Category Archives: biblical interpretation

Why You Can Trust the Text of the New Testament

Recently a student of mine told me about someone who claimed he could never be a Christian because manuscripts of the New Testament have undergone so many changes through the centuries that it’s impossible to really know what the New Testament authors really said.  I wish I’d been there to set him straight!

The fact is that the writings of the New Testament are better attested by far than any other ancient works without exception.  Today we have manuscripts copied far closer to the time of the original autographs and in far greater numbers than for any classical work of history or literature.  Although there are numerous minor variants among the manuscripts (as is always the case in hand-copied writings), none of the variations bring into question any matters of doctrine.

For a brief overview of the facts, read this interview with Daniel B. Wallace, one of the world’s leading experts in the comparative analysis of manuscripts, a discipline called textual criticism. Not only does Wallace explain the reasons for the trustworthiness of the New Testament text, he reports the discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark from the first century, an incredible find if it stands up to scholarly examination when it will be published in the near future.

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Filed under biblical interpretation, Peter Williamson, Uncategorized

What Does The First Pope’s First Encyclical Say to Catholics Today?

Peter originally wrote First Peter as a circular letter (which is what “encyclical” means) to a group of churches in Asia Minor in the first century. Their world passed away long ago, but this bright yet sober letter continues to speak to us as the living word of God twenty centuries later. First Peter speaks to us in at least four distinct ways. Continue reading

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Filed under biblical interpretation, biblical theology, Daniel Keating, First and Second Peter, Jude, Uncategorized

Should Catholics Use Biblical Resources by Non-Catholics?

Recently a prospective student of the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan (CBSM) raised this question.  She noticed the inclusion of some books by Protestants on our reading list and was concerned.  What follows is my personal response, which has benefited from the comments of fellow board members Fr. John Riccardo and Deacon Jack Gardner.

The question is a very legitimate one, since the lens through which one reads the Scriptures does significantly affect one’s interpretation.  A Catholic, an Evangelical, a Jew, a liberal Protestant, a Jehovah’s Witness, a secular academic, and an atheist, read and interpret the Bible very differently!  In the past (and sometimes in the present) scholars have made excessive claims to objectivity about their reading of Scripture.  But everyone has beliefs that influence their interpretation.

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“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”

Jesus previously spoke of the resurrection as an event that would take place on “the last day” (6:39-40, 44, 54; cf. 12:48). He now affirms, with his fifth “I am + predicate” pronouncement, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In John 5, Jesus said that he has the divine power to raise and judge the dead (5:21-24), and in John 6, he repeatedly affirmed that he will resurrect those who believe in him (6:40, 44) and eat his Eucharistic flesh (6:54).

Jesus now elaborates on his identity as the resurrection and the life, speaking in both physical/literal and spiritual/figural senses. Jesus first says “whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” Believers in Jesus will die physically, but on account of their faith and relationship with Christ, they will continue to live spiritually. Jesus gives the gift of eternal, eschatological life to those who receive him with faith and discipleship. This gift of Jesus continues to vivify believers beyond bodily death.

He makes a second, similar claim, “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Those who are physically alive and believe in Jesus will be delivered from spiritual death. Jesus does not deny the general resurrection of the dead, for he is the one who will raise and judge the dead on the last day (cf. 5:27-29). But these final, eschatological realities are spiritually linked to the decisions that people make in the present. By identifying himself as “the resurrection and the life,” Jesus establishes the raising of Lazarus as the sign which demonstrates these truths about himself and his divine power.

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Filed under biblical interpretation, biblical theology, Bill Wright, Gospel of John

“Virgin” or “Young Woman”? Isa 7:14

The first reading on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, is from Isaiah 7 and includes the famous words: “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel…” (Isa 7:14).  This verse is important since Matthew 1:22-23 explains that Jesus’ birth by the Virgin Mary is a fulfillment of this prophecy: 

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’

However, the recently released NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition), like some other translations of Isa 7:14 (RSV, NRSV, and NJB) says “young woman” instead of “virgin.”  This discrepancy in translations is confusing to many even well-informed Catholics.  Raymond Arroyo, the host of EWTN’s popular “The World Over Live” recently expressed his perplexity at why the NABRE would make this change.

