Historical Criticism: Essential for the Interpretation of Scripture

NOTE: Comments below might refer to this post or to my post on allegory which refers the reader to this post. – awr

Christian interpretation of Scripture should be guided by two complementary principles:

  1. faith in God’s guidance in and through the Scriptures, and
  2. careful reading of the texts on their own terms.

These principles presuppose both the divine and the human aspects of the Bible, but they are difficult to hold in balance, since sometimes they are in tension with one another.

Obvious examples of such tension include what Phyllis Trible calls “Texts of Terror” – when violations of human dignity are embedded within the text as though they were divinely approved (e.g. Exodus 21; Judges 19—21; 1 Samuel 15). Christian reading of the Bible sees such texts in context, recognizes that they instantiate limited human perceptions, and properly devises strategies of interpretation in order nevertheless to maintain that the Scriptures contain “divinely revealed realities … committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum #11). In spite of difficulties, it is important to keep both principles in view.

Too much focus on the first principle ends up dehistoricizing the Bible and turns Christianity into a system of abstract ideas; it takes the “flesh” out of the incarnation. Too much focus on the second flattens Christianity into ideas and events without divine presence; it takes the “Word” out of the incarnation. Most believers will agree that delving into the mystery of “the Word made flesh” requires balance between “Word” and “flesh,” but by no means do all agree that historical criticism is an essential aspect of such balance. To the contrary, some reject historical criticism outright and insist on a return to the allegorical and typological strategies of the Church Fathers. Full discussion of that debate is not possible here, but I wish to make the case that for reading the Bible today, historical criticism is indispensable, including with respect to hearing the text at the level of faith.

The heart of historical criticism has to do with reading the Bible on its own terms. The perennial problem with all interpretation is the human tendency to make the text say what we want it to say – to read it on our terms. James Kugel – once a teacher, now an opponent, of historical criticism – complains that with it,

[t]he text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon. The insights are now all the reader’s, not the text’s.
(How to Read the Bible, 666).

But such a complaint can as easily be leveled at the ancient methods of interpretation which Kugel now prefers. Take Paul’s use of Genesis 16—17 in combination with Isaiah 54:1 in Galatians 4:22-30. Paul “allegorizes” Hagar and Sarah as two covenants, one “deriving from Mount Sinai, born into slavery, … [the other being] the Jerusalem above that is free; she is our mother.” Nothing in Genesis warrants such an allegory, nor is there any warrant for applying to Sarah the words of deutero-Isaiah, which originally intended to foster hope within Israel in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile.

Like his Jewish contemporaries, and the Rabbis and Church Fathers after him, Paul made the text say what he wanted it to say. It is deeply ironic, and a difficult issue for hermeneutics, that Paul’s interpretation turns those texts, in a sense, against Israel, devaluing its sacred traditions in the process. In other words, faith does not ensure hearing the text’s insights over against those of the reader, as Kugel desires.

No method as such guarantees that the reader learns from the text. Any method can be used to manipulate the text, and therefore we have to recognize that good interpretation – listening for God’s voice – is as much a matter of sound spirituality as of sound methodology. If we are indeed to gain the “insights” of “the text,” then there is no getting away from hearing it, as far as possible, within its own historical context and intentionality.

The truly valid point, which Kugel and others make in their complaints against historical criticism, does not so much have to do with method as with faith. Historical criticism has too often been practiced with little regard for faith, but such an approach has to do with the practitioner, not with the method.

In Galatians 4, the problem is the opposite – faith was in place, but the method was questionable. In dialogues with Jews, we would all wish that in Galatians 4 Paul had expressed himself a little differently, but he did not; the polemical situation, Paul’s interpretive background and various other factors led to the text we actually have.

Indeed, what Paul wrote is such that he somewhat falls foul of the American Bishops! Though the United States Catholic Conference Committee on the Liturgy, in its 1988 guidelines, approves of typology as one method by which lectionary texts have been chosen, it nevertheless emphasizes that it is necessary to

[p]lace the typology inherent in the lectionary in a proper context, neither overemphasizing nor avoiding it,” and warns against “approaches that reduce [Old Testament texts] to a propaedeutic or background for the New Testament.”
(paragraphs 15 & 31 respectively).

