In my previous post in my ongoing series about Dei Verbum, I explained how recognizing literary genres is crucial to sound biblical interpretation. Now, as promised, I will explain why historical context is also essential.

Here is what Dei Verbum says:

Furthermore, the interpreter must seek the sense which the sacred author, in determined circumstances, according to the condition of his culture and times, and by means of the literary genres in use at that time, intended to express and did express. For to rightly understand what the sacred author wanted to affirm in writing, due attention must be paid to the customary, native ways of thinking, speaking, or storytelling that flourished in the times of the sacred author, as well as to the customary ways in which people at that time communicated with one another. (DV 12)[1]

That’s a lot to unpack! Whenever a magisterial sentence is this complex, you know it’s something theologically significant.

First of all, DV 12 reiterates the previous point that literary genres must be taken into account. But it adds that the “culture and times” in which a given scriptural book was written must also be considered. This is important even at the level of genres since genres change over time. For instance, the writing of history is a genre, but the methods and conventions of history-telling in use thousands of years ago differ greatly from those employed today.

Dei Verbum says that historical context is necessary to “rightly understand” the sense of Scripture. Not knowing or misunderstanding it may lead to misinterpretation of the book. This principle, then, gives the would-be interpreter a large homework assignment!

Why does historical context matter? Dei Verbum does not get into the weeds of specifics, as that is not the Ecumenical Council’s role. But it does indicate the general lines that make it important.

People of the 21st century live very different lives than people in biblical times. Our human nature is the same, but culture and historical circumstances color every facet of human living. The Council specifies three broad areas where historical difference affects biblical interpretation: thinking, speaking, and storytelling.

Customs of Storytelling (Narrative)

Many people struggle to read and understand the Bible because the forms of storytelling it uses are different from those in use today. We expect detailed narratives, in which the reader has at least some access to characters’ thoughts. Often in modern literature the reader has direct access to characters’ inner monolog or directly-quoted thoughts; motives may be stated openly.

In contrast, in biblical narrative, the inner thoughts of characters are virtually never stated. Most of the time, characters’ motives are unclear; we are simply told what they did. To take one example, in the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), Abraham’s thoughts and feelings are unknown, and Sarah is absent. You might expect God, or at least the narrator, to state when something is good or evil, but this, too, is rare. Sometimes it is obvious, such as when Judas betrays Jesus, but many other times it is not (for example, when Rebekah dresses Jacob as Esau [Genesis 27]). False expectations about what a biblical narrative is or is supposed to be may lead to misinterpretation. This is why I give my students a bit of advice: when reading the Bible, set aside your expectations and preconceptions and read with an open mind, without assuming you already know what it is “supposed” to mean.

In addition, today we often expect narratives to be chronologically detailed. Although the books of Samuel are rather detailed in describing the rise and fall of the first two kings of Israel, this is the exception rather than the rule. Typically, we are left with enormous “gaps in the text” where a modern story would almost certainly fill them in. In the Book of Exodus, for example, we are told that Moses was adopted into the Egyptian royal household as an infant (2:1-10). Then, in the following verse, he is an adult who recognizes the Hebrews as his kinsmen (vv. 11-15). What happened to him in the interim? How did he come to see himself as an Israelite? Why did he leave the royal household? Modern reinterpretations of the story feel forced to deal with this (case in point: “The Prince of Egypt”) due to modern expectations about storytelling. We see the same thing in Jesus’ biography. We have two infancy narratives (Matthew 1–2; Luke 1–2), but just a single story about his childhood (Luke 2:41-52)!

These are only some ways in which biblical narration differs from modern narration. Studying the Bible in detail will reveal many more!

Figures and Manners of Speaking

The Bible also uses different ways of speaking. For example, when numbers are involved, they are often rounded or symbolic. People trying to find fault with the Bible sometimes point out that it gives the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter (i.e., pi) as 3 (1 Kings 7:23). We are told that Jesus was “not yet fifty years old” (John 8:57), even though Luke 3:23 says he was about thirty. The Babylonian Captivity is said to be 70 years (Jeremiah 29:10), when it was closer to 50 (ca. 587-539). This could be an example of both rounding and symbolism at the same time, since 70 can symbolize fullness or completion.

