We are living in an era of scientifico-technological  devel­opment.  This  trend influences also the rational  and  spiritual subjects. Theology could not be an exception. Since theology is a discourse about God, our language today is new and in this new language theology has to be clothed. Since Bible is the “soul of

theology”(OT,n.), biblical message has to be correctly interpret­ed and rightly transposed into the modern life-situation.

In the biblical field, we use all the methods that may be useful to uncover the meaning of the sacred page. Our Seminary has never been lagging behind in the scriptural field. From “scriptural conference”, where the meaning of the biblical texts was explained by professors, we had scientific biblical subjects

and the teaching of biblical languages. Today, in this one and half decade, there has been even more development in the scrip­tural field, but it is a pity that some years ago the biblical languages have been dropped in our Seminary of “glorious tradi­tions”. Msgr.Carmo Anacleto da Silva has been instrumental in modernizing the scriptural studies in this Seminary. In homage, I present this study of the modern trends in biblical exegesis.

We  shall study the landmark of biblical studies. It is in order  to differentiate between biblical exegesis  and  biblical theology.

Biblical Theology is

It is the effort to investigate the text (EKS-EGEOMAI=to bring forth from). It aims at explanation and application. It should investigate the intentionality of the author (autor-mean­ing), the text and the context. It should investigate the history of the text(Textual Criticism). Then we have to investigate the history (Historical Criticism), as well as the sociological context.

We are witnessing a revival of biblical studies. “Return to the sources” (Retour aux Sources) is producing its effects. The Word of God has resumed its central role in the life of the Catholic Church. In fact, the turning-point for Catholic exege­sis was the encyclical DIVINO AFFLANTE SPIRITU (DAS) of PIUS XII in 1943, which gave the green signal to exegetes. As a result of biblical movement, there was also patristic and liturgical rene­wal. From this triple movement, which is called “ressourcement” (that means a revitalization of the roots) a new theology arose (la nouvelle théologie). This biblical movement enriched and improved teaching and preaching. Vatican II liberated the Word of God and put an end to the hibernation or exile of Holy Scrip­ture.

If  we  look at the history of biblical exegesis,  we  could distinguish  four phases: 1)FIRST PHASE: Patristic  and  Medieval Exegesis;

2)SECOND  PHASE:  Confessional  Exegesis in  16th  and  17th centuries;

3)THIRD PHASE: Critical Exegesis;

and   4)FOURTH   PHASE:   Post-Critical   or    Post-Liberal Exegesis.

In  the Patristic Period, we have allegorical  exegesis  in Alexandria and literal exegesis in Antioch. We should not forget the dogmatic implications of Patristic Exegesis, not their literal  exegesis. Medieval Exegesis provides us John Cassian’s  four scriptural  senses, namely historical (or literal), allegorical, tropological  (or moral, today anthropological),  and  anagogical (or  eschatological).

As  a result of Renaissance and Reformation,  Patristic  and Medieval Exegesis fell into oblivion: There was reaction against allegorizing  and  a stress on the historical background  of  the biblical  books.  Collections of biblical passages were  used  to prove  one’s own doctrinal position and disprove  the opponents’ belief.

In  the  17th century Richard Simon (1638-17120,  a  convert from  Protestantism and a priest of the Oratory, inaugurated  the movement  of  modern  biblical criticism[1] with  his  three-volume Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament (attacked by Bossuet and put on  Index)  on literary and historical analysis, though  without much  support from Roman authorities. Critical Exegesis was due to four factors: a)rebirth of the study of classical  Greek  and Latin literature,  as  well as of  ancient  oriental  languages; b)development of natural sciences; c)appearance of historiography as a scientific and rational discipline; d)and radical change  in the philosophical field. We have Julius WELLHAUSEN (Documentary Theory), H.GUNKEL (with his Gattungen,’literary forms’, and Sitz-im-Leben, ‘life-situation’, applied to Gn and Pss), Jean Astruc, physician at the court of Louis XIV (with his Conjectures on two sources, A and B, in the Pentateuch).

