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Examining the Role of the Reader: A Necessary Task for Catholic Biblical Interpretation

  • Gilberto A. Ruiz (a1)

Thanks to the explosion of methods and hermeneutical frameworks that have surfaced in biblical studies since the 1970s, the discipline looks very different today than when Catholic scholars were first openly permitted to engage it. Among these approaches are those that foreground the complex role the real flesh-and-blood reader plays in interpretation. Recent discussion on what makes biblical interpretation “Catholic” reveals it to be a contested topic. Through an analysis of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church and Frank M. Yamada's article “What Does Manzanar Have to Do with Eden? A Japanese American Interpretation of Genesis 2–3,” the present article enters the discussion over what constitutes Catholic biblical interpretation to argue that it must integrate hermeneutical approaches that foreground real readers within the context of lived realities.

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1 See Osiek, Carolyn, “Catholic or catholic? Biblical Scholarship at the Center,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 1 (2006): 522 ; Witherup, Ronald D., Scripture: “Dei Verbum,” Rediscovering Vatican II (New York: Paulist, 2006), 110–15. Osiek captures some of the central questions that have emerged in this debate when she writes, “What makes biblical interpretation Catholic (with capital C)? That it is done by someone who professes adherence to the Roman Catholic Church? And its teachings? By someone who has grown up with a Catholic cultural heritage? By someone who expressly and consciously holds in mind the major church documents of the last two centuries on biblical interpretation? By someone who simply interprets out of one's own academic and religious identity, the unarticulated ‘pre-understanding’?” (7).

2 Murphy, Roland E., “What Is Catholic about Catholic Biblical Scholarship—Revisited?,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 28 no. 3 (1998): 112–19. According to Murphy, it is the exegete's self-understanding as a Catholic interpreter working within the living tradition of the church, not any particular method or product of biblical research, that “colors the approach to the text” (118).

3 Johnson, Luke Timothy and Kurz, William S., The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).

4 Williamson, Peter S., Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” Subsidia Biblica 22 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2001); Williamson, , “Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2003): 327–49.

5 Harrington, Daniel J., How Do Catholics Read the Bible? Come & See (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 1316 . According to Williamson, this is the foundational principle undergirding the Pontifical Biblical Commission's approach to Scripture (Catholic Principles, 28–40; “Catholic Principles,” 332–33).

6 Witherup, Scripture, 113–14.

7 Matera, Frank J., “An Act of Theology: The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship,” Commonweal 140, no. 13 (2013): 89 .

8 Viviano, Benedict Thomas, Catholic Hermeneutics Today: Critical Essays (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), xii.

9 Ibid., 1–13, esp. 12–13.

10 Segovia, Fernando F., Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 30.

11 Ibid.

12 See Brown, Michael Joseph, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship (Harrisburg, PA; Trinity Press International, 2004), 123 ; Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies, 3–33.

13 As anticipated by Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which allowed Catholic scholars to use scientific methods of biblical criticism, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (1965), gave Catholic biblical interpreters license to enter the academic discourse of critical biblical studies. Catholic biblical scholars took advantage of this freedom and today are welcome partners in the guild, participating fully in the enterprise along with their Protestant and secular counterparts. Indeed, so closely interwoven with the model of Protestant and secular biblical criticism has been the work of Catholic biblical scholars that the question of whether we can even call the work of Catholic exegetes “Catholic” has been asked, perhaps most directly by Johnson (Johnson and Kurz, Future, 3–34; see Viviano, Catholic Hermeneutics Today, 29–33, for a critique of Johnson's views). For a concise history of the Roman Catholic Church's relationship to critical biblical studies, see Osiek, “Catholic or catholic?,” 7–15.

14 For an incisive charting of academic biblical studies since the 1970s, see Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies, 3–52.

15 In addition to those cited in note 16 below, works of biblical interpretation that foreground the reader and his/her context and interests include Newsom, Carol A., Ringe, Sharon H., and Lapsley, Jacqueline E., eds., Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012); Segovia, Fernando F. and Tolbert, Mary Ann, eds., Reading from This Place, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler, ed., Searching the Scriptures, 2 vols. (New York: Crossroad, 1993–94); Sugirtharajah, R. S., Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, rev. and expanded 3rd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006).

