Marshner on Scriptural Interpretation

The following articles are reprinted from Triumph magazine, Vol. V Nos. 4-5, April-May 1970.

No Christian can object to increasing the knowledge or the influence of Sacred Scripture. Yet the wide diversity of benefits that are expected to flow from the current “progress” in biblical studies suggests anything but unanimity as to how the subject ought to be approached. On the one hand, it is said that the biblical “revival” will lead to greater scriptural piety among the faithful; or to the development of a stronger bulwark against the attenuation of the Faith wrought by secularism—to fortifying the Magisterium; or to the improvement of the vernacular texts and a proper exegesis of difficult passages. But we also hear much talk of liberating scholars from the “narrow” or “cautious” norms set by the Church, of rediscovering “theological options” ignored or suppressed by traditional exegesis, of enabling the laity to receive Magisterial teachings “critically,” of improving “ecumenical relations.”

Clearly, there are some severely conflicting interests at work here, and it would seem to be of the highest importance to find out what the Catholic interest is. Probably the best way of proceeding is to get at the question negatively — to see first what is wrong with the entire modern approach to the study of Scripture.

That approach germinated with the presumptuous philology of the Renaissance, but the leaf was not seen until the Reformation took a bold step: the proclamation of the sola scriptura doctrine. Though formally in the province of the dogmatic theologian, the doctrine had its real impact in the domain of the biblical exegete. Throughout the patristic and medieval periods, the exegete had gone at his text with the support of a vast body of para-biblical literature and tradition. The movement of the mind from the more certain to the less certain had been a movement from those things sanctioned by immemorial tradition or hierarchical action — the liturgy, sacraments, the preaching of the Fathers, conciliar decisions — to the enigmatic or ambiguous pages of canonical Scripture. Now the movement was to be reversed. By the light of Scripture, all other things which had shaped Christian existence up till then were to be tested. The means by which the task could be carried out— by which the Bible could suddenly cease to be problem and become, by fiat, solution — were the principle of self-interpretation and the science of philology.

It was argued that the reason Scripture seemed obscure was that the Catholic interpreters had asked the wrong questions. Moreover, what besides compounded confusion could result from the attempt to reconcile Scripture with accumulated superstition and scholastic mumbo-jumbo? So ask first what the Bible itself says, speaking with its own voice. Let the more difficult passages be compared to the clear, let the secondary teachings be duly subordinated to the primary (such as justification by faith or the divine sovereignty), and without fail there would emerge a perspicuous whole, self-interpreting and adequate to the solution of every question which truly pertains to our salvation.

But if self-interpretability depended upon the perspicuity of at least the more important passages, how assure perspicuity? This would be guaranteed by an exact and historical understanding of the biblical languages, by philology.

Philological Hang-up

Now philology, unfortunately, is a science. I say unfortunately because, as a science, it could not be invoked forever without being practiced; and once practiced, it imposed conclusions dictated by the relentless internal logic proper to a science. Philology is the science that seeks to discover that meaning which emerges most naturally from the historical investigation of words and their syntax. From this principle it follows that, in the absence of contrary indication, a text has one meaning and only one. Thence springs the incompatibility between philological method and allegorical interpretation. Inevitably, therefore, the churches of the Reformation repudiated the allegorical senses, and with them the homilies and commentaries of the Fathers.

Nevertheless, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Protestants sought to exploit the youthful estate of the linguistic and historical sciences in the interests of Reformation theology. Whatever success they achieved survives in our day as the essence of conservative, fundamentalist Protestantism. The Reformation theologians had a serious problem. On the one hand, they were committed to uncovering the grammatical or literal sense of the text, also called the “plain” sense. This sense was supposed to be identical to the one intended by the ancient author when he penned the passage in question. Thus there was room for investigation of the historical context of each book, the situation in which the author found himself, the concrete problems which he sought to address, etc. On the other hand, they were committed to the belief that every canonical text is ultimately authored by God, and thus that any “supernatural” data (miracles, healings, prophecies) must be taken at full value.

The difficulty here is that theological data cannot be imposed upon the philologian simply as a matter of faith — as the resurrection, for example, is imposed upon the Christian biologist. Rather, the historical-philological exegete must incorporate these data into the very principles of his science. And the biblical conservatism of the Protestant world stands or falls by this shotgun marriage of heterogeneous principles.

