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Interpreting Scripture

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

So that men may know Him better, God reaches down to communicate with us. He reveals himself to us by many sensible means including the use of human language (CCC 101). He gives us the gift of Sacred Scripture, which reveals to us divine realities. Sacred Scripture has been gifted to the Church to teach the truth about the Word of God. Although each book is written by human authors, they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to convey the truth that He wanted to teach. However, there are many ways to read Sacred Scripture and it is necessary to unpack the riches within so that the truth can be most fully understood.



Unfortunately, many times a person gets bogged down in one particular way of interpreting Scripture without seeing the unity of the entire canon. It is important to understand what the authors of scripture intended to write for they certainly intended their writing to be understood by someone and the reader must take into account the authors’ intention. Yet, Scripture shows us God’s plan of redemption throughout salvation history, each of the books showing us an important aspect of this plan, even when the human author might not be aware of the full picture inspired by the Spirit. Thus, it is critical to consider scripture both in the literal and spiritual senses, which are not mutually exclusive, and interpret it in light of the Spirit (CCC 111).


If we examine a section of scripture such as Mark 13 we can begin to see different ways that one can make sense of it. First, we should begin with the literal meaning as “all other sense of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116). In this chapter, Jesus describes the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the signs that will accompany it (Mark 13:2). He warns his disciples that it will be preceded by wars and famines, and his disciples will be persecuted after the gospel has been “preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10). The temple will be desecrated and false prophets will attempt to lead the elect astray until the Son of Man returns to gather them.


There is a strong apocalyptic sense in this passage. There will be great suffering in the days leading up to the destruction of the temple. Those who are followers of Christ will be handed over for judgement by those close to them. However, there is hope to be found in these dire circumstances. Jesus encourages them to be faithful until the end, that is, until the Son of Man comes to relieve them.


Spiritually, there are many things that can be said that fit in well with the literal passage and in other places in scripture. This seems to have strong eschatological undertones. The Son of Man coming on the clouds to rescue the elect correlates to the Son of Man in Daniel 7 who has dominion over the nations of the earth (Daniel 7:13). The destruction of the temple foreshadows the end of the world. The powers of evil rule over the world, but their reign cannot last forever. Christ will return to judge the deeds of the living and the dead.


The people must have the fortitude to continue to follow Christ, even when they are being persecuted. There is a moral imperative that is espoused in the chapter. It is those who persevere until the end who are rewarded for their faithfulness, and many will be led astray by false teachers. Jesus tells his followers that they must be wary of those who claim to speak for him because not everyone who claims to teach in his name will be trustworthy. In Matthew 10 there is another similar passage where Jesus warns of coming persecutions, and that they must be wise and innocent, but those who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 10:16,22). It is not certain when that day is coming, but they must stay awake and be prepared.


However, there are other methods of biblical interpretation that can be used to attempt to gain extra insight. One popular method is historical criticism. Through this method we look at what kind of message the author was trying to make, what genre was being employed, and what other literature impacted this story. This attempt can help give important insight about what the author was attempting to tell us, but we have to be careful to remember the Divine Inspiration that brings the work about. The human authorship is only part of the story.


Applied to Mark 13, we can see the apocalyptic genre. There is immense suffering with a future hope. Those who suffer will be vindicated, and God will come to their aid. Many apocalypses are eschatological and this seems to follow here. There are similarities here with the book of Daniel, another book with apocalyptic sections. Understanding genre can be very helpful because now we can be on the lookout for the kind of symbolic language that is often employed in this genre. For example, references to the persecutors are veiled in symbolic language, perhaps to hide criticism from those being criticized. This can help us better understand the text we are reading and what the author was intending to convey.


We can apply different forms of source criticism. For example, we can look at differences between Mark and the other gospels. Both Mark 13 and Matthew 24 tell nearly the same story. This could mean that two different witnesses are giving an account of the same events. But many scholars suggest that one may have copied the other, or that perhaps they both shared an unknown source.


However, now we come to some of the dangerous aspects of historical criticism. When scholars see the mention of the destruction of the temple, they naturally assume that this text must have been written after the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Presumably, the only way that the author would be able to write about this event is because it already happened. So, we are left in the position that the text is merely of human origin and must discount any kind of supernatural occurrence, such as Jesus predicting an event that has not yet occurred. We are forced to ignore any kind of supernatural agency because literary works are the products of men, and not God (Mirus).


However, as Catholic theologians we must always keep in mind that the Bible is not only a work produced by men. There is a great danger in separating the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith as many scholars are wont to do (Mirus). Although there are many valuable insights that can be gleaned from historical and literary criticism, we must always be careful to remember that these tools and are a means to greater understanding, but they are not sufficient to provide the entire picture. Each of these authors provides a brush stroke to a magnificent painting, but God is the artist who dictates where each stroke must go to communicate His glory.


The Bible is not just like any other ancient text. It is a unified story of God’s love for his people and His plan for their redemption. Although they are unfaithful, he calls them back time and again, always leading forward to Jesus Christ and His Church awaiting the eschatological fulfillment of God’s triumph over sin and death.


 

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012.

The Ignatius Bible: Revised Standard Version - Second Catholic Edition. Ignatius Press, 2006.


Mirus, Jeff. “What's Wrong with Historical Criticism of the Bible?” What's Wrong with Historical Criticism of the Bible? | Catholic Culture, 19 May 2014, www.catholicculture.org/commentary/whats-wrong-with-historical-criticism-bible/.

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