Before I did my graduate studies in Scripture, I thought that the RSV translation of “virgin” as “young woman” was simply due to scholarly disbelief in the virginal conception of Jesus, since I knew of biblical scholars who did not believe in miracles and did not acknowledge Jesus’ divinity.

It turns out it’s more complicated than that.  The original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word almah, which really does mean “young woman” rather than “virgin.”  On the other hand, the Septuagint version of Isaiah, the Greek translation that was used by Jews for a couple centuries before the birth of Christ, uses the more specific parthenos, which does mean virgin.  At that time an unmarried Jewish almah would be assumed to be a parthenos, so the Septuagint translation was completely reasonable.

Although Matthew probably knew the Hebrew original, since he was writing in Greek (like the other authors of the New Testament), he naturally quotes the Greek Septuagint and says “the virgin [parthenos] shall be with child.”

So the simplest explanation is that the NABRE, RSV, NRSV, and NJB, correctly translate the Hebrew original as “young woman,” while the NAB (and the RSVCE and NIV), following Matthew 1:23, correctly translate the Septuagint version of Isa 7:14 as “virgin.”

But this raises the further questions of what Isaiah himself meant by this prophecy back in the eighth century B.C., and how it is that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah.  The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Ted Sri in the Catholic Commentary series explains the historical context of Isaiah 7:

This prophecy came in a period of crisis for the Davidic kingdom, as enemy armies threatened to invade Jerusalem and remove King Ahaz.  With the dynasty’s survival in question, Isaiah foretold that an heir would be a sign that the kingdom would not end with Ahaz but would continue under God’s protection.  Some might have seen in this prophecy a reference to Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, who carried out a religious reform and delivered Judah from many evils, showing that God was still with the dynasty (2 Kings 18:1-6).

So what does this have to do with Jesus?  Mitch and Sri continue:

However, Matthew sees a deeper level of meaning in the child of Isa 7:14… [because of the Septuagint’s use of parthenos].  Mary is the virgin who conceives and bears the royal son, Jesus.  Matthew’s Gospel, therefore fittingly reveals Isa 7:14 as foretelling the virginal conception of the messiah.

In other words, when Matthew reads the word parthenos (“virgin”) in the Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14 in light of what he knows of the virginal conception of Jesus (a historical tradition known independently to Luke), he recognizes that God was saying something profound through Isaiah that went beyond the political crisis of the eighth century B.C.  The LORD was speaking about a miraculous conception of the Messiah, the definitive heir to the throne of David, through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18).  This is the way that God chose to be Emmanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14; 8:8; Matt 1:23).  This is the way Isaiah’s extraordinary prophecies (Isa 9, 11) about this future ruler were to be fulfilled.  In hindsight, in light of the further revelation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, this interpretation of Isa 7:14 makes perfect sense.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission uses the example Matthew’s interpretation of Isa 7:14 to illustrate the fuller sense of Scripture (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, II.B.3), which it defines “as a deeper meaning of the text, intended by God but not clearly expressed by the human author.

The fuller sense is an aspect of the spiritual sense, “the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life which flows from it.”

The fuller sense “has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, principal author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of expressions in such a way that the latter will express a truth the fullest depths of which the authors themselves do not perceive. This deeper truth will be more fully revealed in the course of time-on the one hand, through further divine interventions which clarify the meaning of texts and, on the other, through the insertion of texts into the canon of Scripture.”

So, which translation of Isa 7:14 is correct?  “the virgin shall be with child”?  or “a young woman shall be with child”? Both can be defended reasonably.  The second faithfully represents the Hebrew original of the Old Testament.  The first faithfully represents the Septuagint and the way that the Gospel of Matthew and the Christian tradition interpret Isaiah’s prophecy in light of Jesus Christ.  Whichever translation is used should be explained in a footnote.

Weighing the reasons, I think “the virgin shall be with child” is better suited to Catholic Bibles and to the use of Scripture in Christian liturgy.  But obviously, some learned people, including the editors of the NABRE, think otherwise.

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Filed under biblical interpretation, Peter Williamson, The Gospel of Matthew, Uncategorized