The point bears elaboration. Every science has as its object being (or some portion of being) viewed under some specific aspect. The biologist, for example, studies living beings qua living beings, and the scope of the statements which he can make qua biologist is limited strictly to the laws of those beings as such. When he is confronted, let us say, with data suggesting that all species now living have as ancestors simpler species, he attempts to discover the biological laws by which the indicated transformations could have taken place. If he can do so, his science will have explained the data under the aspect within which it is competent to explain them. If he cannot, he is no more at liberty to fetch in God as a hypothesis of biological science than he is to engage in science fiction. He must say simply that the data are not explicable by the laws governing those phenomena with which his science deals. Mutatis mutandis, the same limitation ought to hold for the philologian. The proper object of his science is confined to the text viewed under a specific aspect.

Yet the Protestant exegete has consistently ignored this quite obvious limitation. If, for example, his linguistic and historical data suggest that Moses could not have been the author of the five books ascribed to him, he will reply calmly that it is also a fact that God’s Word cannot lie and that it says plainly that Moses wrote. Thus, since theological data are intrinsically more certain than the results of empirical science, any conflicting linguistic and historical data are known a priori to lack all force, even if one cannot explain them away at the present time a posteriori. What the fundamentalist does not pause to notice is that if a theological conclusion may set at naught philological data on one occasion, there is nothing to prevent its doing so on every occasion. In order to be consistent, therefore, he must be prepared to defend all sorts of theses — for example, that the apparent tenor of Scripture cannot be called into question by any source external to itself; or that the authentic rules of grammar and syntax of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek biblical texts can be known only from the Bible; or that despite all pretended discoveries, the oldest extant text of the New Testament must be the original and inerrant text: any other assumption calls into question either the inerrancy of Scripture or the ability of the Divine Providence to preserve the sacred original.

In short, the confessional Protestant exegete, if he troubles to be consistent, ceases to be a philologian in any reputable sense of the term and becomes a prisoner of an all-inclusive aprioristic system. In practice , of course, he does not trouble but rather survives as an opportunist, “holding the line” wherever his mixed bag of principles will yield conclusions not too noticeably out of line with reality and prudently retreating elsewhere.

Theology Dumped

The retreat eventually led to the next phase of the doleful history of modern exegesis which found the vast majority of Protestants flinging themselves on the opposite horn of the dilemma mentioned above, and into which today the Catholic Church appears to be moving headlong in anxious pursuit of its “biblical revival.” If fundamentalism sought to resolve the internal contradictions of the traditional Protestant position by short-circuiting philological rigor, contemporary biblical criticism has, in turn, excluded theology. The philologian has declared himself free to work on the biblical text without check or hindrance in accordance with the principles of his discipline. Where once the sacraments and creeds of Christendom rendered assistance, one has come to find Ugaritic epics, cuneiform law, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Kenoboskion Fragments.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, descriptive grammar, lexicography, epigraphy, textual criticism, literary criticism, and ancient historiography had attained solidly scientific credentials, while archeology and form-criticism were not far in the future. As the twentieth century began, the once full warehouse of Divine Revelation yawned emptily, its stores having been relabeled and deposited elsewhere. Genesis had been handed over to Near Eastern mythology and tribal lore; the law of Moses had been caught owing more to Hammurabi than to the storm god or the volcanic divinity at Sinai; the historical books were political apologia for the favorites of the Jerusalem clergy; the prophets had written a mere fraction of the books bearing their names; Daniel, a contemporary of the Maccabees, had witnessed the events he pretended to prophesy and had slipped up badly in his depiction of the exilic period; synoptic research had left precious little of the historical Jesus (who was either a liberal or a maniac); John’s gospel had disappeared down the sinkhole of Gnosticism, and Hellenistic mystery cults took possession of the theology of Paul. It was small wonder that the theologians attempting to make do with the sweepings that remained died of a starvation called Modernism.

The Post-Heroic Age

To be sure, in 1970 every competent scholar recognizes that many of the above conclusions, the work of criticism’s Heroic Age, were tendentious, overblown, or sometimes wholly false; but few are prepared to acknowledge the real reasons for this embarrassment. At one level the trouble could be accounted for by errors of fact and hasty surmises from insufficient evidence. But at a second level the “religion” of Modernism played a role. The expulsion of inspiration, inerrancy, prophecy and miracles from the philologians tool-kit did not mean really that the science had achieved a mature self-awareness of its own limitations. It meant that scientism and progressivism had replaced the Gospel as the framework of interpretation, posing anew the menace of apriorism.

