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Biblical Exegesis

Branch of theology which investigates and expresses the true sense of Sacred Scripture

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Exegesis (BIBLICAL) is the branch of theology which investigates and expresses the true sense of Sacred Scripture. The exegete does not inquire which books constitute Sacred Scripture, nor does he investigate their genuineness, nor, again, does he study their double authorship. He accepts the books which, according to the concurrent testimony of history and ecclesiastical authority, belong to the Canon of Sacred Scripture. Obedient to the decree of the Council of Trent, he regards the Vulgate as the authentic Latin version, without neglecting the results of sober textual criticism, based on the readings found in the other versions approved by Christian antiquity, in the Scriptural citations of the Fathers, and in the more ancient manuscripts. With regard to the authorship of the Sacred Books, too, the exegete follows the authoritative teaching of the Church and the prevalent opinions of her theologians on the question of Biblical inspiration. Not that these three questions concerning the Canon, the genuine text, and the inspiration of Sacred Scriptures exert no influence on Biblical exegesis: unless a book forms part, of the Canon it will not be the subject of exegesis at all; only the best supported readings of its text will be made the basis of its theological explanation; and the doctrine of inspiration with its logical corollaries will be found to have a constant bearing on the results of exegesis. Still, exegesis, as such, does not deal with these three subjects; the reader will find them treated in the articles Canon of the Holy Scriptures; Biblical Criticism. Subtitle: Criticism, Textual; and Inspiration of the Bible.

The early Reformers were wont to claim that the genuine text of the inspired and canonical books is self-sufficient and clear. This contention does not owe its origin to the sixteenth century. The words of Origen (De princip., IV), St. Augustine (De doctr. christ., I-III), and St. Jerome (ad Paulin., ep. liii, 6, 7) show that similar views existed among the sciolists in the early age of the Church. The exegetical results flowing from the supposed clearness of the Bible may be inferred from the fact that one century after the rise of the Reformation Bossuet could give to the world two volumes entitled, “A History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches”. A Protestant theologian, S. Werenfels, sets forth the same truth in a telling epigram:

Hic Liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque,
Invenit et pariter dogmata quisque sua,

which may be rendered in an English paraphrase:

Men ope this book, their favorite creed in mind;
Each seeks his own, and each his own doth find.

Agreeing with the warning of the Fathers, Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus”, insisted on the difficulty of rightly interpreting the Bible. “It must be observed”, he wrote, “that in addition to the usual reasons which make ancient writings more or less difficult to understand, there are some which are peculiar to the Bible. For the language of the Bible is employed to express, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, many things which are beyond the power and scope of the reason of man—that is to say, Divine mysteries and all that is related to them. There is sometimes in such passages a fullness and a hidden depth of meaning which the letter hardly expresses and which the laws of grammatical interpretation hardly warrant. Moreover, the literal sense itself frequently admits other senses, adapted to illustrate dogma or to confirm morality. Wherefore, it must be recognized that the Sacred Writings are wrapt in a certain religious obscurity, and that no one can enter into their interior without a guide; God so disposing, as the Holy Fathers commonly teach, in order that men may investigate them with greater ardor and earnestness, and that what is attained with difficulty may sink more deeply into the mind and heart; and, most of all, that they may understand that God has delivered the Holy Scriptures to the Church, and that in reading and making use of His word, they must follow the Church as their guide and their teacher.”

But it is not our purpose so much to prove the need of Biblical exegesis as to explain its aim, describe its methods, indicate the various forms of its results, and outline its history. Exegesis aims at investigating the sense of Sacred Scripture; its method is contained in the rules of interpretation; its results are expressed in the various ways in which the sense of the Bible is wont to be communicated; its history comprises the work done by Christian and Jewish interpreters, by Catholics and Protestants. We shall endeavor to consider these various elements under the four heads: I. Sense of Sacred Scripture; II. Hermeneutics; III. Sacred Rhetoric; IV. History of Exegesis.


In general, the sense of Sacred Scripture is the truth actually conveyed by it. We must well distinguish between the sense and the signification of a word. A good dictionary will give us, in the case of most words, a list of their various possible meanings or significations; but no reader will be tempted to believe that a word has all these meanings wherever it occurs. The context or some other restrictive element will determine the meaning in which each word is used in any given passage, and this meaning is the sense of the word. The signification of the word is its possible meaning; the sense of a word is its actual meaning in any given context. A sentence, like a word, may have several possible significations, but it has only one sense or meaning intended by the author. Here, again, the signification denotes the possible meaning of the sentence, while the sense is the meaning which the sentence here and now conveys. In the case of the Bible, it must be kept in mind that God is its author, and that God, the Sovereign Lord of all things, can manifest truth not merely by the use of words, but also by disposing outward things in such a way that one is the figure of the other. In the former case we have the literal sense; in the latter, the typical (cf. St. Thomas, Quodl., vii, Q. vi, a. 14).

(1) Literal Sense
(i) What is the Literal Sense?

The literal sense of Sacred Scripture is the truth really, actually, and immediately intended by its author. The fact that the literal sense must be really intended by the author distinguishes it from the truth conveyed by any mere accommodation. This latter applies a writer’s language, on the ground of analogy, to something not originally meant by him. Again, since the literal sense is actually intended by the writer, it differs from the meaning conveyed only virtually by the text. Thus the reader may come to know the literary capacity of the author from the style of his writing; or he may draw a number of logical inferences from the writer’s direct statements; the resultant information is in neither case actually intended by the writer, but it constitutes the so-called derivative or consequent sense. Finally, the literal sense is limited to the meaning immediately intended by the writer, so that the truth mediately expressed by him does not fall within the range of the literal sense. It is precisely in this point that the literal sense differs from the typical. To repeat briefly, the literal sense is not an accommodation based on similitude or analogy; it is not a mere inference drawn by the reader; it is not an antitype corresponding to the immediate contents of the text as its type; but it is the meaning which the author intends to convey really, not by a stretch of the imagination; actually, not as a syllogistic potency; and immediately, i.e., by means of the language, not by means of the truth conveyed by the language.

(ii) Division of the Literal Sense

What has been said about the immediate character of the literal sense must not be misconstrued in such a way as to exclude figurative language from its range. Figurative language is really a single, not a double, sign of the truth it conveys. When we speak of “the arm of God“, we do not imply that God really is endowed with such a bodily member, but we directly denote his power of action (St. Thomas, Summa, I, Q. i, a. 10, ad 3). This principle applies not merely in the metaphor, the synecdoche, the metonymy, or the irony, but also in those cases in which the figure extends through a whole sentence or even an entire chapter or book. The very name allegory implies that the real sense of the expression differs from its usual verbal meaning. In Matt., v, 13 sqq., e.g., the sentence, “You are the salt of the earth” etc., is not first to be understood in its non-figurative sense, and then in the figurative; it does not first class the Apostles among the mineral kingdom, and then among the social and religious reformers of the world, but the literal meaning of the passage coincides with the truth conveyed in the allegory. It follows, therefore, that the literal sense comprises both the proper and the figurative. The fable, the parable, and the example must also be classed among the allegorical expressions which signify the intended truth immediately. It is true that in the passage according to which the trees elect a king (Judges, ix, 6-21), in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke, xv, 11 sqq.), and in the history of the Good Samaritan (Luke, x, 25-37) a number of words and sentences are required in order to construct the fable, the parable, and the example respectively; but this does not interfere with the literal or immediate sense of the literary devices. As such they have no meaning independent of, or prior to, the moral lesson which the author intends to convey by their means. It is easily granted that the mechanical contrivance we call a watch immediately indicates the time in spite of the subordinate action of its spring and wheels; why, then, should we question the truth that the literary device called fable, or parable, or example, immediately points out its moral lesson, though the very existence of such a device presupposes the use of a number of words and even sentences?

(iii) Ubiquity of the Literal Sense

The Fathers of the Church were not blind to the fact that the literal sense in some Scripture passages appears to imply great incongruities, not to say insuperable difficulties. On the other hand, they regarded the language of the Bible as truly human language, and therefore always endowed with a literal sense, whether proper or figurative. Moreover, St. Jerome (in Is., xiii, 19), St. Augustine (De tent. Abrah. serm. ii, 7), St. Gregory (Moral., i, 37) agree with St. Thomas (Quodl., vii, Q. vi, a. 14) in his conviction that the typical sense is always based on the literal and springs from it. Hence if these Fathers had denied the existence of a literal sense in any passage of Scripture, they would have left the passage meaningless. Where the patristic writers appear to reject the literal sense, they really exclude only the proper sense, leaving the figurative. Origen (Deprinc., IV, xi) may be regarded as the only exception to this rule; since he considers some of the Mosaic laws as either absurd or impossible to keep, he denies that they must be taken in their literal sense. But even in his case, attempts have been made to give to his words a more acceptable meaning (cf. Vincenzi, “In S. Gregorii Nysseni et Origenis scripta et doctrinam nova recensio”, Rome, 1864, vol. II, cc. xxvxxix). The great Alexandrian Doctor distinguishes between the body, the soul, and the spirit of Scripture. His defendants believe that he understands by these three elements its proper, its figurative, and its typical sense respectively. He may, therefore, with impunity deny the existence of any bodily sense in a passage of Scripture without injury to its literal sense. But it is more generally admitted that Origen went astray on this point, because he followed Philo’s opinion too faithfully.

(iv) Is the Literal Sense One or Multiple?

There is more solid ground for a diversity of opinion concerning the unicity of the literal sense contained in each passage of Sacred Scripture. This brings us face to face with a double question: (a) Is it possible that a Scripture passage has more than one literal sense? (b) Is there any Biblical text which actually has more than one literal meaning? It must be kept in mind that the literal sense is taken here in the strict meaning of the word. It is agreed on all sides that a multiple consequent sense or a multiple accommodation may be regarded as the rule rather than the exception. Nor is there any difficulty about the multiple literal sense found in various readings or in different versions of the same text; we ask here whether one and the same genuine Scripture text may have more than one literal sense.

(a) Possibility of a Multiple Literal Sense.—Since a word, and a sentence too, may have more meanings than one, there is no a priori impossibility in the idea that a Scriptural text should have more than one literal sense. If the author of Scripture really intends to convey the truth contained in the various possible meanings of a text, the multiple literal sense will be the natural resultant: Some of the expressions found in the writings of the Fathers seem to emphasize the possibility of having a multiple literal sense in Sacred Scripture.

(b) Actual Occurrence of a Multiple Literal Sense.—The subject becomes more complicated if we ask whether a multiple literal sense is not merely possible, but is actually found anywhere in Scripture. There is no good authority for its frequent occurrence; but does it really exist even in the few Scriptural passages which seem to contain it, such as Ps. ii, 7; Is., liii, 4, 8; Dan., ix, 27; John, xi, 51; ii, 19? Did God wish in these texts to convey a multiple literal sense? Revelation, as coming down to us in Scripture and tradition, furnishes the only clue to the solution of the question.

