Tag 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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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 archive.org. Happy reading!

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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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A Musing on Historical-Criticism of the Bible

One of the great problems with the historical-critical method when it comes to the Bible, is that it denies supernatural reality and revelation de facto. It messes up the whole history of Israel in the Old Testament because it begins from a vantage point which denies the possibility of divine revelation, so it seeks alternative explanations as to the origin of Israel’s religion. Rather than Hebrew religion being a divine gift to Abraham and Moses and their followers, historical-criticism reduces it to a slowly evolving and developing religion that began as a mixture of various beliefs and practices adopted from other nations and cultures. Why? Because historical-criticism cannot believe in revealed religion. It is not within its purview.

That is exactly where the historical-critical method loses its explanatory power. The fact is that Israel’s religion was revealed by God. It did not evolve out of Canaanite religious practices or beliefs of random Ancient Near Eastern peoples. God actually revealed himself to his people and gave them a way to seek him. Since the historical-critical method cannot admit this, being beyond the bounds of secular science, it fails to explain the importance of the Bible. It is brilliant at dissecting the parts and pieces of the Bible–explaining words and archeology and geography. But it cannot tell you why to read the Bible, how it will change your life or why the Bible makes a difference in the real world.

But the Bible will change your life, not because it is an interesting ancient book, but because it is the word of God to man. It is God’s instructions to you about life, death and meaning. Pick it up and read it, not for a perusal of Ancient Near Eastern religious practices, but for spiritual life from the God who loves you.

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