Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Roland Murphy & Wisdom Literature (2) Modern interpretation of Scripture, Catholic teaching, and the Interpreters

Roland Murphy O.Carm. (1917-2002) was the subject of July’s Carmelite Conversation at the Carmelite Library. Fr Roland was an American Carmelite and prolific biblical scholar. His youthful study life began at the critical moment when the Catholic Church had just approved pursuit of the historical critical method in reading the Bible. This huge advance in thinking resulted in a remarkable outpouring of work from Roland Murphy, especially on his favourite subject, the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible. The Conversation included, for enjoyment and edification, structured readings of parts of his translations and commentaries on Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Psalms. Here is the section on Bible and the Church, prepared by Philip Harvey

How do any of us read the Bible? And if we do read the Bible, why?

When Jews read Scripture, as they are required to do, they tap directly into their most ancient writings of origin, story, legend, poetry, law and so forth. They must be familiar with Torah, the first five books, and aware of the other great sections known as Nevi’im (Prophets)and Ketuvim (Writings).  Ketuvim is the section that has Roland Murphy’s closest attention. The Jewish practice of different ways of reading the same passage of Scripture, known as Pardes, can be traced through the Common Era. Pardes is an acronym for the four different ways: Peshat, meaning the straight or literal way of reading; Remez meaning ‘hints’ or in other words the deep allegorical meaning beneath the literal meaning; Derash meaning the seeking or inquiring way, exemplified by midrash; and Sod meaning the mystical way given through revelation and inspiration. These ways include space for not knowing the meaning, or leaving yourself open to emptiness, to other possibility. It should be said now that this is a seriously anti-fundamentalist method of reading Scripture, even as Scripture is treated as fundamental to faith. Jewish tradition says there is no one way of reading the words, value may be found in different approaches.  

Interestingly, the 4th century monk John Cassian identified four ways in which the Bible could be read: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical, and the mystical. 

The Bible itself, Old and New Testaments in Christian tradition, became a contested work at the Reformation. Much of this had to do with who could interpret and what language was appropriate. While Humanists like Erasmus delighted in studying the texts in original languages, creating complutensians, and arguing for vernacular translations, the church was confronted with division. Protestants insisted on having the Bible each in their own language. It was felt that anyone could freely interpret the text, you didn’t need to be a priest or an expert. When Rome opted to retain the Latin Bible as authoritative and interpretation as the jurisdiction of the clergy, the future was fixed.  

This was not helped in the 18th century by Enlightenment sidelining of Scripture and questioning of many of its most valued preconditions, even to the point of questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ. We continue to hear this sort of banter from self-styled radical atheists to this day. Often their own reading of Bible has not gone beyond mono.

While Protestants were free to develop new theories about the Bible, Catholics remained suspicious of new learning that could deepen our understanding of the biblical texts. Homiletical practices were acceptable but the modernising approaches were avoided, when not received with hostility. All of which came to head in 1893 when Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, ‘On the Study of Holy Scripture’.  It was a creature of its time and place. In it, the Pope reviewed the history of Bible study from the Church Fathers to the present. He spoke against the errors of Rationalists and ‘higher critics’, outlining principles of Scripture study and guidelines for how it was to be taught in seminaries. He also addressed the issues of apparent contradictions between the Bible and the sciences, or between one part of scripture and another, and how such apparent contradictions can be resolved.  

This triumph of anti-Modernism put back Catholic scholarship, but needs to be appreciated in the light of one of the Papacy’s greatest backflips of all time, the encyclical issued fifty years later, Divino afflante Spiritu, ‘Inspired by the Holy Spirit’. More kindly people have called it an “about-face”. (Egan 83) Pope Pius XII in 1943 called for new translations of the Bible into vernacular languages, including the same languages rejected in the 16th century. Significantly for the life of people like Roland Murphy, these translations were to be made from the original languages and not the Latin Vulgate.