(a) Arguments for the Multiple Literal Sense.—The advocates of a multiple literal sense advance the following arguments for their view: First, Sacred Scripture supposes its existence in several passages. Thus Heb., i, 5, understands Ps. ii, 7 (this day have I begotten thee), of the Divine generation of the Son; Acts, xiii, 33, understands the text of the Resurrection; Heb., v, 5, of the eternal priesthood of Christ. Again, the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint, together with I Pet., ii, 24, understand Is. liii, 4 (he hath borne our infirmities), of our sins; Matt., viii, 17, understands the words of our bodily ailments. And again, I Mach., i, 57, applies some words of Dan., ix, 27, to his own subject, while Matt., xxiv, 15, represents them as a prophecy to be fulfilled in the destruction of the Holy City. Finally, John, ii, 19, was understood by the Jews in a sense different from that intended by Jesus Christ; and John, xi, 51, expresses two disparate meanings, one intended by Caiphas and the other by the Holy Ghost. The second argument is, that tradition too upholds the existence of a multiple sense in several passages of the Bible. Its witnesses are St. Augustine (Conf., XII, xxvi, xxx, xxxi; De doctr. christ., III, xxvii; etc.), St. Gregory the Great (in Ezech., iii, 13, Lib. I, hom. x, n. 30 sq.), St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Bernard, and, among the Scholastics, St. Thomas (I, Q. i, a. 10; “De potent.”, IV, 1; “in II sent.”, dist. xii, Q. i, a. 2, ad 7), Card. Cajetan (ad I, Q. i, a. 10), Melchior Cano (Loc. theol., Lib. II, c. xi, ad 7 arg., ad 3 rat.), Banez (ad I, Q. i, a. 10), Sylvius (ad id.), John of St. Thomas (I, Q. i, disp. ii, a. 12), Billuart (De reg. fidei, dissert. i, a. 8), Vasquez, Valentia, Molina, Serrarius, Cornelius a Lapide, and others.

(b) Reasons against the Multiple Literal Sense.—Patrizi, Beelen, Lamy, Comely, Knabenbauer, Reitmayr, and the greater number of recent writers deny the actual existence of a multiple literal sense in the Bible; they urge the following reasons for their opinion: First, the Bible is written in human language; now, the language of other books usually presents only one literal sense. Second, the genuine sense of Sacred Scripture must be discovered by means of the rules of hermeneutics. A commentator would render these rules meaningless, if he were to look for a second literal sense of a passage after discovering one true meaning by their means. Third, commentators implicitly assume that any given text of Scripture has only one literal sense; for after finding out the various meanings which are philologically probable, they endeavor to ascertain which of them was intended by the Holy Ghost. Fourth, a multiple literal sense would create equivocation and confusion in the Bible. Finally, the multiple sense in Scripture would be a supernatural fact wholly depending on the free will of God. We cannot know it independently of revelation; its actual occurrence must be solidly proved from Scripture or tradition. The patrons of the multiple literal sense have not thus far advanced any such proof.

(I) Where Scripture appeals to disparate meanings of the same passage, it does not necessarily consider each of them as the literal sense. Thus Heb., i, 5, may represent Ps. ii, 7, as referring literally to the eternal generation, but Acts, xiii, 33, may consider the Resurrection, and Hebr., v, 5, the eternal priesthood of Christ as necessary consequences. Matt., viii, 17, applies the consequent sense of Is., liii, 4, to the cure of bodily ailments; I Mach., i, 57, merely accommodates some words of Dan., ix, 27, to the writer’s own time; in John, ii, 19, and xi, 51, only the meaning intended by the Holy Ghost is the literal sense, though this may not have been understood when the words in question were spoken. (2) The testimony of the Fathers and the Scholastic theologians is not sufficient in our case to prove the existence of a dogmatic tradition as to the actual occurrence of the multiple literal sense in Scripture. There is no trace of it before the time of St. Augustine; this great Doctor proposes his view not as the teaching of tradition, but as a pious and probable opinion. The expressions of the other Fathers, excepting perhaps St. Gregory the Great, urge the depth and wealth of thought contained in Scripture, or they refer to meanings which we technically call its typical, derivative, or consequent sense, and perhaps even to mere accommodations of certain passages. Among the Scholastics, St. Thomas follows the opinion of St. Augustine, at least in one of the alleged passages (De potent., IV, 1), and a number of the later Scholastics follow the opinion of St. Thomas. The other early Scholastics maintain rather the opposite view, as may be seen in St. Bonaventure (IV Sent. dist. xxi, p. I, dub. 1) and Alexander of Hales (Summa, I, Q. i, m. 4, a. 2).

(v) The Derivative or Consequent Sense

The consequent or derivative sense of Scripture is the truth legitimately inferred from its genuine meaning. It would be wrong to identify the consequent sense with the more latent literal sense. This depth of the literal sense may spring from the fact that the predicate changes somewhat in its meaning if it be applied to totally different subjects. The word wise has one meaning if predicated of God, and quite another if predicated of created beings. Such a variety of meaning belongs to the literal meaning in the strict sense of the word. The consequent sense may be said to be the conclusion of a syllogism one of whose premises is a truth contained in the Bible. Such inferences can hardly be called the sense of a book written by a human author; but God has foreseen all the legitimate conclusions derived from Biblical truths, so that they may be said, in a certain way, to be His intended meaning. The Bible itself makes use of such inferences as if they were based on Divine authority. St. Paul (I Cor., i, 31) quotes such an inference based on Jer., ix, 23, 24, with the express addition, “as it is written”; in I Cor., ix, 10, 11, he derived the consequent sense of Deut., xxv, 4, indicating the second premise, while in I Tim., v, 18, he states the consequent sense of the same passage without adding the second premise. Theologians and ascetical writers have, therefore, a right to utilize dogmatic and moral inferences from the genuine sense of Sacred Scripture. The writings of the Fathers illustrate this principle most copiously.

(vi) Accommodation

By accommodation the writer’s words are applied, on the ground of analogy, to something not originally meant by him. If there be no analogy between the original and the imposed meaning, there is no accommodation of the passage, but rather a violent perversion of its true meaning; such a contorted meaning is not merely outside, but against, the genuine sense. Accommodation is usually divided into two classes: extensive and allusive. Extensive accommodation takes the words of the Bible in their genuine sense, but applies them to a new subject. Thus the words, he “was found perfect, just, and in the time of wrath he was made a reconciliation”, which Ecclus., xliv, 17, predicates of Noe, are often applied to other saints.. Allusive accommodation does not employ the words of Scripture in their genuine sense, but gives them an entirely different meaning; here the analogy does not exist between the objects, but between the verbal expressions. Ps. xvii, 26, 27, “With the holy, thou wilt be holy; and with the innocent man thou wilt be innocent; and with the elect thou wilt be elect: and with the perverse thou wilt be perverted”, expresses originally the attitude of God to the good and the wicked; but by accommodation these words are often used to show the influence of companionship. That the use of accommodation is legitimate, may be inferred from its occurrence in Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers, and from its very nature. Examples of accommodation in Scripture may be found in Matt., vii, 23 (cf. Ps. vi, 9), Rom., x, 18 (cf. Ps. xviii, 5), II Cor., viii, 15 (cf. Ex., xvi, 18), Heb., xiii, 5 (cf. Jos., i, 5), Apoc., xi, 4 (cf. Zach., iv, 14). The liturgical books and the writings of the Fathers are so replete with the use of accommodation that it is needless to refer to any special instances. Finally, there is no good reason for interdicting the proper use of accommodation, seeing that it is not wrong in itself and that its use does not involve any inconvenience as far as faith and morals are concerned. But two excesses are to be avoided: first, it cannot be maintained, that all the citations from the Old Testament which are found in the New are mere accommodations. Similar contentions are found in the writings of those who endeavor to destroy the value of the Messianic prophecies; they are not confined to our days, but date back to Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Socinians. The Fifth Ecumenical Synod rejected the error of Theodore; besides, Christ Himself (Matt., xxii, 41 sq.; cf. Ps. cix, 1), St. Peter (Acts, iii, 25 sq.; cf. Gen., xii, 3; xviii, 18; xxii, 18), and St. Paul (Heb., i, 5; v, 5; Acts, xiii, 33; cf. Ps. ii, 7) base theological arguments on Old Testament citations, so that these latter cannot be regarded as mere accommodations. Secondly, we must not exceed the proper limits in the use of accommodation. This we should do, if we were to present the meaning derived from accommodation as the genuine sense of Scripture, or if we were to use it as the premise in an argument, or again if we were to accommodate the words of Scripture to ridiculous, absurd, or wholly disparate subjects. The fourth session of the Council of Trent warns most earnestly against such an abuse of Sacred Scripture.

(2) Typical Sense

The typical sense has its name from the fact that it is based on the figurative or typical relation of Biblical persons, or objects, or events, to a new truth. This latter is called the antitype, while its Biblica correspondent is named the type. The typical sense is also called the spiritual, or mystical, sense: mystical, because of its more recondite nature; spiritual, because it is related to the literal, as the spirit is related to the body. What we call type is called shadow, allegory, parable, by St. Paul (cf. Rom., v, 14; I Cor., x, 6; Heb., viii, 5; Gal., iv, 24; Heb., ix, 9); once he refers to it as antitype (Heb., ix, 24), though St. Peter applies this term to the truth signified (I Pet., iii, 21). Various other designations for the typical sense have been used by the Fathers of the Church; but the following questions are of more vital importance.

(i) Nature of the Typical Sense.—The typical sense is the Scriptural truth which the Holy Ghost intends to convey really, actually, but not immediately. Inasmuch as its meaning is really conveyed, the typical sense differs from accommodation; inasmuch as its meaning is actually expressed, it differs from the consequent sense; inasmuch as its meaning is not immediately signified, it differs from the literal sense. While we arrive at the latter immediately by way of the literary expression, we come to know the typical sense only by way of the literal. The text is the sign conveying the literal sense, but the literal sense is the sign expressing the typical. The literal sense is the type which by a special design of God is directed to signify its antitype. Three conditions are necessary to constitute a type: (a) It must have its own true and historical existence independently of the antitype; e.g., the intended immolation of Isaac would be an historical fact, even if Jesus Christ had not died. (b) It must not be referred to the antitype by its very nature. This prohibits the similitude from serving as a type, on account of its antecedent likeness to its object. (c) God himself must have established the reference of the type to its antitype; this excludes objects which are only naturally related to others. The necessity of these three conditions explains why a type cannot be confounded with a parable, or an example, or a symbol, or a similitude, or a comparison, or a metaphor, or a symbolic prophecy—e.g., the statue seen in the dream of Nabuchodonosor. It should be added, however, that at times the type may be expressed by the Scriptural representation of a subject rather than by the strict literal sense of Scripture. Gen., xiv, 18, e.g., introduces Melchisedech without reference to his genealogy; hence Heb., vii, 3, represents him “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life”, and makes him as such a type of Jesus Christ. Thus far we have spoken about the typical sense in its strict sense. In a wider sense, all persons, events, or objects of the Old Testament are sometimes considered as types, provided they resemble persons, events, or objects in the New Testament, whether the Holy Ghost has intended such a relationship or not. The Egyptian Joseph is in this way frequently represented as a type of St. Joseph, the foster-father of Christ.

(ii) Division of the Typical Sense.—The division of the typical sense is based on the character of the type and the antitype. The antitype is either a truth to be believed, or a boon to be hoped for, or again a virtue to be practiced. This gives us a triple sense—the allegorical, the anagogical, and the tropological, or moral. The objects of faith in the Old Testament centered mainly around the future Messias and his Church. The allegorical sense may, therefore, be said to refer to the future or to be prophetic. The allegory here is not to be sought in the literary expression, but in the persons or things expressed. This division of the typical sense was expressed by the Scholastics in two lines:

Littera gesta docet; quid credas, allegoria;
Moralis quid agas; quo tendas, anagogia.