16 Bailey, Randall C., Liew, Tat-siong Benny, and Segovia, Fernando F., eds., They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism, Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies 57 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009); Bailey, Randall C., ed., Yet with a Steady Beat: Contemporary U.S. Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation, Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies 42 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003); Blount, Brian K. et al. ., eds., True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007); Brown, Blackening of the Bible; Felder, Cain Hope, ed., Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991); Liew, Tat-siong Benny, What Is Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics? Reading the New Testament (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008); Lozada, Francisco Jr. and Segovia, Fernando F., Latino/a Biblical Hermeneutics: Problematics, Objectives, Strategies, Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies 68 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014); Page, Hugh R. Jr. et al. ., eds., The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009).

17 Barton, John, The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007).

18 Ibid., 137.

19 Ibid., 142.

20 Ibid., 159.

21 Ibid., 162.

22 On the polysemous nature of biblical texts, see Croatto, J. Severino, Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading as the Production of Meaning, trans. Barr, Robert R. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).

23 Blount, Brian K., Cultural Interpretation: Reorienting New Testament Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies; Segovia, “Toward a Hermeneutics of the Diaspora: A Hermeneutics of Otherness and Engagement,” in Reading from This Place, vol. 1, Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States, ed. Segovia, Fernando F. and Tolbert, Mary Ann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 5773 .

24 In Béchard, Dean P., ed. and trans., The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 244317 . On the PBC and the nature of its ecclesial authority, see Williamson, Catholic Principles, 13–17; Williamson, “Catholic Principles,” 329; Witherup, Scripture, 115–22.

25 Frank M. Yamada, “What Does Manzanar Have to Do with Eden? A Japanese American Interpretation of Genesis 2–3,” in Bailey, Liew, and Segovia, They Were All Together in One Place? 97–117.

26 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 248–49. More fully stated, the document's purpose is “to give serious consideration to the various aspects of the present situation as regards the interpretation of the Bible—to attend to the criticisms and the complaints, as also to the hopes and aspirations that are being expressed in this matter, to assess the possibilities opened up by the new methods and approaches, and, finally, to try to determine more precisely the direction that best corresponds to the mission of exegesis in the Catholic Church” (Introduction, §B; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 248).

27 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 249.

28 The methods covered are historical criticism (§I.A), certain methods of literary analysis (rhetorical, narrative, and semiotic analysis) (§I.B), approaches based on tradition (the canonical approach, Jewish traditions of interpretation, and the history of influence approach, i.e., Wirkungsgeschichte) (§I.C), approaches that use the human sciences (sociological, cultural anthropological, psychological, and psychoanalytic approaches) (§I.D), contextual approaches (liberationist and feminist approaches) (§I.E), and fundamentalist interpretation (§I.F).

29 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 313–15.

30 Ibid., 313 (emphasis in the original).

31 Ibid., 314.

32 Ibid. (emphasis in the original).

33 “The interpretation of a text is always dependent on the mindset and concerns of its readers. Readers give privileged attention to certain aspects and, without even being aware of it, neglect others. Thus, it is inevitable that some exegetes bring to their work points of view that are new and responsive to contemporary currents of thought which have not up until now been taken sufficiently into consideration. It is important that they do so with critical discernment” (§I.E; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 269).

34 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 270.

35 Ibid.

36 The PBC elaborates this point by warning that, despite the fact that exegesis can never be neutral, “it must also take care not to become one-sided,” and by stating outright that “social and political action is not the direct task of the exegete” (§I.E.1; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 271).

37 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 271.

38 Ibid. To be sure, the PBC finds this focus understandable given the immense social problems addressed by liberation theology.

39 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 271.

40 Ibid., 272.

41 Ibid.

42 The full quotation reads as follows: “With regard to the Old Testament, several studies have striven to come to a better understanding of the image of God. The God of the Bible is not a projection of a patriarchal mentality. He is Father, but also the God of tenderness and maternal love” (§I.E.2; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 273).