In the latter regard, Paul and New Testament authors in general, get low marks. But though we might, in our context, be less than satisfied with their method, and sometimes with their interpretations, we gladly affirm the stance of faith with which they approach Old Testament texts. Paul takes it absolutely for granted that Genesis, Isaiah and all the Scriptures “were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor 10:11; cf. Rom 15:4). He approaches them, in other words, with an attitude of faith and hope that we can only admire.

However, we can no more imbibe Paul’s specific manner of interpretation than we can accept the cosmology of Genesis or the theology of Exodus 21. Methods appropriate in the ancient world, and which indeed in their time were often quite innovative, are not as appropriate in our world. In fact, their modes of interpreting, like their cosmology and theology, are aspects of their culture that we need to investigate, not in order to imitate them, but in order simply to understand them.

A major weakness of ancient interpretation was its tendency to mask the human aspects of the Bible’s characters and texts. Thus, for example, in Genesis (22:1-13), “God tested Abraham” because (as in Job) God was answering a challenge from Satan about human faith. God, of course, always knew that Abraham would be faithful – why else would God have chosen him? – but the test vindicated God’s wisdom.

Further, according to the ancients, Abraham did not deceive Isaac, because in Genesis 22:8 what he says to his son is: “God Himself will provide. The lamb for the burnt offering is my son.” Everyone agrees that the latter verse actually reads, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” but that, of course, suggests deceit on Abraham’s part, and such views of the great patriarch were problematic; a solution had to be found (Kugel, How to Read the Bible, 12-13).

Similar ingenuity was practiced by Jewish and Christian interpreters for centuries. For those who might see circumcision, for example, as strange or barbaric, Philo explained that its true meaning had to do with, among other things, “the excision of the pleasures which delude the mind” (Special Laws, 1:9). St. Paul came up with an analogous spiritual interpretation in his debate with Jewish Christians in Rome (Rom 2:27-29). If the gospels appeared to contradict one another, Tatian (c. 120-173), in his Diatessaron, exemplified how interpreters might harmonize them. The interpretations were ingenious, and often very beautiful, but they rarely attended to the original intentions of the story-tellers or the contexts of the writers.

The midrashes, allegories and typologies of the ancients (and of today) have their own beauty, but it is quite erroneous to assume that they necessarily embody a more faithful approach to the text than may be found in historical criticism. Listening for God’s voice in Scripture is a matter of faith and spirituality, not merely method.

As a method, historical criticism lends itself to the sensitivities of faith, because its most fundamental aim is to hear the texts on their own terms. But what are those terms if they are not the terms of faith, confession and commitment?

Gerhard von Rad, a rigorous practitioner of historical criticism, makes this point well when he points out that

[t]wo pictures of Israel’s history lie before us, that of modern critical scholarship and that which the faith of Israel constructed,

and he goes on to say that both must be held in view, since

the kerygmatic [faith-proclaiming] picture [no less than the historical, derives from ancient Israel] and has not been invented.
(Old Testament Theology, 107-8).

Both pictures are important, because the kerygmatic view represents the discovery and assertion of God within history, while the critical view represents the human context (historical and cultural) within which God’s actions and revelations became known. Neither picture, of course, is perfect, but taken together they represent the most fundamental claim of faith, shared in differing ways by both Judaism and Christianity: that “the Word became flesh and pitched a tent (eskenosen) among us.”

Both pictures are essential, but the further point to be made is that both pictures are best attained through reading the texts carefully on their own terms. Let me illustrate what I mean through an analysis of Matthew’s description of the moment of Jesus’ death (27:51-54). Superficially, our text looks to be a historical account, since it deals with the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, but the presence of various miraculous phenomena indicate that far more may be at stake than a simple recording of events. Ancient historiography was never simply concerned with the facts, and biblical historiography was akin to what von Rad calls “historical poetry” which aims “to make the past become absolutely present” (Old Testament Theology, 109-12). Preachers need to keep this in mind, and avoid speaking of biblical events as though they took place just as reported; the texts are closer to sermons than histories, and making them histories confuses their purpose.

The sermon-character of Matthew’s account is clear from redactional analysis (i.e., analysis of the editing done by the writer). Like the other gospel-writers, Matthew was not content merely to report the facts of Jesus’ execution; every image aimed to bring out the “Word” character of the event. This is especially clear in Matthew’s introduction of an “earthquake” which opened the tombs of “the holy ones” who, “after his resurrection, went into the holy city and appeared to many.” The symbolism is palpable.

