Our approach to scriptural exegesis or interpretation is literal
and historical, first and foremost. As Hugh of St. Victor says: “Historia
fundamentum est.” History is fundamental. It is the foundation of our
approach to Scripture.
But you do not have access to the truth about
biblical history without the words of the Scripture. Dei Verbum, Vatican
II’s constitution on divine revelation, refers to “the inner unity of words and
deeds in history.” That is so important: God speaks and then God acts. God’s
speech interprets what he has done so that we understand the meaning of what he
Why has God done the things that he has done in history? One
word: Love. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses summarized the whole history of God’s
dealings with mankind and with Israel, in particular, by saying that everything
was done, “because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after
God does what he does and says what he says in history, because he
loves. It is more than words and propositions. Love requires that inner unity of
word and deed. It is the integrity of the divine self-gift that really validates
the truth of his love as he has expressed it in history.
This is an
understanding that we take into exegesis even when we begin with the seemingly
mundane action of trying to understand the literal meaning of a text.
have to remember, first and foremost, that the Bible is, as Dei Verbum
tells us, the product of both God and the human authors. This is a point
that fundamentalists miss: God is the principal author of scripture but the
human authors are no less authors. This is a mystery, the mystery of divine
inspiration. The mystery of the divine inspiration does not dispense with human
authorship, so we cannot dispense with hard literary analysis. We have to go
back and see that these human writers are, themselves, true authors.
apply the classical literary tools, analyzing how the human authors of Scripture
used grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar looks at the meaning of words and
combinations of words. Logic looks at the truth that is conveyed by those words
when they are combined in sentences. Rhetoric looks at how the persuasive power
is effected so that the meaning of words and their truth is delivered in a way
that is convincing and persuasive.
In doing this, we avoid “literalism.”
Because while we analyze grammar, logic and rhetoric, we also look for the
figurative; we identify figures of speech, literary devices, metaphors, simile,
synechdoche — all the techniques that really enhance human speech and make
communication something that is wholly humanistic. We’re never in a rush to get
beyond the literal. We really spend time in the literary to see how the words of
the text signify things at many, many different levels.
But we also
recognize that the litera is a signum — that the letter, the word,
the sentence, the paragraph, the book, is itself a set of signs and that the
signatum, the thing signified, is a truth of history. Not all “truths”
are historical events, of course. The ethical realities conveyed in the Book of
Proverbs are not “events,” because the Proverbs as wisdom literature do not aim
to give us an historical narrative. Nevertheless, to understand the ethical
truths that the Proverbs convey requires us to understand the historical context
of the Davidic covenant and the Solomonic tradition in order to really
understand their literary sense and grasp their historical truth.
have to do the same kind of historical analysis whenever we try to identify
literary forms, such as parable, song or poetry, or when we try to identify
literary figures and devices. Ultimately, we want to see how the literary sense
of the text conveys historical truth — either the truth of an event, such as the
crucifixion, or the truth of a created reality such as water, light, mountains,
trees, or the way the text conveys ethical and other truths about human nature.
So we always situate the literary sense within a historical context.
And, just as we have to understand the literary in terms of the grammatical, the
logical and the rhetorical, so we have to understand the historical in terms of
time, culture and religion.
In terms of time, we have to understand the
period and the events that took place within that period. We have to look at the
culture in order to capture the historical background, the customs and so forth.
But with the Bible, you cannot stop at the historical and the cultural as you
can in reading other books. Because to really understand the literal words of
the texts in their historical and cultural context, we have to attend to the
religious understanding — what the authors of the Bible and their audience
brought to the text.
In other words: Whether you believe that God is
speaking in Scripture or not, you are not going to understand fully what the
human writers intended to convey unless you read their writings on their own
terms — and their own terms are inescapably religious.
An example: When
you see the word “temple” in Scripture, you cannot simply think of a large
building with a dome where people go to pray. The literary sign, “temple,” for
the biblical writer, conveys far more than the historical reality of a sacred
architecture. The Temple for ancient Israel was the central bank as well as the
central sanctuary; it was the place of divine government as well as the place of
divine worship. It was the place where you got credit as well as where you
received the creed. It was Wall Street, the White House, Oxford and the Vatican
all rolled into one. To understand the literal meaning of the word “temple” in
the Scripture, then, you have to understand the wealth of figurative. emotional
and religious meaning that term carried for the readers and the writers of the
And this is true for countless terms and passages. If you stop at
the historical and the literary reading of the text, and do not attend to the
religious meaning, you will miss the basic literal meaning of all sorts of
scripture passages. So, we study the literary sense, which gives us the
historical truth of events, ideas and concepts, and the integral meaning of
these events, ideas and concepts is religious.
To read the Bible in the
terms in which it is written, we have to debunk the modern notion that religion
is something individualized, private. For the writers of the Bible, as for much
of the classical world: life was essentially religious. Cicero understood this
in ancient Rome. For him, religio, religion, was a natural virtue, the
virtus virtutum, the “virtue of virtues,” the only virtue that would
unite and integrate all of human life —the interior, the exterior, the personal
and the social, the private and the public.
In ancient Israel, too, you
had this understanding of the essentially religious meaning of life. When we
read the Bible, then, we are reading the words of people who were trying to
convey, through literary means, historical truths that the impart religious
meaning of human life. History, for the writers of the Bible, men like Isaiah,
Ezekiel and Jeremiah, makes no sense apart from God.
meaning of their prophetic books, then, is that Israel’s victories and
successes, its defeats and exile, its captivity and deliverance — its entire
history — has a religious meaning. But this religious meaning was not something
that the biblical writers “read into” the history of Israel. Understanding the
biblical writers on their own terms, we have to acknowledge that they believed
that God was both the beginning and the end of all history and that without
reference to God’s words and deeds you cannot really understand the integral
meaning of what has happened or is happening, and you cannot understand the
teleological goal, the purpose toward which all of these historical events and
processes are directed.
