This is the third of four posts on reading the Bible [Post 1 | Post 2]. This post reviews how Catholics read the Bible, as discussed by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., in the second section of The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously (OUP, 2012). Harrington is a Professor of New Testament at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and the author of How Do Catholics Read the Bible? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
Bible, Revelation, and Tradition
First, Harrington comments in passing on the three points made by Marc Brettler in the first section of the book that I highlighted in the prior post. Catholics, too, read a different Bible, as the Catholic Old Testament includes apocryphal books drawn from the Greek canon such as Tobit, Wisdom, and 1 and 2 Maccabees as well as additions to more familiar books like Daniel and Esther. Catholic teaching affirms both religious and historical-critical reading of the Bible, the second being described as “indispensable (when properly understood) in Catholic biblical interpretation” (p. 80). Finally, Catholic teaching gives tradition a prominent role: sacred tradition, the scriptures, and the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church) are viewed as three complementary sources of divine revelation. Exercising the teaching office includes issuing authoritative pronouncements such as Dei Verbum (1965) on revelation and the interpretation of scripture, which emerged from Vatican II, and Verbum Domini (2010), an apostolic pronouncement issued by Benedict XVI that makes further statements on the Bible and its interpretation. A detailed discussion of these key documents is, alas, beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but would be a starting point for any detailed consideration of the current official Catholic view of the Bible.
Of the Text, Behind the Text, and In Front of the Text
What was most enlightening in Harrington’s discussion was his illustration of three different ways of approaching a biblical text: looking at the world of the text (using the tools of philology and literary analysis to grasp the meaning of the text in its linguistic and literary context, including genre), the world behind the text (discerning sources, looking at parallels in other Near Eastern cultures, considering the historical context in which the text was produced), and the world in front of the text (that’s us, readers, and how we make the text relevant and applicable to our present lives and circumstances). That sure seems like a handy schema for understanding and discussing a particular biblical text in, say, a Mormon Sunday School class.
Harrington illustrates that schema by looking at the call of Moses in Exodus 3-4.
- Of the text: Harrington points out that this is a call narrative, “a literary form that has parallels in the biblical stories of Gideon, Isaiah, and Jeremiah” (p. 107).
- Behind the text: Harrington notes that the classical source analysis assigns most of Exodus 3 to the E source (3:1-6, 9-15, and 21-22) and the other verses to J, and the main narrative in Exodus 4 primarily to J. But he adds that this source analysis is “by no means entirely persuasive” and that “Catholics are free to take it or leave it” (p. 107). He also discusses the Kenite hypothesis [that “YHWH was originally a Kenite tribal god who became known to Moses through Jethro (his Kenite father-in-law)”] but again adds a disclaimer that the theory “is the kind of hypothesis that evokes Pope Benedict XVI’s warnings about the limits of what can really be known from historical criticism” (p. 108).
- In front of the text: Harrington relates his own encounter with this text. “It shaped my religious identity. It led me to joint the Jesuit order, to study ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures at Harvard University, to be ordained a Catholic priest, and to teach and preach on Scripture for over forty years” (p. 109).
My Mormon Response
As a Mormon, it is hard to read excerpts from Catholic pronouncements like Dei Verbum and Verbum Domini without a dose of holy envy. But the Catholic Church has had two thousand years to develop its sophisticated understanding of revelation, tradition, and scripture; the LDS Church more or less started from scratch in 1830 and has had less than two hundred years to think through the LDS view of these important topics. Recent posts at Gospel Topics (within the sprawling LDS.org site) suggest that the LDS “thinking through” process is moving forward at an accelerated pace at the present time, which seems like a nice development. On a more practical level, Harrington’s discussion of looking at the world of the text, behind the text, and in front of the text (repeated in summary by Peter Enns in his response to Harrington’s essay) seems like a nice way for the average Mormon reader to deepen her study of the scriptures or for the average Mormon teacher to structure a productive discussion of a particular scriptural passage.
There is another Catholic method or aspect to reading Scripture which Harrington probably doesn’t address: the two (sometimes four) senses of Scripture – literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical (heavenly).
This is the most ancient Catholic method of reading the text. In fact, the Sunday liturgical cycle of Mass readings is built around this ancient method. Each Sunday has an Old Testament reading, a Psalm response, an epistle reading and a Gospel reading, and all four readings have a common theme that is built around the four senses. The commentaries at http://www.catechetics.org are constructed to reflect the interpretations of ancient Christians and these four senses present in the Sunday liturgical readings. You can read the commentaries at that site to get a flavor for how it works.
“As a Mormon, it is hard to read excerpts from Catholic pronouncements like Dei Verbum and Verbum Domini without a dose of holy envy.” Indeed (wistful sigh.)
I wish we could get more an awareness of different kinds of reading into the LDS consciousness.
Thanks for the comments. Steve, Harrington did talk about the traditional four senses of reading scripture. I did not know that this traditional method was incorporated into present liturgical reading of scripture in Catholic worship. I wonder if parishioners know?