Jerusalem, e.g., according to its literal sense, is the Holy City; taken allegorically, it denotes the Church Militant; understood tropologically, it stands for the just soul; finally, in its anagogical sense, it stands for the Church Triumphant. If the division of the typical sense be based on the type rather than the antitype, we may distinguish personal, real, and legal types. They are personal if a person is chosen by the Holy Ghost as the sign of the truth to be conveyed. Adam, Noe, Melchisedech, Moses, Josue, David, Solomon, and Jonas are types of Jesus Christ; Agar with Ismael, and Sara with Isaac are respectively the types of the Old and the New Testament. The real types are certain historical events or objects mentioned in the Old Testament, such as the paschal lamb, the manna, the water flowing from the rock, the brazen serpent, Sion, and Jerusalem. Legal types are chosen from among the institutions of the Mosaic liturgy, e.g., the tabernacle, the sacred implements, the sacraments and sacrifices of the Old Law, its priests and Levites.

(iii) The Existence of the Typical Sense.—Scripture and tradition agree in their testimony for the occurrence of the typical sense in certain passages of the Old Testament. Among the Scriptural texts which establish the typical sense, we may appeal to Col., ii, 16-17; Heb., viii, 5; ix, 8-9; Rom., v, 14; Gal., iv, 24; Matt., ii, 15 (cf. Os., xi, 1); Heb., i, 5 (cf. II K., vii, 14). The testimony of tradition concerning this subject may be gathered from Barnabas (Ep., 7, 8, 9, 12, etc.), St. Clement of Rome (I Cor., xii), St. Justin (Dial. c. Tryph., civ, 42), St. Irenaeus (Adv. haer., IV, xxv, 3; II, xxiv, 2 sqq.; IV, xxvi, 2), Tertullian (Adv. Marc., V, vii), St. Jerome (Ep. liii, ad Paulin., 8), St. Thomas (I, Q. i, a. 10), and a number of other patristic writers and Scholastic theologians. That the Jews agree with the Christian writers on this point, may be inferred from Josephus (Antiq., XVII, iii, 4; Prooem. Antiq., n. 4; III, vi, 4, 77; De bello Jud., V, vi, 4), the Talmud (Berachot, c. v, ad fin.; Quiddus, fol. 41, col. 1), and the writings of Philo (de Abraham; de migrat. Abrahae; de vita contempl.), though this latter writer goes to excess in the allegorical interpretation. The foregoing tradition may be confirmed by the language of the liturgy and by the remains of Christian archaeology (Kraus, “Roma sotterranea,” pp. 242 sqq.). Striking instances of the liturgical proof may be seen in the Preface of the Mass for Easter, in the Blessing of the Paschal Candle, and in the Divine Office recited on the feast of Corpus Christi. All Catholic interpreters readily grant that in some passages of the Old Testament we have a typical sense besides the literal; but this does not appear to be granted with regard to the New Testament, at least not subsequently to the death of Jesus Christ. Distinguishing between the New Testament as it signifies a collection of books, and the New Testament as it denotes the Christian economy, they grant that there are types in the New Testament books, but only as far as they refer to the pre-Christian economy. For the New Testament has brought us the reality in place of the figure, light in place of darkness, truth in place of shadow (cf. Patrizi, “De interpretatione Scripturarum Sacrarum”, p. 199, Rome, 1844). On the other hand, it is urged that the New Testament is the figure of glory, as the Old Testament was the figure of the New (St. Thom., Summa, I, Q. i, a. 10). Again, in Scripture the literal sense applies to what precedes, the typical to what follows. Now, even in the New Testament Christ and His Body precedes the Church and its members; hence, what is said literally of Christ or His Body, may be interpreted allegorically of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, tropologically of the virtuous acts of the Church‘s members, anagogically of their future glory (St. Thom., Quodl., VII, a. 15, ad 5). Similar views are expressed by St. Ambrose (in Ps. xxx, n. 25), St. Chrysostom (in Matt., hom. lxvi), St. Augustine (in Joh., ix), St. Gregory the Great (Hom. in evang. Luc., xviii), St. John Damascene (De fide orth., iv, 13); besides, the bark of Peter is usually regarded as a type of the Church, the destruction of Jersualem as a type of the final catastrophe.

(iv) Has Everything in the Old Testament a Typical Sense?—If such passages as Luke, xxiv, 44, I Cor., x, 11, be taken out of their context, they suggest the ubiquity of the typical sense in the Old Testament; the context limits these texts to their proper range. If some of the Fathers, e.g. St. Augustine (De doct. christ., III, xxii) and St. Jerome (Ad Dard., Ep. cxxix, 6; Ep. ad Eptes. iii, 6), appear to assert the ubiquity of the typical sense, their language refers rather to the figurative than the spiritual sense. On the other hand, Tertullian (De resurrect. tarn., c. xx), St. Augustine (De civ. Dei., XVII, iii; C. Faust., XXII, xciv), St. Jerome (in Joann., c. i; cf. in Jer., xxvii, 3, 9; xxix, 14), and St. Thomas (Quodl., vii, a. 15, ad 5), explicitly reject the opinion which maintains that the whole of the Old Testament has a typical sense. The opposite opinion does not appeal to reason; what could be the typical sense, e.g., of the command to love the Lord our God (Deut., vi, 5)?

(v) How Can the Typical Sense be Known?—In the typical sense God does not merely select an existing person or object as the sign of a future person or object, but he directs the course of nature in such a way that the very existence of the’ type, however independent it may be in itself, refers to the antitype. Man, too, can, in one or another particular case, perform an action in order to typify what he will do in the future. But as the future is not under his complete control, such a way of acting would be ludicrous rather than instructive. The typical sense is, therefore, properly speaking, confined to Gods own book. Hence the criteria which serve for the interpretation of profane literature will not be sufficient to detect the typical sense. The latter is a supernatural fact depending entirely on the free will of God; nothing but revelation can make it known to us, so that Scripture or tradition must be regarded as the source of any solid argument in favor of the existence of the typical sense in any particular passage. Where the typical sense really exists, it expresses the mind of God as truly as the literal sense; but we must be careful against excess in this regard. St. Augustine is guilty of this fault in his spiritual interpretation of the thirty-eight years in John, v, 5, and of the one hundred and fifty-three fishes in John, xxi, 11. Besides, it must be kept in mind that not all the minutiae connected with the type have a definite and distinct meaning in the antitype. It would be useless labor to search for the spiritual meaning of every detail connected with the paschal lamb, e.g., or with the first Adam. The exegete ought to be especially careful in the admission of typical prophecies, and of anything that would resemble the method of the Jewish Cabbalists.

(vi) The Theological Value of the Typical Sense.—Father Perrone (Prael. theol. dogm., IX, 159) believes it is the common opinion of theologians and commentators that no theological argument can be based on the typical sense. But if we speak of the typical sense which has been revealed as such, or which has been proved as such from either Scripture or tradition, it conveys the meaning intended by God not less veraciously than the literal sense. Hence it furnishes solid and reliable premises for theological conclusions. The inspired writers themselves do not hesitate to argue from the typical sense, as may be seen in Matt., ii, 15 (cf. Os., xi, 1), and Heb., i, 5 (cf. II K., vii, 14). Texts whose typical sense is only probable yield only probable theological conclusions; such is the argument for the Immaculate Conception based on Est., xv, 13. If St. Thomas (Summa, I, Q. i, a. 10, ad 1; Quodlib., VII, a. 14, ad 4) and other theologians differ from our position on this question, their view is based on the fact that the existence of the types themselves must first be theologically proved, before they can serve as premises in a theological argument.


The interpretation of a writing has for its object to find the ideas which the author intended to express. We do not consider here the so-called authentic interpretation or the writer’s own statement as to the thought he intended to convey. In interpreting the Bible scientifically, its twofold character must always be kept in view: it is a Divine book, in as far as it has God for its author; it is a human book, in as far as it is written by men for men. In its human character, the Bible is subject to the same rules of interpretation as profane books; but in its Divine character, it is given into the custody of the Church to be kept and explained, so that it needs special rules of hermeneutics. Under the former aspect, it is subject to the laws of the grammatico-historical interpretation; under the latter, it is bound by the precepts of what we may call the Catholic explanation.

(1) Historico—Grammatical Interpretation

The grammatico-historical interpretation implies three elements: first, a knowledge of the various significations of the literary expression to be interpreted; secondly, the determination of the precise sense in which the literary expression is employed in any given passage; thirdly, the historical description of the idea thus determined. What has been said in the preceding paragraphs sufficiently shows the difference between the signification and the sense of a word or a sentence. The importance of describing an idea historically may be exemplified by the successive shades of meaning attaching to the concept of Messias, or of Kingdom of God.

(i) Significations of the Literary Expression. The signification of the literary expression of the Bible is best learned by a thorough knowledge of the so-called sacred languages in which the original text of Scripture was written, and by a familiar acquaintance with the Scriptural way of speaking.

(a) Sacred Languages.—St. Augustine (De doctr. christ., II, xi; cf. xvi) warns us that “the knowledge of languages is the great remedy against unknown signs. Men of the Latin tongue need two others for a thorough knowledge of the Divine Scriptures, viz. the Hebrew and the Greek, so that recourse may be had to the older copies, if the infinite variety of the Latin translators occasions any doubt.” Pope Leo XIII, in the Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus”, agrees with the great African Doctor in urging the study of the sacred languages. “It is most proper”, he writes, “that professors of Sacred Scripture and theologians should master those tongues in which the Sacred Books were originally written; and it would be well that church students also should cultivate them, more especially those who aspire to academic degrees. And endeavors should be made to establish in all academic institutions—as has already been laudably done in many—chairs of the other ancient languages, especially the Semitic, and of other subjects connected therewith, for the benefit principally of those who are intended to profess sacred literature.” Nor can it be urged that for the Catholic interpreter the Vulgate is the authentic text, which can be understood by any Latin scholar. The pontiff considers this exception in the Encyclical already quoted: “Although the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek is substantially rendered by the Vulgate, nevertheless wherever there may be ambiguity or want of clearness, the `examination of older tongues,’ to quote St. Augustine, will be useful and advantageous.” Recourse to the original text is considered the only scholarly approach to any great work of literature. A translation is never a perfect reproduction of the original; no language can fully express the thoughts conveyed in another tongue, no translator is capable of seizing the exact shades of all the truths contained in any work, and in case of Biblical versions, we have often good reason for doubt as to the genuineness of their readings.

