About us



Vol 42 No 4



Mark Kenney SM

Mark O'Brien OP

Brendan Byrne, SJ
Personal Story, Mission, and Meaning for the Church Today

Michael Trainor

Anne Hunt

John S. McKinnon
Part One: The Second Conversion


The Bible in time


THE RECENT SYNOD of Bishops on the Bible continues a longstanding practice in which the church periodically reflects on its study and proclamation of the Bible in a prayerful yet critical way. As part of its agenda, this Synod reflected on past and current ways of reading the Bible with a view to preparing for the future. It may therefore be of use to readers to cast an eye over some of the major moments in the Church's study and use of the Bible during the past two thousand years.

At the risk of being simplistic, I will focus on three major moments. There is the 'early church' period characterised by the development of the allegorical or typological way of reading the Bible; this continued into the medieval period. There is the subsequent rise of critical historical reading in the wake of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation; and there is the more recent turn from a historical focus (how the Bible was produced) to studying the various books of the Bible as works of literature.

Earlier ways of reading the Bible should not be dismissed as primitive or passé. They are in their own way as sophisticated and subtle as anything taking place today and their influence continues to be felt. The fact that a new way of reading the Bible arises in reaction to an established one is as much a tribute to its impact as a sign of its limitations.

The Context of the Early Church

They say that context is the key to understanding almost everything and this is certainly true of Bible study. The historical, sociological, religious and psychological contexts of readers--whether individuals or Church--have had a major impact on how the Bible has been read.

The context of the early Church illustrates this point very clearly. It was the new religion on the street and had to establish itself among the plethora of religions that already occupied the turf of the vast Roman Empire. Much like today, religions, sects and fads of various kinds competed for people's attention and devotion (cf. Paul at the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17). As New Testament (NT) authors gradually wrote down their accounts and proclaimed their faith, they and their successors had to explain and defend these accounts in relation to the established 'sacred text'--the Old Testament (OT). By claiming that Jesus is the fulfilment of the OT, the Church locked itself into an ongoing debate with Judaism and its take on the text. The question arose: how could the established Scriptures be read in a way that provided a responsible yet convincing response to disagreements and disputes?

The Greeks had asked a similar question earlier. During the Hellenistic period the works of Homer and Hesiod came to be seen as somewhat alien and, dare we say, primitive. Plato proposed to ban them from his utopian Republic. Nevertheless, this was their 'classical' heritage and many were reluctant to ditch it. Greek genius came to their rescue by proposing that the text was saying one thing while meaning another--'allegoria' in Greek, 'allegory' as the English derivative. An alert, sensitive reader could see signals in the text that pointed to this other, deeper meaning. Strange and even offensive passages could thus be interpreted in a way that made them acceptable to the Hellenistic mind. This was a key development in what the Greeks called 'Hermeneutics', the art of interpretation. In my judgement, it springs from a common conviction that 'there is more to it than initially meets the eye'. In reading or hearing a sacred or classic text, on being introduced to a 'famous' person, we are instinctively inclined to pay attention and to see more than appears at first glance. The question of course is whether the 'more' is actually signalled in some way in a text or whether we claim to see it there because we want to.

This Greek approach was well suited to the needs of Judaism and Christianity, and indeed any number of religions of the day. Early Christian writers of the NT and later 'patristic' ('fathers') periods trawled carefully through the OT looking for signals that pointed to Jesus and his mission. Stories about OT figures such as Abraham and David, and accounts of OT institutions such as the temple were scrutinised to see whether and in what way they might be types of Jesus and the Church, their fulfilment or anti-type. Similarly, events such as the crossing of the sea in Exodus were read--that is, claimed--as foreshadowings of Christian sacraments.

This Christian way of reading the Bible continued to be refined during the patristic and later medieval periods. Exegetes (scholarly readers of texts) claimed to discern the following four levels of meaning (senses) in a text although, of course, they did not make this claim for all biblical texts.

1) The literal sense--what we might call the 'surface meaning' of the text; the events portrayed, the images used, etc. The Bible is talking about real people in the real world.

