Catholic Interpretation of the Bible
The Early Church (ca. AD 100–500)
The early Catholic interpretation of the Bible, like Christianity itself, did not emerge or develop in a religious, cultural, or intellectual void. Instead, it was formed and influenced by two antecedent interpretive traditions, one Greco‐Roman, the other Jewish.
The Greco‐Roman tradition traces its origins back at least to the sixth century BC. This tradition originated with the followers of the brilliant Pythagoras of Samos. The Pythagoreans focused their interpretive attention upon the epic poetry of Homer, and their Platonic and Stoic successors on other classics of the Greco‐Roman tradition. Confident that the poets had written under inspiration as theologians, so to speak, these interpreters concluded that great poetry was about deep cosmological and ethical realities. Accordingly, they developed a philosophy or method of interpretation called allegoria (allegory). Using this technique, Greek and Roman interpreters of classical literature claimed to find the deep meaning intended by the author. This meaning was usually hidden by the surface language of the poet, which could be crudely literal, enigmatic, superficially trivial, or otherwise intellectually or morally offensive. All assumed, in fact, that the literal meaning was an impediment to the “real,” deep, and true (or truer) meaning of the text.
Similar assumptions and methods passed over into Diaspora Judaism no later than the turn of the first century BC and were used in the interpretation of the Septuagint, notably with the ascetic Therapeutae. Without doubt, the preeminent practitioner of the allegorical method in Hellenistic Judaism was Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–AD 50). With non‐Jewish Hellenistic interpreters, he shared several crucial assumptions: that the text (the Septuagint) was divinely inspired and thus permanently normative; that it contained deeper truths than those expressed superficially and contained a spiritual sense above or beyond the literal‐historical; that the deeper truths were present especially where the text was, or seemed, irrational, ambiguous, absurd, sacrilegious, or otherwise difficult; and that such truths could be understood by the interpreter skilled in allegory. In addition, it was Philo's conviction that such truths were consistent with the highest insights of Stoic and Platonic thought, so that the allegorist in some sense “rewrote” the sacred text so as to harmonize it with these insights. Yet Philo insisted on literal adherence to Torah. He also observed that some texts (e.g., Nm 23, 19 : “God is not like a man”) were literally clear and therefore required no allegorical gloss. On several very important Christian exegetes also from Alexandria, especially Clement and Origen (who was very conscious of and explicit about his debt to Philo), Philonic hermeneutics would exercise a profound influence, which would then be felt for more than a millennium in both Eastern and Western Christianity.
With Philo and, indeed, with all contemporary Jews, the earliest Christian community agreed that “the Scriptures” referred to a collection of authoritative Jewish writings, namely that collection of writings Christians today refer to as the Old Testament. With Hellenistic Jews, early Christians also shared the methodological conviction that the Scriptures could be (and sometimes should be) permitted to say things other than that which the words seemed to suggest or require.
In the application of this principle, of course, early Christians parted company with contemporary Jews. This is because the earliest Christians rapidly took those authoritative Jewish writ‐ ings to attest typologically to the eschatological events that had occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, early Christians interpreted the events of Israelite history as types‐intentional figural prophecies expressed in the spiritual sense of the text and recognized as prophetic only in the light of later events‐of the decisive redemptive actions taken by God in the life of Jesus. Thus, typology (a form of allegory) grew up with Christianity as a hermeneutical method. (Such a hermeneutic is in evidence no later than the letters of Paul, e.g., in 1 Cor 10, 6 and Rom 5, 4 ). Indeed, it enabled Christians to understand the events of Christ, especially the problem of a crucified Messiah, in terms prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures. Accordingly, it was crucial to the project of emerging Christian and ecclesiastical self‐definition. That Christian typology required a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of the Scriptures the community shared with contemporary Jewish exegetes and practitioners goes without saying.
This is not to say that all early Christians, or all who so identified themselves, were comfortable with the typological method and the practical exegetical results its application effected. Some were not. Few were more uncomfortable than Marcion of Pontus, a layman of formidable wealth and missionary zeal. After having worked among the Roman Christians (ca. 144), Marcion founded a church based, exegetically, on the rejection of the typological method and of the Hebrew Scriptures and of the God revealed therein. He composed a canon, perhaps the first composed by any Christian, consisting solely of an expurgated version of the Gospel of Luke and a collection of ten Pauline letters. Had Marcion's position carried the day, the Old Testament would have ceased to be an arsenal of proof text to be used, in conjunction with the words of the evangelists and Paul, to establish the messiahship of Jesus. However quaint and occasionally even disrespectful typological exegesis sounds to a postcritical and ecumenical age, it did preserve the Hebrew Scriptures for the use of the church.
Eventually, Marcion's views (as well as those of Gnostic Christians who also rejected the Hebrew Scriptures) were condemned by the mainstream or emerging “Catholic” Church. But Marcion's views gave considerable impetus to the formation within this Catholic Church of an authoritative list of scriptural writings. Within decades of Marcion's death‐certainly no later than AD 180‐the Catholic Church had composed a list, a canon, of authoritative Scriptures that resembled very closely the contents of this Study Bible. It included an “Old Testament,” understood now as a collection of writings pointing typologically beyond itself to Christ, and a “New Testament.” The former was the Greek Septuagint, which included the Apocrypha, books not allowed by the rabbis into the Jewish canon in the first two centuries after Jesus' birth. The contents of the latter were very much like those of our Greek New Testament, though writings later listed in the canon (e.g., James, Hebrews) were not then included.
For the remainder of the second century, the Bible was exploited above all in polemical writing against Jewish and heretical interlocutors (sometimes imaginatively configured). While these Catholic polemicists hardly ignored the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible was, as it were, the turf on which such battles were fought. Typology was the most frequently wielded arrow in the Catholic exegete's quiver. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca. 160), for example, Justin Martyr attempted to demonstrate that Christ's life and especially crucifixion had been copiously, almost ubiquitously, foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures. So intent was Justin on proving that the cross had been prefigured there that he found types of it in virtually any reference or allusion to wood, beginning with the Tree of Life in Genesis.