43 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 273.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid. There were nineteen votes cast on the text of this paragraph, eleven in favor and four against, with four abstentions. At the request of those who voted against this paragraph, the PBC agreed that the results of this vote be published in a footnote to this text.

47 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 269.

48 Ibid., 271.

49 Ibid., 273. This criticism is vague, as this statement could be made about any approach, since none are truly objective and devoid of preconceived judgments. Indeed, this is the great insight of the contextual methods—to make preconceived judgments explicit and bring them to the analysis of the text.

50 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 273. According to the PBC, this attempt at historical reconstruction is based on “fleeting indications in the text,” “does not correspond at all to the work of exegesis properly so called,” and “entails rejecting the content of the inspired texts in preference for a hypothetical construction, quite different in nature” (§I.E.2; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 273). But how does this attempt at historical reconstruction differ from what other exegetes employing historical-critical methodology do? To cite source and form criticism as examples, whatever sources make up the Pentateuch, the Gospel of John, or Second Corinthians, source critics determine the presence of sources precisely on “fleeting indications in the text.” Form criticism then proceeds to develop a “hypothetical construction” of these sources and to reconstruct their Sitze im Leben, which may well be “quite different in nature” from the current “inspired texts” in which they are presently found, since the final editors embedded their sources into the present documents and in doing so hid their previous historical and social situations. So what is different about feminist exegesis in this regard?

51 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 273.

52 The problem, though, is deciding who determines what is “useful to the Church,” since a feminist approach, as the PBC correctly states, “raises questions of power within the Church” (§I.E.2; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 273).

53 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 296.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Yamada, “Manzanar,” 98–99.

58 Ibid., 99.

59 Ibid.

60 See the review in Yamada, “Manzanar,” 98–101. Yamada himself agrees with recent Pentateuch scholarship that, while containing material that predates the Babylonian captivity, the final shaping of the Pentateuch took place during the Persian period (97).

61 Yamada, “Manzanar,” 102–3.

62 Ibid., 102.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid., 106.

65 Ibid., 107.

66 Ibid.

67 Ibid., 108.

68 Ibid., 110.

69 Ibid., 113.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid., 103.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid., 104.

74 Ibid.

75 Ibid., 114–15.

76 See note 97 below.

77 Yamada, “Manzanar,” 114.

78 Ibid., 112–13.

79 Segovia, Fernando F., “Criticism in Critical Times: Reflections on Vision and Task,” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 1 (2015): 629 .

80 Ibid., 16–25.

81 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 313.

82 Ibid., 295–96 (emphasis in the original).

83 “The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation . . . is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the Incarnation itself” (§I.F; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 274).

84 Blount, Cultural Interpretation, 7–16, esp. 11–12, 15–16. Blount draws on sociolinguistics, especially the work of M. A. K. Halliday, to identify the three “macro-functions” that form the basis of the adult grammatical system: textual, ideational, and interpersonal. The textual macro-function “comprises the grammatical component that enables the speaker to organize his or her material effectively so that it can perform its function as a message” (11). The textual macro-function, then, refers to the actual words and sentence structure produced by a speaker or writer. The ideational macro-function refers to the ideas, concepts, and experiences (“ideational content”) that are encoded and signified by the words and grammar in a communicative act (11). The interpersonal macro-function refers to the role language plays in conditioning our self-perception and our relationship with others within our social context or environment (11). For Blount, sociolinguistic theory as developed by Halliday has significant implications for biblical interpretation. It means that attention to the interpersonal element of communication—both of the ancient biblical authors and their communities and of modern interpreters—is as important for unlocking their meanings as is analysis of the biblical writings in their historical, cultural, and social contexts.

85 Blount, Cultural Interpretation, 15–16. Blount likens this reality to how the same idyllic lake in the mountains has a different meaning for a man seeking respite from city life than it does for an eagle seeking fish. For one, the lake represents beauty and serenity; for the other, it is a source of food. It's the same lake, but it means something different depending on the perspective from which one approaches the lake. “The change is one of perspective. This change allows, perhaps even demands, a change in what is seen. The eagle does not place fish in the pond, neither is the man's visit here problematic because he has missed the fish. Each of them has seen something unique in the vast array of possibilities because each has come to this place with different questions. It is for this reason that while they see clearly, they also see differently” (175–76).

