Monthly Archives: October 2012

John Paul II on the Mission of Bible Scholars

John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission upon receipt of their document, the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In that speech, he outlined a few points regarding the mission of biblical scholars that I found helpful and motivating. Unfotunately, it’s not in English on the Vatican website, but it is in French. There’s an English translation of some excerpts here. Here are a couple quotes:

“To this end, it is obviously necessary that the exegete himself perceive the divine Word in the texts. He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.” (sec. 9)

“In order better to carry out this very important ecclesial task [the explanation of Scripture], exegetes will be keen to remain close to the preaching of God’s word, both by devoting part of their time to this ministry and by maintaining close relations with those who exercise it and helping them with publications of pastoral exegesis.” (sec. 11)

-John Paul II, “Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” In  The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (trans Dean P. Bechard; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002) 175, 177.

In the first quote, John Paul highlights the importance of arriving at the meaning of the text intended by God, the so-called “divine meaning” or the “theological meaning” (a phrase often used by Fr. Frank Matera in describing the exegete’s aim). To me, this concept is very helpful in understanding what biblical exegesis is all about. It really does have a goal that is realizable. Sometimes it seems in the face of the immense stacks of exegetical books in theological libraries that no one will ever figure out the meaning of the Bible! I mean, if people have been seriously working on it for 2,000 years and still feel the need to publish more and more books about it, where’s the hope for a resolution? But the Bible does have meaning, one that can be discovered and related and believed in. John Paul also frames the task of exegesis well as a matter of “perception,” and a kind of perception that is informed by prayer, spiritual life. So the exegete could never be replaced by a robot. Rather, his personal spiritual life is somehow involved in the act of perception of the divine meaning of the biblical text.

In the second quotation above, John Paul highlights the pastoral dimension of the exegetical task. Exegetes, he says, either ought to be preachers themselves or to help preachers in their exposition of God’s word. Lots of Bible scholars, I think, do not see themselves this way at all. But here John Paul insists that biblical scholars ought to be engaged in publishing pastoral exegesis–i.e. popular works–not just scholarly works. He adds after the sentence I quoted above, “Thus they will avoid becoming lost in the complexities of abstract scientific research, which distances them from the true meaning of the Scriptures. Indeed, this meaning is inseperable from their goal, which is to put believers into a personal relationship with God.” (sec. 11, p. 177). So, in John Paul’s mind, there is a distinct possibility of BIble scholars becoming lost! That would not be good. However, I wonder if John Paul had some biblical scholars in mind that he had met in his lifetime–ones who were obsessed with weird little details of Hebrew poetry or archaeology and unable to inspire anyone’s faith. That would be a bad place to be, a lost, uninspiring Bible scholar, trapped in the ivory tower and unable to communicate what he knows to regular people who want to be in a personal relationship with God. I’ll have to think about this one for a while.


Lagrange on Catholic Bible Interpretation

Fr. Marie-Joseph LagrangeMarie-Joseph Lagrange, one of the founders of the Ecole Biblique, was one of the most important Catholic BIble scholars at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Today, I came across a lecture he gave on what Catholic biblical exegesis is all about. It’s interesting from a historical perspective since it is before Vatican II and before Divino Afflante Spiritu. Here’s a little excerpt for some flavor:

H, then, Scripture had been the only
means to assure the preservation of a doctrine
which is much richer than the ” weak and needy
elements ” of the old Law, God would have
provided very poorly for its preservation. The
answer of tradition is more complete and more
precise. The New Testament contains neither
a creed nor a sacramentary. And doctrine is
preserved in the Church as an ever living and
acting faith.

Precisely ! it will be said. This faith lives,
consequently it evolves, hke all human things.
With time it will give to the questions put before
it answers more complete and more precise.

Granted, but this development is not a deformation.
The Church, in virtue of a supernatural
logic, which is at the same time perfectly rational,

regards the truth, which she has received from
God Himself, as having an immutable character,
and she is intent on transmitting it just as she
received it in its substantial elements.
But do not forget that we are deahng here with
this question of the development of doctrine only
from the viewpoint of the exegete. The difficulty
that is urged regards only the sincerity of interpretation.
It may be thought that the exegesis of the
Church, being imposed upon her by her dogma,
will lack sincerity since it will lack hberty. The
objection does not apply to Cathohc exegesis.
The danger it calls attention to may exist only for
a society which has no other rule of faith than
the Bible, and is bound to find therein all the
truths which it professes. But such is not the
case with the Church. Why should she torture
texts to get from them what she can get from
tradition? A Cathohc may and must beheve in
dogma not enunciated in Scripture, as, for instance,
in the perpetual virginity of Mary. He
is not, then, obhged to have recourse to any
violent form of exegesis. The texts remain undisturbed. (pp. 38-39)

You can get the whole text of his lecture on “The Exegesis of the Catholic Church” in a 1920 translation in a book called “The Meaning of Christianity” on Happy reading!


Honey in the Bible

HoneyThere’s a whole lot of honey in the Bible! No, really, there’s quite a bit. There’s a land flowing with “milk and honey.” There’s “honey from the rock.” There’s even honeycomb–and no not the cereal kind! Honey is mentioned for its sweetness–both literal and metaphorical. I’m interested writing about honey because to me it is a fascinating thing and a wonderfully rich symbol. If you think about it a bit, honey is one of the weirdest things we eat–it’s made by bugs from yellow dust that flowers produce, after all! Also, it was one of the only truly sweet things that the ancient Israelites would have eaten. They didn’t have candy stores and Coca Cola like we do.

So where does honey show up in the Bible?

In Genesis 43:11, Jacob sends honey with his sons as a gift for the overlord of Egypt (i.e. Joseph). In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua the text mentions “a land flowing with milk and honey” many times. Also, the manna from heaven is said to taste like cakes made with honey (Exod 16:31). Yum! Judges 14 relates a strange story about the judge Samson who eats impure honey from a beehive in a lion carcass. “Honey from the rock” is mentioned twice (Deut 32:13; Ps 81:16). What is that?

In 1 Sam 14, honey becomes a flashpoint for the life of Jonathan who eats some honey despite there being a curse spoken by his father, the king, on anyone eating before sundown. A “jar of honey” shows up in 1 Kgs 14:2. The Psalms compare God’s words to honey (Ps 19:10; 119:103). Proverbs instructs us to eat honey and wisdom (Prov 24:13), but then warns that eating too much honey will cause us to vomit (Prov 25:16) and that it is not good to do so (Prov 25:27). The lover in the Song of Songs eats honey (Song 4:11; 5:1). Honey is often associated with curds (2 Sam 17:29; Isa 7:15, 22)

In the New Testament, John the Baptist eats locusts and honey (Matt 3:4, Mark 1:6). And John eats a scroll as “sweet as honey” (Rev 10:10).

Honey is to be a symbol for sweetness. I mean, you don’t really think that an evil woman’s lips actually drip honey (Prov 5:3)! Honey also appears as a common ingredient for breads and cakes (Exod 16:31; Lev 2:11; Ezek 16:13, 19). It has a kind of raw purity attached to it and is the kind of thing you would eat if you came across it while you are out and about–an ancient Israelite snack. I want to take a look at some other ancient Near Eastern cultures that wrote about honey and compare it to the biblical passages. Hopefully, I can come to a better understanding of what biblical honey is all about.