PC: Biblical Scholarship and the Spiritual Life

One of the more complex issues that I’m tackling in Psalming Christ is the gap between patristic spirituality and a modern encounter with the biblical text informed by responsible scholarship. The bottom line here is that patristic and early medieval readers had a different view of the Scriptures than we currently do; many of the agreed-upon principles on modern biblical scholarship explicitly reject patristic assumptions and methods. So—how can we gather the riches from both and apply them in a nuanced way to the spiritual challenges we face today?

That’s what I’m wrestling with here and in a few subsequent sections. I will likely have to rework this material a couple of times to get it right and to strike the proper balance between competing goods. Thus, PLEASE comment on what strikes you as being helpful and what is confusing or what questions it still leaves you with. Some lingering questions MAY already be addressed in future sections, but it really helps me as a writer to know how readers who don’t live inside my head experience this stuff.

Ok—enough setup; here’s the section…


One of the greatest gulfs between the time of Benedict and Cassiodorus and our own is the rise of modern biblical scholarship. Benedict and Cassiodorus could assume certain things that they had learned from the tradition about the Bible—assumptions that we can no longer accept so easily. As we get into the psalms themselves, let’s start with a quick look at the differences between the two and how that makes our task both more complicated and more rich.

Benedict and Cassiodorus started with the fundamental assumption that the primary author of the entire Scriptural text was the Holy Spirit. This has several important implications for reading.

First, it means that they did not posit a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments: they were two parts of a single seamless entity. A word or phrase in one place could be seen as intentionally referring to the same word or phrase appearing anywhere else within the Bible. More than that, the use of certain words and phrases in different places was deliberate. A central task of the interpretive process was to understand how the web of meanings stretched across and throughout the all of Scripture.

Second, following the interpretive principles laid down by Origen of Alexandria and developed by the broader tradition, all of Scripture has a spiritual meaning. That is, every verse, every phrase, every word is not happenstance or accident, but is composed in order to lead you deeper into the mysteries of God and into God’s own self-revelation to you. That’s not to say that there were no errors in Scripture. Indeed—Origen and others identified quite a number of contradictions and logical problems with the literal meaning of the biblical text.[1] However, Origen contended that these apparent errors were themselves intentional: they served as signposts to the fact that a deeper spiritual truth was hidden behind the letter of the text.

Third, because of multiple layers of meaning to the text, the Bible could not be read in a simple and straight-forward way. Not all people are prepared to handle all spiritual truths. There are some truths that require a more mature spirit. As a result, the biblical text itself conceals or veils certain meanings for two key reasons—so that the unworthy will not discover them and the unready not be scandalized by them, and so that those who are ready and worthy will experience delight and the thrill of discovery when they find them. The Holy Spirit itself had hidden these meanings within the text and would guide readers to them when they were ready to receive them.

We will look at these reading practices in more detail at a later point—here it’s sufficient to name a few of these in order to illustrate some of the differences between how they perceived the Scriptures then and the way they are looked at now.

Modern biblical scholarship is rooted in the scientific study of the Scriptures. While that phrase might conjure up a rather ridiculous vision of men in white lab coats pouring out test-tubes on a Bible in an attempt to analyze it, it means something more serious than that. Biblical scholars are people who have devoted their lives to the investigation of the text of Scripture and the world—or thought-worlds—that produced it. Some of them are faithful Christians. Some are faithful Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or may hold no religious beliefs at all. Whether a scholar believes Christian truth-claims about the text is not the point; academic scholarship of the Bible is intended to be as objective as possible to the degree that a scholar’s research should be compelling to others whether they hold religious beliefs about the text or not.

The purpose of the academic study of the Bible is to examine its disparate writings within the historical, linguistic, social, and intellectual contexts where they were created and the impact they had on later readers and interpreters of the texts. That is, whether a scholar believes that God was at work in the writing or not is beside the point: the fact remains that any given section of the biblical materials is a text written down by a particular person in a particular language at a particular time in history which was then edited by other culturally-bounded people who included it within a broader set of texts that has eventually come down to us as “the Bible.” Biblical scholars study all of the various particularities that I have listed here—and more—in order to arrive at a better understanding of what the human author intended to communicate and how its various editors and readers would have received it. In short, biblical scholars approach the Scriptures as they would any other ancient work of literature that has exerted important influence on human thought and action. Just as one can analyze Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad regardless of belief in its gods and heroes, the same sort of intellectual tools and techniques can be used to analyze the Scriptures.