The Bible uses metaphors, similes, and euphemisms that may be misunderstood today. In some cases, translators decode these for us. For example, Luke 1:69 says that God “has raised up a horn of salvation.” The NRSV deletes the metaphor, saying instead that God “has raised up a mighty savior.” This is accurate in the sense that that horn is a biblical metaphor for power or strength. The horn of salvation is our Savior, who is mighty. A number of bodily euphemisms may be found such as “covering the feet” for defecating (e.g., 2 Sam 24:3, translated “relieve himself” in both the NRSV and NABRE) or “hand” for penis (Isaiah 57:8, translated “nakedness”). An exhaustive list of biblical metaphors and euphemisms would probably contain hundreds, if not thousands, of entries. The meanings of some metaphors may be opaque even to experts or be misunderstood by those unfamiliar with the culture. The Book of Revelation in particular is full of metaphors and symbols, including many horns (e.g., 12:3) and symbolic references to the Roman empire (e.g., 17:9).

Native Ways of Thinking (Worldview)

Crucially, the people of the Ancient Near East did not think the same way we do today. They had the same logical faculty that all human beings do, and they were no stupider than we are. But they did think about many things in ways profoundly different from how we do today. Unless we are to lapse into fundamentalism and fideism, this change in worldview must be accounted for when interpreting.

First and foremost, the biblical books were written in a pre-scientific world. The Catholic Church learned this lesson the hard way during the Galileo affair. A plain and simple reading of the Bible indicates the sky (aka, heaven) is a dome above the earth (Genesis 1:6-8). In this dome are the sun, moon, and stars (vv. 14-18). Above that, there is water (v. 7), which is where rain comes from when “the floodgates of the sky [are] opened” (7:11). Above this super-heavenly water is God’s abode (e.g., Ps 29:10; Job 22:12). When Christ ascended into heaven, he physically rose up to this dwelling, until a cloud obscured the apostles’ sight (Acts 1:9-11). The underworld, in contrast, is in the darkness below the earth (e.g., Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29-31; Numbers 16:30-33; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 7:9; 11:8; 17:13-16). At death, all human beings, whether good or evil, go down to this place as “shades,” never to rise again (Ecclesiastes 9:2-6; Job 14). Only toward the end of the biblical period is a resurrection of the dead revealed (Daniel 12).

The many passages that presuppose this cosmology are the reason why the Holy Office of the Inquisition placed the scientist Galileo Galilei under house arrest in 1633. At the time St. Robert Bellarmine correctly noted that, should Galileo’s findings be proved correct

It would be necessary to proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not understand them than to say that something was false which has been demonstrated [i.e., heliocentrism].[2]

This is exactly what happened, and the Catholic Church came to accept heliocentrism in the following century.

In doing this, the Church (belatedly) followed the example of St. Augustine, who in his Literal Commentary on Genesis states that Scripture cannot be taken literally when it contradicts what has been proven true by scientific disciplines. Anticipating the problems of our own era, he laments the damage to evangelization that is done by ignorant Christians who assert, on the basis of a literal reading of the Bible, what educated people know to be wrong.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [i.e., science]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?[3]

This is one reason why Dei Verbum says we must take into account the ancient worldview when interpreting Scripture. No one knew the earth was one of several planets orbiting the sun. This is no slight against the biblical authors. God didn’t reveal scientific knowledge to them because the purpose of God’s self-revelation is human salvation (see DV, chapter 1). Galileo himself put it well: “The Holy Spirit’s intention is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”[4] Inspired by God, the biblical authors were able to express what they needed to for our salvation from within the knowledge limits of their pre-scientific worldview.

Conclusion

God has revealed himself for the sake of our salvation. When we read the Scriptures as part of our spiritual journey, salvation is what we seek. We read them to learn, not about the past itself, but about God’s saving deeds. We read them, not so we may re-institute ancient laws, customs, and ways of thinking (see Gal 3:18), but so we may grow in holiness through faith in God. We read them, not to learn about the shape, age, structure, or evolution of the universe, but to learn about the One who made the universe. If we keep our eyes set on this, we can come to appreciate what St. John Henry Newman called “the human element” of Scripture.

Notes

  1. My translation of the Latin: Oportet porro ut interpres sensum inquirat, quem in determinatis adiunctis hagiographus, pro sui temporis et suae culturae condicione, ope generum litterariorum illo tempore adhibitorum exprimere intenderit et expresserit. Ad recte enim intelligendum id quod sacer auctor scripto asserere voluerit, rite attendendum est tum ad suetos illos nativos sentiendi, dicendi, narrandive modos, qui temporibus hagiographi vigebant, tum ad illos qui illo aevo in mutuo hominum commercio passim adhiberi solebant.
  2. Robert Bellarmine, Letter on Galileo’s Theories (1615)
  3. St. Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis 1,19 (tr. John Taylor, SJ [Ancient Christian Writers 41, 1982], 42-43)
  4. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615)

Image source: Saint Augustine, Justus of Ghent, oil on wood panel c. 1475 (Louvre, Paris) ©Photos.com/Jupiterimages


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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

Understanding the Bible in Historical Context
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