The Interpretation of the Bible within the Church


With the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (Pius XII, 1943) Catholic biblical scholarship received a mandate to use the newer methods of interpretation. Pius XII, through his interest in promoting higher and critical biblical research, deserves the title of Patron of Catholic Biblical Studies. This encyclical would be followed by several important documents from the Church and Vatican II. In 1964 the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued an Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels and was soon followed by the Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Vatican II Council in 1965. This decree states that the Magisterium authentically interprets the word of God, yet, this teaching office of the Church is not above the word of God, rather, it serves it (Dei Verbum 2:10).


For Mariologists the Constitution asserts, “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching, firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation (Dei Verbum 11). This is an opening for the Marian scholar to assert the role that Mary has in the history of salvation precisely because she cooperated with God’s call for her to be the mother of the Son of God. Her presence at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25-28A) and in the upper room (Acts 1:14) point to her role in the Paschal Mysteries of her Son (soteriology) and to the descent of the Holy Spirit on the nascent community of the Church (ecclesiology).


Dei Verbum favors a rereading of the Old Testament in the light of the Christ event: “God, the inspirer and author of both testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New. For, though Christ established the New Covenant in His blood (cf. Luke22:20; I Corinthians 11:25), still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:27; Romans 16:25-26; II Corinthians 3:14-16) and in turn shed light on it and explain it.” (Dei Verbum 4:16). Chapter five of the same document confirms what was said in the 1964 statement: there are three stages of development in the Gospels: 1) the historical time of Jesus of Nazareth, 2) the period of apostolic preaching, and 3) the finalization of the Gospel through the writings of the evangelists.


The final chapter of Dei Verbum is pastoral in nature and essentially teaches that the Scriptures are the “soul of theology” (and, hence of Mariology). We thus see that Cardinal Baum’s letter flows from Dei Verbum, especially from chapter six. All theologians and exegetes are concerned with the literal sense of the Scriptures. The theological teachings of the magisterium concerning the individual texts or books are to be carefully set forth in Marian reflections issuing from the Scriptures. The spiritual sense of Scripture is not to be neglected but explored and expounded together with the writings of the Church Fathers and the history of the Church’s interpretation ( N.J.B.C. p.1170:72:21).


Pope John Paul II who uses the Scriptures in his own Marian theology, offers the scholars a positive encouragement: “Attention must be given to the literary forms of the various biblical books in order to determine the intention of the sacred writers. And it is most helpful to be aware of the personal situation of the biblical writer, of the circumstances of culture, time, language, etc. Presented… In this way, it is possible to avoid a narrow fundamentalism which distorts the whole truth.” (AAS 78 [1986] 1217-1219)


The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church


Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993)

This latest instruction is very positive about the use of all of the methods and approaches mentioned above. As an essential document about methodology and approaches to Scripture, as well as the hermeneutical and pastoral concerns of the Church, this instruction will be essential to all Marian biblical scholars. It both describes the methods and shows their limitations. Going beyond what has been said before, the document spells out Dei Verbum in a contemporary manner which retains the uplifting spirit of Vatican II.


The methods and approaches are current ones. The historical-critical method is seen as the foundation for all other methods in establishing the accuracy and sound interpretation of texts. The limits of the method are also pointed out. The historical-critical method is diachronic (that is, a careful study of the history of the text and its tradition, its authorship and authenticity). This method seeks to shed light upon the historical processes which give rise to the biblical texts. It proceeds from textual criticism to redaction criticism, operating with the help of scientific criteria. In other words, this is a research into “the World behind the Text.”


Besides this diachronic approach, newer methods, which emphasize a synchronic one are enumerated:

  1. Rhetorical analysis
  2. Narrative analysis and
  3. Semiotic analysis. Paul Ricouer would describe these as emphasizing the “World within the text.”


Other approaches are based on the tradition and history of the development of the Bible such as canonical criticism and the recourse to Jewish traditions of interpretation including insights from studying the Septuagint, the Targum, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the apocryphal writings and also the Talmudic interpretations. This is sometimes called a rereading of the texts in the light of the New Testament. Aristide Serra, a very reputable Marian scholar, has developed this method especially in his monumental work E C’era la Madre di Gesu … saggi di esegesi biblico-Mariana (1978-1988).


This work is among the more creative studies of Mary in the Bible and offers its readers an opportunity for understanding a contemporary method of reading the Bible. Mary is situated within the culture and history of her times seen in the light of later developments from the same culture and people. The Jewishness of Mary is easily seen through such a study. The instruction mentions approaches which use the human sciences such as 1) sociology, 2) cultural-anthropology and 3) psychological and psychoanalytical studies of the Bible.


The controversial issue entitled “Mary, Woman of the Mediterranean” in the summer edition of the Biblical Theological Bulletin of 1990 shows this dimension of Mary in the Scriptures. Care should be taken to eliminate the biases of a personal nature that are foisted upon an otherwise good presentation from these sciences.


The last part of the document mentions the contextual approaches of 1) liberation studies: Mary could be seen as a person who is united with the poor (the ‘anawim) and with the oppressed. She expresses this through the Magnificat; 2) feminist studies: both critique the maximalist position of Marian scholars and also offer new insights into how to explore the Scriptures with a” hermeneutic of suspicion” which often results in new discoveries about the world of women in the first century and the texts reflecting that period. Noteworthy among feminist scholars are Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Ann Johnson, and Elaine Wainwright.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission has offered to all biblical scholars an excellent tool for seeing the value and the limits of each method and approach. There is an updating which every Marian scholar should be aware of as they approach the Marian texts of the Bible. Once again, think of the contribution of Aristide Serra in this domain of new methodologies. Finally, the document takes on a pastoral role of showing how the Bible is to be related to today’s issues.


This is taken up in the last part under the title of “Hermeneutical Questions, Characteristics of Catholic Interpretation, and Interpretation of the Bible in the Life of the Church.” Biblical scholars will find useful information on how to approach the texts used in the liturgy for Marian Masses and their themes. A debt of gratitude belongs to the Marianum and its professors for the research and development of these Marian masses and their attractive themes for churches and shrines dedicated to the Mother of God.