Aside from being an accomplished practitioner of the typological method, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 170–80) established a crucially influential principle of correct interpretation of the Bible. Dubbed by R. M. Grant “the father of authoritative exegesis in the church” and often recognized to be a father of early Catholicism, Irenaeus argued (particularly against heretics) that only bishops in an unbroken line of succession from the apostles were to be counted as trusted interpreters. From this principle, it followed that authoritative interpretation was to be found solely within the walls of the churches and, more precisely, in those churches that could trace their origins to the apostles and whose episcopal successors had, in addition, produced short creeds to summarize the main events of salvation history contained in the Scriptures. These creeds (or rules of faith) could then be used (circularly, it might be observed) to test the orthodoxy of any scriptural interpretation.
In the Catholic interpretation of Scripture and above all in hermeneutical theory, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–253) towers over the third century. The fourth book of his masterwork, On First Principles, is dedicated solely to a theory of biblical interpretation; it is a deeply influential manifesto of Christian allegoresis. Origen's basic presumption, like that of his fellow Alexandrians, not least of all Philo, is that the Scriptures are intended to reveal not simply the historical events of salvation history but deep spiritual, theological, and cosmological truths. Such truths are revealed above all where the literal sense says things unworthy of the Deity (God planting a garden, for example), or impossible (three “days” of creation without any natural body of light), or inconsistent. (Origen was deeply impressed with the inconsistency of, among other things, the Passion and Resurrection accounts, from which he concluded they must each intend a deeper spiritual meaning.) In some cases, a biblical passage will have no literal sense. But all passages have a deeper spiritual sense, to which the interpreter is clued by the “stumbling blocks” of an illogical or absurd “letter.” Such texts invite the skilled exegete to unearth the spiritual treasure buried below, and Origen gives quite specific rules about how to uncover this camouflaged meaning. He encourages the exegete to “search the scriptures” (Jn 5, 39 ) and establish the meaning of difficult passages by clear ones (a method that of course presupposed the unity of the biblical witness) and by paying attention to context and to etymology. Echoing Irenaeus, he also adds (perhaps less enthusiastically than the Bishop of Lyon) that the meaning of Scripture can be established by use of the church's Rule of Faith. These reflections made Origen by far the most sophisticated theoretician of interpretation in ancient Christianity. He was, in addition, an enormously prolific exegete. Not to be overlooked is his Hexapla (sixfold), an edition of the Hebrew Scriptures which contained, in six parallel columns, one version of the Old Testament in Hebrew, one of the transliterated Hebrew, and four, including the Septuagint, in Greek. This might be called the first attempt in ecclesiastical history at textual criticism of the Hebrew Scriptures. His influence on late‐antique and medieval exegetes, especially those sympathetic to allegorical interpretation (like the fourth‐century Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil), would be, if indirect, immense.
Not all were sympathetic. (We remember here Marcion.) If Alexandria nourished its scholars on allegoresis, the biblical exegetes in the important city of Antioch tended to stress the fundamental importance of the literal and historical sense of the text. According to Eusebius, the Antiochene exegetes, represented typically by John Chrysostom (407), interpreted the text “with moderation”‐that is, unallegorically. This is not to say Antiochene exegetes denied that the sacred text had a higher meaning. It is to say that they were nervous about allegory. In their view, allegory simply made the text a springboard for unrestrained flights of speculation that left the natural, obvious, or contextual meaning of the text far from view. For the deeper meaning of the text, they preferred the term theoria. Their leader, Diodore of Tarsus (d. 390), actually composed a text titled On the Difference between Theoria and Allegoria. Two others, Eustathius, Bishop of Antioch, and Diodore's pupil Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), wrote tracts on the same topic with the same unambiguous title‐Against Origen.
As it turns out, the difference is largely one of emphasis, with the Antiochene school typically stressing the need to ground the higher meaning of the text in its foundational historical meaning, or at least not be opposed to it. Both men were concerned that allegoresis actually robbed the text of the meaning it purported to uncover by plunging and thus dissolving it into the murky, seemingly undisciplined universe of discourse of “spiritual understanding.” (The Antiochenes would have vibrated sympathetically to von Harnack's complaint about Origen's “biblical alchemy.”) Neither Antiochene was as apprehensive about, in his understandable preoccupation with the historicity of the text, what was for Origen and his Alexandrian peers the sometimes disturbingly anthropomorphic, mythical fabric of the biblical narrative. Looking ahead, one could say, somewhat simply, that in the early Latin West, the Alexandrian tradition would certainly carry the day, while in the high Middle Ages, with the reintroduction of Aristotle, the Antiochene tradition asserted its supremacy.
Even as no scholar of the fourth century did as much to explicate and make available the Bible to contemporaries, no figure exemplified ambivalence to the allegorical approach more than the great Jerome (ca. 340–420). His early commentarial efforts are highly allegorical. Later, he came under the influence of the Antiochene school through Apollinaris of Laodicea (d. ca. 390), who was later condemned for Christological heresy at the second ecumenical council of Constantinople (381). At that point, Jerome stated his desire to avoid excessive allegoresis, going so far as to claim he allegorized only when he could not determine the literal sense of a passage. However, this claim was purely theoretical, as his voluminous commentaries are replete with allegorical interpretation, about much of which, at the end of his life, he finally expressed regret.
It is difficult to imagine that such a man as Jerome could look back on his career at all ruefully. He was without doubt the greatest scholar of the fourth century. His knowledge of the history, geography, and philology of Palestine was simply unrivaled. He wrote capaciously on the Bible; indeed, he was the most prolific commentator of his day. In 382 Pope Damasus commissioned him to translate the Bible into Latin. The result was the Vulgate (editio vulgata), a Latin Bible translated from the original languages. To this day, it remains the edition of the Bible that has perhaps been most widely read in the West, where it had tremendous influence on language, liturgy, art, architecture, literature, politics, and theology.
One can hardly make mention of the Latin West without speaking of the importance of the North African tradition. It was there, probably by the end of the second century, that the first translation of the Bible into Latin was made, and we know there were several such translations. Tertullian quotes from these old Latin versions as, in the mid‐third century, does Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) and as Augustine would as well. A contemporary of Jerome, Tyconius (d. ca. 400) authored the first tract on the theory of interpretation in the West worthy of comparison to Origen's. This Liber Regularum (Book of Rules) set out, as its title suggests, a set of principles (seven in all) for interpreting Scripture. One of the most important is that when Scripture speaks of the head of the church, it refers also to its body. In this way, statements made about Christ could be understood to refer to the church in the present age as well. Tyconius also authored a very influential commentary on the Apocalypse, which shifted the exegetical tradition away from the historic millenarian reading of the book.