(b) Scriptural Language.—The Scriptural language presents several difficulties peculiar to itself. First, the Bible is not written by one author, but presents in almost every book the style of a different writer. Secondly, the Bible was not written at a single period; the Old Testament covers the time between Moses and the last Old Testament writer, i.e. more than one thousand years, so that many words must have changed their meaning during this interval. Thirdly, the Biblical Greek is not the classical language of the Greek authors with whom we are acquainted; up to about fifteen years ago, Biblical scholars used to speak about New Testament Greek, they compiled New Testament lexicons, and wrote New Testament grammars. The discovery of the Egyptian papyri and other literary remains has broken down this wall of separation between the language of the New Testament and that of the time in which it was written; with regard to this point, our present time may be considered as a period of transition, leading up to the composition of lexicons and grammars that will rightly express the relation of the Biblical Greek to the Greek employed in profane writings. Fourthly, the Bible deals with the greatest variety of topics, requiring a corresponding variety of vocabulary; moreover, its expressions are often figurative, and therefore subject to more frequent changes of meaning than the language of profane writers. How are we to become acquainted with the Scriptural language in spite of the foregoing difficulties? St. Augustine (De doctr. christ., II, ix sqq.) suggests the continual reading of the Bible as the first remedy, so that we may acquire “a familiarity with the language of the Scriptures”. He adds to this a careful comparing of the Bible text with the language of the ancient versions, a process calculated to remove some of the native ambiguities of the original text. A third help is found, according to the same great Doctor, in the diligent reading of the works of the Fathers, since many of them formed their style by a constant reading of Holy Scripture (loc. cit., II, xiii, xiv). Nor must we omit to study the writings of Philo and Josephus, the contemporaries of the Apostles and the historians of their nation. They are helpful illustrations of the cultured language of the Apostolic time. The study of the etymology of the sacred languages is another means of becoming acquainted with the languages themselves. For a proper understanding of the etymology of Hebrew words, the knowledge of the cognate languages is requisite; but here it must be kept in mind that many derivatives have a meaning quite different from the signification of their respective radicals, so that an argument based on etymology alone is open to suspicion.

(ii) Sense of the Literary Expression.—After the foregoing rules have aided the interpreter to know the various significations of the words of the sacred text, he must next endeavor to investigate in what precise sense the inspired writer employed his expressions. He will be assisted in this study by attending to the subject-matter of the book or chapter, to its occasion and purpose, to the grammatical and logical context, and to the parallel passages. Whatever meaning of the literary expressions is not in keeping with the subject-matter of the book, cannot be the sense in which the writer employed it. The same criterion directs us in the choice of any particular shade of meaning and in the limitation of its extent. The subject-matter of the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, e.g., shows in what sense St. Paul used the expressions law and works of the law; the sense of the expressions spirit of God, wisdom and understanding, which occur in Ex., xxxi, 3, must be determined in the same way. The occasion and purpose of a book or of a passage will often determine whether certain expressions must be taken in their proper or figurative sense, whether in a limited or an unlimited extent. Attention to this point will aid us in explaining aright such passages as John, vi, 53 sqq.; Matt., x, 5; Heb., i, 5, 7; etc. Thus we shall understand the first of these passages of the real flesh and blood of Christ, not of their figure; we shall see the true import of Christ’s command contained in the second passage, “Go ye not into the way of the Gentiles, and into the city of the Samaritans enter ye not”; again, we shall appreciate the full weight of the theological argument in favor of the eternal generation of the Son as stated in the third passage, contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The context is the third aid in determining the precise sense in which each single word is used by the writer. We need not insist on the necessity of explaining an expression in accordance with its grammatical environment. The commentator must make sure of the grammatical connection of an expression, so as not to do violence to the rules of inflection or of syntax. The so-called poetical parallelism may be considered as constituting part of grammar taken in a wider sense. But the logical context, too, requires attention; a commentator must not explain any expression in such a sense as to make the author contradict himself, being careful to assign to each word a meaning that will best agree with the thought of the sentence, of the chapter, and even of the book. Still, it mast not be overlooked that the context is sometimes psychological rather than logical; in lyric poetry, in the words of the Prophets, or in animated dialogues, thoughts and sentiments are at times brought into juxtaposition, the logical connection of which is not apparent. Finally, there is a so-called optical context which is found in the visions of the Prophets. The inspired seer may perceive grouped together in the same vision events which are widely separated from each other in time and space.

The so-called real or verbal parallelisms will aid the commentator in determining the precise sense in which the inspired writer employed his words. In case of verbal parallelism, or in the recurrence of the same literary expressions in different parts of the inspired books, it is better to explain the language of Paul by that of Paul, the expressions of John by those of John, than to explain Paul by Matthew, and John by Luke. Again, it is more natural to explain an expression occurring in the Fourth Gospel by another found in the same book than by a parallel passage taken from the Apocalypse. Finally, it should be kept in mind that parallelism of thought, or real parallelism, is a more reliable aid in finding the exact sense of a passage than a mere material recurrence of a sentence or a phrase.

(iii) Historical Setting.—The inspired writers connected with their words the ideas which they themselves possessed, and which they knew to be intelligible to their contemporaries. When they spoke of a house, they expressed a habitation to which their contemporaries were accustomed, not a contrivance in use among the barbarians. In order to arrive at the precise sense of a passage, we must therefore bear in mind its historical setting, we must consult the testimony of history. The true sense of the Bible cannot be found in an idea or a thought historically untrue. The commentator must therefore be well acquainted with sacred history and sacred archaeology, in order to know, to a certain extent at least, the various customs, laws, habits, national prejudices, etc. under the influence of which the inspired writers composed their respective books. Otherwise it will be impossible for him to understand the allusions, the metaphors, the language, and the style of the sacred writers. What has been said about the historico-grammatical interpretation of Scripture is synopsized, as it were, in the Encyclical already quoted: “The more our adversaries contend to the contrary, so much the more solicitously should we adhere to the received and approved canons of interpretation. Hence, while weighing the meanings of words, the connection of ideas, the parallelism of passages, and the like, we should by all means make use of such illustrations as can be drawn from apposite erudition of an external sort.”

(2) Catholic Interpretation

Since the Church is the official custodian and interpreter of the Bible, her teaching concerning the Sacred Scriptures and their genuine sense must be the supreme guide of the commentator. The inferences which flow from this principle are partly negative, partly positive.

(i) Negative Directions.—The following directions are called negative not because they do not imply a positive attitude of mind or because they do not lead to positive results, but because they appear to emphasize at first sight the avoidance of certain methods of proceeding which would be legitimate in the exegesis of profane books. They are based on what the Church teaches concerning the sacred character of the Bible.

(a) Avoid Irreverence.—Since the Bible is God‘s own book, its study must be begun and prosecuted with a spirit of reverence and prayer. The Fathers insist on this need in many passages. St. Athanasius calls the Scriptures the fountain that quenches our thirst for justice and supplies us with the doctrine of piety (Ep. fest. xxxix); St. Augustine (C. Faust., XIII, xviii) wishes them to be read for a memorial of our faith, for the consolation of our hope, and for an exhortation to charity; Origen (Ep. ad Gregor. Neocaes., c. iii) considers pious prayer as the most essential means for the understanding of the Divine Scriptures; but he wishes to see humility joined with prayer; St. Jerome (In Mich., I, x) agrees with St. Augustine (De doctr. christ., III, xxxvii) in regarding prayer as the principal and most necessary aid for the understanding of the Scriptures. We might add the words of other patristic writers, if the alleged references were not clear and explicit enough to remove all doubt on the subject.

(b) No Error in Scripture.—Since God is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture, it can contain no error, no self-contradiction, nothing contrary to scientific or historical truth. The Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” is most explicit in its statement of this prerogative of the Bible: “All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily, as it is impossible that God Himself, the Supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.’ The Fathers agree with this teaching almost unanimously; we may refer the reader to St. Jerome (In Nah., I, iv), St. Irenaeus (C. hair., II, xxviii), Clement of Alexandria (Strom., VII, xvi), St. Augustine (“C. Faust.”, II, ii; cf. “In Ps. cxviii”, serm. xxxi, 5; “Ad Hier.”, ep. lxxxii, 2, 22; “Ad Oros. c. Prisc.”, xi), St. Gregory the Great (Praef. in Job, n. 2). The great African Doctor suggests a simple and radical remedy against apparent errors in the Bible: “Either my codex is wrong, or the translator has blundered, or I do not understand.”

But inerrancy is not the prerogative of everything that happens to be found in the Bible; it is restricted to what the inspired writers state as their own, unless they quote the words of a speaker who is infallible in his utterances, the words of an Apostle, e.g., or of a Divinely authorized speaker, whether angel or man (cf. Luke, i, 42, 67; ii, 25; II Mach., vii, 21), or again words regarded as having Divine authority either by Scripture (cf. I Cor., iii, 19; Gal., iv, 30) or by the Church (e.g., the Magnificat). Biblical words that do not fall under any of these classes carry merely the authority of the speaker, the weight of which must be studied from other sources. Here is the place to take notice of a decision issued by the Biblical Commission, February 13, 1905, according to which certain Scriptural statements may be treated as quotations, though they appear on the surface to be the utterances of the inspired writer. But this can be done only when there is certain and independent proof that the inspired writer really quotes the words of another without intending to make them his own. Recent writers call such passages “tacit” or “implicit” citations.

The inerrancy of Scripture does not allow us to admit contradictions in its statements. This is understood of the genuine or primitive text of the Bible. Owing to textual corruptions, we must be prepared to meet contradictions in details of minor importance; in weightier matters such discrepancies have been avoided even in our present text. Discrepancies which may appear to obtain in matters of faith or morals should put the commentator on his guard that the same Biblical expressions are not everywhere taken in the same sense, that various passages may differ from each other as the complete statement of a doctrine differs from its incomplete expression, as a clear presentation differs from its obscure delineation. Thus “works” has one meaning in James, ii, 24, another in Rom., iii, 28; “brothers” denotes one kind of relationship in Matt., xii, 46, quite a different kind in most other passages; John, xiv, 28, and x, 30, Acts, viii,12, and Matt., xxviii, 19, are respectively opposed to each other as a clear statement is opposed to an obscure one, as an explicit one to a mere implication. In apparent Biblical discrepancies found in historical passages, the commentator must distinguish between statements made by the inspired writer and those merely quoted by him (cf. I Kings, xxxi, 9, and II Kings, i, 6 sqq.), between a double account of the same fact and the narrative of two similar incidents, between chronologies which begin with different starting points, finally between a compendious and a detailed report of an event. Lastly, apparent discrepancies which occur in prophetical passages necessitate an investigation, whether the respective texts emanate from the Prophets as Prophets (cf. II Kings, vii, 3-17), whether they refer to the same or to similar subjects (the destruction of Jerusalem, e.g., and the end of the world), whether they consider their subject from the same point of view (e.g. the suffering and the glorious Messias), whether they use proper or figurative language. Thus the Prophet Nathan in his private capacity encourages David to build the Temple (II Kings, vii, 3), but as Prophet he foretells that Solomon will build the house of God (ibid., 13).

The inerrancy of Scripture excludes also any contradiction between the Bible and the certain tenets of science. It cannot be supposed that the inspired writers should agree with all the various hypotheses which scientists assume today and reject tomorrow; but the commentator will be required to harmonize the teaching of the Bible with the scientific results which rest on solid proof. This rule is clearly laid down by the Encyclical in the words of St. Augustine: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures, and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so” (De Gen. ad litt., I, xxi, xli). But the commentator must also be careful “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known” (St. August, in Gen. op. imperf., ix, 30). The Encyclical appeals here again to the words of the great African Doctor (St. August, de Gen. ad litt., II, ix, xx): “[The Holy Ghost] who spoke by them [the inspired writers], did not intend to teach men these things [i.e., the essential nature of the things of the visible universe], things in no way profitable unto salvation.” The pontiff continues: “Hence they… described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way, the sacred writers—as the Angelic Doctor reminds us (Summa, I, Q. lxx, a. 1, ad 3)—‚Äòwent by what visibly appeared’, or put down what God, speaking to men, signified in a way men could understand and were accustomed to.” In Gen., i, 16, e.g., the sun and the moon are called two great lights; in Jos., x, 12, the sun is commanded to stand still; in Eccl., i, 5, the sun returns to its place; in Job, xxvi, 11, the heavens are upheld by columns; in other passages the firmament appears solid and brazen, and God rides on the clouds of heaven.

