environment in which an author has placed individual passages, canonical criticism points out that the meaning of an entire book is contextualized by the rest of the Bible, that certain books and not others made it into the canon and that even the location of an individual book (and even portions within a book) has significance for the interpretation of that book. It likewise insists that it is the final form of the text, not its presumed "original" pretext that is authoritative. The process by which the canon took shape sheds light on the interpretation given it by the early community. Psalm 50, which calls the people to task for their sins against the covenant, is followed by the famous Miserere, Psalm 51, which is a response of confession. The Christian community took over the order of books in the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Bible, no doubt because the prophetic books were found there last, pointing toward their fulfillment in the NT. The selection of certain books and the rejection of others, an evolving consensus that took at least two centuries, was an interpretive process, meaning that no individual book could claim absolute authority over the others but would be read and heard as part of a symphony of voices, none of which was to be lost. It also implies that the believing community that produced the texts provides the only adequate context for interpreting the text, and, in the Catholic view, this implies the role of the teaching authority of the Church (Dei Verbum, 10).
The World in Front of the Text. The Bible is not a book floating in space; from the very beginning it has had an impact on the lives of people more than any other book of world literature. Thus the history of influence of the text (Wirkungsgeschichte) is also a discipline of hermeneutical study. Already in Jesus' explanation of the parable of the sower, the seed represents the word (Mk 4:14) but then immediately it becomes people affected in different ways by the word (4:15–20). Saints who have lived the word, religious communities founded on the inspiration of a particular word of Scripture, communities of faith that have been inspired by the word—these are all interpretations of the word, and a study of them gives a fuller insight into the meaning of the written word by a kind of reflux enrichment. The caution, of course, is that some interpretations have been patently false, for example, when used to promote anti-Semitism.
Reader-response criticism presupposes that the text is addressed to readers (or listeners), either the reader (s) to whom the author addresses his work (the implied reader) or the possible actual reader (s), who can belong to multiple worlds. The former really belongs to narrative analysis, the latter to advocacy criticism (see below). The method considered under this rubric is reader, not text, centered. It focuses on what happens in the reading (or listening) process. Some analysts put the reader over the text, in the sense that meaning is predetermined by the defenses, expectations, or wishes of the reader—which seems to deny that one can really reach an objective meaning. Others understand the reading process to be an interaction with the text, that is, "Reading is a temporal process of making and revising meaning—the reader develops expectations along the way, and finds them fulfilled, disappointed, or revised as reading continues" (W.H. Shepherd Jr., The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as Character in Luke-Acts  81). Excessive concentration on this method could lead to subjectivism or "private interpretation," but in the Catholic Church this can be avoided by checking one's understanding of the text against the "reader response" of the entire Church over the centuries (which is a way of speaking about tradition).
Advocacy criticism focuses on the real readers and the real communities who interact with the text. The poor and the oppressed often see things in a text that others would not, since one's ongoing experience disposes one to find a particular meaning in a text and to favor some texts over others. Thus have emerged various forms of liberationist and notably feminist interpretation, among others. These insights have often alerted other segments of the Christian community to neglected dimensions, thereby enriching the whole Church's understanding of the Bible. The danger comes when experience dominates the word, leading to a selectivity that ignores other texts and mines the Scriptures only for what supports a predetermined stance.
Philosophies of Interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics in the late 19th and 20th centuries came under the influence of general hermeneutics and philosophical theories of interpretation, which were already moving away from the atomizing methods of the Enlightenment. Friedrich schleiermacher (1768–1834) reacted to the positivists by insisting that the author's work is not something to be dissected in a laboratory; it is a human work and hermeneutics is the art (rather than the science) of getting in touch with the spirit of the author. Notice the Kantian shift from the text as object to the subject, which for Schleiermacher is intersubjectivity. William dilthey (1833–1911) emphasized the historicality of both author and interpreter, that is, a biblical text can take on new meaning in light of the individual's or the community's historical perspective. His insistence that both the text and the reader are moving targets and meaning is temporary leads him into historical relativism. Martin heidegger (1889–1976) insisted there is no presuppositionless understanding (hence it is a pretense to claim total and disinterested objectivity as the positivists did). He also insisted that being encompasses the knower rather than the other way around; it is not the interpreter who interprets being but being that interprets the interpreter, who is virtually passive before being that floods him. Hans-George gadamer (1900–2002) is indebted to Heidegger for much of his theory, but he finds the process of interpretation more interactive. Language as the "house of being" makes possible the "fusion of horizons" between the text and the interpreter. Bernard Lonergan offers a corrective to the remnants of passivity in Gadamer by insisting on the critical role of judgment, which the interpreter must exercise. Authentic subjectivity reaches for objectivity. The critical function avoids both the unquestioned hegemony of "being" over the subject and the subjectivism of some of the reader-response theories. Paul ricoeur's position has had a wide impact on biblical interpretation, especially on reader-response theory. In his view, once a discourse is put in human language it has carved out an existence of its own, independent of the author's intention, and can be recontextualized with new meanings. This is what he calls "the world in front of the text."
Conclusion. An integral process of interpretation will make discerning use of the various methods, with the exception of deconstruction, which is self-destructing and states in effect that it has nothing to say. The Catholic approach to biblical interpretation assumes that the Bible is the Word of God embedded in human language and therefore subject to the nature of human language, with all its forms and variants. It did not fall out of the sky ready-made but grew out of a centuries-long experience of a people with their God. When the sacred writers took up their pens they believed they were committing to writing not merely their personal faith but the faith of the community, a faith that was Spirit-inspired. Consequently it is only in the continuing community that the expressions of that faith, the Scriptures, can be fully understood, and ultimately only with the assistance of the Holy Spirit who inspired the writings in the first place. That does not exclude, in fact it requires, the work of exegetes and scholars to explore the human face of the word of God. But it gives no authority to interpretations that would be at odds with the common faith of the community, a common faith that is guarded by the ultimate interpretative authority, the magisterium. Does it mean that within the parameters of the Church's faith and tradition the nonspecialist can come to a valid interpretation of the Scriptures? Augustine offers help here. The ultimate goal of all Scripture and its interpretation, he says, is charity: "If one is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves the road by mistake but passes through a field toward the same place to which the road itself leads. But he is to be corrected and shown that it is more useful not to leave the road, lest the habit of deviating force him to take a crossroad or a perverse way" (De doctrina christiana, I, xxvi, 41). For this reason even those who use the Bible primarily for devotion should not neglect a serious study of it.
Bibliography: vatican council ii, Dei Verbum: Constitution on Divine Revelation. pontifical biblical commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993). g. t. montague, Understanding the Bible (Mahwah, N.J. 1997). e. mcknight, What Is Form Criticism? (Philadelphia 1969). m. a. powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis 1990). n. perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia 1969). j. h. elliott, What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? (Minneapolis 1993). e. d. hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, Conn. 1967). s. l. mckenzie and s. r. haynes, eds., To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville 1999). r. e. palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston 1969). p. ricoeur, Interpretation Theory (Fort Worth 1976).
[g. t. montague]