86 Blount, Cultural Interpretation, 28.

87 Ibid., 89.

88 Ibid.

89 Segovia, “Toward a Hermeneutics of the Diaspora,” 68. Segovia argues that biblical criticism should be “a genuine exchange with otherness—the otherness both of the text and of other readers of the text,” which is impossible without renouncing the presumption of universality and objectivity and accepting the indispensability of contextuality of both text and reader (67).

90 “The question is not, therefore, whether there should be historical criticism; it is a point I readily grant. The question rather is what kind of historical criticism should there be. What is rejected is historical criticism as traditionally practiced” (Segovia, “Toward a Hermeneutics of the Diaspora,” 67n).

91 Since “no reader—not even an ideal or highly informed one—is atemporal, asocial, or ahistorical, speaking uniformly for all times and cultures” (Segovia, “Toward a Hermeneutics of the Diaspora,” 70), the reader too is to be “regarded as socially and culturally conditioned, as an other to both text and other readers” (69). Just as historical criticism and other traditional forms of analysis seek to contextualize biblical texts within their social and cultural contexts, so too should readers and their reading strategies be subject to contextualization (69–70): “Rather than seeking after impartiality or objectivity, presuming to universality, and claiming to read like anyone or everyone, the hermeneutics of otherness and engagement argues for a self-conscious exposition and analysis of the reader's strategy for reading, the theoretical foundations behind this strategy, and the social location underlying such a strategy” (69). Additionally, the reading or interpretative process is not to be considered “a neutral encounter between two independent, socially and culturally conditioned entities or worlds, but rather as an unavoidable filtering of the one world or entity by and through the other, of the text by and through the reader” (70). As a result, any historical or cultural reconstruction or contextualization of the text is actually “not a reconstruction but a construction of the past on the part of the reader” (71). World “behind the text” analyses themselves are thus “readings” and not impartial assessments of the evidence. Ultimately, Segovia sees historical criticism as itself a contextual approach because (1) it constitutes an industrious effort to recover the context of the original author (or redactor) implied by the text in order to reconstruct the otherness of the text, and (2) the interpreter who deploys historical criticism brings his or her own context and interests to the task of interpretation. Therefore, historical criticism constitutes a reading strategy that must be engaged critically, as must any other reading strategy that is employed in interpretation.

92 Segovia, “Toward a Hermeneutics of the Diaspora,” 72.

93 For Segovia, that historical criticism can be practiced without presuppositions and that the method is itself value-neutral and can thus serve as the foundational method for determining a text's meaning is not theoretically sustainable. See Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies, 55–86, esp. 59–63, 73–86.

94 Blount, Cultural Interpretation, 28.

95 In fact, Yamada's reading is not entirely new, since gnostic readings of the first chapters in Genesis from the early Christian period (e.g., the gnostic text Hypostasis of the Archons) also accessed this “meaning potential” (though on different grounds), viewing God as the antagonist of the story. See note 97 below.

96 Segovia, “Toward a Hermeneutics of the Diaspora,” 72. “Readings” of texts can be critically engaged from any number of standpoints, so long as one remains critically honest and does not presume that his or her standpoint is objective and neutral, and therefore superior (69–72).

97 Whether Yamada is aware of such anti-Jewish implications is not clear (he makes no mention of such in his article). But by following recent Pentateuch scholarship in situating the passage's origins within the context of Israel's own historical exile and displacement, Yamada grounds his alternate reading of Genesis 2–3 in a manner that builds upon the results of historical-critical scholarship (“Manzanar,” 97). It is this context of exile that leads him to propose the experience of another displaced people (Japanese Americans during World War II) as an appropriate “intertext” with the biblical narrative (98–99). Moreover, he justifies his reading on exegetical grounds, especially the fact that it addresses the exegetical puzzle of why the first humans do not suffer the stated punishment of death for their disobedience (101, 110–13). Instead of death, God in the story “creates exile, a reality that Israel knew all too well” (112), and the survival of the humans outside the garden resonates with Israel's own persistence and survival “even when death was proclaimed for them in a land that was not their home” (113). Yamada's reading, then, functions to explain why the final redactors of Genesis 2–3 shaped this story as they did. This differs from classic gnostic readings of this same passage, which approached the text not with the aim of the texts’ redactors in mind but with the theological supposition that the Jewish God is an oppressive force, reading the text as an indictment of what the Jewish God is actually like from their point of view. Yet despite being grounded in historical-critical scholarship on the Pentateuch and supported exegetically with reference to the narrative dynamics of Genesis 2–3, Yamada's reading may still raise concerns over its potential anti-Jewish ramifications, since the passage is now so far removed from its original context of exile and displacement.