There remains a third level. Most profoundly, the trouble lies in the nature of criticism itself, as a philological-historical method. As to the philological component, the whole content of the science consists of linguistic facts manipulated in accordance with the laws of linguistic causality and probability. Therefore, divine causality as such is outside the limits of the scientific discipline and the linguistic effects of divine causality (e.g. an inspired text, a prophecy) cannot be ordered by the science. The science either will be unable to explain the data at all (passing them on to the theologian as mystery); or, misled by certain linguistic accidents, will order the effects falsely to a natural cause within its scope. Needless to say, even a philologian of the purest intentions and most ardent faith is likely to err in the latter respect.

For the historical component, the argument is analogous in every respect. As a science of human actions and experiences under a particular (rather difficult to define) aspect, it too is unable to rise to the divine causality. An event like the call of Abraham would be an effect of God in the historical order. If the historian is compelled by his evidence to admit that the effect occurred, he too either will leave it unexplained; or, misled by accidentals, assign a false cause proper to his science. Most often, however, guided by the principles of historical probability, he will dismiss the evidence itself. Thus it is doubly unlikely that the historian as such will practice his science authentically in the presence of a divine effect.

In a word, since neither the philological nor historical discipline is capable of dealing with divine things, any particular meaning which the critical method may discover in the Bible can only be the meaning of an ancient Near Eastern book no different in kind from any other ancient Near Eastern book. So viewed, the Bible is not the Holy Scripture of Christians and Jews but a collection of arcana of interest only to the small club of specialized orientalists.

A Non-Biblical God

How, then, fares exegesis today? After World War I, with the waning of scientific liberalism, scholars became more willing to let theologians be theologians. But two things could not change. The critical method of exegesis could not change its own nature, and Protestantism could not change its commitment to the literal sense. Hence, it makes very little difference that the critic of today, disciplined by the rigorous problematic of Traditionsgeschichte, rarely attempts to invent rationalistic explanations for biblical events. It matters little that he admits that those events belong ultimately to an order outside his competence. For even though the philologian confines himself to the literary materials and putative oral traditions occasioned by the events, and though the historian benevolently concedes that he can get no closer to the events than the texts will bring him, nevertheless a curious situation arises. It is this: when everyone is sticking to his business and not grinding axes for volcanoes, bug secretions, and psychosomatic diseases, the theologian still has a province; but the province is precisely not in Scripture but outside it in the God who acts. Whence, then, the theologian will secure any information about this God is a very nice question.

Doctrinal Chaos

In any case the curtain has come down at last on Protestantism in its formal aspect. With Scripture securely in the hands of those who tolerate God precisely because He is none of their business, the very foundation of Protestant theology has been dug out from under it. Far from guaranteeing a theologically useful perspicuity, philology has made the study of Scripture a fiendishly difficult operation, requiring the mastery of a dozen languages and years of specialized training, all of which produce, of themselves, no theologically useful meaning whatsoever. Far from using the Bible to measure and test the validity of all things, the exegetes have subjected the Book to cross-examination from every antique text and potsherd. If Protestant theologians still have a doctrine, they have it from the Reformers, or Kierkegaard, or Rauschenbusch, or, indeed, from the Church itself, but not from Scripture.

Of course this situation is intolerable for Protestants, and if Catholics continue to follow the same path, they will soon be in the same cul de sac. Unless there is some alternative — some approach to Sacred Scripture which is both rigorous and non-philological — the grounds for any Catholic interest in biblical revival will disappear faster than Presbyterian tenets under Eugene Carson Blake.

The Bible is not a voice from Heaven but a document. No matter what its content, a document can be interpreted properly only when certain things are known about it. Let the reader suppose that a document not previously known to him has come into his hands. In almost every case, he will be able to assign it at once to its appropriate genre. He will see that it is a business letter, an epic, a biography, a shopping list, a doctoral dissertation, a novel, whatever. As soon as he recognizes the genre, he will know the document’s raison d’être, and therefore the sort of norms that are applicable to it. To take an obvious case, suppose he has before him a biography: he already knows why people write biographies and what sort of content such things have; he is therefore able to evaluate it according to generally recognized criteria. He is in considerably greater difficulty, on the other hand, if he does not know whether he has before him a biography or a Bildungsroman. Similarly, a military censor in the midst of a war, happening upon a poem in the style of E. E. Cummings in the outbound mail, might suspect that it is a dangerous coded message. Lyric or spy note? Whether the unfortunate author is court-martialed or not will depend upon his superiors’ ability to recognize the genre.

