INTRODUCTION TO THEOLOGY – Topic 6: Sacred Scripture (6)

José Morales
José Manuel Fidalgo

8. Literary genres and the senses of Sacred Scripture

The interpretation of the Bible should take very much into account the literary genre of each one of the sacred books because the scope and meaning of some expressions or some words may not be the same, for example, in a historic book and in a prophetic book. There are statements that have a literal meaning in certain places while in others the statements have to be interpreted symbolically.

Exegetes should therefore know if the text they are studying is a chronicle, a hymn, an elegy, a parable, a popular narrative, a wisdom discourse, and so on. In this way they will be able to determine their precise meaning and what the sacred author meant when he wrote it.

Very closely linked to the question of literary genre is the question of the senses or meanings of Sacred Scripture.

8.1 Literal or historical sense

This is the most important sense of Sacred Scripture. It comes from the normal signification of the words used by the sacred writer. The literal sense expresses the direct intention of the human author of Scripture and does not exclude the derived senses that their words can have in the whole context of the Bible.

*For example, the events narrated in the book of Exodus, i.e., the escape from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the journey through the desert, and so on, have a literal meaning: they are real events that the Hebrews lived through. This literal and historical sense, however, does not prevent us from seeking a deeper spiritual meaning in these events.

8.2 Full sense

The New Testament signifies the fullness of the Old and this fullness is manifested in concrete actions, persons and words. It is deeper than the literal sense, but not directly intended by the sacred author. It is a meaning that is only discovered when the words of Scripture are studied in the light of posterior Revelation and a greater understanding of the whole Bible.

The full sense is another term for the spiritual sense, when the spiritual sense is clearly different from the literal sense.

*The frequent theological use of Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”) to describe Mary’s role in the victory of Jesus over evil is an example of the full sense of a text. It is an interpretation that goes beyond the literal sense.

8.3 Typical sense

In the Bible we sometimes see that persons, things or events that literally appear in the text suggest, aside from their literal meaning, figurative or typical signification.  

By “type” we mean figure, image, or anticipation of a future reality (person, object, place, institution).

The main idea is that the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus. The ancient prophecies and figures are fulfilled in the different events of the live of Jesus of Nazareth.

*Thus, for example, the paschal lamb of the Old Testament is a type of someone who will come afterwards (Jesus), who is the true Lamb of God. The crossing of the Red Sea signifies the salvific will and power of God. Thanks to this event, the Jewish people won their freedom, and in a similar way, the Christian is saved in Baptism. The waters of the Red Sea thus take on a “typical” value, and represent the waters of sacramental Baptism which brings about man’s salvation.

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