Finally, the commentator must be prepared to deal with the seeming discrepancies between Biblical and profane history. The considerations to be kept in mind here are similar to those laid down in the preceding paragraph. First, not all statements found in profane sources can be regarded a priori as Gospel truth; some of them refer to subjects with which the writers were imperfectly acquainted, others proceed from party-feeling and national vanity, others again are based on imperfectly or only partially translated ancient documents. Secondly, the Bible does not ex professo teach profane history or chronology. These topics are treated only incidentally, in as far as they are connected with sacred subjects. Hence it would be wrong to regard Scripture as containing a complete course of history and chronology, or to consider the text of its historical portions above suspicion of corruption. Thirdly, we must keep in mind the words of St. Jerome (in Jer., xxviii, 10): “Many things in Sacred Scripture are related according to the opinion of the time in which they are said to have happened, and not according to objective truth”; and again (in Matt., xiv, 8): “According to the custom of Scripture, the historian relates the opinion concerning many things in accordance with the general belief at that time.” Father Delattre maintains (Le Criterium a l’usage de la Nouvelle Exegese Biblique, Liege, 1907) that according to St. Jerome the inspired writers report the public opinion prevalent at the time of the events related, not the public opinion prevalent when the narrative was written. This distinction is of greater practical importance than it, at first, seems to be. For Father Delattre only grants that the inspired historian may write according to sensible appearances, while his opponents contend that he may follow also the so-called historic appearances. Finally, the first two decisions of the Biblical Commission must be mentioned in this connection. Some Catholic writers had attempted to remove certain historical difficulties from the sacred text either by considering the respective passages as tacit or implied quotations from other authors, for which the inspired writers did not in any way vouch; or by denying that the sacred writers vouch, in any way, for the historical accuracy of the facts they narrate, since they use these apparent facts merely as pegs on which to hang some moral teaching. The Biblical Commission rejected these two methods by decrees issued respectively February 13 and June 23, 1905, adding, however, that either of them may be admitted in the case when, due regard being paid to the sense and judgment of the Church, it can be proved by solid argument that the sacred writer either really quoted the sayings or documents of another without speaking in his own name, or did not really intend to write history, but only to propose a parable, an allegory, or another non-historical literary concept.

(ii) Positive Directions.—St. Irenaeus represents the teaching of the early Church, when he writes that the truth is to be learned where the charismata of God are, and that Holy Scripture is safely interpreted by those who have the Apostolic succession (Adv. haer., IV, xxvi, 5). Vincent of Lerins appears to sum up the teaching of the Fathers on this subject when he writes that on account of the great intricacies of various errors it is necessary that the line of Prophetic and Apostolic interpretation be directed according to the rule of ecclesiastical and Catholic teaching. The Vatican Council emphasizes the decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. IV, De edit. et usu sacr. libr.) when it teaches (Constit. de fide cathol., c. ii) that “in things of faith and morals belonging to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be considered the true sense of Holy Scripture which has been held and is held by our Holy Mother the Church, whose place it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Scriptures; and therefore that it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or also against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers”. Hence flow the following principles.

(a) Defined Texts.—The Catholic commentator is bound to adhere to the interpretation of texts which the Church has defined either expressly or implicitly. The number of these texts is small, so that the commentator can easily avoid any transgression of this principle. The Council of Trent teaches that Rom., v, 12, refers to original sin (Sess. V, cc. ii, iv), that John, iii, 5, teaches the absolute necessity of the baptism of water (Sess. V, c. iv; Sess. VII, De bapt., c. ii), that Matt., xxvi, 26 sq. is to be understood in the proper sense (Sess. XIII, cap. i); the Vatican Council gives a direct definition of the texts, Matt., xvi, 16 sqq. and John, xxi, 15 sqq. Many more Scripture texts are indirectly defined by the definition of certain doctrines and the condemnation of certain errors. The Council of Nicaea, e.g., showed how those passages ought to be interpreted on which the Arians relied in their contention that the Word was a creature; the Fifth Oecumenical Council (II Constantinople) teaches the right meaning of many prophecies by condemning the interpretation of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

(b) Patristic Interpretation.—Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus”, repeats the principles concerning the authority of the Fathers laid down by the Vatican and Tridentine Councils: “The Holy Fathers, ‚Äòto whom, after the Apostles, the Church owes its growth—who have planted, watered, built, governed, and cherished it’ (August, C. Julian., II, x, 37)—the Holy Fathers, we say, are of supreme authority whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith.” Three conditions are, therefore, required in order that the patristic authority may be absolutely decisive: first, they must interpret texts referring to matters of faith or morals; secondly, they must speak as witnesses of Catholic tradition, not merely as private theologians; thirdly, there must be a moral unanimity in their interpretation. This unanimity is not destroyed by the silence of some of the foremost Fathers, and is sufficiently guaranteed by the consentient voice of the principal patristic writers living at any critical period, or by the agreement of commentators living at various times; but the unanimity is destroyed if some of the Fathers openly deny the correctness of the interpretation given by the others, or if they explain the passage in such a way as to render impossible the explanation given by others. But the Encyclical warns us to treat the opinion of the Fathers with reverence, even if there is no unanimity: “The opinion of the Fathers”, says the holy pontiff, “is also of very great weight when they treat of these matters in their capacity of doctors, unofficially; not only because they excel in their knowledge of revealed doctrine and in their acquaintance with many things which are useful in understanding the Apostolic books, but because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of his light.”

(c) The Analogy of Faith.—Here again the Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” is our guide: “In the other passages”, it reads, “the analogy of faith should be followed, and Catholic doctrine, as authoritatively proposed by the Church, should be held as the supreme law; for, seeing that the same God is the author both of the Sacred Books and of the doctrine committed to the Church, it is clearly impossible that any teaching can by legitimate means be extracted from the former, which shall in any respect be at variance with the latter.” This principle has a double influence on the interpretation of Scripture, a negative and a positive influence. First, the commentator cannot admit in Scripture a statement contrary to the teaching of the Church; on the other hand, the agreement of an explanation with the doctrine of the Church does not prove its correctness, since more than one explanation may agree with the ecclesiastical teaching. Secondly, the Catholic interpreter must explain the obscure and partial teaching of the Scriptures by the clear and complete teaching of the Church; the passages, e.g., which refer to the Divine and human nature of Christ, and to the power of binding and loosing, find their explanation and their complement in Catholic tradition and the conciliar definitions. And here we must keep in mind what the Encyclical adds concerning doctrine which comes down to us in a less authoritative channel: “The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honorable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties.”


The genuine teaching of Sacred Scripture is useful to all, but few have the time necessary to investigate it. It is for this reason that Scripture students express their results in writing so as to share their light with as many as possible. Sixtus Senensis [Bibliotheca sancta (Venice, 1575), I, pp. 278 sqq.] enumerates twenty-four various forms in which such Scriptural explanations may be expressed. But some of these methods are no longer in use; others may be reduced to fewer and more general heads. According to the end which the writer has in view, they may be divided into theoretical and practical or historico-dogmatic and moral treatises; considering the persons for whom they were written, they are either popular or learned expositions; but if their literary form be made the basis of division, which is the common and more rational principle of division, there are five kinds of Biblical exegesis: the version, the paraphrase, the gloss and scholion, the dissertation, and the commentary.

(1) The Version

The version is the translation of the Bible from one language into another, especially from its original into the vernacular language. A version made directly from the original text is called immediate, while it is mediate if it be based directly on another version. It is verbal if it renders the very words; in case it renders the meaning rather than the words, it is a free version. A good version must be faithful and clear, i.e. it must express the thought without any alteration; it must reproduce the literary form, whether it be prosaic or poetic, figurative or proper; and it must be easily intelligible, as far as the character of the two languages in question permits this. This shows the difficulty of making a good translation; for it implies not merely a thorough knowledge of the two languages, but also an accurate insight into the genuine meaning of Sacred Scripture.

(2) The Paraphrase

The paraphrase expresses the genuine sense of Scripture in continuous and more expansive form. The version removes the difficulties which arise from the fact that the Bible is written in a foreign language; the paraphrase elucidates also the difficulties of thought. For it supplies the transitions and middle terms omitted by the author; it changes the foreign and involved phraseology of the original into idiomatic sentences; it amplifies the brief statements of the original by adding definitions, indicating causes and reasons, and illustrating the text by reference to parallel passages. A good paraphrase must render the thought of the original most accurately, and must at the same time be brief and clear; there is danger, in this form of exposition, of rendering obscure what has been clearly said in the original text.

(3) The Gloss and Scholion

The version removes from the Scripture text the difficulties connected with the foreign language, the paraphrase elucidates the difficulties of thought; but there are still other difficulties connected with the Bible, which must be removed by means of notes. One kind of brief notes, called glosses, explains the difficulties connected with the words; another kind, called scholia, deals with variant readings, verbal difficulties, unknown persons, countries, and things, and with the connection of thought. Two celebrated series of glosses deserve special mention: the glossa ordinaria by Walafrid Strabo, and the glossa interlinearis by Anselm of Laon.

(4) The Dissertation

Origen, Eusebius, and St. Jerome were asked by their. contemporaries concerning certain difficult texts of Scripture; a similar need of special elucidations of particular passages has been felt by the faithful of all ages. The answers to such questions we may call dissertations or treatises. It is understood that only really important texts ought to be made the subject of such scholarly explanations. In order to satisfy the inquisitive reader, the essayist should examine the text critically; he should state its various explanations given by other writers and weigh them in the light of the principles of hermeneutics; finally, he should give the true solution of the difficulty, prove it by solid arguments, and defend it against the principal exceptions.

(5) The Commentary

The commentary is a continuous, full, learned, well-reasoned, and complete explanation, touching upon not merely the more difficult passages, but everything that stands in need of elucidation. Hence the commentator must discuss all the variants, state and prove the genuine sense of the book he explains, add all the necessary personal, geographical, historical, ethnical information, and indicate the sources whence it is drawn, harmonize the single sentences with each other and with the scope of the entire book, consider its apparent contradictions, and explain the sense in which its quotations from the Old Testament must be understood. With a view of securing an orderly exposition, the author should premise the various historico-critical studies belonging to the whole book; he should divide and subdivide the book into its principal and subordinate parts, clearly stating the special subject of each; he should, finally, arrange the various opinions concerning disputed questions in a neatly distributed list, so as to lighten the work of the reader. What has been said sufficiently shows the qualities which a well-written commentary ought to possess; it must be faithful in presenting the genuine sense of Scripture; it must be clear, complete, and brief; and it ought to show the private work of the commentator by the light it throws on the more complicated questions. The commentaries which consist of mere lists of the patristic views on the successive texts of Scripture are called Catenae (q.v.).