Now, does the Bible itself, taken as a whole, belong to a genre? What is its raison d’être? By what norms is it to be interpreted?

The question can be answered, at one level, theologically. The Catholic Church teaches that canonical Scripture is a unified revelation, whose ultimate author is God disclosing His nature and will to His Church, and that therefore the entire content of Scripture must conform to the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Moreover, Scripture is in part identical with the “deposit of faith” given to the apostles and to their successors, a deposit that has been identified and protected by an infallible magisterium, which is itself the fulfillment of biblical promise.

The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, affirms that the text itself, empirically examined, reveals what it is and what authority it possesses. The Bible’s divine inspiration is thus proved from the Bible. The flaw in the principle is obvious. Divine authorship cannot be demonstrated simply by pointing to a verse asserting it since there is nothing to prevent any book from claiming to be of divine origin; consider the Koran and the book of Mormon. Nor can the “signs” of divine inspiration usually proposed as evidence (nobility of content, prophetic accuracy, an otherwise unaccountable coherence) provide any assurance — not only because critical researchers have invalidated them (the researches can he questioned only by assuming the very inspiration one is seeking to prove); but also because in the last analysis such evidence is intrinsically unpersuasive: philological investigation cannot order effects to divine causality. The fact, then, is that sola scriptura is pure assumption; it presupposes divine inspiration.

(It may be asserted that the Holy Spirit communicates directly to each believer what the Bible teaches concerning the way of salvation. But after we have given up wondering how we came to know that there is a Holy Spirit, we still want to know, to paraphrase Chesterton, when Mr. Jones is telling us what the Holy Spirit placed in his innermost thoughts and when he is telling us what he put there all by himself. Surely Jones would like to know too.)

The conclusion is unavoidable. Apart from some independent source of information whose content is itself objectively knowable and theologically authoritative, there is no possible way of knowing what one has to know about the Bible if that book is to have theological significance. But no such independent source is at hand besides the apostolic tradition. That is, there is no theological alternative to the Catholic position,

The question can also be answered, however, at a natural level. One may define the Bible, phenomenologically, as a sacred book (genus), used by Catholics and in part by Protestants and Jews (differentiae). Now of course any. sacred book becomes sacred only when sanctioned as such — i.e., “canonized” — by the appropriate authorities of the believing community. The selection of matter included in the sacred book has thus been made on the basis of a pre-existing body of doctrine. The essential force of the canonization is to declare that the text shall serve as a religious guide for the whole community in perpetuity, and therefore that the text must be understood in a sense transcending the accidental limitations of its historical origin. This canonized sense comes into play most properly in liturgy and homiletics, that is, in the on-going, solemn proclamation of the text to all men. Thus the doctrine of the community precedes and conditions the existence of the sacred book, not vice-versa. Moreover the canonized sense can never be allowed to contradict itself; all perceptible differences must be read as ultimately concordant. Indeed, the maximum convergence of all passages is itself a norm of interpretation. In addition, the canonized sense cannot contain anything at variance with the teachings of the authority that canonized the text. Therefore disputes about the canonized sense can be settled only by appeal to the criteria which originally determined the canonization — that is, to orthodoxy.

The reader scarcely can have missed the remarkable convergence between these phenomenological observations and the theological tenets of the Church. The convergence is not contrived; rather, it is simply the case that the Church, in teaching as she always has, confirms and obeys an objective law of canonized texts and of what we might call the sociology of faith. (It is no mystery why this law is repugnant to some, its implications being a veritable blueprint for hierarchical power; nor why innovators are desperate to make sure that their exegetical procedure shall be the sort that puts authority in the hands of “scholars” rather than bishops.)

Observe now how the modern biblical exegete goes about interpreting a biblical book. According to differences of style and other internal evidences, he decomposes the book into its component parts, strands, layers, and so forth; and to each he assigns a distinct identity—Yahwist Narrative, Second Isaiah, Q Document. For each of these parts, he attempts to discover the original historical setting, what the author intended, what the author’s audience could have understood by the language employed. Armed with the results of these researches, the exegete then attempts to reconstruct the “theology” of the author, favoring us with a stack of monographs examining each theme of his thought and contrasting it with the ideas of earlier and later writers. At some point, he will survey the indications of how the book as a whole got into its present form, and conclude that the various components were elaborated and handed down separately by various schools or circles of tradition; whereupon they were finally put together and re-edited into a semblance of unity. The possessor of this formidable erudition is now able to service the Christian community. He will happily disclose how far-fetched are the interpretations made by the various New Testament writers when they deal with the Old, how much farther-fetched are the homilies in our breviary, how grotesque are the applications made of many biblical passages in our liturgy, how elaborately our theology has transmogrified the notions of the biblical writers — for all which contributions large segments of the Church profusely will thank him, remunerate him and abjectly reverence him as the greatest boon since St. Jerome.

