The Bible is a collection of books, written through centuries, by different individuals and groups, each with a particular community in mind. Every book reflects the social and cultural circumstances and theological understandings of the time.
Christians and Jews share sacred books known to many Christians as the Old Testament. Most of these books were written in Hebrew. Later writings appeared in Greek, a language known to many Jews dispersed from their home country.
Hebrew sacred texts were concerned with God and God’s actions in history. Every aspect of life involved God, always present to the whole world.
In the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, ‘New Testament’, Christian writings appeared; letters to communities by St Paul and others, four Gospels and a book of Acts of the Apostles (the story of early disciples who continued Jesus’ mission) and The Book of Revelation, written to offer encouragement in times of persecution.
The Scriptures are the Word of God, inspired by the Spirit. “God speaks through human beings in human fashion,” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 1965, par 12 cf par11). Therefore, it is important that the circumstances of the writers are considered when seeking to interpret the meaning of a Scripture text. The ‘literary form’ is part of the message. A piece of writing might be a myth, saga, epic, short story, parable, historical account, legal code, short saying, personal letter, liturgical text, song or prayer. The form makes a difference to the way we read and interpret a piece of writing. Interpretation must also take into account the cultural and historical circumstances, social customs, word usage at the time of writing, the intention of the author and situation and needs of the community for whom a text was written.
"Seeing that, in sacred scriptures, God speaks through human beings in human fashion, it follows that the interpreters of Sacred Scripture, if they are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind…..In determining the intention of sacred writers, attention must be paid, among other things to literary genres. The fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing….the exegete must look for that meaning which the sacred writers, in given situations and granted the circumstances of their time and culture, intended to express and did in fact express, through the medium of a contemporary literary form….due attention must be paid both to the customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative which prevailed in their time, and to the conventions which people then observed in their dealings with one another.” (Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 1965, par 12)
(Paragraph numbers for the Catechism are shown - Click the Nos section to view)
‘DEI VERBUM’ DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON DIVINE REVELATION (Vatican II Council Document)
This document explains the Church’s teaching about the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Click here to visit