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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Transformation of the Historical Meaning of the Text

It seems obvious that if worship is the reason for reading the Bible, the historical meaning will become secondary for any worshipping community, even in the twenty-first century. One good example among many others is in the words of St Cyril of Alexandria, after commenting on the first miracle of Jesus at Cana of Galilee. Cyril of Alexandria says: ‘The historical account then will stop here, but I think we ought to consider the other view of what has been said, and to say what is signified’. What is signified is not the changing of the water to wine, but the marriage of humanity to the divinity of the Son who is the Bridegroom. The marriage is consummated on the third day, the day on which humanity was raised from the dead. (Commentary on John, II.1.11; Eng. trans. The Fathers of the Church, 1, 157). This is further given a better illustration by Maximos the Confessor who says:

the sacred Scripture, taken as a whole, is like a human being. The Old Testament is the body and the New is the soul, the meaning it contains, the spirit. From another viewpoint we can say that the entire sacred Scripture, the Old and the New, has two aspects: the historical content which corresponds to the body, the deep meaning the goal at which the mind should aim, which corresponds to the soul. If we think of human beings, we see they are mortal in their visible properties but immortal in their invisible qualities. So it is with Scripture. It contains the letter, the visible text, which is transitory. But it also contains the spirit hidden beneath the letter, and this is never extinguished and this ought to be the object of our contemplation. Think of human beings again. If they want to be perfect, they master passions and mortify the flesh. So it is with Scripture. If it is heard in a spiritual way, it trims the text, like circumcision. Paul says: ‘Though our nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day’ (2 Cor. 4: 16 ). We can say that also of the Scripture. The further the letter is divorced from it, the more relevance the spirit acquires. The more the shadows of literal sense retreat, the more the shining truth of the faith advances. And this is exactly why Scripture was composed. (Mystagogia, 6 PG 91'684)

The historical meaning was never ignored but the Bible, as the book of the living word of God cannot be taken as a collection of only historical events. The language of the Bible is part of the variety of sacred symbols. If we look from outside, the language of the Bible seems to be ‘filled with incredible and contrived fantasy’. God has a womb (Ps. 2: 7 and Ps. 110: 3 , Septuagint). He speaks like someone who is using his breath (Ps. 45: 1 ). Even the Father has a bosom which embraces the Son (John 1: 18 ) and others which are listed in the ninth letter of Pseudo-Dionysius. According to Pseudo-Dionysius they are written in this way because the ‘theological tradition has dual aspect’, to reveal the mystery which is understood by the initiated and thus it has to use symbols; and the second is to put the initiate in the presence of God. Pseudo-Dionysius speaks in the same way as Origen of Alexandria; no one can understand the Bible without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit is not only in inspiration but also in the interpretation. Pseudo-Dionysius supports his teaching by referring to the parables of Jesus, which do not give an open teaching but the hide the mystery of the divine activities under symbolism.

Modern theologians such as Dumitru Staniloae develop the patristic approach to the Bible by contrasting the Orthodox understanding with the Protestant method of ‘demythologization’ with its link via existentialism to the ‘inner meaning of the text’ which can be distinguished from the form of Revelation. According to Staniloae the word of God is not an outer shell or a form peculiar to the time of its composition. What we read in the New Testament forms ‘Typologies’. The biblical language has to be adapted to modern language by taking into consideration the core of Revelation. This core of Revelation is the ‘spiritual understanding’ of divine revelation.

It must be made clear that Revelation is the Son Incarnate, not the Bible itself. Thus the faith of the church is the guide to the meaning of the text as expressed throughout its history. New meanings do not come from the text but from the faith, which expresses itself using modern words but is guided by the Acts of Revelation and the Images of Revelation.

The teaching of Christian faith and understanding of the gospel must be related first to the acts of God in Christ. Staniloae finds a confirmation of his approach in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and in Protestant theologians such as Oscar Cullmann and others who belong to the Heilsgeschichtliche Schule. The ancient Christian teaching, universal up till now, is that God is not an ‘objective entity’ but is a person who enters into dialogues through acts. Creation is the first act of God. By creation God revealed his will and continued to do so in the acts of salvation of Israel. The One God in the Decalogue is the one God who ‘gets Israel out of Egypt’. His worship is due to this great act of salvation. It is the event which defines the meaning of the words. Events and words are not two separate entities. Staniloae, like other Orthodox theologians, sees in the Bible multiple images, which form the icon of salvation. These images can change according to the needs of our time and according to the kind of preaching but the icon must remain as an icon of salvation. The best illustration of this is in the famous icon of Christ the Pantokrator. He is painted carrying the New Testament gospels. The message is that no one can understand one without the other.

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