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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Catholic Approach to the Bible

This page introduces three important Catholic ecclesiastical documents on interpreting the Christian Bible:

  • Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943)
  • Vatican Council II’s Dei Verbum (1965)
  • The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”

Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu

  • Prior to 1943, Catholic biblical scholars were discouraged from
    using original languages, archaeological discoveries, or
    “scientific” methods of textual analysis.
  • In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, an
    encyclical letter that required the use of original languages.
  • It urged interpreters to “go back wholly in spirit to those
    remote centuries of the East with the aid of history,
    archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, and accurately
    determine what modes of writing ... the authors of that ancient
    time would be likely to use, and in fact did use.”
  • By promoting the use of analytic or “critical” tools to explore
    the Scriptures, this encyclical launched a virtual renaissance in
    Catholic biblical research.

Dei Verbum

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

  • In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the Dogmatic
    Constitution, Dei Verbum. It presented what might be called an
    “incarnational” understanding of the Bible.
  • The Bible is both the inspired Word of God ...
    “Those things revealed by God that are contained and presented in the
    text of Sacred Scripture have been written under the inspiration of the
    Holy Spirit” [11].
  • ... and the inspired work of human authors:
    “Seeing that, in Sacred Scripture, God speaks through human beings in
    human fashion, it follows that the interpreters of Sacred Scripture, if they
    are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should
    carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in
    mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the
    medium of their words.” [12]
  • Therefore, the Council taught that biblical researchers
    “must look for that meaning which the sacred writers, in
    given situations and granted the circumstances of their
    time and culture, intended to express and did in fact
    express through the medium of a contemporary literary
    form. Rightly to understand what the sacred authors
    wanted to affirm in their work, due attention must be
    paid to the customary and characteristic patterns of
    perception, speech, and narrative which prevailed in their
    time, and to the conventions which people then observed
    in their dealings with one another.” [12]

Pontifical Biblical Commission

“The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”

  • In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) made the same
    point in this way:

    “Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the ‘word of God in human
    language,’ has been composed by human authors in all its
    various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them”

  • Therefore, “Catholic [scriptural research] freely makes use of
    the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better
    grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary,
    socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts, while
    explaining them as well through studying their sources and
    attending to the personality of each author.”
  • The Catholic approach to scriptural interpretation, then, could
    be described as a conversation between the faith of the biblical
    generations with the faith of Church communities today. The
    faith experiences of today’s Church are, of course, shaped by
    the intervening history since biblical times and by the
    circumstances of the 21st century. As the PBC put it:

    “Sacred Scripture is in dialogue with communities of believers:
    It has come from their traditions of faith. . . . Dialogue with
    Scripture in its entirety, which means dialogue with the
    understanding of the faith prevailing in earlier times, must be
    matched by a dialogue with the generation of today
    [actualization].” [III,A,3]