Monthly Archives: October 2013

Thomas a Kempis in Dei Verbum?

One of the famous phrases of the Second Vatican Council that has always stuck in my mind is from Dei Verbum, which teaches that “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written” (section 12). That is the translation from the Vatican website. The Latin reads, “Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit.” Notably, the phrase “eodem Spiritu” means “same Spirit” not “sacred Spirit.” The old Walter Abbot translation gets this right and so does the Catechism (section 111). But the point is, where does this principle come from?

Well, if you take a look at the footnote to the line, you’ll see this:

EDIT 1/6/2014 (deleted text struck out and added text maroon):

9. cf. Pius XII, encyclical “Humani Generis,” Aug. 12, 1950: A.A.S. 42 (1950) pp. 568-69: Denzinger 2314 (3886).

9. cf. Benedict XV, encyclical “Spiritus Paraclitus” Sept. 15, 1920:EB 469. St. Jerome, “In Galatians’ 5, 19-20: PL 26, 417 A.

Great, so we have to go back and look at Humani Generis for this idea. The Denzinger reference 3886 equates to the 21st paragraph of the encyclical which talks about the value of biblical exegesis, that it renews theological inquiry, giving it a constant freshness. The paragraph does refer to Pius IX’s letter Inter gravissimas from 1870, but the funny thing is that the phrase about the “same Spirit in which it was written” does not appear anywhere in the encyclical.

I made a mistake in this original post by associating a footnote belonging to Article 11 to Article 12, as was pointed out to me by a friendly reader. The correct footnote points to Benedict XV and St. Jerome. The relevant text from Benedict XV’s encyclical is this:

35. But in a brief space Jerome became so enamored of the “folly of the Cross” that he himself serves as a proof of the extent to which a humble and devout frame of mind is conducive to the understanding of Holy Scripture. He realized that “in expounding Scripture we need God’s Holy Spirit”;[55] he saw that one cannot otherwise read or understand it “than the Holy Spirit by Whom it was written demands.”[56] Consequently, he was ever humbly praying for God’s assistance and for the light of the Holy Spirit, and asking his friends to do the same for him. We find him commending to the Divine assistance and to his brethren’s prayers his Commentaries on various books as he began them, and then rendering God due thanks when completed.

I have bolded the most important text, which is really a couple citations from St. Jerome. The two references are: “55. Id., In Mich., 1:10-15” and “56. Id., In Gal., 5:19-21.” The drafters of Dei Verbum point us to the second citation, from Jerome’s commentary on Galatians, the phrase there reads in Latin, “Quicumque igitur aliter Scripturam intelligit, quam sensus Spiritus sancti flagitat, quo conscripta est…” (Source: p. 417)This can be rendered in English, “Whoever, therefore, understands Scripture in any other way than the sense of the Holy Spirit by whom they were written…” This phrase seems to be underlying Dei Verbum‘s statement, but the wording is actually closer in yet another text.

So, here’s where Thomas a Kempis comes in. In his famous book, The Imitation of Christ, he talks about reading Scripture in Book I, chapter 5 and says that “it should be read in the same spirit with which it was made” (Harold Gardiner translation, 1955). So, is Vatican II quoting Thomas a Kempis without attribution? It’s hard to say. You can read the original Latin text online from this 1486 publication of the Imitation of Christ. Here’s an image for you:

Kempis_Chap5For those of you without a magnifying glass, the underlined text reads “Omnis Scriptura Sacra eo Spu debet legi quo facta est.” (“Spu” here is an abbreviated form of “Spiritu.”) My translation is then: “All of Sacred Scripture ought to be read in the same Spirit in which it was made.” However, a translation from 1938 that was republished in 1959 reads quite freely, “Each part of the Scripture is to be read in the same spirit in which it was written.”  I’m not suggesting that the Council Fathers were reading this translation and then formulating their Latin text, but that Thomas a Kempis was on their minds when penning this line. I would be interested to see if there is further evidence for this in some of the background documents of the Council. I just stumbled across it, and thought you would like it if I’d share it with you.

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“Feeling” in Biblical Times

The Catechism offers guidance on how to interpret the Bible, explaining that we must take into account the “modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current” (CCC 110). This idea of “feeling” struck me as kind of strange since the other verbs have to do with expressing ideas, not one’s inner emotions. And besides, don’t all writing professors get upset when students write, “I feel…”? So, I thought this might be a translation issue. In fact, it is.

This Catechism paragraph is based on Dei Verbum 12, which in the Latin uses the phrase, “sentiendi, dicendi, narrandive modos” to indicate the teaching. Well, the idea of “sentiendi” is translated in the Abbot translation of Dei Verbum as “perceiving,” which is much preferable to “feeling” in my opinion. The verb underlying this participle is “sentio” which can mean “feel, think, perceive, sense, judge, observe.” The Council fathers seem to be getting at the way that the ancients apprehended ideas and expressed them, not at the way they “felt” in terms of their emotions. We’re after how they thought, not how they “felt.” Notably, the official Latin version of the Catechism agrees with Dei Verbum: “modorum sentiendi.”

Is it a mis-translation? No, not really, but I think that one of the other translation choices for the Latin sentio, would be preferable. We want to think hard about how the ancient biblical authors understood and explained ideas, not in how they felt emotionally.

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What Did Ezra Read?

Today, the mass reading comes from Nehemiah, which reports the event of the priest-scribe Ezra reading the law of God to the Jews who have returned from the exile to the land. Here’s the report:

And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. (Neh 8:3 ESV)

So the question is what exactly is he reading? Scholars have put in a lot of sweat equity trying to figure out what exactly the “Book of the Law” was–Deuteronomy? The P material? Some early form of the Pentateuch? But of course, being scholars, they resort to bookish ideas to try to solve this problem of the book. I thought I’d lend a hand by introducing modern technology. :) (That would be a rather Catholic Bible Student kind of thing to do anyway.)

So…here’s where mp3 files come in. Back in the 60’s a mellifluous rabbi recorded himself reading the entire Tanak aloud and a very kind webmaster, has turned these recordings into mp3’s for all of us to enjoy for free. If we can grant Ezra about 6 hours from sun-up to noon to read, then how long would it take to read the Pentateuch in its present Hebrew form?

Using the Mechon-Mamre recordings as our baseline:

  • Genesis – 4:31:59 (4 hours, 31 minutes, 59 seconds)
  • Exodus – 3:14:39
  • Leviticus – 2:07:22
  • Numbers – 2:55:12
  • Deuteronomy – 2:43:28

So, if he read the whole Pentateuch, it would take 15 hours, 32 minutes and 40 seconds, with no breaks! So…he didn’t have time to read the whole Torah. But he could have read all of Deuteronomy and all of Numbers. Or he could have read all of Deuteronomy slowly with breaks and stops for moments of explanation. 

How much of the Pentateuch can you read from sunrise to noon?

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