Generally speaking, the academic study of the Scriptures diverged from the exclusively religious study of the Scriptures around the middle of the nineteenth century in German universities. Ever since then, with increasing degrees of self-understanding, rigor, and sophistication, academic scholarship has existed apart from purely faith-based perspectives on the Scriptures. Paradoxically, despite its distancing itself from religious truth-claims, academic biblical scholarship still remains in close contact with the faith and faith communities. Many academic scholars are also seminary professors—they teach future clergy and lay leaders. Indeed, some academic scholars are themselves clergy or lay leaders in a variety of Christian churches. Some scholars focus their work towards the academic community (“the guild” as we call it), others focus it towards faith communities, and still others do both.[2]

How does modern biblical scholarship differ from patristic thinkers like Cassiodorus and Benedict?

In truth, the starting place is entirely different. The scientific study of the Scriptures begins by bracketing out any notion of supernatural agency in the composition of the text. That’s not the same as denying it—rather, divine inspiration is not something that scientific processes are able to detect, assess, or evaluate. Instead—just as a literary scholar would approach the Iliad—it begins with the indisputable truth that the books that make up the Old and New Testaments were written down by human authors within human societies, and that they were edited, transmitted, and understood in certain ways by their original communities and by the communities that inherited them. This different starting place challenges many of the assumptions held by Benedict and Cassiodorus.

First, biblical scholars do not analyze the Old and New Testaments as a seamless whole. Indeed, Hebrew Bible and New Testament/Early Christian Literature are usually separate departments in the academic world. One factor that contributed to the seamless feel experienced by Benedict and Cassiodorus was that of translation: in their bibles there was no linguistic difference between the Old and New Testaments because they had both been translated or edited by a single man (Jerome) into a single language (Latin). Every act of translation is an act of interpretation; since Jerome also believed that the Holy Spirit was the originator of both testaments, he translated in such a way to bring out the similarities and to reinforce the presence of common and interconnecting phrases. Far from experiencing the Bible this way, modern scholars encounter each book in its original language, noting the presence of older Hebraic forms more related to the Ugaritic language spoken by the neighboring Canaanites, more recent Hebrew flavored by the Akkadian of the Babylonian Exile or Aramaic of the Persian period. The New Testament, of course, was written in Koine Greek, a wide-spread trade dialect of Greek used throughout the Mediterranean region, and also shows a familiarity with the Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint. Not only are the Scriptures not read as a whole, individual books are analyzed for seams in the text that indicate where and when earlier collections of material have been brought together.[3]

That’s not to say that there aren’t literary connections or cross-references across the Testaments. There certainly are. In particular, New Testament authors took great pains to make reference to Old Testament principles, passages, and prophecies in order to demonstrate the continuity between Jesus and the promises made by God through out the Hebrew Scriptures. What makes these challenging is that some of the references are not, in fact, to the Hebrew text; by the 2nd century BCE the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt had translated their Scriptures into Greek and had included some additional books as well.[4] Because of textual divergences, misinterpretations of archaic Hebrew phrases, or other reasons, the text of this Greek translation, the Septuagint, is sometimes different in content and meaning from the Hebrew text traditions that we have inherited. Jerome, who was familiar with both the Hebrew and Septuagint texts, could simply make these differences go away in his translation. Modern scholars, on the other hand, focus on the text as it was first written which leads to the next point.

Second, where Origen, Benedict, and Cassiodorus had sought out a multiplicity of levels of meaning within the biblical text, the scientific study of Scripture has a different purpose and orientation. Classical historically-focused scholarship has centered on the principle of “authorial intent.” It asks the very specific question, what did the original human author intend to communicate to his readership when he wrote these words? In order to answer this question, scholars look at the historical situation of the text’s composition, the culture at the time as it can be best reconstructed, linguistic cues, related texts, and analogous texts from neighboring cultures. For instance, a scholar investigating Psalm 29 might look at it in relation to Canaanite hymns written in the Ugaritic language, looking for commonalities and differences in the kinds of images, meter, or turns of phrase used. This approach discards later meanings imposed back onto the text. Thus, a scholar looking at the book of Ezekiel would seek to discover what the historical Ezekiel meant by the phrase “son of man (Heb: ben-adam)” rather than assuming a connection to Jesus based on the christological title “son of man (Grk: huios tou anthropou)” found in the gospels.