98 Its position on the historical-critical method leads the PBC to be very critical of fundamentalist approaches to Scripture. Within the paradigms of Blount and Segovia, the PBC can still be critical by articulating clearly (as it does in the document) its position against fundamentalist hermeneutics.

99 On this point, see the work of Catholic systematic theologian Orlando O. Espín. Espín accords to popular religion a revelatory status, so that what people do to express their religious faith is itself a source of revelation, a locus theologicus. For Espín, there is not an abstract “message” that becomes “actualized” in the faith of the people. Rather, the faith of the people plays an indelible role in constructing the message. See his The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).

100 Johnson and Kurz, Future, 6, 43–45.

101 Johnson and Kurz, Future, 5. See also Harrington, How Do Catholics Read the Bible? 38–41, esp. 40.

102 “Historical criticism may not of itself capture precise nuances, but it can approximate the historical meaning at some level, and this cannot be considered as theologically without value” (Murphy, “What Is Catholic?,” 112–13).

103 Béchard, Scripture Documents, 296.

104 Osiek also cites The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church to make a different argument for viewing the newer methods of interpretation as an integral part of Catholic biblical interpretation. Her comments are worth reproducing at length. Discussing the PBC's distinction between the literal, spiritual, and fuller senses of Scripture (§II.B.1–3), she states:

For Christians, the “spiritual sense” . . . is “the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ, and of new life that flows from it” [The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, §II.B.2; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 281–82]. “And of the new life that flows from it”; this new life did not cease at the end of the biblical period, but continues to flow through the patristic, medieval, and modern eras, into our own age. . . .

In light of this, I would expand on the understanding of the “spiritual sense” to include many newer methods and perspectives that are informed by the desire to have us live more authentically the new life that flows from the paschal mystery. I am speaking of those methods born out of the hermeneutic of suspicion, for example, liberation, feminist/womanist/mujerista, and postcolonial interpretation, which probe the implications of the paschal mystery in ways not envisioned in previous centuries. Even if they challenge established power bases—or precisely because they do—they are new manifestations of the same inspiration that led earlier interpreters to ask of the biblical text the question: But what does this have to do with life today? Earlier answers included various forms of metaphor and allegory arising from contemporary preunderstanding. Today's preunderstanding requires analysis of how power is used. If the paschal mystery is about deliverance from death to life, then without the hermeneutic of suspicion, we risk being diminished, not by the text but by earlier preunderstandings that are not yet open to a wider and more inclusive way of living and loving. Just as historical criticism asked the hard analytical questions a century ago and was suspect by many for that reason, so too does the hermeneutic of suspicion today ask the critical questions of our time, and is suspect on the part of many for the same reasons.

The 1993 Interpretation of the Bible in the Church stresses that spiritual interpretation is not to be confused with subjective imagination. “Spiritual interpretation, whether in community or in private, will discover the authentic spiritual sense only to the extent that it is kept within these perspectives. One then holds together three levels of reality: the biblical text, the paschal mystery, and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit” [§II.B.2; Béchard, Scripture Documents, 282]. I believe that this is where these newer methods fit into the common endeavor, as part of the expanded spiritual sense in which we bring our own new understandings to the task, out of our own new questions, and discover new levels of meaning as participants in the ongoing flow of interpretative tradition (“Catholic or catholic?,” 20).

I would like to thank the editorial staff at Horizons and the anonymous reviewers who read the original manuscript submission for their helpful feedback, which I used to improve this article.

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