Tyconius's influence was nowhere more deeply felt than in the writings of his fellow North African, Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Indeed, the influence of Tyconius on the greatest of Latin doctors has not always been recognized or conceded, because the former was a member of the schismatic Donatist church, which Augustine spent much of his life quite fiercely denouncing. But upon inspection of Augustine's own hermeneutical theory as it is expressed in his classic On Christian Doctrine, it will be obvious that Tyconius's influence was profound. It was felt in the wide circulation in the Middle Ages not only of Augustine's book on Christian teaching but of his own Book of Rules, both of which were recommended by no less a figure than Cassiodorus (d. 580).
When speaking of Augustine, it is impossible not to mention the decisive influence in his life as well as work of the allegorical method. Indeed, it might easily be said that, but for that method, Augustine might never have been baptized. It was only in the wake of hearing the Old Testament interpreted allegorically by Bishop Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339–97) that Augustine felt ready to convert. Until then, Augustine, nurtured on the classics of Roman literature, had regarded the Old Testament with a feeling bordering on contempt. Allegory enabled him to understand the Hebrew Scriptures in a new way and to harmonize them, as had Ambrose, with the Neoplatonic philosophy on which he had also been nourished. Like Origen, he offered copious guidance on how to treat difficult passages (and his advice is remarkably like Origen's). Augustine insists, as had Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, on the utility of the church's Rule of Faith. But he also adds that all Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the Law of Love, so that any interpretation that contributed to the Reign of Charity should command assent. Augustine is also capable of sounding eerily modern, as when, in his Harmony of the Gospels, he is prepared to concede that the narratives in the Gospels reflect recorded community memory rather than accurate chronological narrative history. Augustine also acknowledged that Jesus' words were not always recorded verbatim; it was their sense that was communicated accurately to posterity.
The question of how many senses of Scripture there were, and what each meant, achieved authoritative definition at the end of the ancient period in Christianity in the writings of the monk John Cassian (360–435). Most ancient commentators worked with the practical distinction between literal and spiritual senses. Origen had theoretically designated three senses: literal, moral, and spiritual (On First Principles 4.2.4), though scrutiny of his surviving commentaries indicates he did not follow this principle slavishly. In his Conferences, Cassian became the first to argue that, theoretically, Scripture contained or expressed four senses: literal, allegorical, moral or tropological, and anagogical or eschatological. Eventually, this understanding was versified as follows:
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, Moralia quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.
This little couplet basically meant that the literal sense has to do with the history of God's redemptive activity, the allegorical level with articles of belief, the moral with ethical behavior, and the anagogical with one's eternal destiny. Thus, for example, when Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible, it would refer literally to the earthly city, allegorically to the church, morally to the soul, and anagogically to the heavenly city. Cassian's Conferences was one of the few texts recommended in the Rule of Benedict. As a consequence, his theory was absorbed in Benedictine cloisters in the early Middle Ages and passed on to interpreters for a millennium. Again, few interpreters applied this principle mechanically; many were content to distinguish in their commentaries between two or sometimes three senses.
When we survey the history of the Catholic use of Scripture in early Christianity, two important truths emerge. First, theology and scriptural interpretation were virtually one and the same activity. At the least, theology invariably began as exegesis. Second, the allegorical method, which the church did not invent, had been appropriated and baptized by it. All Christian interpreters recognized that allegory (or, with the Antiochenes, theoria) gave the church access to a meaning that was not frozen in time or fixed. With the allegorical method, the church had inherited, and had brilliantly exploited, a way of making the Scriptures inexhaustible. To it the ancients had bequeathed a means by which, until the modern era, it could make the Scriptures perennially relevant, above all, perhaps, in preaching.
The Medieval Era (ca. 500–1500)
One can hardly mention Benedict and early medieval monasticism without at least noting how central was the role of the Bible in the monastic life. Monastic prayer began with the lectio divina (divine reading) of Scripture and continued with meditation upon it. Monks were utterly immersed in the language, imagery, and thought‐world of the Scriptures. So often and so carefully did they read and so assiduously ruminate upon certain parts of Scripture (the Psalter, for example) that such texts became a fundamental mark of their spiritual and mental experience. As Jean Leclercq has shown, monastic culture was a profoundly scriptural one. Monastic education was oriented almost exclusively to the ability to read and understand Scripture. In addition, early medieval scholarship on Scripture was produced almost exclusively in monastic scriptoria and by monks. One thinks of the Venerable Bede (ca. 673–735) in Northumbria, Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) in Rome, and a whole succession of eighth‐ and ninth‐century Frankish monks, including Rabanus Maurus, Walafrid Strabo, Alcuin, Haimo, and Remigius of Auxerre, Paschasius Radbertus, to mention only a few of the most accomplished. In short, Catholic scholarship on the Bible took place almost exclusively in the setting of the monastic cloister.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the awe with which such monks beheld the patristic tradition of exegesis. Few would have dared to think of a scriptural book other than in sensu patrum‐“in the sense of the Fathers.” So understood, scholarship was prized not for novelty but for fidelity to the received tradition. Early medieval biblical scholarship was therefore traditionalist and conservative in nature. The early medieval period was, in terms of biblical scholarship, an age of compilation, not innovation. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Frankish biblical scholars produced commentaries that were, by and large, syntheses of venerable authorities. Very few dared personal commentary on the received wisdom of the Fathers. The main objective, particularly in the Carolingian era, was the transmission of patristic extracts (technically known as florilegia) that were authentic and otherwise reliable. Such collections are dominated by the Latin fathers, especially by Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Such exposure to the Greek fathers (especially Origen) as was communicated to Western readers was achieved, largely, by presentation of the Latin fathers (like Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory) by whom they were influenced.
Most ages in church history can be identified by their interest in some discrete collection of scriptural writings, usually reflecting the theological and ecclesiological interests of the time. In the early Middle Ages, the Scriptures most used and commented were those holding a central role in monastic liturgy and thought and, to a lesser extent, doctrinal theology: the Psalter, the Song of Songs, Genesis, Paul, and Matthew (the one Gospel, curiously, that received widespread commentarial attention in the early Middle Ages). Leclercq has rightly emphasized that, for the entirety of the early Middle Ages, there is a strong and consistent link between the Bible and prayer (private and public) and, indeed, that such a link is the common characteristic of the use of the Bible in this period.