Third, the emphasis on authorial intent foregrounds the literal meaning of the text. Modern scholarship rejects spiritual or allegorical interpretations unless there is something in the text that specifically indicates their presence. The kind of veiled reading performed by Benedict and Cassiodorus would be considered a form of over-reading the text by many scholars—twisting the original meaning in order to find meanings not intended by its author. For centuries, biblical scholarship, born out of Reformation arguments, rejected traditional allegorical interpretations by insisting on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. That is, Reformers and biblical scholars alike insisted that the intended meaning of the biblical text was clear and obvious; regular people could have access to the clear meaning of Scriptures apart from mediation by the Church and its clergy. The focus of scholarship was uncovering the single objective meaning of the biblical text.

It would be great if a single text had only a single objective meaning. We could find out “the right answer” once, and never have to worry about it again! Unfortunately, neither people nor texts work this way in reality. Biblical scholarship has kept step with advances in literary and linguistic theory, and in the last several decades have backed off from the notion that there is a single correct objective meaning. Newer fields and methods like reader-response and reception history have recognized that texts can have a life of their own apart from authorial intent and that communities can find legitimate meanings within texts that their authors would never have considered. In fact, it is some of these newer methods that have led scholars to take a second look at patristic and medieval reading practices that earlier generations of scholars had rejected out of hand.[5]

[[Edited to include this from the comments: Furthermore, there is an irony inherent in the academic project’s insistence on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. The academic study of the Scriptures sought to do away with the notion that a particular and specially educated class of readers—the Roman Catholic priesthood steeped in the principles of patristic, scholastic, and allegorical interpretation—were the only ones able to correctly interpret the biblical texts. Scholarship did this through its appeal to the plain sense of the text and the importance of the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent. However, the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent is not as clear or plain as it might appear to be. To do this correctly requires a specialized knowledge of the Ancient Near Eastern or competing forms of Second Temple Judaisms’ historical and intellectual contexts that prompted the writing (and editing) of the books in the first place; knowledge only found and mediated by the academic guild. Hence the irony: one body of specialized readers has been replaced by another! ]]

It’s not hard to see from this quick look why some churches and church leaders take issue with the scientific study of the Scriptures: scholarly findings can and do overturn some dearly-held traditional assumptions about both the Scriptures and the faith. An obvious case is that of authorship. Linguistic and historical clues suggest that some books of the Bible are not written by the people to whom they are attributed including parts of Isaiah (as mentioned in the note), Ecclesiastes, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), and Daniel to name just a few. Most pertinent for our purposes, the Davidic authorship of the Psalms is denied by most scholars; we’ll dig into this a little later. If the attributions are incorrect, that casts doubt upon principles of inerrancy. Furthermore, if a work like Daniel, ostensibly written in the 6th century BCE and prophesying historical events in the future, was actually written in the 2nd century BCE and the events prophesied are in its author’s past, not future, what does that say about the reliability of the Scriptures?[6]

[[Furthermore, modern scholarship has overturned a traditional caste of privileged readers—the priesthood and its study of historical patterns of interpretation—and replaced them with a brand-new caste of privileged readers: academic scholars. And this new privileged caste exists entirely outside of the control of religious bodies. For some people and debates, this is a good thing! For others, it increases the wariness with which these techniques are viewed.]]

Thus, on one hand, when confronted by the differences between traditional beliefs and modern findings, some church communities respond by rejecting modern analytical techniques altogether or by allowing only a few carefully circumscribed methods to be used. On the other hand, some academics take an untoward delight at attacking religious beliefs and practices as a result of their research and freedom from ecclesiastical controls.

Because of these challenges to traditional belief, for many years the Roman Catholic Church was among the number of churches rejecting the academic study of Scripture, rightly noting that academic biblical scholarship had started in Protestant universities with an eye to undercutting the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium about the Scriptures. However, since Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante spiritu (1943) and Vatican II’s reiteration of its principles in the constitution Dei Verbum (1965), Roman Catholics have joined with Mainline Protestants in recognizing the importance of the scientific study of the Scriptures to the life of faith. The trick now is figuring out how this works, connecting the spirituality of the Church Fathers with the insights of modern scholarship when the two have diverging understandings of important principles.

[1] For instance, just in the first few chapters of Genesis, Origen notes that light was created several days before the sun and moon raising questions about how light exists without light sources and how days could be measured without the movement of sun and moon. Too, he wonders that an all-knowing God with no form or image could wander through a garden, crushing grass with his (formless?) feet and not know where his creatures were hiding.

[2] For example, I do both. My earlier work on Cassiodorus and the psalms, Honey of Souls, is perfectly acceptable to the guild: I do not make any faith-claims of my own or require that my readers hold any. It is neutral with regard to one’s personal belief. This book is different—I am writing it for people with a spiritual interest in seeing the psalms as Christian prayer and, thus, I write it as a Christian who prays the psalms.