A further “great earthquake” is introduced by Matthew at the resurrection (28:2), accompanied by the descent of an angel who “rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” in an obvious sign of triumph over death. The symbolism of earthquakes was important for Matthew. Mark (4:37) and Luke (8:23) appropriately refer to the storm at sea as a lailaps (windstorm), but Matthew (8:24) says that what Jesus calmed was a seismos (earthquake), which is part of his turning that entire story into a lesson on the Lord being with the boat of the Church in the midst of the storms of the eschaton (see 1:23; 28:20).

Similarly, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, only Matthew (21:10) says that “the whole city quaked” (eseisthe). Matthew’s earthquakes symbolize “the end of the age” already present “now,” in Jesus. They are not history, but “Word.”

The Pontifical Biblical Commission has said that a historical-critical reading allows

the exegete to gain a better grasp of the content of divine revelation;

it can bring us close to the mind of the author (“Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” I.A.2). Such closeness can be uncomfortable, since historical criticism is merciless in pointing to the flawed humanity of the texts. But pointing to such flaws no more denies their divine origin than confessing our own faults denies ours.

Like the ancients, we live faith in the midst of history. As Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth (xv):

So if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method – indeed, faith itself demands this.”

Dr. Vincent Smiles is professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. Parts of the essay are excerpted from his recent book The Bible and Science.


20 responses to “Historical Criticism: Essential for the Interpretation of Scripture”

  1. Brendan Kelleher svd Avatar
    Brendan Kelleher svd

    Thank you Fr Ruff for putting this up on Pray Tell. I hope it gets a wide readership. Full of faith and commonsense. If there are any who wish to take this topic further may I recommend Daniel Harrington SJ’s “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?”, a Sheed and Ward book in the Come and See series, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). As a pastor, a preacher and teacher, my task is to help people to hear, pray and live the Word of God, and when you work as I do cross-culturally, in a culture that is as fas as you can imagine from the world that gave birth to the Bible, both responsible exegesis of the text and reading from faith are essential. I shall be sharing this blog entry as widely as possible through my Facebook page.

  2. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    This is perhaps one of the best articles I’ve read on the historical critical method in some time. “Both responsible exegesis of the text and reading from faith are essential” is indeed critical if we are to look critically at the Historical Critical Method of exegesis.
    Most preachers employ some aspects of hyperbole to make their point and even use actual stories or made up stories (parables) to bolster their points. As in the Sacred Scriptures, some times this can get a preacher in trouble. For example there is quite a controversy brewing over a Fundamentalist Baptist pastor’s rant at his obscure little church in North Carolina. As offensive as his rant is, the point he was making was about sin as he understands it as a fundamentalist. The story he uses to illustrate his point needs critical analysis and should rightly be called for what it is, but his desire to “save souls” from sin and damnation is what in fact he feels that he is called to do and that this is ultimately love and is the message of his sermon obscured by examples used. And of course the secular media seizes upon the example this preacher uses as it does with extreme examples in the Bible to denigrate the pastor, his church and the Christian message.
    Ultimately though, if used properly, the historical critical method of examining the Scriptures shows us the working of the Holy Spirit in the communities of faith that put into writing the Sacred Words we read and proclaim today. The fundamentals of the faith of these communities is what is important and normative for us today and is what is contained in all examples used by these communities parabolic or not to illustrate the inspired message.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      “this is ultimately love”

      I think you too neatly elide the power of rationalization to do evil, and commend the doing of evil, in the name of love. A lot of Jesus’ message was aimed at that kind of rationalization dynamic.

  3. Bill deHaas Avatar

    Gratified to see that you are positive towards this article. (do you read or use the historical critical method in more than just sermon writing? how about liturgical decisions? what does it say about the ROTR and “mutual enrichment”?)

    Despite your negative reaction to your seminary education (which you have stated often) which, surely, included this approach unlike almost all seminary education prior to VII.

    But (yes, there is always a but), was amused by this statement of yours – “….Most preachers employ some aspects of hyperbole to make their point and even use actual stories or made up stories (parables) to bolster their points. As in the Sacred Scriptures, some times this can get a preacher in trouble.”

    Now, think your blog and opinions – if only you would apply your own words to yourself. And yes, the “fundamentals of the faith of these communities is what is important, etc………” Guess you can shoehorn in things like ad orientem, where and how altars are to be renovated, kneeling for communion, etc. But, these don’t really seem like “fundamentals” especially if you use the historical critical method?

