Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Christian Reading of…Homer?

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I have always been fascinated by early Christian readings of pre-Christian texts. The big ones are, of course, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. For a long time, many Christians read the Aeneid as a kind of Christian allegory with Aeneas as a Christ-figure, as if he were a foreshadowing of Christ.

But I just stumbled across a very vivid (bizarre?) Christian reading of Homer. This comes from Mehodius (d. 311), an early Christian bishop, who wrote many works. Only one survives–his Symposium on Virginity. It’s known by many titles: On Virginity, On Chastity, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Symposion e peri hagneias. In this book, Methodius depicts a long conversation between ten Christian virgins who talk about how great a virtue virginity is. The link to

At one point in the conversation, when the virgin Thekla is speaking about fleeing to the wilderness away from temptation, fighting the spiritual battle and Christ’s victory. She quotes, surprisingly, the Iliad:

Lion in front, but dragon all behind,
And in the midst a she-goat breathing forth
Profuse the violence of flaming fire.
Her slew Bellerophon in truth. And this
Slew Christ the King; for many she destroyed,
Nor could they bear the fetid foam which burst
From out the fountain of her horrid jaws; (Source)

For those of us who have not memorized Homer, this comes from Iliad Book 6, Lines 181-183. But of course, you’re saying like I was, “How could ‘Christ the King’ be in the Iliad?” Here is the Iliad text from the Chicago Homer site (minus text-critical notes):

IL.6.181 πρόσθε λέων, ὄπιθεν δὲ δράκων, μέσση δὲ χίμαιρα,
IL.6.181 lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle,

IL.6.182 δεινὸν ἀποπνείουσα πυρὸς μένος αἰθομένοιο,
IL.6.182 and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire.

IL.6.183 καὶ τὴν μὲν κατέπεφνε θεῶν τεράεσσι πιθήσας.
IL.6.183 He killed the Chimaira, obeying the portents of the immortals.

IL.6.184 δεύτερον αὖ Σολύμοισι μαχέσσατο κυδαλίμοισι:
IL.6.184 Next after this he fought against the glorious Solymoi,

IL.6.185 καρτίστην δὴ τήν γε μάχην φάτο δύμεναι ἀνδρῶν.
IL.6.185 and this he thought was the strongest battle with men that he entered;

The key line is 183 – “he killed the Chimaira.” You might be searching the Greek for the word Chimaira and not finding it, that’s because it is back at line 179. Here’s another translation of this text from William Cowper (1791):

Lion in front, but dragon all behind,
And in the midst a she-goat breathing forth
Profuse the violence of flaming fire.
Her, confident in signs from heaven, he slew.
Next, with the men of Solymæ he fought,
Brave warriors far renown’d, with whom he waged,

You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? So an ancient Christian bishop re-wrote a line of Homer in the midst of an ascetical treatise. What of it?” Well, I don’t know the entire story, and hopefully there’s a dusty tome waiting for me in a library that explains all of this, but I think it illustrates profoundly how a Christian worldview shaped the all of the reading of the ancients. Their perspective was so shaped, so molded by the sacred text of Scripture, that all texts have the ability to be sacred by being re-read through a Christian lens. To me this “reading procedure” is bothersome, remarkable precisely because it was so natural for them–and I think, very unnatural for us. It is a kind of “reading against” the text, almost deconstruction. And yet there is something so beautiful about it–to be able to look into Homer and see Christ, to look at any landscape and find flowers.

I’ll report back if I find more examples of this Christian re-reading of the ancient epics.

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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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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.

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Ancient Rabbis and Sports Talk

When I read the ancient rabbis’ discussions of scripture, it makes me think of how we Americans talk about sports. For the rabbis, it is not so much about who in the discussion is right or rigorously scientific, but more about the conversation itself.

Sports talk is the same way. Only so many games are played. Only so many points are scored. Only one team wins it all. But the talk—it goes on forever! Sports talk radio is still going on and on about a football season that ended with the Superbowl almost two weeks ago—and no NFL team will play another game until August! It is almost as if the games and points and players and champions are not really what matters, but the conversation itself. The same issues are brought up over and over. The same players and situations are examined repeatedly looking for an explanation as to why this team did well or didn’t do well. The conversation never ends, it is an end in itself. Old stories that haven’t been talked about in years are brought up again for comparison’s sake. Sports talkers mull over player injuries, especially ones that have not been officially announced yet, and they try to use this (dis)information to gauge the team’s chances of success in its next competition. They argue points from multiple sides, taking on various views to see how they fit and to make the conversation continue. The rabbis are the same way.

The rabbis talk about a Scripture passage over and over. Yes, they have their opinions. But one rabbi is allowed to have more than one opinion. The point is not who is right, but that the Scripture should be talked about in such detail. The conversation is the point. Americans often look for what in a Scripture passage is the essential, scientifically defined “point” of the text. What in it must be obeyed? But the rabbis are not looking merely for a dictum to be obeyed. They’re simply admiring the beauty of the word by talking about all the various possibilities of meaning without really settling on only one meaning. Scripture is more than something that has rules to be obeyed. It is the Word of God and therefore infinitely beautiful. It is meant to be viewed, examined, admired, talked about and appreciated.

Listening to the rabbis’ conversations about Scripture is like overhearing two art critics discussing a painting at an exhibition. They don’t merely give a thumbs up or thumbs down, they talk through the artist’s technique, his subject matter, his choice of materials, his choice of colors, his subtlety with the brush, the influences on his style, his intentions as far as they can be worked out. They are not looking to establish a “message” for the painting, but rather, they are admiring the work of the artist by talking about what he has accomplished in all its details with a panoply of bunny-trails for the imagination to run down. Beauty is not something that can be circumscribed by a definition, but something that must be infinitely appreciated, admired, upheld, pondered and cherished. Hence the unending nature of the conversation.

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