One of the great achievements in biblical scholarship in the early Middle Ages was the production of a standard or Ordinary Gloss (Glossa Ordinaria) of patristic commentary on the entire Bible. Nonetheless, its origins, authorship, and history of the Gloss have long remained obscure. Thanks to the researches of Beryl Smalley and others, we are now better informed about such questions. First of all, none of the Gloss was produced in a Carolingian monastic setting‐the so‐called marginal gloss had long been attributed to the monk Walafrid of Strabo (d. ca. 850)‐as had long been presupposed. Instead, it was begun in the cathedral school of Laon in the early twelfth century, at which time it, and the theological scene in Europe, was dominated by the brothers Anselm (d. 1117) and Ralph (d. ca. 1135), though the very earliest glosses on the Bible appeared in the late eighth century in England and Ireland. The former probably glossed the Psalter, Paul, and the Gospel of John; the latter the Gospel of Matthew. Others, including Gilbert the Universal, glossed much of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Pentateuch. The entire collaborative project was completed no later than the first quarter of the thirteenth century. It usually appeared with the biblical text as a “glossed Bible,” with short interlinear comments and longer marginal comments, usually of patristic origin, a form that is similar to contemporary Jewish commentary on the Talmud. Distributed in large numbers from a center in Paris, it was probably the most widely read and influential commentary on the Bible from the time of its widespread circulation ca. 1220 until the seventeenth century.
Over the course of the century that produced these two textbooks, running commentaries on the Bible came more and more to be disrupted by the introduction of theological issues or questions (quaestiones). Eventually, these questions were grouped together and finally broke off from their original commentarial context altogether to form textbooks of doctrinal theology. The classic in this genre is, without doubt, Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences. Late in the twelfth century, scholastic masters began lecturing on the Lombard independently of the sacred page (sacra pagina)‐the Vulgate page that had been established as a set text in the schools. This is a development of some moment. Aside from signaling the growing hegemony of the schools and the eclipse of monastic biblical scholarship and emerging universities in theological discourse, it indicates the beginning of the separation of biblical and theological studies, heretofore conceived as a single discipline.
It was, however, in the famous house of canons of St. Victor in Paris that hermeneutical and exegetical developments of great importance occurred in the twelfth century. In Hugh (d. 1141) and Andrew of St. Victor (d. 1175), the Middle Ages are sometime said to have received, respectively, their own Augustine (the former for his Didascalicon, often called a reworking of Augustine's De Doctrina Christian) and Jerome (the latter for his immense erudition, knowledge of Hebrew, and concentration on the literal‐historical sense). From these men came important new reflections on the primacy and content of the primary or literal sense of Scripture, reflections that would gesture toward the ways in which biblical scholarship would change in the schools and universities and in a time during which Aristotle was being reabsorbed in Western Europe.
Like some of the Antiochenes, Hugh wrote a tract (in his case an imaginative debate) on the relationship of the literal and allegorical sense. There he described the operation of the allegorical sense with considerable precision. It was not, he argued, the language or words of Scripture that expressed the allegorical meaning, but those things to which the words pointed; the figurative meaning of the text, if such it has, belongs to the literal sense. (This was to be an issue taken up, and resolved definitively for Catholic exegesis for centuries, by St. Thomas Aquinas.) It was, he argued, on this spiritual plane or level of exegesis that the unity of Scripture was contained. It could not be on the level of the literal sense, for it was all too plain that the literal sense contradicted itself in scores of places in the Scriptures.
However, Hugh was adamant that the literal sense was of foundational importance for the allegorical sense, and he rebukes unrestrained allegorists with some sarcasm. In his book De Scripturis, he observes:
I wonder how people have the face to boast themselves teachers of allegory, when they do not know the primary meaning of the letter.… How do you read Scripture then, if you don't read the letter? Subtract the letter and what is left?
Hugh even dares to deny Christological interpretations of texts that had long received such interpretations. Given his preoccupation with the importance of the literal sense, it is interesting to observe that Hugh was among those exegetes in twelfth‐century Europe that were first to have forged ties with the Jewish exegetical community. Hugh was convinced that Jewish exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures furnished the most literal sense of the text, and for that reason often quoted the great Jewish exegete Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac of Troyes (“Rashi,” 1040–1105) as an authoritative guide to the literal sense.
If the Victorine Richard (d. 1173) undertook to refute some of Hugh's ideas, Hugh's promise was, as Beryl Smalley observed, fulfilled in the Victorine Andrew, whose obscurity she did much to overcome and on whose significance she wrote a long chapter in her groundbreaking (if not uncontroversial) book, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (finished in 1940), which, as it were, invented the field of the study of medieval exegesis.
Andrew is without question the hero of Smalley's book, and it is because he concentrates on the historical and literal sense to the explicit exclusion of the doctrinal and moral. In this, he was quite aware that he was embarking on something new in the Middle Ages. Or, to put it another way, he saw himself continuing the work of St. Jerome. Of Andrew, Smalley observes, “No western commentator before him had set out to give a purely literal interpretation of the Old Testament.” For his access to the literal truth of the Hebrew Scriptures (Andrew commented on the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, many of the Prophets, and some of the wisdom literature), he, too, relied on the school of Rashi. Like Hugh, he simply felt that the “Jewish explanation” of the text was the literal sense of the text. To the extent that he was preoccupied with establishing the literal sense of Scripture, he made extraordinary and unprecedented use of Jewish exegesis by making contact with the communities most influenced by Rashi.
One of the several other twelfth‐century exegetes worthy of mention alongside Hugh of St. Victor, by whom he was influenced, is Peter Comestor or Manducator (d. ca. 1179), dean of the cathedral of Troyes and chancellor of the University of Paris. The name means “Peter the Eater,” which he earned for having absorbed all of the Scriptures. His most enduring contribution to the understanding of the Scriptures was a work titled the Historia scholastica. This was an epitome (depending on some non‐Christian authors, like Josephus) of biblical history from Creation to the events narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. As such, it fulfilled the requirements of Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon, which called for a foundational knowledge of biblical history. It also relied heavily (though anonymously) on the commentaries of Andrew and so was in a double sense a child of the great abbey of St. Victor. Like the Gloss, it became a standard textbook. Judging from the number of manuscripts and early printed editions made of it, it remained very popular through the fifteenth century.