Relevant to What?

Upon reflection one begins to see why this procedure makes a shambles of the whole postulate that the biblical text constitutes a unified book, having a single purpose. According to that postulate, what a given passage might have meant to its human author or to its original audience is, perhaps, interesting; but what it means is determined by its role in the totality of which it is a part. To say the same thing a bit differently: the applications, interpretations, changes, corruptions, and other vicissitudes undergone by all the various parts, strands, layers, and what have you, before they were incorporated into the unity called Scripture, are irrelevant to their meanings as parts of Scripture. (I do not speak, of course, of absolute irrelevance, since the parts in question must have borne within themselves marks which led to their inscripturation and the earlier meaning usually will have influenced the later, though often rather deviously. But I do insist that the two meanings are essentially distinct, that the interpretive processes by which they are discovered are different, and that one never needs to know the earlier in order adequately to know the later.)

A celebrated example is the Song of Songs. The modern exegete will tell us, on the basis of very good evidence, that when the various poems in this book were composed, they were intended and received as erotic verse—plain and simple. (Some interpreters refer to this understanding of the text as the “historical sense.”) On the other hand, it is well known that when the book was being considered by the rabbis for inclusion in the canon, it was being read as an allegory of God’s love for His people. In fact, the reason it is in the canon is precisely because it was interpreted in this way. The allegory, then, constitutes the “scriptural sense” of the Song of Songs, the only sense with which the Church, as the canonizing authority, is directly concerned. (Another familiar term is “literal sense”; the reader will be saved much dangerous confusion by understanding that when the Fathers of the Church speak of the literal sense, they always mean some form of the scriptural sense— never what a modern critic means by the literal sense. It was just on that ambiguity of the term “literal” that the Reformation foundered.) In short, the philogical-critical procedure is a satisfactory exegesis only so long as one denies the paramount fact that there is a unity called Scripture—a unity which is here to be studied not because of the accidents of the archeologist’s spade but because a living community collected, defined, and preserved it.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. The modern exegete is fond of asking, Is not the whole idea of a sacred book, interpreted in accordance with a “scriptural sense,” a piece of sheer mystification? The Catholic answers, Certainly not! To discover a biblical text’s historical origin, to learn what its author intended, and to understand its vocabulary cannot be the end of it. Every piece of writing is a linguistic structure, means what its words collectively denote and connote within the total context of the language as it is employed at a given time. If we have enough information (a condition which is hard to judge) we can form a pretty good idea of what such a text could or could not have meant in the period when it was written. If the text was used only in that period or is of interest to us only in that period, then one may regard its meaning as relatively fixed. But in the case of the Bible, we are dealing with texts which were used and heeded sometimes for centuries after their composition. Therefore, it is not mystifying but obvious and inevitable that the significance of the text for its readers should have undergone development both before and after its canonization, especially as the ideas which conditioned the canonization continued to be clarified. This is by no means to say that a text really comes to mean anything that anyone wants it to mean; there are criteria for distinguishing valid from invalid developments, as Newman spelled out in his great Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. These criteria guide the Church in discovering the “scriptural sense.”

The Melchizedek Story

The whole argument here can be summed up in a single example. During the Mass, at a point after the Consecration, the Roman Canon makes reference to the sacrifice of the priest Melchizedek. It is just the sort of thing to infuriate the modern “scripture expert”—which may have something to do with the fact that Melchizedek is not mentioned in any of the new canons. Today’s layman is advised (cf. The Anchor Bible, Chapter 1-4) that Melchizedek is thought to have been both a King of Jerusalem in the Middle Bronze Age and a priest of the pagan god El Elyon. He brings out offerings and invokes his god, while Abraham, no doubt in a spirit of ecumenical dialogue, gives him a tithe of everything. So the layman finds the Church praying in her most solemn rite that God would accept the sacrifice of Christ as he accepted the ministrations of a pagan hierodule, as if it were not enough to discover the Hebrew patriarch apparently recognizing the spiritual authority of such a person. Matters get worse still in the New Testament, where our layman reads in the Epistle to the Hebrews (especially chapter 7) that Christ our Lord is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, the self-same Canaanite pagan. The mind boggles.

