The layers of meaning in the Bible

Reading God’s Letter to Us (2)

Rev José Mario O Mandía

Last week we spoke of three principles to remember when we read the Bible. Moreover, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church teach us that there are two layers of meaning in the Bible: the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The spiritual sense is further divided into the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical sense. What are these? Let us quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

No. 116: “The LITERAL sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.’”

No. 117: “The SPIRITUAL sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

“The ALLEGORICAL sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.

“The MORAL sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written ‘for our instruction (I Cor 10:11).’

“The ANAGOGICAL sense (Greek: anagoge, ‘leading’). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

The first meaning we should look for is the LITERAL meaning. We know that it was the Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible, but he used men as instruments. These men belonged to a specific time and culture, with their own language and traditions. The work of exegetes requires knowing the original language and cultural background of the writers. But Sacred Tradition teaches us how we should interpret the literal meaning.

For example, Tradition does not tell us that we have to take the six days of creation literally, according to the way we measure our “days”. God could have used thousands of years to bring about his creation.

Or take the passage where Jesus says that we should not call anyone “teacher” or “father” (Matthew 23:8-9). If we followed this literally, then how should we call our teachers? And how should we call our dads?

On the other hand, when the Bible says that the Chosen People crossed the Red Sea, we need to accept this information as fact. There was a teacher who was trying to demystify the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea. He told his students that the Israelites actually crossed a marshland and not the sea. Hence, he said, the water was not really that deep, and thus the Crossing was not such a spectacular miracle after all. But one of his students raised his hand and asked, “If it was shallow, how did the Egyptians drown?”

Other examples of passages where the literal interpretation has to be taken into account include: Peter (or Cephas) as the rock on which Christ would build his Church (ct Matthew 16:18); Jesus’ words in John 6, where he speaks of giving his flesh as food and his blood as drink; and the Resurrection of Jesus.

To make it easier for us to determine how we should interpret certain passages in the Bible, the Catholic versions of the Bible include footnotes that explain the more difficult passages. The Bible was born in the Catholic Church and the Church knows the Bible rather well. So when you purchase a Bible, make sure it is Catholic.

Next week, we will talk about the spiritual meaning of Sacred Scripture.

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