Another disciple of Andrew, perhaps the finest biblical scholar of the twelfth century, was Stephen Langton (d. 1228). Perhaps his most important contribution to biblical scholarship was the production of a new edition of the Bible. This edition was important because it divided the entire Bible into chapters (ca. 1200); Thomas Gallus (d. 1246) would later divide it into verses. This was the edition that was to become standard at Paris, and, as such, became the one used in the new university setting of the thirteenth century. The early thirteenth century was, among other things, an age in which several aids to biblical study were produced. Once Langton's Bible had been produced, with its chapter references, it was possible to produce a concordance, and indeed a concordance to the Latin of the Vulgate was produced ca. 1235 in the new Dominican priory of St. Jacques in Paris.
It was in the very different monastic setting of southern Italy that the highly innovative exegesis of Joachim of Fiore set exegesis on a radically different path—deplored once by Smalley, an enthusiast for Andrew and literal exegesis, as an attack of “senile dementia” in the spiritual sense, a prime example of the “spiritual sense in decline”—than that recommended by the great Victorines and early friars of Paris. Born in 1135 in Celico, Joachim entered the Benedictine abbey at Corazzo in 1171, of which he became prior, then abbot (ca. 1176–77). Multiple visions at the Cistercian Abbey of Casamari in 1183–84 revealed to him the fullness and harmony (concordia) of the Scriptures and the mystery of the Trinity. Convinced that the inner mystery of God's existence as a Trinity of Persons was linked with the structure of history, Joachim, pondering the Scriptures, saw salvation history unfolding in terms of three successive, over‐ lapping ages (status), each primarily under the aegis of one of the persons of the Trinity. Thus Joachim postulates a status of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the last about to dawn.
This intricate theology of history is based on an equally complex hermeneutical theory. For Joachim, one of the major objectives of scriptural exegesis was to demonstrate the numerous literal parallels or concordances (concordiae) between Old Testament history and New. These concordiae not only shed light on the past but were also capable of revealing the future. The gifted exegete could see in both Testaments (above all in the book of Revelation) sets of concordances, which enabled him not merely to understand the first two status more fully but to predict the structure and meaning of the dawning third status of history. Joachim's exegesis was to have profound influence not only on the Franciscans of the subsequent century, who saw in Francis a herald in the new age of history just then dawning, but on many exegetes and many secular thinkers down to the twentieth century.
If Bonaventure and other Franciscan exegetes such as Peter Olivi (d. 1298) enthusiastically capitalized on Joachite hermeneutics in their own exegetical works, their Dominican confreres emphatically did not. Probably the greatest early Dominican exegete was the prolific Hugh of St. Cher (d. 1263). Intended to supplement the Glossa Ordinaria, his massive Postillae in Totam Bibliam—which relied heavily on Stephen Langton and his moralizing exegesis—was almost certainly compiled as the work of a Dominican “team” of exegetes at St. Jacques. Nonetheless, the postilla (or commentary, from the words post illa [verba?] “after those [scriptural] words”), which was a continuous gloss on every book of the Bible, bore his signature. This postilla would exercise enormous influence on contemporary exegetes (such as Bonaventure and his fellow Dominicans Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas). Hugh and his collaborators also produced a Correctorium Bibliae. In this work, alternative readings of the Vulgate were established in an attempt to establish an authoritative text.
Hugh's fellow Dominican Thomas Aquinas is today renowned as the author of the Summa Theologiae and the scholastic theologian whose work was declared normative by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Less well known is that, as part of his duties, first at Cologne, then later at Paris, he was required to lecture on the Bible. The result was a series of commentaries on Job, the Psalter, the Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Matthew, John, and the Pauline letters. Some of these exist as versions edited by Thomas, others in student lecture‐notes (reportationes), while others still (like the commentary on the Canticum) have been lost. Thomas also produced, at the behest of Pope Urban IV, a continuous gloss on all four Gospels. This Catena Aurea (Golden Chain) of mostly patristic excerpts, including an extraordinary number of Greek ones, had influence on commentaries on the Gospels down to the nineteenth century, when it was edited by Cardinal Newman, though it had its greatest impact in the Middle Ages. One of its warmest admirers would be Erasmus.
Though he commented extensively on the Bible, it was probably in the area of theory or hermeneutics that Thomas exercised the profounder influence. Thomas heightened the emphasis, begun among the twelfth‐century Victorines, on the primacy of the literal sense. Indeed, he argued that upon its authority alone could a necessary theological argument be constructed (Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 ad 1um). The literal or first sense is that intended by the author; like Augustine, Thomas agreed that this literal sense could have more than one meaning. Thomas is also clear that the literal sense could include figurative and poetic language. The spiritual sense is threefold—Thomas accepted the traditional medieval division of allegorical, moral, and anagogical spiritual senses. This threefold spiritual sense is based on the literal and presupposes it. It has to do with those spiritual realities signified by things expressed in the literal sense. Only revelation has this property, since the author of holy Scripture is God, who intends this threefold spiritual sense to be expressed by the literal sense and apprehended by the reader. In short, the literal sense for Thomas is the meaning communicated by the words; the spiritual sense is the meaning conveyed by the things (res) to which the literal words refer (see Quodlibetales 7.16.4).
In a real sense, Thomas's insistence on the primacy of the literal sense and his clear definition of it were applied to the entire Bible by a late‐medieval exegete whom many have compared, for the breadth of his work, with Jerome. Whatever the merit of that analogy, the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1349) is without question the dominant biblical exegete of the late Middle Ages and author, in his Literal Postill on the Whole Bible, of one of the most impressive works of biblical scholarship in all of ecclesiastical history.
After taking the Franciscan habit in 1300 and studying theology in Paris, Nicholas became Regent Master in Theology there in 1309. In 1322, after having been elected, three years earlier, Minister of the Province of Paris, he began his Literal Postill, which he finished in about a decade. From 1333 to 1339, he wrote his Moral Commentary on the Whole Bible, a shorter commentary that emphasized the moral and mystical meanings of the text. This was intended as a practical handbook for preachers and teachers. Unlike the postills written under the name of Hugh of St. Cher, these were all composed by Nicholas himself. The Postilla was the first biblical commentary to be printed (Rome, 1471–72).