2) The allegorical sense--also called the 'spiritual sense' or the 'typological sense'. Detection of this sense is based on the premise that the text (and so its author--God) intends to say something more or other than that which the literal sense suggests. It occurs in the NT (e.g., Paul's claim in 1 Cor 10:1-4 that Jesus was the rock that accompanied Israel in the desert). The faith context of the reader is a critical factor; the 'fathers' argued that Christian faith 'enables' a reader to see the true (i.e., Christian) meaning of OT texts. Allegory was employed to explain and harmonise disturbing texts.

3) The moral sense--the text is understood primarily in terms of the spiritual/moral life of the believer. At times it can be difficult to maintain a clear distinction between the allegorical and moral meanings. An allegorical reading may 'unearth' a moral meaning in the text.

4) The eschatological or anagogical sense--a key purpose of the Bible is to help us arrive at our eschatological or final goal (heaven).

In the medieval period a shorthand Latin version of these 'four senses of Scripture' was developed as a teacher's aid. One can imagine students belting out this little ditty as they caroused in the taverns of the universities of Paris and Oxford:

littera gesta docet (the literal sense proclaims the events)

quid credas allegoria (the allegorical sense what you should believe)

quod facis moralis (the moral sense what you should do)

quo tendas anagogia (the anagogical sense where you are going)

The allegorical method was championed by the famous theological school of Alexandria in Egypt. It provided a comprehensive interpretation of Scripture from a Christian perspective and in time came to dominate the scene. It had the advantage of being able to appeal to some biblical texts that themselves employ typology and allegory (e.g., 1 Cor 10:1-4 noted already). Nevertheless, it did not go unchallenged. At times there was intense debate about the appropriateness of some interpretations and a rival school developed in Antioch to promote a more literal or historical reading of the Bible. Such debate and rivalry has the salutary effect of exposing the limitations of interpretation. We have insight into the meaning of texts but we are limited by our historical context or horizon and by our inability to appropriate and process all the literary phenomena in a work such as the Bible. No single approach can explain it all.

A problem with the allegorical or typological approach was that fertile imaginations claimed to find evidence of Christianity almost everywhere in the OT. Did God reveal anything of enduring value to ancient Israel or did God only let them see the surface while the real meaning was concealed until the coming of Christ or, more pertinent perhaps, until the advent of Christian allegorical exegesis?

Renaissance and Reform

As medieval Europe recovered from the bubonic plague and stability and wealth returned people once again had time and money to study Greek and Hebrew. This helped fuel the Renaissance with its interest in things classical and ancient. Accompanying these developments was an increasing awareness of how different ancient literature and the people who produced it were. There was a sense of alienation a bit like that felt by Hellenistic Greeks of earlier times. The difference however was that Renaissance scholars were driven by a curiosity about the past and a desire to understand it in its historical setting, not to 'translate' it into contemporary idiom.

All this, plus a mounting critique among the Protestant Reformers of the established way of reading Scripture, led to the rise of what is called 'Historical Analysis'. As a Christian form of interpretation of the Bible, its avowed aim was to peel away the layers of allegorical interpretation and recover the original (historical) meaning of the biblical text. It was believed that this would enable the reader to hear once more the original (and therefore true) meaning of the Bible; to hear the call of a prophet's word as the original hearers did, not overlaid with centuries of allegorical interpretation.

As with allegorical exegesis/analysis, this new approach was refined over time and developed a number of specialisations. These sought to trace the history of a text from its earliest stages (e.g., a parable of Jesus delivered orally), its development in the tradition (oral and then written stages) to the final stage(s) when it became part of, say, the Gospel of Luke (final editing or redaction). A key factor driving this focus on the history of the text was the conviction, based on a careful analysis, that many OT and NT texts are the product of more than one hand. When one looked closely at the language of Genesis for example, the terms for God, for places, for people, change in a way that seemed uncharacteristic for one author. As well, scholars judged that some texts (the flood in Genesis 6-9, the deliverance at the Sea in Exodus 14) were woven together from more than one strand or version. Thus, closer inspection showed--in a different manner to patristic exegesis--that there is more to it than initially meets the eye.