Perhaps the homily may be added to the foregoing methods of Biblical exposition. It is written in a popular way, and is of a practical tendency. It is not concerned with the subtile and more difficult questions of Scripture, but explains the words of a Biblical section in the order in which they occur. A more elevated kind of homily seizes the fundamental idea of a Scriptural section, and considers the rest in relation to it. The Church has always encouraged such homiletic discourses, and the Fathers have left a great number of them in their writings.


The history of exegesis shows its first beginnings, its growth, its decay, and its restoration. It points out the methods which may be safely recommended, and warns against those which rather corrupt than explain the Sacred Scriptures. In general, we may distinguish between Jewish and Christian exegesis.

(1) Jewish Exegesis

The Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures began almost at the time of Moses, as may be inferred from traces found both in the more recent canonical and the apocryphal books. But in their method of interpretation the Palestinian Jews differed from the Hellenistic.

(i) Palestinian Exegesis.—All Jewish interpreters agree in admitting a double sense of Scripture, a literal and a mystical, though we must not understand these terms in their strictly technical sense.

(a) The literal exposition is mainly represented by the so-called Chaldee paraphrases or Targumim, which came into use after the Captivity, because few of the returning exiles understood the reading of the Sacred Books in their original Hebrew. The first place among these paraphrases must be given to the. Targum Onkelos, which appears to have been in use as early as the first century after Christ, though it attained its present form only about A.D. 300-400. It explains the Pentateuch, adhering in its historical and legal parts to a Hebrew text which is, at times, nearer to the original of the Septuagint than the Massoretic, but straying in the prophetic and poetical portions so far from the original as to leave it hardly recognizable.—Another paraphrase of the Pentateuch is the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or the Jerusalem Targum. Written after the seventh century of our era, it is valueless both from a critical and an exegetical point of view, since its explanations are wholly arbitrary.—The Targum Jonathan, or the paraphrase of the Prophets, began to be written in the first century, at Jerusalem; but it owes its present form to the Jerusalem rabbis of the fourth century. The historical books are a fairly faithful translation from the original text; in the poetical portions and the later Prophets, the paraphrase often presents fiction rather than truth.—The paraphrase of the Hagiographa deals with the Book of Job, the Psalms, the Canticle of Canticles, Proverbs, Ruth, the Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Paralipomena. It was not written before the seventh century, and is so replete with rabbinic fiction that it hardly deserves the notice of the serious interpreter. The notes on Cant., Ruth, Lam., Eccles., and Esth. rest on public tradition; those on the other Hagiographa express the opinions of one or more private teachers; the paraphrase of Par. is the most recent and the least reliable.

(b) The method of arguing employed in the First Gospel and the Epistle to the Hebrews shows that the Jews before the coming of Christ admitted a mystical sense of Scripture; the same may be inferred from the letter of Pseudo-Aristeas and the fragment of Aristobulus. The Gospel narrative, e.g., Matt., xxiii, 16 sqq., testifies that the Pharisees endeavored to derive their arbitrary traditions from the Law by way of the most extraordinary contortions of its real meaning. The mystic interpretation of Scripture practiced by the Jewish scholars who lived after the time of Christ, may be reduced to the following systems.

(a) The Talmudists ascribed to every text several thousand legitimate meanings belonging either to the Halakhah or the Haggadah. The Halakhah contained the legal inferences derived from the Mosaic Law, all of which the Talmudists referred back to Moses himself; the Haggadah was the collection of all the material gathered by the Talmudists from history, archaeology, geography, grammar, and other extra-Scriptural sources, not excluding the most fictitious ones. In their commentaries, these writers distinguished a twofold sense, the proper, or primitive, and the derivative. The former was subdivided into the plain and the recondite sense; the latter, into logical deductions, and inferences based on the way in which the Hebrew words were written or on association of ideas. As to the hermeneutical rules followed by the Talmudists, they were reduced to seven by Hillel, to thirteen by Ismael, and to thirty-two by R. Jose of Galilee. In substance, many of these principles do not differ from those prevalent in our day. The interpreter is to be guided by the relation of the genus to the species, of what is clear to what is obscure, of verbal and real parallelisms to their respective counterparts, of the example to the exemplified, of what is logically coherent to what appears to be contradictory, of the scope of the writer to his literary production. The commentaries written according to these principles are called Midrashim (plural of Midrash); the following must be mentioned: Mekhilta (measure, rule, law) explains Ex., xii, 1-23, 30; xxxi, 12-17; xxxv, 1-4, and is variously assigned to the second or third century, or even to more recent times; it gives the Halakhah of the ceremonial rites and laws, but contains also material belonging to the Haggadah—Siphra explains the Book of Leviticus; Siphri, The Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy; Pesiqta, the Sabbatical sections.—Rabboth (plural of Rabba) is a series of Midrashim explaining the single books of the Pentateuch and the five Megilloth or the five Hagiographa which were read in the synagogues; the allegorical, anagogical, and moral sense is preferred to the literal, and the fables and sayings of the rabbis are highly valued.—Tanchuma is the first continuous commentary on the Pentateuch; it contains some valuable traditions, especially of Palestinian origin.—Yalqut Simoni contains annotations on all the books of the Old Testament.

(b) The Caraites are related to the Talmudists, as the Sadducees were related to the Pharisees. They rejected the Talmudic traditions, just as the Sadducees refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pharisaic teaching (cf. Joseph., Ant., XVIII, x, 6). The Caraites derive their origin from Anan, born about A.D. 700, who founded this sect out of spite, because he had not obtained the headship of the Jews outside Palestine. From Bagdad, the place of its birth, the sect soon spread into Palestine and especially into the Crimea, so that about A.D. 750 it occasioned what is practically a schism among the Jews. The Caraites reject all tradition, and admit only the Mosaic Law. By means of Ismael’s thirteen hermeneutical rules, they establish the literal sense of Scripture, and this they supplement by means of the syllogism and the consensus of the Synagogue. Owing to their rejection of authentic interpretation and their claim of private judgment, they have been called by some writers “Jewish Protestants”.

(ii) Hellenistic Exegesis.—Generally speaking, the Alexandrian Jews were favorable to the allegorical explanation of Scripture, thus endeavoring to harmonize the inspired records with the principles of Greek philosophy. Eusebius has preserved specimens of this Hellenistic exegesis in the fragments of Aristobulus (Hist. Eccles., VII, xxxii; Praepar. evang., VIII, x) and in the letter of Pseudo-Aristeas (Praepar. evang., VIII, ix), both of whom wrote in the second century B.C. Philo attests that the Essenes adhered to the same exegetical principles (De vit. contempl., x); but Philo (died A.D. 39) himself is the principal representative of this manner of interpretation. According to Philo, Abraham symbolizes virtue acquired by doctrine; Isaac, inborn virtue; Jacob, virtue acquired by practice and meditation; Egypt denotes the body; Chanaan, piety; the dove, Divine wisdom, etc. (De Abraham, ii).

The Cabbalists exceeded the preceding interpreters in their allegorical explanation of Scripture. Traces of their system are found in the last pre-Christian centuries, but its full development did not take place till the end of the first millennium of the Christian Era. In accordance with their name, from a word meaning “to receive”, the Cabbalists claimed to possess a secret doctrine received by way of tradition from Moses, to whom it had been revealed on Mount Sinai. They maintained that all earthly things had their heavenly prototypes or ideals; they believed that the literal sense of Scripture included the allegorical sense, as the body includes the soul, though only the initiated could reach this veiled meaning. Three methods helped to attain it: Gematria takes the numerical value of all the letters which make up a word or an expression and derives the hidden meaning from the resultant number; Notaricon forms new entire words out of the single letters of a word, or it forms a word out of the initial letters of the several words of a phrase; Temura consists in the transposition of the letters which make up a word, or in the systematic substitution of other letters. Thus they transpose the consonants of mal’akhi (my angel; Ex., xxiii, 23) into Mikha’el (Michael). There is a twofold system of substitution: the first, Athbash; substitutes the last letter of the alphabet for the first, the second last for the second, etc.; the second system substitutes the letters of the second half of the alphabet for the corresponding letters of the first half. The Cabbalistic doctrine has been gathered in two principal books, one of which is called “Yecirah”, the other “Zohar”.

We may add the names of the more prominent Jewish commentators: Saadya Gaon (b. 892; d. 942), in the Fayüm, Egypt, translated the whole of the Old Testament into Arabic and wrote commentaries on the same.—Moses ben Samuel ibn Chiqitilla, of Cordova, explained the whole of the Old Testament in Arabic, between A.D. 1050 and 1080; only fragments of his work remain. Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, known also under the names Rashi and Yarchi (b. about 1040, at Troyes; d. 1105), explained the whole of the Old Testament, except Par. and Esd., according to its literal sense, though he did not neglect the allegorical; he shows an anti-Christian tendency.—Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, often called Aben Ezra (b. about 1093 at Toledo, Spain; d. 1167 on the Island of Rhodes). Among his many other works he left an incomplete commentary on the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament; he renders the literal sense faithfully without excluding the allegorical, e.g. in Cant.—Rabbi David Kimchi, called also Radak (b. 1170 at Narbonne; d. 1230), explained nearly all the books of the Old Testament in the literal sense, without excluding the spiritual; his anti-Christian feeling shows itself in his treatment of the Messianic prophecies.—Rabbi Moyses ben Maimon, commonly called Maimonides or Rambam (b. 1135 at Cordova, Spain; d. 1204 in Egypt), became a convert to Mohammedanism in order to escape persecution, then fled to Egypt, where he lived as a Jew, and where, for the guidance of those who could not harmonize their philosophical principles with the teaching of Sacred Scripture, he wrote his celebrated “Guide of the Perplexed”, a work in which he presents some of the Biblical stories as mere literary expressions of certain ideas.—Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (d. 1508), explained the Pentateuch, the prophetical books, and Daniel, adding often irrelevant matter and arguments against Christian revelation.—Rabbi Elias Levita (d. after 1542), is known as one of the best Jewish grammarians, and as the author of the work “Tradition of Tradition”, in which he gives the history of Massoretic criticism.—Among the Caraite interpreters we must mention: Rabbi Jacob ben Ruben (twelfth century), who wrote brief scholia on all the books of Scripture; Rabbi Aaron ben Joseph (d. 1294), author of a literal commentary on the Pentateuch, the earlier Prophets, Isaias, the Psalms, and the Book of Job; Rabbi Aaron ben Elia (fourteenth century), who explained the Pentateuch.—Among the Cabbalists, Rabbi Moyses Nachmanides, also known as Ramban (d. about 1280), deserves mention on account of his explanation of the Pentateuch, which is several times quoted by Paul of Burgos.—The principal Jewish commentaries have been reprinted in the so-called Rabbinic Bibles which appeared at Venice, 1517; Venice, 1525, 1548, 1568, 1617; Basle, 1618; Amsterdam, 1724.

(2) Christian Exegesis

For the sake of clearness we may distinguish three great periods in Christian exegesis: the first ends about A.D. 604; the second brings us up to the Council of Trent; the third embraces the time after the Council of Trent.

(i) The Patristic Period.—The patristic period embraces three distinct classes of exegetes, the Apostolic and apologetical writers, the Greek Fathers, the Latin Fathers. The amount of exegetical literature produced by these three classes varies greatly; but its character is so distinctively proper to each of the three classes that we can hardly consider them under the same heading.