Unlike most contemporary Christian exegetes, Lyra was able to read at least some Hebrew, and he knew the Talmud, the Midrash and the works of Rashi, who influenced him deeply. Lyra's great hermeneutical innovation was his teaching on the “double literal sense” (duplex sensus literalis), which held that citations from the Hebrew Scriptures found in the New Testament had two literal meanings. The first and more perfect meaning referred to Christ, the second and less perfect to pre‐Christian history.
Lyra's influence was enormous. More than 200 manuscripts of his Postilla Literalis exist. Since the late fifteenth century, it has been printed 176 times. It ranks, along with the Glossa Ordinaria, the Sentences of Peter Lombard and Thomas's Summa, as one of the most influential theological works of the Middle Ages. Moreover, some of his commentaries are known to have influenced Luther, at least indirectly, an influence immortalized, with pardonable exaggeration, in a famous early modern couplet: Si Lyra non lyrasset / Lutherus non saltasset (“Had Lyra not lyred, Luther would not have danced”). Whatever the degree of his influence on Luther, Lyra did share with the reformer a revulsion for what he took to be the over‐allegorization of the Bible and an emphasis on the plain, clear sense of the biblical text, an exegetical emphasis which has caused him to be known as “the clear and plain doctor.”
Looking back over a millennium of the use of the Bible in medieval Catholic history, the historian is hindered by the length of the era and the complex use of the Bible from easily summarizing the main developments of the period. Nonetheless, there are certain elements of the use of the Bible, and certain trends in how and in what contexts it was interpreted, that deserve to be underscored. First of all, as we pass from the early to the high Middle Ages, we observe that biblical scholarship becomes more professionalized. Fewer and fewer Benedictine monks rank among great biblical scholars (with the exception of the great Rupert of Deutz, almost none in the twelfth century and following). Biblical scholarship moves from cloister to the schools and universities and their classrooms. It thus becomes less exclusively oriented to prayer and spiritual experience. Dominance of the field passes from the Benedictines to the new school and secular university masters, first at Laon and Paris and then to Dominicans and Franciscan friars at the University of Paris. With this development, emphasis is placed on glossing the entire Bible, often carried out in “teams.” (In the late Middle Ages, we witness the reemergence of the virtuoso solo performer—Nicholas of Lyra is the primary example—who himself comments upon the entire Bible.) At the same time, a whole host of aids to Bible study are produced. These include histories of the biblical world and its geography, verbal concordances and editions of the Bible with chapters.
In terms of hermeneutics, we see an increasing emphasis, beginning in the twelfth century, on the literal and historical sense of Scripture, an emphasis reflected in many commentaries in the high and late Middle Ages. With the absorption of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the nature of each sense, and specifically how the literal is distinguished from the spiritual, received more precise definition. This hermeneutical project also boosted the ascendancy of the literal sense. Indeed, although Henri de Lubac is surely correct to insist that medieval authors never relinquished the allegorical sense to the extent argued by Smalley—it enjoyed something of a renaissance in the late Middle Ages—it was perhaps in the high‐ and late‐medieval emphasis on the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture that, in principle, had the most profound effect on the sixteenth‐century reformers, even if, in the application of that principle, they came to radically different exegetical conclusions than their Catholic forerunners. Their efforts to translate the Bible into the vernacular made reflection on the literal sense not just desirable but imperative.
The Early Modern Period (ca. 1500–1650)
Dominating the early medieval period and contemporaneous with the reformer Martin Luther is the outstanding biblical humanist Erasmus (d. 1536). In Erasmus, we see the union of superior classical learning, the desire to reform the church by learning, and excellent biblical scholarship. His greatest contribution to the use of the Bible was his publication of the first Greek critical edition in 1516. This was a two‐columned work, which contained not only the Greek New Testament but Erasmus's own Latin translation of the Greek (which corrected many perceived errors of Jerome), as well as extensive annotations at the back of the edition. For the Greek edition, Erasmus used five manuscripts he had discovered in Basel, relying especially on two of them. In later editions, his Latin translation became more and more different than Jerome's. Some of his changes, which he thought reflected the sense of the Greek more precisely, were to undermine key Catholic dogma, especially sacramental claims. For example, where Jerome translated Matthew 4, 17 “poenitentiam agite” (do penance), Erasmus translated it simply as “repent.” This seemed to subvert the biblical foundation for the sacrament of penance. Other translations would seem to undermine other key elements of Catholic doctrine, including aspects of Mariology. Luther would make use of the 1519 edition of Erasmus's edition of the New Testament for his German translation (1522), as Tyndale would for his English version (1525). It would also serve, indirectly, as the basis for the King James version (1611) and the Textus Receptus (1633). Hundreds of commentators, well into the seventeenth century, would use his edition as well.
Erasmus also wrote a Paraphrase on Romans, published at virtually the same time (1517) Luther would arrive at his own revolutionary understanding of that book. For the next seven years, he wrote paraphrases of every other book of the New Testament, save the Apocalypse. These would have special influence on the Swiss reformers. In 1547 they were placed in every parish in England and in the library of every aspiring divine. Together with the enormous influence of his edition, they easily made Erasmus the most influential Catholic biblical scholar of the early sixteenth century.
One of Luther's great theological opponents, Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534), certainly agreed with the Reformer and with Erasmus that reliable exegesis depended on the availability of good Hebrew and Greek texts. Although Cajetan is probably best known for his anti‐Lutheran polemics and as a great admirer of Thomas (his is the commentary on the Angelic Doctor that appears in the authoritative Leonine edition of Thomas's works), he was also an accomplished exegete. Indeed, shortly after engaging in examinations of Luther's writings, he began dedicating himself to biblical translation and interpretation, producing, finally, commentaries on the Pentateuch, the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, Job, Ecclesiasticus, the Gospels, and the Epistles. Similarly, Jacopo Sadoleto, while known primarily as an opponent of Calvin, was an accomplished humanist, who also dedicated much of his life to biblical interpretation. He produced commentaries on Paul, the Gospels, and Acts. In the middle of the sixteenth century Isidorus Clarius (d. 1555) produced a revision of the Vulgate New Testament on the basis of his translation from the Greek.
The status and the authority of the Vulgate was one of the issues taken up at the Council of Trent (1545–63). At the council, it was decreed that the Vulgate was authoritative for dogma. The reason for making it so was explicitly not its proximity to the original sense of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures but, rather, that it had been normatively so used for a millennium. Against the notion that any individual could interpret the Scripture, Trent explicitly declared:
No one, relying on his own skill, shall, in matters of faith and of morals pertaining to the edification of the structure of Christian doctrine, wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother church, whose it is to judge the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures, has held and does hold.