Today the Bible is being investigated with the help of all scientific methods. We speak of historico-critical exegesis, structural exegesis, sociological reading (Liberation  Theology, Marxist-materialistic Interpretation of the Scripture, Contextu­al Exegesis, Feminist Interpretation of Scripture), psychoanalyt­ic  reading, spiritual exegesis, existential interpretation,  new hermeneutic, semiology, rhetorical criticism, canonical exegesis.

Each exegetical method has its own merits and demerits. All of them will help us recover a parcel of truth hidden in the rich mines of God’s Word. Their ultimate aim is to provide us with a deep insight and meaning into God’s plans and Will.

1)HISTORICO-CRITICAL  METHOD: With Enlightenment there  came rationalism,  scepticism  and empiricism.  Scholars  applied  the methods of other sciences (physical sciences, historical  scienc­es) to the Bible. By using the critical method, they try to study the  historical background and all circumstances in which the  bk has been written. So for them the main question was: What did the

text  mean for them at that time? They try to ascertain what  was the  meaning  for the writer. Therefore,  they  investigated  the background,  the  bias and preconception of the authors  and  the literary genres. This is called “author/text meaning”. With historical positivism in the 19th century this process was empha­sized.

What is the teaching of the Church? At  the beginning the Church was suspicious because it  was regarded as detrimental for faith. Gradually, it was accepted by the  Church  on the condition that it be  disassociated  for  its rationalistic  and  empiristic bias. The  historical  method  was regarded to be fruitful because it delves into something which is obscure for us.

This method was officially approved by the Church but gradu­ally by Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, which encouraged the Catholic scholars to employ scientific linguistic methods. Then we have the answer of Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) to Cardinal Suhard of Paris on the authorship and historicity of the Pentateuch; Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu ; the “Instruc­

tion on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” by the Pontifical Biblical Commission; Dei Verbum of Vatican II, the Magna Carta of the scientific biblical studies.

Since Christianity is a historical religion, Bible can be subjected to scientific investigation. Bible is the Word of God in human words (language, culture, history, mentality and thought patterns). Jesus was a Jew of Palestine. Therefore, his back­ground has to be investigated. Also the period of oral tradition has to be studied.

These  are  various forms of  historical  criticism:  a)Form Criticism  is  the  investigation of the literary  forms  of  the passage  in the oral tradition (that is, before it was  written).

What was its place in life situation (Sitz-im-Leben)?

We have a trio of form-critics, Karl Ludwig SCHMIDT, Rudolf BULTMANN and Martin DIBELIUS. Their Assumptions: They have three assumptions: a)The Jesus-tradition serves the needs and  purposes of the Church. It was transmitted in three functional forms: apostolic proclamation (Kerygma), teaching (Didakhe) and worship (Leitourgia). The Word of God has been transmitted in three different periods of the Church: i)Period of Expansion (30-65 CE): The Church has expanded in Corinth, Thessalonica, Rome and there have been interactions between the Palestinian Gospel and the Greco-Roman World.

ii)Period of Conflict (65-90 CE): The Church has been perse­cuted  by  Nero  so that Christians had a  problem  with  secular government  and  had to give a reason for their faith  (1  Peter, Hebrews, Revelation).

iii)Period  of  Consolidation  and Apologetic  (from  90  CE onwards):  This  coincides  with the period  of  tolerance  under Emperor  Nero  (96-98 CE), Trajan (98-117 CE),  Hadrian  (117-138 CE).  In this time we have literature of ecclesiastical  concern, dealing  with  the discipline like Pastorals (1-2 Tim, Ti),  the epistles  of John and Jude, 2 Peter and James. But there is  also apologetic  literature,  Acts of the Apostles and the  Gospel  of John.

The second assumption is that in this period of oral  trans­mission  the tradition assumed a certain form or  structure,  for example,  in the Gospel of Mk 6:1-6 (visit to  Nazareth),  6:7-12 (mission of the Twelve), 10:13-16 (Jesus with the children).