We think about the mystery of the inspiration of
Scripture in similar terms. In the same way that the divine and the human
interpenetrate in history without detracting from or diminishing the freedom and
powers of the human agents of history, the written Word of God has both divine
and human authors but this does not in any way diminish the human dimension of
This way of thinking flows directly from the mystery of the
incarnation. The mystery of the Word incarnate is the fact that Christ is fully
human, body and soul, that he experienced human bodily life at every level — the
five senses, the human emotions, and all the rest. At the same time he
experienced human life at the psychological level of the soul, the intellect and
the will. This truly human experience was not diminished by his divinity, but
was enhanced. Being divine did not make him less human, it made him capable of
experiencing the human more fully.
In the same way, the human writers
are enhanced by the charism that they received from the Holy Spirit, even though
they might not be conscious of it. And as there is nothing human that is alien
to Christ except sin, there is nothing human that is alien to Scripture except
In the inspiration of Scripture, we see grace building upon
nature. More than that, we see the deepest desires of human nature being
fulfilled by grace in a way that surpasses the limits of all natural human
longing. That is something beautiful: Grace not only satisfies and fulfills our
longings, it transcends them to an infinite extent. In a certain sense, we can
say that grace gives us what “eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor has it ever
entered into the heart of man.”
We have to respect the mystery of
inspiration when we go about the task of exegesis or interpretation. We have to
have faith in what the writers themselves say: that they wish to convey to us,
not their own agendas or personal take on matters, but the divine
For the exegete, faith does not abolish reason or replace
it. Faith builds upon reason as grace builds upon nature. Faith presupposes
reason and builds upon it for the purpose of healing the defects of sin and
error, of perfecting it so that it can reason most reasonably — so that we can
actually reason about things that reason could never know or demonstrate on its
At this level, the task of interpretation is taken up and enveloped
in a spiritual grace, a charism of inspiration. Divine inspiration does not
simply terminate with the death of the last biblical author. True, inspiration
qua inspiration is a property that is only attributed to the authors of
scripture. But inasmuch as the Church is animated by the same Spirit who was the
inspirator of the biblical writers, in the Church’s liturgy and in its dogmas
and doctrines we find the literary sense and historical truths of the scripture
are unfolded in such a way as to reveal that the religious meaning of salvation
history, which is ongoing.
When we read the Scriptures “in the Spirit in
which they were written,” as Dei Verbum tells us we must, their religious
meaning deepens and enlarges it so that it is as if we ourselves are standing in
the middle of a stream of salvation history, as Ezekiel was in Ezekiel 47: the
water starts at ankle-deep, then rises to knee-deep and then waist-deep.
Eventually, it is too deep to sound the depths. That is what the exegete finds
when he or she is exegeting the literal sense and the historical truth of the
text, seeking the religious and theological meaning.
When we read with
this faith, the religious meaning of history is picked up and elevated through
the Holy Spirit. We see that the human writers of Scripture used words to convey
the truth of what God is doing in history. We see that, as the Catechism
says, the words of Scripture are signs and that the events and realities
signified by those words, are themselves signs and mysteries.
Church calls the “spiritual senses” of Scripture, builds upon the literal and
historical senses. Not like oil upon water, but like water becoming wine. A
transformative process takes place. The spiritual sense transforms the literary
and historical meaning of the text. Wine retains certain common elements and
characteristics with water, but it is something greater than water. In the same
way, the spiritual senses give us a metaphysical realism, a realism that
embraces the historical but rises above it, giving us a much greater meaning.
So when John 2 tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the
Old Testament promised the Temple to be, we understand that Jesus is something
infinitely greater than the Temple. And we understand that Christ’s fulfillment
of the Temple does not terminate with him or his body. Christ extends his
fulfillment of the Temple — through the Church — to each Christian. So, the
Church is the Temple, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, and each one of us is a
temple, as he says in 1 Corinthians 6.
And the spiritual reading of
Scripture enables us to understand that what is true in the state of grace on
earth is amplified and infinitely fulfilled in the state of glory in heaven, In
Revelation, the New Jerusalem is shaped like the Holy of Holies in the original
Temple at Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies on earth was unapproachable and yet it
is what all of us will possess forever in the perfect Temple of the celestial
So, for us, the exegetical process is rooted in an
epistemological optimism that would be impossible apart from the incarnation.
The incarnational principle also gives us the sacramental principle. This in
turn, underwrites a sacramental hermeneutic through which we learn that the Word
of God is not only the Word incarnate. The eternally generated speech act of
God, the eternal Word, becomes incarnate: time and eternity intersect, God and
man are married, heaven and earth are united fruitfully. The mystery of the Word
incarnate gives us the mystery of the Word inspired — the mystery of the Word
eternally generated is actualized and made hermeneutically fruitful in a way
that exceeds all natural imaginings and desirings.
exegete is not only one who must master grammar, logic and rhetoric. He must
master all of the relevant events of history, the cultural background through
geography, archeology and extra-biblical sources. He must master religion as
well, studying what Mircea Eliade saw as all of the inescapably religious
dimensions of human existence and socio-political life in antiquity.
Ultimately, however, the exegete must become a mystic, must become what
he reads, in communion with the divine in his midst, aware of and a part of the
divine economy that envelopes each one of us and is unfolded in the Scripture.
The exegete has to be like Ezekiel and John in Revelation. He has to “eat” the
sacred texts. He has to assimilate the Word as food. He has to find the bread of
life in Scripture just as he finds it in the Eucharist.
Dr. Scott Hahn
Founder of the St. Paul Center