It will be perceived that, again, this is in effect a reassertion of the ancient authoritative principle found in the writings of Irenaeus. Reacting against the reformed emphasis on “scripture alone” (sola scriptura), Trent defined both Scripture and tradition as sources of revelation to be received pari affectu‐i.e., with the same reverence. This phrasing leaves it ambiguous whether the Scriptures, presumed of course to have a divine author, were a higher and more authoritative form of revelation than the writings included under the rubric “tradition.”
Trent is thus largely conservative and backward‐looking in its main dogmatic decrees on Scripture and interpretation. But not all Catholics in the sixteenth century were looking backward. The Catholic exegete in the sixteenth century who most anticipates modern interpretive concerns is undoubtedly Sixtus of Siena (Senensis) (d. 1569). A convert from Judaism, Sixtus brilliantly postulated, in a guide to the Bible entitled Bibliotheca Sancta, that the Psalter had multiple authors and in other ways foreshadowed the insights of modern biblical criticism.
Still, it must be conceded that Sixtus was something of an exception. Indeed, while much Catholic exegesis was absorbed in polemic with Reformed exegetes, it still shared premodern assumptions with them. Both Protestant and Catholic exegetes, however radically they differed in their dogmatic interpretation of Scriptures, shared certain crucial assumptions. Both agreed that the Scriptures were inerrant; that they were inspired; that they were heaven‐sent; that revelation did not change or develop and, above all, that the Scriptures were not influenced by the cultural or historical matrices in which they were produced. At the end of the period, however, Catholic exegesis began to point to developments that would revolutionize our understanding of the original meaning of the Scriptures.
The Emergence and Development of Modern Catholic Biblical Criticism (1650–1943)
Probably no Catholic exegete so anticipated the discoveries of modern Catholic biblical criticism as Richard Simon (1638–1712). Originally a member of the French Congregation of the Oratory, Simon‐like many Europeans writing un‐ der the influence of rationalistic or empirical movements and scientific discoveries, which would revolutionize Western thought in the Enlightenment‐published a pathbreaking three‐volume book, Historical Criticism of the Old Testament (1678). Simon was an immensely learned man; he knew rabbinic as well as patristic literature, and he was an accomplished patrologist. Among other things, he denied that the Pentateuch had been authored only by Moses; in fact, he maintained that Moses kept some sort of notes or annals that were later worked up by another author. Simon also argued that oral traditions usually precede their codification in written form‐a crucial insight all but ignored then. Eleven years later, he followed up this daring study with a similarly bold examination of the New Testament. For these studies he paid a dear price. He felt he had to leave the Congregation on the publication of his first book. In addition, his books were condemned by the Parliament of Paris; others of his writings were later attacked by no less a figure than Louis XIV, and Jacques‐Benigne Bossuet (1627–1704) was among his fiercest critics. In 1682, Simon's study of the Old Testament was placed on the Index, owing to the influence of Bossuet and his former Congregation. Nonetheless, it would be translated into English the same year and later into German. A copy of it was eventually discovered in the library of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834).
Simon's work was perfectly illustrative of the ways in which historical criticism would threaten cherished, historic dogmatic assumptions, and its condemnation a hint of how the new criticism would be received in ecclesiastical circles. For nearly two centuries after the death of Simon, Catholic biblical scholarship felt content to ignore Simon's insights. These were centuries of desiccation and dreariness in Catholic biblical scholarship practically unprecedented. Even when Julius Wellhausen (1844–1916) masterfully set out his documentary theory, many Catholic exegetes remained in a state of siege, rejecting the theory because of the rationalistic and empirical assumptions that underlay it.
In this gloomy context, the Dominican M.‐J. Lagrange (1855–1938) stands out as a shining example of exegetical vigor and enlightenment. In 1890 Lagrange founded the École Biblique in Jerusalem in order to encourage analysis of the word of God with the assistance of the historical‐critical method. Two years later, he founded the first important journal in Catholic biblical studies, Revue biblique. At a Catholic conference in Fribourg in 1897, he urged his fellow Catholic biblical scholars to take more seriously than they heretofore had the Pentateuchal criticism. On this question, he felt, the historical evidence had to trump the literary tradition. In 1902 he started an important series of biblical commentaries titled Etudes bibliques. His Historical Criticism and the Old Testament (1905) championed the use of the historical method. In all of these endeavors, Lagrange strove to demonstrate that the historical‐critical method was not necessarily destructive of immutable truth of the Catholic faith. In addition, he did pioneering work on the study of biblical genres and forms.
Not surprisingly, Lagrange failed to convince everyone that the historical‐critical enterprise was compatible with the maintenance of historic dogma, and he did not emerge unscathed. After a warning from the Sacred Congregation, he turned his attention to the New Testament. Meanwhile, Pius X established the Pontifical Biblical Institute as a rival to the Ecole, and he removed Lagrange from his position there. Nonetheless, Lagrange's legacy certainly lives on, not least of all in the continuing vitality of Catholic biblical study at the École Biblique.
Shortly after Lagrange founded the École Biblique, Pope Leo XIII, who had seemed once to express the opinion that the higher criticism and Catholic dogma were compatible, issued the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893), which left a very different impression. In that encyclical, Leo demanded that the Vulgate version be used, though he allowed that other versions ought not to be neglected. He also argued that a biblical text could not contradict the sense given it by the magisterium or by the unanimous consent of the fathers, and no exegete was allowed to interpret the text so as to contradict church dogma. In a very real sense, this is again simply a modern reassertion of the ancient principle of authoritative interpretation, heard expressed in the second century by Irenaeus, that the supreme arbiter of interpretation is the church's doctrine as taught by the magisterial authority.
No Catholic interpreter of Scripture in the twentieth century ran so directly against the grain of this idea than the French biblical critic and “Modernist” Alfred Loisy (1857–1940). Loisy was a talented philologist and interpreter who taught Scripture at the Institut Catholique in Paris from 1884 to 1893. He fully accepted the methods, insights, and implications of the historical‐critical method. In 1902 he wrote his classic book, The Gospel and the Church. In it, he concluded that many New Testament texts were ahistorical and were, in fact, produced by the early church. He dismissed the typological method and denied that the church developed in a way that Jesus could have foreseen. In later works, he sharply distinguished between the Jesus recoverable by historical method and the Christ known by faith, and argued that Jesus was unconscious of his divinity.