The Vulgate of Saint Jerome had formed the textual basis for all Catholic vernacular translations until then. It determined critical and other readerly responses. It was the way a Catholic understood the Bible, whether educated or uneducated. When the great English theologian Ronald Knox translated the Bible his superiors required him to work primarily from Jerome’s Latin, even though the Greek and Hebrew were known to him. This waste of scholarship was overturned by Pope Pius’s encyclical, and it is painful to read the 1955 subtitle of Knox’s work: ‘The Holy Bible : a translation from the Latin Vulgate in the light of the Hebrew and Greek originals’. This sort of thing will never happen again. It needs to be remembered that when the translation committee produced what came to be called the King James Bible in 1611, they worked without hindrance from the Hebrew and Greek, and other languages, which they knew intimately, being the best linguists in the realm.

The editors of The Jerome Biblical Commentary, in their preface, described Pius XII’s encyclical of 1943 as a "Magna Carta for biblical progress." Divino afflante Spiritu inaugurated the modern period of Roman Catholic biblical studies by encouraging the study of textual (or lower criticism), pertaining to text of the Scriptures themselves and transmission thereof (for example, to determine correct readings) and permitted the use of the historical-critical method (or higher criticism), to be informed by theology, Tradition, and church history on the historical circumstances of the text, hypothesizing about matters such as authorship, dating, and similar concerns.

This is why Roland Murphy launched forth into the study of ancient languages when he did, and why his works argue the meanings of verses in more informed and exciting ways. While the encyclical never mentions Protestant or other biblical scholarship in so many words, it is now understood that the advanced state of non-Catholic biblical studies was a serious prompt to the thinking of the encyclical and consequent actions. “The historical critical method was declared not only appropriate, but even necessary, and Catholic scholars were now free to explore all facets of scriptural inquiry. It was the dawning of an exciting era in scriptural studies.” (Egan 62-63) When we think of  some of the great commentators in our own country, Frank Moloney, Brendan Byrne, Antony Campbell and others, it is this moment in time that made possible their work, for which we are all the beneficiaries. And likewise that earlier generation, of which Roland Murphy was one of the pre-eminent leaders.

It is worth reading an account by one of his Carmelite students from that time in order to get an idea of what an impact this new learning had on anyone engaged in its purposes. “He proved at once to be a font of water in what might otherwise have been a desert. He led us to the actual texts and we plunged right in. Endowed with resonant voice and prophetic stature. Roland highlighted a text with gestures and facial expressions. Scripture had colour, nuance, and spiritual depth. He would invite us to find passages that most intrigued each one of us and then tell us to write our own comments and add whatever insights we might draw from scholarly commentators. In this way we examined the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. We explored a text and personally appropriated favourite passages. Proverbs, for example, was a mine of wisdom and wit; it also provided an insight into the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. We shared not only Roland’s insights, but also his enthusiasm for the Word of God.” (Egan 86-87)

Historically it is significant that the shift from central use of the Bible in Latin that happened through the 1950s prefigured the shift away from the centrality of Latin in the liturgy, in favour of the vernacular – a momentous change brought about by the Second Vatican Council.

Fifty years again after Pius XII’s encyclical, Pope John Paul II and his colleague Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published in 1993 ‘The interpretation of the Bible in the Church’, an extended appraisal of Catholic biblical method. The historical-critical method has in this short space of time been joined by many other new and related forms of biblical criticism, all of which are examined carefully for plusses and minuses. Most telling in this document is the acceptance that new methods of reading the Bible keep developing and the best the Church can do is test each one against Tradition and practice. It is a far cry from the dread of Modernism that animated Pope Leo XIII one hundred years before. Cardinal Ratzinger goes so far as to assert, “It is quite impossible to return to a precritical level of interpretation, a level which they now rightly judge to be quite inadequate.” (Pontifical 31)


Egan, Keith & Craig Morrison (editors). Master of the sacred page : essays and articles in honor of Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. Carmelite Institute, 1997

Pontifical Biblical Commission. The interpretation of the Bible in the church : address of His Holiness John Paul II and document of The Pontifical Biblical Commission

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