(a) The Apostolic Fathers and Apologists.—The early Christians made use of the Scriptures in their religious meetings as the Jews employed them in the synagogues, adding however the writings of the New Testament more or less completely to those of the Old. The Apostolic Fathers did not write any professional commentaries; their use of Scripture was incidental and casual rather than technical; but their citations and allusions show unmistakably their acceptance of some of the New Testament writings. Neither do we find among the apologists’ writings of the second century any professional treatises on Sacred Scripture. St. Justin and St. Irenaeus are noted for their able defense of Christianity, and their arguments are often based on texts of Scripture. St. Hippolytus appears to have been the first Christian theologian who attempted an explanation of the whole of Scripture; his method we learn from the remaining fragments of his writings, especially of his commentary on Daniel. It may be said in general that these earliest Christian writers admitted both the literal and the allegorical sense of Scripture. The latter sense appears to have been favored by St. Clement of Rome, Barnabas, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, while the literal seems to prevail in the writings of St. Hippolytus, Tertullian, the Clementine Recognitions, and among the Gnostics.

(b) The Greek Fathers.—The Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” refers mainly to the Greek Fathers when it says: “When there arose, in various sees, catechetical and theological schools, of which the most celebrated were those of Alexandria and of Antioch, there was little taught in those schools but what was contained in the reading, the interpretation, and the defense of the Divine written word. From them came forth numbers of Fathers and writers whose laborious studies and admirable writings have justly merited for the three following centuries the appellation of the golden age of Biblical exegesis.”

(a) The School of Alexandria.—Tradition loves to trace the origin of the Alexandrian School back to the Evangelist St. Mark. Be that as it may, towards the end of the second century we find St. Pantaenus president of the school; none of his writings are extant, but Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., V, x) and St. Jerome (De vir. ill., c. xxxvi) testify that he explained Sacred Scripture. Clement of Alexandria ranks him among those who did not write any book (Strom., I, i); he died before 200. His successor was Clement of Alexandria, who had first been his disciple, and after 190 his colleague. Of his writings are extant “Cohortatio ad Gentiles“, “Paedagogus”, and “Stromata”; also the Latin translation of part of his eight exegetical books (Migne, P.G., IX, 729-740). Clement was followed by Origen (b. 185; d. 254), the principal glory of the whole school. Among his works, the greater part of which is lost, his “Hexapla” and his threefold explanation of Scripture, by way of scholia, homilies, and commentaries, deserve special notice. It was Origen, too, who fully developed the hermeneutical principles which distinguish the Alexandrian School, though they are not applied in their entirety by any other Father. He applied Plato’s distinction of body, soul, and spirit to the Scriptures, admitting in them a literal, a moral, and a mystical or spiritual sense. Not that the whole of Scripture has this triple sense. In some parts the literal sense may be neglected, in others the allegorical may be lacking, while in others again the three senses may be found. Origen believes that the apparent discrepancies of the Evangelists can be explained only by means of the spiritual sense, that the whole ceremonial and ritual law must be explained mystically, and that all the prophetic utterances about Judea, Jerusalem, Israel, etc., are to be referred to the Kingdom of Heaven and its citizens, to the good and bad angels, etc. Among the eminent writers of the Alexandrian School must be classed Julius Africanus (c. 215), St. Dionysius the Great (d. 265), St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. 270), Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340), St. Athanasins (d. 373), Didymus of Alexandria (d. 397), St. Epiphanius (d. 403), St. Cyril of Alexandria (d7.444), and finally also the celebrated Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great (d. 379), St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 389), and St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394). The last three, however, have many points in common with the School of Antioch.

(b) The School of Antioch.—The Fathers of Antioch adhered to hermeneutical principles which insist more on the so-called grammatico-historical sense of the Sacred Books than on their moral and allegorical meaning. It is true that Theodore of Mopsuestia urged the literal sense to the detriment of the typical, believing that the New Testament applies some of the prophecies to the Messias only by way of accommodation, and that on account of their allegories the Canticle of Canticles, together with a few other books, should not be admitted into the Canon. But generally speaking, the Fathers of Antioch and Eastern Syria, the latter of whom formed the School of Nisibis or Edessa, steered a course midway between Origen and Theodore, avoiding the excesses of both, and thus laying the foundation of the hermeneutical principles which the Catholic exegete ought to follow. The principal representatives of the School of Antioch are St. John Chrysostom (d. 407); Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 429), condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod on account of his explanation of Job and the Canticle of Canticles, and in certain respects the forerunner of Nestorius; St. Isidore of Pelusium, in Egypt (d. 434), numbered among the Antiochene commentators on account of his Biblical explanations inserted in about two thousand of his letters; Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus in Syria (d. 458), known for his Questions on the Octateuch, the Books of Kings and Par., and for his Commentaries on the Psalms, the Cant., the Prophets, and the Epistles of St. Paul. The School of Edessa glories in the names of Aphraates who flourished in the first half of the fourth century, St. Ephraem (d. 373), Cyrillonas, Balaeus, Rabulas, Isaac the Great, etc.

(c) The Latin Fathers.—The Latin Fathers, too, admitted a twofold sense of Scripture, insisting variously now on the one, now on the other. We can only enumerate their names: Tertullian (b. 160), St. Cyprian (d. 258), St. Victorinus (d. 297), St. Hilary (d. 367), Marius Victorinus (d. 370), St. Ambrose (d. 397), Rufinus (d. 410), St. Jerome (d. 420), St. Augustine (d. 430), Primasius (d. 550), Cassiodorus (d. 562), St. Gregory the Great (d. 604). St. Hilary, Marius Victorinus, and St. Ambrose depend, to a certain extent, on Origen and the Alexandrian School; St. Jerome and St. Augustine are the two great lights of the Latin Church on whom depend most of the Latin writers of the Middle Ages; at the end of the works of St. Ambrose is inserted a commentary on the Pauline Epistles which is now ascribed to Ps.-Ambrose or Ambrosiaster.

(ii) Second Period of Exegesis, A.D. 604-1546.—We consider the following nine centuries as one period of exegesis, not on account of their uniform productiveness or barrenness in the field of Biblical study, nor on account of their uniform tendency of developing any particular branch of exegesis, but rather on account of their characteristic dependence on the work of the Fathers. Whether they synopsized or amplified, whether they analyzed or derived new conclusions from old premises, they always started from the patristic results as their basis of operation. Though during this period the labors of the Greek writers can in no way compare with those of the Latin, still it will be found convenient to consider them apart.

(a) The Greek Writers.—The Greek writers who lived between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries composed partly commentaries, partly compilations. The Bishops of Caesarea, Andreas and Arethas, who are variously assigned to the fifth and sixth, or to the eighth and ninth centuries, explained the Apocalypse; Procopius of Gaza (524), wrote on the Octateuch, Is., and Prov.; Hesychius of Jerusalem wrote probably about the end of the sixth century on Lev., Pss., Is., the Minor Prophets, and the concordance of the Gospels; Anastasius Sinaita (d. 599) left twelve books of allegorical comments on the hexaemeron; Olympiodorus (d. 620) and St. Maximus (d. 662) left more sober explanations than Anastasius, though they are not free from allegorism; St. John Damascene (d. 760) has many Scriptural explanations in his dogmatic and polemical works, besides writing a commentary on the Pauline Epistles, in which he follows Theodoret and St. Cyril of Alexandria, but especially St. Chrysostom. Photius (d. 891), Oecumenius (tenth century), Theophylactus (d. 1107), and Euthymius (d. 1118) were adherents of the Greek Schism, but their exegetical works deserve attention.—The above-named compilations are technically called catenae. They furnish continuous explanations of various books of Scripture in such a way that they give after each text the various patristic explanations either in full or by way of a synopsis, usually adding the name of the particular Father whose opinion they transcribed. Several of these catenae have been printed, such as Nicephorus, on the Octateuch (Leipzig, 1772); B. Corderius, on the Pss. (Antwerp, 1643-1646); A. Schottius, on Prov. (Lyons, 1633); Angelo Mai, on Dan. (Rome, 1831); Cramer, on the New Testament (Oxford, 1638-1640).

(b) The Latin Writers.—The Latin writers of this epoch may be divided into two classes: the pre-Scholastic and the Scholastic. The two are not of equal importance, but they are too different to be treated under the same heading.

(a) The Pre-Scholastic Period.—Among the many writers of this age who were instrumental in spreading the Biblical expositions of the Fathers, the following are deserving of notice: St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636), the Venerable Bede (d. 735), Alcuin (d. 804), Haymo of Halberstadt (d. 855), Rhabanus Maurus (d. 856), Walafrid Strabo (d. 849), who compiled the glossa ordinaria, Anselm of Laon (d. 1117), author of the glossa interlinearis, Rupert of Deutz (d. 1135), Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141), Peter Abelard (d. 1142), and St. Bernard (d. 1153). The particular writings of each of these great men will be found under their respective names.

(b) The Scholastics.—Without drawing a mathematical line of distinction between the writers of this period, we may say that the works which appeared in its beginning are remarkable for their logical and theological explanations; the subsequent works showed more philological erudition; and the final ones began to offer material for textual criticism. The first of these groups of writings coincides with the so-called golden age of scholastic theology which prevailed about the thirteenth century. Its principal representatives are so well known that we need only mention their names. Peter Lombard rightly heads the list (d. 1164), for he appears to be the first who fully introduced into his exegetical work the scholastic divisions, distinctions, definitions, and method of argumentation. Next follow Card. Stephen Langton (d. 1228), author of the chapter-divisions as they exist today in our Bibles; Card. Hugh of Saint-Cher (d. 1260), author of the so-called “Dominican Correctory”, and of the first Biblical concordance; Blessed Albertus Magnus (d. 1280); St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274); St. Bonaventure (d. 1274); Raimondo Martini (d. 1290), who wrote the polemical work known as “Pugio Fidei” against the Moors and Jews; a number of other names might be added, but they are of less importance.—In 1311 Pope Clement V ordained, in the Council of Vienne, that chairs of the Oriental languages were to be erected in the principal universities, so that the Jews and Mohammedans might be refuted from their own sources. The philological results of this enactment may be seen in the celebrated “Postilla” of Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1340), a work which received notable additions by, Paul of Burgos (d. 1435). Alphonsus Tostatus, called also Abulensis (d. 1455), and Denys the Carthusian (d. 1471), returned to the more scholastic method of interpretation; Laurentius Valla (d. 1457) applied the results of his Greek studies to the explanation of the New Testament, though he is unduly opposed to the Latin Vulgate.—Not to insist on the less illustrious exegetes of this period, we may pass on to those who applied to Scripture not merely their philological erudition, but also their acumen for textual criticism in its incipient state. August Justiniani edited an Octapla of the Psalter (Genoa, 1516); Card. Ximenez finished his Complutensian Polyglot (1517); Erasmus published the first edition of his Greek New Testament (1517); Card. Cajetan (d. 1535) attempted an explanation of the Scriptures according to the original texts; Santes Pagninus (d. 1541) translated the Old and the New Testament anew from their original texts; a number of other scholars worked in the same field, publishing either new translations, or scholia, or again commentaries in which new light was shed on one or more books of the Sacred Scriptures.