By the time Loisy had published these works, he had been dismissed from the Catholic Institute. More severe retribution was to follow. In 1907 his “errors” were condemned by the Holy Office in its encyclical Lamentabili. In the following year, Pius X issued the decree Pascendi dominici gregis, which condemned sixty‐five “Modernist” propositions. Many of these were from Loisy's work on the New Testament (or were epitomes, more or less tendentious, of his positions). Pascendi denied that the authority of the church was incompetent to judge the meaning of Scripture; that the exegete could or should ignore the supernatural origin of the Bible; and that the Scriptures contained error. Classically, it denied the proposition that:
No chapter of scripture from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation contains a teaching absolutely identical with that which the church sets forth on the same subject; and consequently no chapter of scripture has the same meaning for the critic as for the theologian (Proposition 61).
Not surprisingly, Loisy was excommunicated. Still, he had identified a problem that still awaits satisfactory resolution: the relationship of the truth discovered by the exegete to the dogmatic truth proclaimed magisterially by the church. Even if many Catholic exegetes have not wanted to go as far as Loisy theoretically, none of any repute has denied the reality, or the problem, of the gap he so clearly perceived. The debate has centered, rather, on the dimensions of the gap and the possibility and peril of attempting to bridge it.
The Coming of Age of Catholic Biblical Scholarship (1943–2000)
Catholic biblical scholarship, which in some sense had been plunged into a dark age with these papal pronouncements, was, in 1943 reliberated to do its work by another papal encyclical, Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu. Issued on the fiftieth anniversary of Providentissimus Deus, it announced its intentions to “ratify” what had been “wisely laid down” by Leo XIII. In fact, it reverses or radically recasts much of what he had to say. Where, for example, Leo had designated the Vulgate the authoritative text, Pius commanded scholars to translate and explain the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Much emphasis was laid upon determining the literary form the human author employed. Pius also encouraged scholars, as Leo emphatically did not, to examine the original intention and circumstances of the authors of Scripture and thus to understand the context in which they wrote. Remarkably, Pius also encouraged scholars to harmonize their conclusions with those of the profane sciences.
Even at the time, Catholic scholars recognized that Divino Afflante Spiritu had opened up a new epoch in the Catholic interpretation of the Bible, and its publication was hailed by the editors of Revue biblique. Ironically, Pius XII, who has recently been excoriated by some for his passivity in the face of the Holocaust, has been lionized by scholars as a grand patron of Catholic biblical studies. It was his pontificate that marked an about‐face in Catholic attitudes toward the Bible in the twentieth century, so that so sensible an authority as Raymond Brown could once observe that Divino Afflante represented the Catholic Magna Charta for progress in biblical study.
Nonetheless, a renewed atmosphere of chill prevailed in Rome in the wake of Pius's death in 1958, as several professors were removed from their teaching office at the Pontifical Biblical Institute for displeasure with their historical conclusions. They were restored to their positions, however, under John XXIII and Paul VI, as the warming winds of aggiornamento (modernization) swept through Rome during the Second Vatican Council. The Council's dogmatic constitution on revelation (Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965) takes a largely positive, if cautious, attitude (reflective of the fact that it went through multiple revisions and had to reflect diplomatic compromise) toward the program laid out by Pius XII.
The efflorescence of Catholic biblical scholarship in the forty years since the Council is so great as to defeat any attempt to summarize it easily. Still, a number of crucial developments may be noted. First of all, since the Council, Protestant and Catholic interpretations of the Scriptures have been methodologically indistinguishable. Roman Catholic scholarship has accepted modern biblical criticism. Having accepted modern approaches, Roman Catholics have now produced some of the most accomplished biblical scholars in the world. As the center of gravity in biblical scholarship has shifted from the European Continent to North American, and as an increasing number of women have entered the academy since the Council, the number of outstanding Catholic women biblical scholars who have trained or who teach in the United States has soared. Adela Yarbro Collings, Margaret Mitchell, Carolyn Osiek, Pheme Perkins, and Elizabeth Schüssler‐Fiorenza, to mention only a few, all have made signal contributions to the field which are recognized worldwide. Their male counterparts‐among others, R. E. Brown, J. Collins, J. Donahue, J. Fitzmeyer, D. Harrington, J. Meier, D. Senior‐rank at the top of their field internationally and belong to, and in many cases have led, the most important international societies of biblical studies (e.g., Society of Biblical Literature). In addition, numerous new approaches‐literary‐critical, liberation, feminist, structural, rhetorical, social‐scientific‐have given us new insight into the original meaning of the Scriptures and the communities to which they were addressed. Meanwhile, the “search for the historical Jesus” seems to have lost none of its vigor, and the renowned “Jesus seminar” includes a number of important Catholic participants, including John Dominic Crossan.
The overall picture, then, since Vatican II has been an overwhelmingly positive one. It will be left to twenty‐first‐century Catholic interpreters to address three questions, which the Catholic acceptance of modern biblical approaches has generated or made more acute. First, to what extent do new approaches involve retrojection of modern concerns and imperatives, legitimate in themselves, into the ancient biblical texts? Second, modern biblical criticism has, for those with ears to hear, only widened the gap between historical analysis of the biblical text and the historic dogmatic claims of the church. Some eminent biblical scholars, such as R. E. Brown, have heroically attempted to bridge that gap, but the results have been mixed and not inevitably convincing. How and even if the Bible and theology can be brought together is a question that, it must be admitted, has yet to receive an authentically convincing Catholic response. Finally, once the original, contextual, historical meaning of the text has been by and large established, what is left for the exegete or even the ordinary readers of Scripture? As we have seen, for the ancients and medievals, that was merely the first job of the interpreter. But we live now in an age in which the practice of allegoresis and the Platonic assumptions on which it rested have lost credibility. Few have any desire to repristinate the allegorical method. Yet the postallegorical questions linger: does the biblical text have any genuine meaning beyond or above that established by historical analysis and allied disciplines? If so how is it established and verified? Through most of the two millennia surveyed in this article, Catholic exegetes could answer those questions with confidence. Part of the pathos in the otherwise happy acceptance in Catholic biblical scholarship in the late twentieth century is that Catholic exegetes no longer know how, or even if, those questions can be answered.