    1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      You’re forgetting Bill, that I loved my seminary experience but have moved out of the 1970’s and use the critical analysis that I was taught very well in the seminary to use, to judge that period of time now and embrace, critically though, the reform of the reform but in an eclectic way. 🙂

      1. Bill deHaas Avatar

        As you say, eclectic (as some stated much earlier, your version of cafeteria catholicism) – obviously, you don’t understand the “historical critical methodology” – it is definitely not “eclectic” – it is a rigorous use of primary data, facts, documents to arrive at a valid interpretation or action plan.

        “….embrace, critically though, the reform of the reform…..”

        As in: “What we need is liturgical reform on a major level and a rediscovery of the Church Militant and a crystal clear international Catholic identity and for these indeed Holy Mother Church can and should reach back only so far as the 1950’s to discover the recipe for that” – clearly you do not understand the historical critical method – guess your studies and use stopped after the 1970’s?

        Here is another example of your historical critical methodology – “….recommend beginning with a return to Latin for the official Introit, Offertory and Communion Antiphons of the Mass including the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei; all else in the language of one’s choice. I also recommend a return to meatless Fridays, Ember Days and the like. I recommend a stricter Lenten Discipline and more days of fast and abstinence. I recommend ad orientem and kneeling for Holy Communion and intinction as the norm for offering the Most Precious Blood. I recommend liturgies that are beautiful, with participation that is both active and contemplative. I recommend a return to the habit for religious, men and women and clerical attire for priests and deacons…..”

  4. Ann Riggs Avatar
    Ann Riggs

    I have long found it interesting how historical-critical methods, when used with the conviction of faith, have provided for us a truly christological method for understanding the Word made flesh, from texts of the revelatory Word expressed in human forms. True faith is not primarily believing historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth, but, reading the text enlightened by the Spirit, finding in Jesus the Christ the Word of the Father.

  5. Msgr Andrew Wadsworth Avatar
    Msgr Andrew Wadsworth

    Dr Mary Berry taught that the identification of certain scriptural texts with the celebrations of the temporal and sanctoral cycle was a very early phenomenon and constituted a sort of primitive liturgical kerygma. This obviously has important implications for the evolution of the chant, not least because it lends emphasis to the notion that it essentially arises from the text and is in itself a particular reading of the text.

  6. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Excellent article, Fr. Ruff. Please correct and enlighten me but my analysis of what you posit leaves us with a couple of levels:
    – first level: historical criticism points to the fact that NT writers understood the OT and re-interpreted based upon their encounter with the risen Christ – borrowing from the context of theologians that focus on the NT “completing” the OT or Christ completing (not replacing) the Jewish experience (thus, saying that the OT was in a different context & experience and meant something different given their faith experience at that time – so, not reading too much into the allegory)
    – second level: if we accept this method, then would suggest that we are left with a tension between the church/faith communities that continue to live and find “allegories” today and those who use the historical critical method to arrive and posit “set and agreed upon” meanings and interpretations. (isn’t this just another version of continuity vs. change).
    As Msgr Wadsworth just said – this method indicates what early Christian communities believed, lived, and wrote down (primitive kerygma). But, it leads to questions such as – does this mean that we “canonize” specific, identified kerygma, chants, liturgical expressions forever or does this focus, rather, on the method that includes the community, develops, changes.

    For lack of a clearer example (and I may be completely off) – do we use historical criticism to identify early liturgical texts, chants, rubrics that were deliberately connected to both temporal and sanctoral cycles and insist that these are part of our liturgical practice? or do we use the same approach but focus on how the early Kerygma was identified and expressed to their times/liturgical cycle and use this methodology in our own time/liturgical cycle?

  7. Msgr Andrew Wadsworth Avatar
    Msgr Andrew Wadsworth

    I suppose it depends on how fixed we believe the content of tradition (in this very particular respect) to be?

  8. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    Regarding both Allegory and Historical Criticism

    Prescience or foresight is a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future. The prescience person has a sort of “moving average” mentality (to borrow a statistician’s term) in which past, present, and future are one, bracketed together and moving along as the clock ticks. The process is continuous.

    The prudent person is one who constantly thinks of now as the moving concept in which past, present moment, and future are one organic unity. And this requires living by a sort of rhythm that encourages a high level of intuitive insight about the whole gamut of events from the indefinite past, through the present moment, to the indefinite future. One is at once, in every moment of time, historian, contemporary analyst, and prophet –not three separate roles. That is what the practicing leader is, every day of his or her life.