The third assumption is that the tradition  which  assumes certain forms has become smoothed and isolated in  self-contained units, for example, we have pronouncement stories (Mk 2:1-12: the Son  of  Man has authority on earth to forgive sins;  Mk  5:1-20: Demoniac and the Swine; Mk 6:30-44: Feeding of the Five Thousand; Mk 6:45-52: Walking on the Sea).

By  using the historico-critical method we  investigate  the literary  genre  of a biblical book (whether it is  history,  pa­rable, fiction or saga), its age,its authorship, his sources, his message;  in short, its human origins and purpose. This method does not detract from its divine authority. For example, we know today that the book of Jonah is a didactic fiction, conveying the message of the universality of salvation. It is inspired fic­tion or parable, not history. Inspired truth canot be equated with factual history. Poetry, drama and parable are also ways of conveying truth.

The advantage of the historico-critical method is that it is scientific, it investigates the original-historical meaning of a text (saying or passage). But each interpretation is debated without arriving at a definite conclusion: one interpretation accepted yesterday is discarded today. It deals with the text as a static entity, nor is it open to the future situations nor  to the personal-social  existence. This method is doomed to fail, when it is applied to a text which aims at the personal transfor­mation of the reader through his/her response in faith. Although the historical and literary methods may yield some results, they will not exhaust the meanings of the biblical texts.

Drawbacks of this Method:

i)It  is neutral: It tries to find out the objective  truth, but  today we must recognize that the pre-understanding  (VORVER­STÄNDNIS),  assumption  or unconscious acceptance  of  a  social system may affect the interpretation. Therefore, there cannot be neutral objective interpretation. Moreover, it is not suitable for the interpretation of the religious text which is a proclama­tion of faith in view of evoking faith in the readers (Jn 20:31-32; 21:25). ii)What is considered as a sure result of this method is often a probable supposition based on shaky foundations, for example John A.T.ROBINSON, Bishop of Woolwich, has questioned the dating of the NT, but it is not convincing. Joachim JEREMIAS, author of The Eucharistic Words of Jesus and Parables of Jesus, with deep knowledge of the Aramaic background, says that ABBA is an address for God; and also that AMEN is an introduction to solemn saying used only by Jesus and unique. But others have challenged the uniqueness of ABBA (which is used by children for “Daddy”); and that AMEN goes back to Jesus. Also about the Two-Source Theory, namely that Mk and Q are the sources for Lk and Mt. This has been eroded by neo-Griesbachians: Lk used Mt and Mk summarized Mt and Lk (H.M.BRAUN;…). iii)This method is merely academic and does not respond to the challenges of today.

2)STRUCTURAL  METHOD: Structural exegesis ignores the  history of a text and focuses exclusively on its present  structure. It is not interested in the ‘original’ meaning (author’s meaning) of a text, but in the meaning that the text has in itself,  found in the ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ structures of the text.

Structural  exegesis  can  be  developed  at  three  levels: a)formal  surface structuration; b)deep  semantic  structuration; and  c)narrative  structuration of  manifestation. These  three levels can be called: formal, semantic and narrative.

Formal  level  comprises of the surface  of  the  text: vocabulary, particularly the key-words (like semitic  inclusion, link-word  or mot-crochet, chiasmus, concentric symmetry),  grammatical  constructions,  formulae strategically repeated  in  the course  of  reading, sequences and sections, internal  articula­tions.

Semantic level searches meaningful entities (or semes) and studies the play of attractions and repulsions so as to reduce the literary unit to a coherent system. It includes the study of the vocabulary (or study of lexemes), semantic analysis, semantic fields or families, deep structures (or structuring matrices), signifying universe (or semantic system) isotopy.

Lastly,  narrative level is one of the  possible  manifestations of signification. A narrative is essentially linear and is characterized by the play of personages and events, in continuous communication with the reader-destinatary.

