When did Catholics’ understanding of Bible stories change?

Q: I’m in a three-year Pastoral Institute course that our diocese is offering. This is my third round of taking these courses in two different dioceses over a 20-year period, and I have never been taught scripture like this. The current course is on the Old Testament being taught by a religious sister of 72 years. I believe she knows her stuff, but I am questioning too much. Maybe you can help? I have some serious questions that are really making me look at how I understood the bible.

When did our understanding of the Bible stories change? Why were we taught/still taught that Jonah lived three days in the belly of a whale if, in fact, it is just a symbol? Did a snake talk to Eve in Genesis? She claims they never talked, that it is just a symbol of the devil. Why couldn’t the devil reveal himself as a snake?

I can understand the parting of the Red Sea (just a tide change) and The Flood (not the “whole” world but just the area they were familiar with), but why not allow a talking snake? She said we can stay with our “old interpretations” but it is better to move on to what the Church believes now. Help!

A: These are some big questions you are raising as you are being introduced to a “new: way of interpreting scripture. First of all, know that you are not alone if you are feeling confused and upset by what this instructor is teaching. It is quite common for students to react this way the first time they are introduced to what is commonly called the “historical-critical” method of biblical interpretation.

There are entire books written on the question of how to interpret the Bible, but to be brief, I will say that beginning around the start in the 20th century, biblical scholars began studying the Bible as literary scholars study other literature. In doing so, they realized that some kinds of writing aren’t meant to be scientifically factual or historical documents, so it is not appropriate to read them as if they were. To give a modern example, someone reading a sports page would automatically know that a headline saying “Giants Beat the Royals” does not mean a group of gigantic creatures physically beat up some members of the royalty, because they understand that the sports page is of a different literary genre than the weather page, which describes scientific facts. So when biblical scholars began studying the historical, cultural, linguistic, and socio-political contexts of the biblical writers, they realized that like a newspaper, the Bible also reflected many different genres of literature and it wasn’t all meant to be read literally.

These types of studies have led to this “newer” interpretation of scripture among Catholics and other mainline Protestants, which holds that the Bible can teach truths without every detail needing to be factual. Thus a symbolic understanding of the Jonah story would point to the human experience many of us have of sometimes disobeying God only to find ourselves then flailing for a time in a dangerous darkness before we come to our senses, repent, and are given a second chance. You may, but need not, hold the belief that Jonah was a real human being who spent three days in the belly of a big fish. (Note: Not a whale.)

On the other hand, fundamentalists will still cling to a literal interpretation of all scripture, which becomes problematic when there are contradictory details, like in the two different creation stories in Genesis, one of which has God creating humans after the rest of the natural world (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and the other which has God create humans before the plants and animals (Genesis 2:4b-25). Suffice it to say, it appears that your Old Testament instructor is teaching you what is now, in the Catholic Church, the commonly accepted method of biblical interpretation. Although learning this method may be diquieting and even jarring at first, know that it is not meant to shake the foundations of our religious faith, but to try to get at the spiritual truths God wants to communicate with us. Ultimately that is more important than trying to determine the absolute historical facticity of something recorded in the Bible.

For instance, cultures throughout the world have passed down for millenia creation myths, stories told to answer deep questions about the origin of the world. In doing so, they are addressing issues such as the nature of God (all powerful? all-loving?), the sinful tendencies in humans, and other such existential questions. These stories weren’t intended to be scientific accounts of the origin of the world.

For a quick primer on how Catholics read the Bible, check out our Bible Boot Camp.

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.