    Thoughts on Foresight-The Central Ethic of Leadership from
    Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership p. 37-40.

    History is never static; it is always our reinterpretation of what has happen in the light of what we know now, often with an eye of what might be coming down our road. As a social scientist I like history, but I know that facts need a theory, a vision and that history changes as both facts and theories change.

    Allegory is the interpretation of what has happened in the past in terms of all that has happened in the past, is happening now and will happen in the future. As an amateur theologian, I like allegory; if done well it is like multidimensional theory. But to do it very well, you need to be an expert in the present and future as well as of the past.

    Greenleaf entitled his thinking about foresight as an ethic for good reason. He though leadership was responsible for lack of foresight, i.e. it was necessary even the prudent thing to do, even though it had no guarantee.

  9. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    Pope Benedict XVI shows how the Historical Critical Method of studying the scriptures can be quite useful but also terribly flawed if not used in context with the “original institutions” of the Church including the development of Scripture in the Liturgy.

    I quote from another article below which on the internet does not give the name of the author, but the whole article is here:


    “Benedict shows that the original institutions of the Church – the canon of Scripture, the apostolic succession and tradition, and the rule of faith – were interrelated and ordered to the sacramental liturgy and mission of the Church. Contrary to the presumptions of historical criticism, the Church’s structures of authority, doctrine, and liturgy are not historical addenda overlaying or imposed on the Scriptures. In this way Benedict shows the fallacy of the modern exegesis’s methodological suspicion of what they dub as the Church‟s “interference” with the presumably pure original Word of Scripture. After all, without these ecclesial structures there would be no Scripture!”

    So it seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate for the Church in light of Benedict’s understanding of the transmission of Scripture to use allegory and read back into the Old Testament what she celebrates in the liturgy and the very mission of the Church.

  10. Mike McMahon Avatar

    The most recent issue of Pastoral Music (May 2012) focuses on the liturgical use of the Psalms. In his article, “What Do You Mean by That?,” Gordon E. Truitt very helpfullly addresses the subject of “sensus plenior,” drawing on the insights of both biblical scholars and on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Truitt proposes “not that we end with a critical study of the biblical text but that we begin there and build on what we can discover about the text. We are not limited by the original context or the text’s original meaning . . . It is, therefore, open to new interpretation . . . Reading the text, then, or proclaiming it in the liturgical assembly, becomes a dialogue that involves the original intent of the author (so far as we can discern it), the context of this text within the narrative that is the Bible, its reception by a believing tradition that has used the text in various ways, and current hearers who hear the text as communicated in all these layers, with all this rich tradition of interpretation, and who then try to interpret it and apply it to today’s circumstances.” The entire article is well worth a read.

  11. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

    Fr. Ruff asks:

    How much does modern Biblical criticism call into question the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament which runs all through Catholic liturgy?

    It could just as easily be put the other way around: “How much does the longstanding practice of the Church in interpreting scripture in this allegorical way in the liturgy call into question modern approaches that would seem to contradict it?”

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      You could put it the other way around, but at a rather high price.

      The papal magisterium, from Pius XII through Benedict XVI, has affirmed the historical critical method, so one would be questioning the judgment of about 70 years of magisterial teaching.

      Affirming allegorical interpretation and holding historical criticism subordinate to it could be a rejection of the synthesis between faith and reason so characteristic of Catholic theology, and affirmed especially by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

      Rejecting the fruits of contemporary scholarship, the fruits of modern historical research which has arisen especially since the Enlightenment(s), if pushed far enough, could turn the Catholic faith into a sectarian retreat from the modern world, which of course is at odds with Gaudium et spes at Vatican II.

      I’m not saying you’re doing all those things. But the danger is there, and it’s real.


    2. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

      Affirming allegorical interpretation and holding historical criticism subordinate to it could be a rejection of the synthesis between faith and reason so characteristic of Catholic theology, and affirmed especially by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

      Of course not, because if that were so, it would mean that affirming historical criticism and holding allegorical interpretation subordinate to it could be a rejection of the papal magisterium for a heck of a lot more than 70 years.

      Newer doesn’t equal better by default. Newer is not the standard by which we judge older.

      To see newer as calling into question, shaking, undermining, the older… this kind of scepticism as a default position is a bad (Enlightement rooted) way of doing theology and liturgy. It’s the opposite of the resourcement sought by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Rather we should see the historial criticism as expanding, explaining, extending.