Because historical analysis arose in conjunction with the development of modern scientific research in the West, exegetes sought to be as objective and scientific as scientists. That is, they sought to be 'critical', to constantly check what they were doing and eliminate errors as much as possible. Explanations of a text were presented as 'hypotheses' (scientific proposals) to be assessed and replaced by a better one if possible (hence 'criticised'). This kind of biblical study came to be termed 'The Historical Critical Method' (or HCM). It has had considerable impact on modern reading of the Bible, initially in the Protestant Churches and, particularly since Vatican II, in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, like patristic exegesis, it has its strengths and limitations. It has been criticised for being too interested in the early stages of biblical texts rather than the 'present canonical text' and for fragmenting the text in its search for stages of composition. It has also been accused of using the biblical text as a quarry to construct critical histories of the biblical period rather than analyse the text for its theological content. The rise of the 'history of religions' approach in universities means that the Bible tends to be studied as one among many ancient religious artefacts; if a student wants to be seen as scientific, for the purposes of the scholarly exercise, he or she must set aside belief in the Bible as the revealed Word of God.

In the face of mounting skepticism from scientific historians, the HCM was employed to defend the historicity of biblical narratives about such topics as creation, the flood, the exodus, the birth of Jesus. Ironically but thankfully, its rigorous adherence to 'scientific, critical method' led it to conclude that the Bible is not a historical record in our sense of the term. Nor is it about scientific facts. The literary forms of the Bible are those of an ancient society and to expect them to conform to the canons of contemporary history writing is to distort them. This was an important breakthrough; the Bible no longer had to compete with critical reconstructions of ancient history or scientific discovery and was free to play its primary role--to communicate theological meaning.

The HCM also helped reshape the theology of inspiration. The traditional notion drew heavily on the dramatic figure of the prophet striding across the landscape, ablaze with divine charism. Careful historical analysis of the stages of a text's composition argued that inspiration operates in all the ways human beings communicate and compose texts: there is not just the charismatic individual, there are also the disciples who debate and treasure his or her word, there is the patient scribe who laboriously writes it all down, and there is the synagogue or Church that in time recognises it as the Word of God.

Contemporary Context

In the 20th century, the context in which study of literature took place in the West shifted again--from a focus on the circumstances of a text's author(s), the history of its composition, etc to a focus on the text as text, as something to be examined on its own terms. This 'turn' from what is called a 'diachronic' approach (from the Greek dia-chronos = through time) to a 'synchronic' approach (sun-chronos = the given moment of reading) actually took two turns. One concerns the intricate relationships between the various parts of a text and how these parts combine to make a meaningful whole. According to this approach, a text creates within its contours a world of meaning that can be discerned by a sensitive reader/listener without having to reconstruct its history (for many ancient texts a highly speculative endeavour). A key player in this approach has been French 'Structuralism'. It argued that if one could identify the relationships between the parts of a text and the whole (its surface structure) one could gain access to the deep structures beneath where the real meaning lies.

Is this a kind of allegorical or spiritual exegesis by another name? Or, more generally, is this another manifestation of that deep human conviction that 'there is more to it than initially meets the eye'? The Structuralist approach seems to have waned somewhat in popularity but its enduring legacy is to have drawn our attention to how literary works are intricately structured and how each part plays a role in the overall meaning of the text. In the OT this applies particularly to narrative (story), poetry and law texts, in the NT to narrative (Gospels) and letters. Patristic and Jewish scholars of antiquity would be smiling.

The second but related turn concerns the reader and the dynamic encounter between text and reader involved in the act of interpretation. A common term for this approach is 'Reader Response Theory'. With the turn away from historical questions such as who wrote this text and when, the focus on the reader was almost inevitable. There is nothing we love more in the modern world than analysing ourselves--quite understandable given the rise of psychology and related disciplines. A change of context produces a change of focus; the reading subject now displaces the author as a key player in deciding what a text means.

The theory argues that once a literary work is created it becomes detached from its historical and authorial moorings and enters the constantly fluctuating world of the reading public. Who decides what it means? According to Reader Response Theory it is each reader or hearer who has to say what it means. In a sense this was always the case but one customarily or instinctively deferred to authors when they expounded the meaning of their works. But an author expounding his or her work is in effect another reader. One may initially think that he or she will know better than anyone what the text means but how can one be sure? The only way is to test an author's claims by examining the literary signals in the text and their relationship, as any reader must do.