(iii) Third Period of Exegesis.—A few decades before the Council of Trent, Protestantism began to make its inroads into various parts of the Church, and its results were felt not merely in the field of dogmatic theology, but also in Biblical literature. We shall, therefore, have to distinguish after this between Catholic and Protestant exegetes.

(a) Catholic Exegetes.—Catholic exegesis subsequent to the Council of Trent may be divided into three stages: the first may be regarded as the terminus of the Scholastic period; the second forms the transition from the old to the new exegesis; and the third comprises the exegetical work of recent times. The first stage begins about the time of the Council of Trent, and ends about 1660; the second reaches to the beginning of the nineteenth century; and the third deals with our own times.

(a) The Golden Age of Catholic Exegesis, 1546-1660.—We have spoken above of the golden age of Christian exegesis, as distinct from the exegesis of the Jews; the following period is by some writers called the golden age of Catholic exegesis, as distinct from the Biblical work done by Protestants. During this period more than 350 Catholic writers were engaged in Biblical study; we can only classify the work done, and indicate some of the principal writers engaged in it. The revised Clementine edition of the Vulgate appeared in 1592; the Antwerp Polyglot, in the years 1569-1572; the Paris Polyglot, in the years 1629-1645.—The introductory questions were treated by Sixtus Senensis (d. 1569), Christ. Adrichomius (d. 1585), Flaminius Nobilius (d. 1590), Ben. Arias Montanus (d. 1598), Petrus Morinus (d. 1608), Lucas Bruensis (d. 1619), de Tena (d. 1622), Joannes Morinus (d. 1659), and Franc. Quaresmius (d. 1660).—All or most of the books of Scripture were interpreted by Sa (d. 1596), Mariana (d. 1624), Tirinus (d. 1636), a Lapide (d. 1637), Gordon (d. 1641), Menochius (d. 1655), de la Haye (1661).—Select books of both the Old and the New Testament were commented upon by Jansenius Gandavensis (d. 1575), Maldonatus (d. 1583), Ribera (d. 1591), Serarius (d. 1609), and Lorinus (d. 1634).—Certain books of the Old Testament were explained by Andreas Masius (d. 1573), Forerius (d. 1581), Pradus (d. 1595), Villalpandus (d. 1608), Genebrardus (d. 1597), Agellius (d. 1608), Pererius (d. 1610), Card. Bellarmine (d. 1621), Sanctius (d. 1628), Malvenda (d. 1628), de Pineda (d. 1637), Bonfrerius (d. 1642), de Muis (d. 1644), Ghislerius (d. 1646), de Salazar (d. 1646), and Corderius (d. 1655).—Finally, all or part of the books of the New Testament found interpreters in Salmeron (d. 1585), Card. Toletus (d. 1596), Estius (d. 1613), de Alcasar (d. 1613), and Ben. Justiniani (d. 1622). It must be noted here that several of the foregoing writers admit a multiple literal sense; hence-they represent various explanations of the same words as equally true.

(b) The Transition Period, 1660-1800.—During this period, historical studies were more cultivated than scholastic. It is here that we meet with the father of the historical and critical introduction, Richard Simon (d. 1712). Frassen (d. 1711) adopts more of the scholastic method, but there is a return to the historical in the case of Bern. Lamy (d. 1715), Daniel Huet (d. 1721), and Nat. Alexander (d. 1722). The bibliography of exegesis was treated by Bartolocci (d. 1687), Imbonatus (d. 1694), Dupin (d. 1719), Lelong (d. 1721), and Desmolets (d. 1760). Old documents belonging to Scriptural studies were edited by B. de Montfaucon (d. 1741), P. Sabatier (d. 1742), and Jos. Blanchinus (d. 1764), while Calmet (d. 1757) and Bossuet (d. 1704) are noted for their exegetical work. Bukentop (d. 1710) has recourse to the original texts in order to explain doubtful or obscure readings in the Vulgate. If one compares this period with the preceding, one is struck with its poverty in great Biblical scholars; but textual criticism is fairly well represented by Houbigant (d. 1784) and de Rossi (d. 1831).

(c) Recent Times.—The perturbed state of the Church at the beginning of the nineteenth century interfered with the peaceful pursuance of any kind of ecclesiastical study. After peace had returned, the study of Sacred Scripture flourished more lustily than ever. In three respects, the modern commentary surpasses that of any past age: First, the interpreter attends in our times not merely to the immediate context of a phrase or a verse, but to the whole literary form of the book, and to the purpose for which it was written; secondly, he is assisted by a most abundant wealth of historical information practically unknown in former days; thirdly, the philology of the sacred tongues has been highly cultivated during the last century, and its rich results are laid under contribution by the modern commentator. It would lead us too far here were we to rehearse the history of all the recent excavations and discoveries, the contents of the various tablets, papyri, and ostraka, the results of literary criticism, archaeology, and history of religion; it must suffice to say that the modern commentator can leave none of these various sources of information unnoticed in so far as they bear on his special subject of investigation. It would be invidious to mention only some names of modern scholars, excluding others; still, they cannot all be enumerated. We may draw attention, however, to the French series of commentaries entitled “La Sainte Bible avec Commentaires”; the Latin “Cursus” published by Fathers Cornely, Knabenbauer, and von Hummelauer; the “Revue biblique” published by the Dominican Fathers; the “Biblische Zeitschrift”; the “Biblische Studien”; and the “Dictionnaire de la Bible“. While the two series of commentaries offer the main points of information on each particular book of the Bible, as far as it could be ascertained at the time of their respective publication, the periodicals keep the reader informed concerning any new investigation or result worth knowing.

(b) Protestant Exegetes.—It will be found convenient to divide Protestant exegesis into three periods. The first embraces the age of the so-called Reformers, 1517-1600; the second reaches down to the beginning of rationalism, 1600-1750; the third embraces the subsequent time.

(a) Early Reformers.—The early Reformers did not introduce any new principles of interpretation. They may speak, at times, as if they admitted only the literal sense, but Melanchthon and Flacius Illyricus insist also on the importance of the allegorical. Their teaching concerning the multiplicity of the literal sense finds practical expression in their interpretation. The principle of free inquiry is claimed by the Reformers themselves, but neither theoretically nor practically granted to their followers. Both Luther’s (d. 1546) and Calvin’s (d. 1564) principles rest in the end on subjective considerations.

(b) From the Reformers to the Rationalists.—In order to secure some unity of interpretation, the first followers of the Reformers introduced the “analogy of faith” as the supreme hermeneutic rule. But since they claimed that Scripture was their rule of faith, they experienced difficulty in properly applying their canon of hermeneutics. Finally, they were forced to regard the contents of their symbols as first principles which needed no proof. But the writers of this period produced some noteworthy treatises on Biblical antiquities. Thus Lightfoot (d. 1675) and Schöttgen (d. 1751) illustrated New Testament questions from rabbinic sources; Reland (d. 1718) wrote on sacred geography; Bochart (d. 1667), on natural history; the two Buxtorfs, father (d. 1629) and son (d. 1664), Goodwin (d. 1665), and Spencer (d. 1695) investigated certain civil and religious questions of the Jews. Among those who explained the sacred text, the following are worthy of mention: Drusius (d. 1616), de Dieu (d. 1642), Grotius (d. 1645), Vitringa (d. 1722), Cocceius (Koch, d. 1669), and Clericus (d. 1736). Brian Walton (d. 1658) is celebrated for the edition of the London Polyglot, which easily surpasses all previous works of the same kind. The “Critici sacri” (London, 1660; Frankfort, 1696; Amsterdam, 1698), collected by John and Richard Pearsons, and the “Synopsis criticorum” (London, 1669; Frankfort, 1709), edited by Matt. Polus, may be regarded as fairly good summaries of the exegetical work of the seventeenth century.

(c) After the Rise of Rationalism.—The Arminians, Socinians, the English Deists, and the French Encyclopedists refused to be bound by the “analogy of faith” as their supreme hermeneutic rule. They followed the principle of private judgment to its last consequences. The first to adhere to the principle of Biblical rationalism was Semler (d. 1791), who denied the Divine character of the Old Testament, and explained away the New by his “system of accommodation”, according to which Christ and the Apostles only conformed to the views of the Jews. To discover the true teaching of Christ, we must first eliminate the Jewish doctrines, which may be learned from the books of Josephus, Philo, and other Jewish writers.—Kant (d. 1804) destroyed the small remnant of supernatural revelation by his system of “authentic interpretation”; we must not seek to find what the Biblical writers said, but what they should have said in order to remain within the range of the natural Kantian religion.—But this did violence to the historical character of the Biblical records; H. E. G. Paulus (d. 1851) apparently does justice to the historicity of the Bible, but removes from it all miracles by means of his “notiologico-philological”or “psychological” system of interpretation. He distinguishes between the fact or the occurrence to which the witnesses testify, and the judgment of the fact or the particular view which the witnesses took of the occurrence. In the New Testament, e.g., we have a record of the views of the Disciples concerning the events in Christ’s life.—This explanation left too much of Christ’s history and doctrine intact. Hence David F. Strauss (d. 1875) applied to the New Testament the system of Biblical mythicism, which Semler, Eichhorn, Vater, and de Wette had employed in their explanation of part of the Old Testament; about thirty years after its first appearance, Strauss’s system was popularized by E. Renan. A great many Protestant commentators now began to grant the existence of myths in the Sacred Scriptures, though they might adhere to the general outlines of the Jewish and the Gospel history. The principles which are at least implicitly maintained by the mythicists, are the following: First, miracles and prophecies are impossible; secondly, our religious sources are not really historical; thirdly, the history and religion of all nations begin with myths, the Christian religion not excluded; fourthly, the Messianic idea of the New Testament was adopted from the Old, and all the traditional traits of the Messias were attributed to Jesus of Nazareth by a really myth-forming process.—But as it was hard to explain the growth of this whole Christian mythology within the narrow space of forty or fifty years, Ferd. Christ. Baur (d. 1860) reconstructed the origin of the Christian Church, making it a compromise between judaizing and universalistic Christians, or between the Petrine and the Pauline parties. Only Rom., I and II Cor., Gal. are authentic; the other books of the New Testament were written during or after the amalgamation of the two parties, which occurred in the second century. The adherents of this opinion form the New Tübingen or the Critical School.—It is true that Baur’s theory of the late origin of the New Testament has been abandoned by the great majority of Protestant commentators who have ranked themselves among the followers of Harnack; but the opinion that the Sacred Books of the New Testament lack historicity in its true sense, is more common than ever.

In the light of this fact, we have to distinguish between the various classes of exegetical works in order to give a true estimate of the value possessed by the numberless recent Protestant contributions to Biblical literature: their philological and historical studies are, as a general rule, of great assistance to the commentator; the same must be said of their work done in textual criticism; but their commentaries are not sound enough to elicit commendation. Some of them adhere professedly to the principles of the most advanced criticism; others belong to the ranks of the conservatives; others again are more concerned with grammatical and philological than theological questions; others, finally, try to do the impossible by combining the conservative with the advanced critical principles.

When we are asked what attitude the Catholic reader ought to maintain with regard to these numerous Protestant commentaries, we answer in the words of Leo XIII, found in the Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus”: “Though the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind—as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages—that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of the Sacred Scripture, and never attain its pith.”


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