Structuralism goes beyond what the author meant. It investi­gates  the text as a fabric of interrelationships and  synchroni­cally (in depth). What is important is not what the author  meant when  he wrote the bk, but what the text tells us today. In the text  we find a system of signs and by examining it we  have  the

meaning effect (A.J.GREIMAS).

According to the structuralists, the meaning effect is given by  structure  found within the text. It is  called  ‘structural’ meaning structures, whether linguistic, literary, narrative, psy­chological or cultural. The exegete investigates the deep  struc­tures which are structures of the human mind and therefore common to  all.  They  can be narrative and  discursive.  The narrative structures are a set of laws which govern the organization of the narrative passage. The basic structure of any narration can be reduced to six actants:



3) DISCURSIVE METHOD(at the semantic level): It goes beyond he  narrative level and discovers its semantic value  (meaning). It tries to discover the themes by analysing the words  (lexemes) and  its seeds (sememes) (eg.Pentecost: Spirit coming  down;  Pa­rable of the Good Samaritan, Lk 1O: GS comes down, takes him, has compassion  for him, pays his bill, in short, he  gives  himself, his love).

Advantages: It uncovers what the text says, what it means for you.

Disadvantages: a)In spite of the difficulties of the method, the exegete does not get much positive message of the text. b)Its results are not proportional to the intricacies of the method.


In  this approach the exegete studies the information  about Jesus’ time and the context in which the Gospels were written, so as  to understand better the experience of Jesus and  the  socio-economic  and cultural background of the Gospels (e.g. the  Phar­isees who were severely criticized in the Gospels are really of a later period than those whom Jesus would have known).

A)LIBERATION THEOLOGY: It emerged in Latin  America  since mid-1960’s: Gustavo GUTTIERREZ, Juan Luis SEGUNDO, Jon  SOBRINO, Leonardo  BOFF,  José Porfírio MIRANDA, H.ASSMANN.

What is the thrust of this method? They try to reinterpret the Christian message in the context of poverty and injustice. They want to transform the society. The starting-point is the historical situation. It is the praxis (the concrete Christian living) and the commitment to liberation and the second point is the critical reflection on the praxis in the light of the Word of God.Guttierrez emphasized that liberation from sin and from all its consequences (individual and societal) is essential part from oppressive socio-economic-cultural structures, from slavery. In his bk, “Drink from Our Own Wells”, he insists that an encounter with the Lord is essential part of a life according to the Spirit. Therefore, the process of political liberation is a deeply spiritual process,since it is an encounter with the Risen Lord. According to Guttierrez, nobody can follow Christ without commit­ment to liberation. Love of God us unavoidably expressed through love of one’s neighbour.

Juan Luis SEGUNDO in his bk “A Theology: Artisan of a new Humanity”. Theology is a reflection on life situation. He applies it to God, Church, Sacraments.

Leonardo BOFF:

B)FEMINIST  APPROACH: They try to  retrieve  the  original authentic  material which has been undermined and  suppressed  by the male dominating structures.

4)  RATIONALISTIC  APPROACH: Hermann  Samuel  REIMARUS(1694-1768), professor of oriental languages in a Gymnasium in Hamburg, a  man of Enlightenment (ERKLÄRUNG), living in a  seaport,  had was influenced by the work of the English Deist, and accepted  a rationalistic view of religion (existence of a wise, good Creator and  immortality of the soul through reason)– a universal reli­gion which could lead to happiness. In a four-thousand page manu­script entitled Apologie oder Schutzschrift fur die vernunftigen Verherer Gosttes (An Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God), which he refrained from publishing, but after his death it was published in parts from the town of Wolfenbuttel by G.E. LESSING (1729-1781), a German Enlightenment man of letters, as “Wolfenbuttel Fragments by an Unnamed Author”. There were seven of these fragments; their purpose (esp.that of the 6th and 7th “Concerning the Resurrection Story” and “On the Purpose of Jesus and that of his Disciples”), was to discredit the origins of Christianity. Reimarus attempted to show that Jesus was a Jewish political messianic pretender (” Messiah”), who failed in his

mission and was crucified. His disciples were disappointed char­latans who stole the body of Jesus and after 50 days in which the body was decomposed they proclaimed him as the Messiah. They invented the early Christian faith, by having an empty tomb to support their story of a resurrection, because they did not want to go back to their trade of fishermen and tax-collectors after the debacle of the crucifixion. They gathered disciples by in­venting the story of Resurrection and Parousia. Jesus was a failure and “Christ” was a fraudulent scheme of his disciples.

