PIUS XII 1939-1958

Kinds of Literature in Holy Scripture *

[From the same Encyclical, “Divino afflante Spiritu,” September 30, 1943]


2294 Therefore, let the interpreter with all care and without neglect of the light which the more recent investigations have shed, strive to discern what the real character and condition of life of the sacred writer were; in what age he flourished; what sources he used whether written or oral, and what forms of expression he employed. Thus he will be able to know better who the sacred writer was, and what he wished to indicate by his writing. For it escapes no one that the highest norm of interpretation is that by which what the writer intends to say is perceived and defined, as St. Athanasius advises: “Here, as it is fitting to do in all other passages of divine Scripture, we observe that it must be accurately and faithfully considered on what occasion the Apostle has spoken; what is the person and what is the subject on which he has written, lest anyone ignorant of these things, or understanding something else besides them, wander from the true meaning.”*


But what the literal sense is in the words and writings of the old oriental authors is very often not as clear as it is among the writers of our age. For what they wish to signify by words is not determined by the laws of grammar or philology alone, nor by the context of the passage alone; the interpreter should by all means return mentally, as it were, to those remote ages of the Orient, in order that rightly assisted by the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and of other disciplines, he may discern and perceive what so-called literary genres the writers of that age sought to employ and in fact did employ. For the old Orientals, to express what they had in mind, did not always use the same forms and the same modes of speaking as we do today, but rather those which were accepted for use among men of their own times and localities. What these were, the exegete cannot determine, as it were, in advance, but only by an accurate investigation of the ancient literatures of the Orient. Furthermore, such investigation carried on within the last ten years with greater care and diligence than before, has shown more clearly what forms of speaking were employed in those ancient times, whether in describing matters in poetry, or in proposing norms and laws of life, or finally in narrating the facts and events of history. This same investigation has also proven this clearly, that the people of Israel were especially pre-eminent among the rest of the ancient nations of the Orient in writing history properly, both because of the antiquity and the faithful recountal of events; which indeed, is surely the effect of divine inspiration, and the result of the special purpose of biblical history which pertains to religion. Indeed, let no one who has a right understanding of Biblical inspiration, be surprised that among the Sacred Writers, as among the other ancients, certain definite ways of explaining and narrating are found; certain kinds of idioms especially appropriate to Semitic languages, so called approximations, and certain hyperbolic methods of speaking, yes, sometimes even paradoxes by which events are more firmly impressed upon the mind. For none of those methods of speaking is foreign to the Sacred Scriptures which among ancient peoples, especially among Orientals, human speech customarily used to express its thought, yet on this condition, that the kind of speaking employed be not at odds with the sanctity and truth of God, just as with his usual perspicacity the Angelic Doctor has noted in the following words: “In Scripture divine matters are made known to us in the manner we customarily employ.” * For just as the substantial Word of God was made like man in all things “without sin,” * so also the words of God, expressed in human language, in all things have been made like human speech, without error,. which Saint John Chrysostom has already extolled with highest praise as the condescension of a provident God; and which he has asserted * again and again is the case in the Sacred Scriptures. Therefore, let the Catholic exegete, in order to satisfy the present day needs of Biblical matters, in explaining Sacred Scripture, and in showing and proving it free of all error, prudently use this aid, to inquire how the form of expression and the kind of literature employed by the Sacred writer, contribute to a true and genuine interpretation; and let him be convinced that this part of his office cannot be neglected without great harm to Catholic exegesis. For not uncommonly—to touch upon one thing only—when some propose by way of rebuke that the Sacred Authors have strayed away from historical truth, or have not reported events accurately, it is found to be a question of nothing other than the customary natural methods of the ancients in speaking and narrating, which in the mutual intercourse among men were regularly employed, and in fact were employed in accord with a permissible and common practice. Therefore, intellectual honesty requires that when these matters are found in divine speech which is expressed for man in human words, they be not charged more with error than when they are uttered in the daily use of life. Therefore, by a knowledge and accurate appraisal of the modes and skills of speaking and writing among the ancients, many problems will be possible of solution, which are raised against the truth and historical trustworthiness of the divine Scripture; and no less fittingly will such study contribute to a fuller and clearer understanding of the mind of the Sacred Writer.


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