      An earlier version of my May 30, 2012 – 9:59 am comment suggested that you were begging the question by the way you were putting it. I removed that because it seemed somewhat under-proved, only suggested, from what you had written. But now I’m more confident in that interpretation.

      1. Jim McKay Avatar
        Jim McKay

        Newer is not the issue, though it might be hard to distinguish. When Copernicus said the Earth goes around the Sun, his opinion had weight not because it was new, but because it made sense. It required new techniques of verification and evaluation, but the use and insight of those techniques were persuasive.

        Historical criticism is in a similar position, offering new techniques. But those are valued not because they are new, but because they are persuasive. They are based on ways of thinking that have proved their worth. The rationality of these techniques gives them priority over the less disciplined techniques of typology.

        There are many cautions that need to accompany this, but life is short. There is a sense in which newer is better, and it has to do with tradition and magisterium. What is being taught today by the magisterium has priority over what you think the magisterium taught in the past. There are even some who hold that whatever the Magisterium teaches today IS what the magisterium has always taught, such that any proposed opposition between historical teaching and current teaching is an illusion. Newer is better.

        Personally I do not see any great antipathy between typology and historical criticism. The first lesson everyone must learn is that they are limited by their own history and circumstances. Self criticism is the bedrock for criticizing others, and the consequent humility recognizes the possibility of value in the flawed.

  12. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    With every reading I rehearse for a liturgy I ask myself that same question. We have received from ancient and modern times many ways to read scripture in our assemblies. And as Dr. Smiles and Fr. Ruff point out, each has its advantages and disadvantages.

    Typology carried to an extreme becomes supersessionism. I do not look with complete favor on the decision on the lectionary taken in the 60’s, now set in stone, of restricting first readings to those that point in some way, sometimes with a stretch, to Christ. But without any covenant typology we might not be reading the Tanakh in our common prayer at all! Unless it had been in continual use as the “missale” of Christians as well as Jews, it would have been one among a number of other great books, such as Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue. Think what we would have lost!

    I have read in assemblies my share of Tanakh passages, and am glad to do so by finding there the same God who knows us and chooses us today – not to mention people who look a lot like us in their doubt and yet their determination to celebrate life. If I were to chant all or part of a reading, that might raise them to the level of doxology or suggest allegory – but that is more appropriate for Gospel passages, and I have heard very, very few readers who have that gift.

    Those of us who are have succeeded the persons once called “anagnostes” (lector or purveyor of inner knowledge) have to engage ourselves and our listeners, both with what God is doing in our midst and how people like us are receiving it. How? The genre matters a lot here. Wisdom and Sirach often sound like ad copy, Genesis like legend, Paul like a debater. Certainly we create our own civic allegories, such as “the city on the hill.” And since we, just as modern day Jews and everyone else, have appropriated these two old prayer books for our own prayer today, we are gifted enough to find ways to make them relevant for ourselves, just as the early Christians did.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      re:Paul Schlachter on May 30, 2012 – 1:17 pm

      Paul: Typology carried to an extreme becomes supersessionism.

      One could also say that “supercessionism carried to an extreme becomes typology”, as if your statement could be read bidirectionally. Not uncommonly, at least in my experience as a recovering traditionalist, neo/quasi-marcionites and even those who harbor anti-semitism will insist that the Tanakh must be read typologically unless the Christian faith becomes “compromised”. Not a few Catholics fear that a shift from supersessionist typology to an acceptance of the Jewish faith akin to John Paul II’s analogy of Judaism as the stock upon which Christianity is grafted will dilute or cancel the uniqueness of Christ’s salvation history. To proclaim that Judaism still nourishes Christianity not only challenges the notion of “New Israel” but also, for some, the notion that Christianity is the only path to knowledge of God.

      Paul: But without any covenant typology we might not be reading the Tanakh in our common prayer at all! Unless it had been in continual use as the “missale” of Christians as well as Jews, it would have been one among a number of other great books, such as Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue. Think what we would have lost!

      Perhaps assemblies should read the “classics” of late antiquity. Often I have been criticized for claiming that the New Testament is not a serious, humorless book but rather narrative and rhetoric which is often humorous and rich with puns. The best way to understand this literary diversity is by reading contemporary authors of diverse genres.

      1. Paul Schlachter Avatar

        Excellent points, Jordan. Homilists, take note: we are ready and available to help in your interpreting role.

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