Being a rationalist, he tried to explain away the stories of the supernatural in the Gospels with the natural light of reason. Thus,  for him, “Jesus was a man who aspired to a Jewish  revolu­tionary  in order to establish a kingdom. He failed and  was  ar­rested,  crucified and died crying out in despair and anger. The apostles stole the body and began the Christ tradition by  making up stories of his resurrection and second coming in order to  get a following. The stories of the supernatural in the gospels  also serve the same purpose”.

This  representation  is absurd, but what we can  retain  as valid  is the distinction between the ‘historical Jesus’ and  the ‘Christ  of Faith’, between HISTORISCH (bare chronicling  of  ev­ents)  and GESCHICHTLICH (bringing out their significance). His importance  lies  in the effect that his work had on  our under­standing  of  the nature of Gospel narratives: If we  accept  the Enlightenment view that history is “what actually happened”, then the  Gospels are not historical, since many of  their  narratives reflect  concepts that were developed long after the events  they purport to narrate took place. The miracles, fulfillment  stories, predictions  of the passion, the resurrection are to be  ascribed to a “creative element in the tradition”. Reimarus is the father of  form criticism and redaction criticism, as he is of the  Life of Jesus research.

Martin  KÄHLER retained the distinction between  historisch(historical) and geschichtlich (historic or meaningful).

Lives of Jesus Period: There are biographies of Jesus: David Friedrich STRAUSS(1808-1974), “Das Leben Jesu, kritisch  bearbei­tet  (The  Life of Jesus, Critically  Examined)(1846).  For  him, these  narratives  are to a large extent expressions  of  “myth” (they express religious concepts derived from Judaism or Hellen­ism, from the OT or Christian experience.

In  order to counter this stand of Reimarus,  many  scholars like Edward Renan, Adolf Harnack, Wilhelm Wrede, Albert Schweitz­er attempted to write the lives of Jesus. The method was general­ly similar: strip away the dogmatic teachings about Jesus by the early church and, with what is left, attempt to assemble a  por­trait of Jesus as he really was.

5) THE CATHOLIC “LIVES OF JESUS” APPROACH: Scholars  tried to  compile  a  Life of Jesus by putting the  four  Gospels  into harmony.  Several bks have been written under the title “Life  of Christ”  with love, creativity and inspiration,  but  imagination has played excessive role in them.

6)LITERALIST  APPROACH:  Gospels are  interpreted  literally assuming  that they were written by eye witnesses and  hence  are historical  accounts  of what Jesus said and did.  This approach does not distinguish between Jesus of history and the Jesus of Faith.  The Jesus, whom the disciples experienced during their time with him in Palestine, is the same Jesus who is portrayed in the Gospels as Messiah, Son of God, Saviour. Hence, the Gospels are divinely inspired biographies of Jesus which present a clear and factual information of what Jesus did and said.  Since  the Gospels are divinely inspired, this approach does not give impor­tance to the sources, literary genres, redaction, editing.


1)November 18, 1893; EB 81-134; RSS, pp.1-29

2)January 16, 1948; EB 577-581; RSS, pp.150-153.

3)DAS September 30, 1943; EB 538-569; RSS, pp.80-107.

4)Sancta Mater Ecclesia, April 21, 1964; AAS 56,1964,pp.712-718; CBQ 26, 1964, pp.299-312; commentary by Joseph A.FITZMYER, TS 25, 1964,pp.386-408.

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