I have no quarrel, please note, with the distinguished editor of the Anchor Bible’s volume on Genesis, the late Dr. E. A. Speiser. He employs his critical method with great care, and I no more blame him for the questions and answers which that exegetical procedure imposes on him than I should blame a noted biologist who assures me that, according to the laws of nature, the dead do not rise. I merely note with some dismay that whereas no one imagines that biological scientists deal with the resurrection, there seem to be millions who imagine that critical scholars determine the canon of Scripture.

The reconstruction of the “historical Melchizedek” (a reconstruction whose probabilist and naturalist guiding principles the reader should bear in mind) has no direct bearing, of course, on the figure of Melchizedek presented by Holy Scripture, which figure in turn is the only Melchizedek named in our liturgy. If we wish to understand the Melchizedek of the Bible, we must begin with Psalm 109 (in some versions, 110). When this Psalm was composed, perhaps as far back as the United Monarchy, it was a solemn address to the Davidic king. (Today, to be sure, it is properly read as Messianic.) It was this king who was addressed as “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” It is not entirely clear why the heirs of David came to bear this title; possibly, it had something to do with their residence in Jerusalem. Some sort of hoary tradition seems to have linked Abraham with Jerusalem and its ruler in his day; but it is difficult to get a clear idea of what that tradition was all about, since we possess only a small fragment of it in rather worked-over form (Genesis 14: 18-21), tucked into what was once probably another story altogether.

Why, then, did this fragment get preserved while numerous other remembrances of Abraham and the other patriarchs must have been lost? The answer lies (humanly speaking) in the importance of that royal title. It was long after the reign of David that the traditions now forming Genesis were edited into something like their present shape; therefore the royal title was already in use and required explanation. And what better explanation could there be than a tradition showing Abraham, ancestor of all Israelites, yielding the tithe to him after whom the royal line took its title of priest? Of course, when the line of David ceased to occupy the throne, all of its titles were automatically transferred to the awaited Messiah, who would not only deserve them as a son of David but also fulfill them in an exemplary way. Thus, well before our Lord was born, Psalm 109 was already being read as a Messianic prophecy; and the understanding of Genesis 14 cannot have remained uninfluenced. From there, it is a small step to the Christian exegesis.

Once Jesus is recognized as the Messiah, the title of priest after the order of Melchizedek is automatically His. That is not wonderful. What is wonderful is the sudden illumination which breaks up odd phrases of the old texts in the light of the identity of Christ. The sacrifice of Calvary makes it clear at last why the definitive “son of David” should be called a priest, just as Christ’s divinity imparts a new weight to the claim of being a priest “forever.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:3) noticed something curious about the old fragment in Genesis. The way it has been spliced into the text leaves Melchizedek in lonely splendor, unattended by the geneological pedigree, the small army of descendants and the figures on longevity which are part of the standard equipment of figures of comparable importance in the patriarchal narratives. In this state of affairs, the New Testament writer (as well as the Holy Spirit) sees an apt prefigure of the Eternal Christ, Who is not of this order. And of course, as soon as Melchizedek is seen as a type of Christ, the words of Genesis assume a startling significance when they tell us that the king-priest brought gifts of bread and wine.

It is difficult to imagine a clearer illustration of how Christian exegesis posits a scriptural sense based upon the present state of the text as a part of the entire Bible—not some “historical sense” based on reconstruction of what the text might have been taken to mean if it had been discovered yesterday engraved on a potsherd. The Church must not fail in her duty to insist upon the knowledge of this scriptural sense. For without the meaning yielded thereby, the apostolic exegesis becomes incomprehensible, and our liturgy a shambles. I speak not of a far-off danger but of something presently upon us. Every Catholic who reads the vernacular breviary or goes to vernacular Masses has been exposed already to the senseless archaizing of the Psalter (reconstruction of the historical sense), to take just one example. Introits and Graduals are replete with Yahweh this and Yahweh that. In your personal prayer, do you call God “Yahweh?” Neither has anyone else among the people of God for two and a half millennia. Today, however, you must split schizophrenically between your identity as a Christian, when you pray privately, and your brand new identity as a pre-exilic Hebrew, when you assist at Mass.

Thus do our biblical periti bring us up to date.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s