[3] A classic example is the book of Isaiah. The first 39 chapters are largely the work of Isaiah, son of Amoz, writing in the 8th century BCE. However, from chapter 40 on, the tone, style, and language shift, and the content addresses the sitution of the Jewish Exiles in Babylon after the Edict of Cyrus in 515 BCE allowed them to return to their homeland. Most scholars see this Second Isaiah as being written in the time it addresses, the late 6th century. While not written by Isaiah, son of Amoz, it shares many of the same theological beliefs that he advocated and the two bodies of material belong together theologically and thematically. And, some scholars debate whether there’s a Third Isaiah (Isa 60-66) stuck in there too!

[4] Those additional books are referred to either as the Apocrypha or the Deutero-canonicals. Jerome was not a fan of them, believing the Hebrew texts to be the best, but the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches still read them as being part of the Bible.

[5] For the sake of full disclosure, my dissertation and first book, Reading Matthew with Monks, is based on these methods and looks at what modern scholarship can learn from early medieval monastic readers

[6] Actually in this case, it means nothing at all about the accuracy of prophecy or Scripture. Daniel is not a prophetic book trying to foretell the future, but is an apocalyptic book giving hope to the persecuted Jewish people of the 2nd century BCE by reminding them that God is in control of history, no matter how dire things look now. That’s why the Jewish Bible includes Daniel among the Writings, not the Prophets.

10 Replies to “PC: Biblical Scholarship and the Spiritual Life”

  1. I think it is a simply splendid exposition of a massively complicated net of assumptions and realities. My congratulations to you!

    JJ+

  2. Thank you, Father!

    I remembered a paragraph that needs to be included around the perspecuity of the Scriptures—the irony that one set of experts has been overthrown for the elevation of a different set; something like this…:

    Furthermore, there is an irony inherent in the academic project’s insistence on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. The academic study of the Scriptures sought to do away with the notion that a particular and specially educated class of readers—the Roman Catholic priesthood steeped in the principles of patristic, scholastic, and allegorical interpretation—were the only ones able to correctly interpret the biblical texts. Scholarship did this through its appeal to the plain sense of the text and the importance of the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent. However, the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent is not as clear or plain as it might appear to be. To do this correctly requires a specialized knowledge of the Ancient Near Eastern or competing forms of Second Temple Judaisms’ historical and intellectual contexts that prompted the writing (and editing) of the books in the first place; knowledge only found and mediated by the academic guild. Hence the irony: one body of specialized readers has been replaced by another!

  3. Feedback from a non-native English speaker: this was very clear, concise and helpful. The most intriguing bit (that I would like to read more about) was the bit about recent linguistic and literary theory approaching medieval reading practices in a more appreciative manner than their predecessors.

  4. I’m realizing as I read through this again, that there’s an important piece of the argument missing that I allude to at points but don’t address clearly that does need a full treatment…

    Patristic readers assumed (based on the Pauline principle articulated in Romans 15:4 (“whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction”) and 1 Corinthians 10:11 (“These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us…”) that the intended reader of the biblical text was “us”, the reader of the (patristic) present day for the sake of our spiritual edification.

    Modern biblical scholarship assumes that the intended reader of the biblical text was the community or circle of readers to whom the author was directing the written work for the sake of theological but also political and economic purposes which may or may not be obvious to later readers.

    This difference in the intended readership and purpose is also a very important thing to discuss!

  5. I recently watched a You Tube series of lectures by Robert Jensen arguing for a Creedal approach to Biblical interpretation. Are you familiar with his work? And how do you evaluate it”

  6. Ironically, I did undergrad at St. Olaf where Jensen taught for years, but never had a class with him… I haven’t seen the specific talks you’re referencing, but I’m broadly in favor of reading creedally (I am a creedal “literalist”) and with theological attention. We start getting into trouble when theological categories drive the interpretive process and direction rather than the text, though–and several approaches by theologians are or can be guilty of this.

  7. Derek, I think that this could profit by an engagement with Frei and Tanner and the recovery of a preliteral sensus litteralis. How might these developments, as well as other hermeneutically sophisticated contemporary theologies, eg Tracy, Lubac, Schneiders, and Watson, transform our conception of scientific, post-critical exegesis, in ways that would ground a different sort of retrieval of the wealth of precritical exegesis. The literature around dei Verbum should be interesting in this respect.

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