Reader Response Theory has been accused of replacing authorial intention with reader invention and this is a danger. But I think it is able to respond to this charge reasonably well. Far from eliminating the role of the author, the theory, in a paradoxical kind of way, exalts the author almost to divine status. Rather like God, an author creates a text with a world of meaning in which, as Structuralism argues, each part contributes to the meaning of the whole, the world of the text. A reader is invited to enter this world of the text and create his/her understanding of it (acting in the image and likeness of the 'god' who created this 'world', namely the author). Each reading must operate within the parameters of the world of the text created by the author; otherwise it cannot claim to be an authentic reading. But, just as our perspective on God's creation is limited, so is our take on a text. We cannot claim to have adequately appropriated each and every signal, let alone all the intricate relationships between them.

These contemporary turns have not put paid to historical critical analysis. Far from it. Readers still need to become familiar with OT and NT contexts, to study Greek and Hebrew, and so on. In fact, the HCM has been able to team up with Reader Response Theory to forge yet another approach called 'Advocacy Exegesis'. Key players here are 'Feminist Exegesis' and 'post-Colonial Exegesis'. These have stimulated a lively debate by seeking to expose the biases in both biblical authors (evident in their texts) and its readers (until recently in the West, the preserve of white, male academics). Race, gender, religion, society, geography, history are all contextual factors that affect not only the production of the Bible but its interpretation. 'Post-Modern' and 'Deconstructionist' readings have for their part highlighted the 'unfinished' nature of reading. The Bible always 'escapes' our attempts to grasp or fix its meaning.

In terms of the Bible's production, Advocacy Exegesis makes us aware how 'incarnational' the Bible is. Its authors were inspired but this did not remove them from their particular context or neutralise their gender (mainly male). As we well know, gender shapes the way one sees reality: it enables a man to see things that a woman may miss, and vice versa. Awareness of this aspect of the human condition should have considerable bearing on the Church's reflections about the dynamic relationship between Scripture and the ongoing Tradition.

In terms of interpretation, Advocacy Exegesis is a timely reminder that reading the Bible should be undertaken as a community exercise where our individual strengths and limitations, our insights and our biases, can come under critical, public scrutiny. We should treasure readers of past ages--the patristic and medieval periods, the modern historically focused period, etc--as part of this reading community. We can learn from their insights and hopefully spot their mistakes as well as our own. We should also, wherever possible, listen to members of other Christian churches, to Jews and even to non-believers, all who form part of the larger community reading the Bible. If we can't read the Bible together and learn from one another, then the hard work of the Synod is likely to bear little fruit.

In the wake of this brief sampling of the many and competing ways in which the Bible has been studied, one might well wonder whether reading it is worth the effort. The contexts in which we read texts change and will continue to do so; there is no avoiding this fact. But, two basic things endure. The first is that we grasp what is being communicated (content) by paying attention to the way it is communicated (the literary form, such as a command, a statement, a story, etc). The second is that our grasp of the whole (a literary form) depends on our identification of its constituent parts (words, phrases, sentences) and how these combine to create a whole. We employ these linguistic skills almost instinctively with the literature of our culture (newspapers, novels, etc). Authors, whether ancient or modern, employ the same basic techniques; they create whole texts out of parts and they communicate something in a certain way or ways. As long as we recognise that the Bible stems from a different culture, we should have no inhibitions about our ability to read it.

Fr Mark O'Brien lectures in Old Tes-tament studies. He has taught in theological institutes in Melbourne, Adelaide, Oxford, Karachi and Sydney. He has now resumed teaching in the Melbourne College of Divinity.


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De Lubac, H. (1998 and 2000, French original 1959), Medieval Exegesis. 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/London: T & T Clark.

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Barton, J. (ed). (1998), The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation. Cambridge U.P.

McKenzie S. L. & S. R. Haynes (eds) (1993), To Each Its Own Meaning. An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Pelikan, Jaroslav (2005), Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages. Penguin Books.