The Literal Sense of Scripture
A very good summing up, as far as it goes, or nearly so:
Scripture has what are known as different senses. That is, there are layers of meaning found in apparently simple sentences and images. ... Sometimes, the deeper sense of something can reveal a truth that takes your breath away, as when Jesus tells James and John that they shouldn't fight about who is to be at his right and left hand when he comes into his kingdom since only God can ordain this--and we finally see who has been reserved for that privileged position only when Jesus is crucified between two thieves.
The notion that Scripture has different senses is as old as Jesus himself. After all, it was he who said (Luke 24) that the whole Old Testament was actually about him. In other words, as St. Augustine said, the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New.
That said, it is important to remember that the first and foundational sense of Scripture is the most obvious one: the literal sense. In other words, before we go looking for hidden meanings we have to pay attention to obvious ones.
Here too is very good, as far as it goes:
The key to understanding the literal sense of Scripture is to distinguish between the terms literal and literalistic. ... If I tell you, "My heart is broken" I have a definite meaning I'm trying to convey: I am deeply grieved. But I am not using literalistic language to convey that meaning. I don't mean "My cardiac tissue is torn." Same with the biblical authors. They employ all sorts of linguistic tricks of the trade--poetry, history, parable, hymn, fiction, reportage, myth, argumentation, legal codes, apocalyptic--to get their various points across. But however they express themselves, they all have a meaning they intend us to get. That meaning is what is meant by the literal sense of Scripture.
The point I would like to make is this is not something reserved for Catholic Modernists and Orthodox Modernists and Anglicans. Meaning those of the rather usual Modernist kind.
Lita Cosner and Jonathan Sarfati say the same thing when speaking about passages that were used against Galileo by St Robert Bellarmine in his friendly discussion with Galileo.
I would not agree. But I would agree this is a very apt thing to observe against the Skoptsi heresy who took "if your right eye is a scandal to thee, pluck it out" in a very literalistic way. Though not necessarily about eyes.
There is one thing however:
We have to, in short, understand what the human author was trying to say, the way in which he was trying to say it, and what is incidental to the assertion.
I quite agree with Lita, that no statement is merely incidental. Even what is incidental to main points is not incidental to the truth of the Bible.
Now we get to his grasp of Allegorical sense:
The Allegorical Sense of Scripture
(excerpted from Chapter 7 of Making Senses Out of Scripture)
As we mentioned in the last chapter, one of the standing temptations of the biblical student is to oversimplify by seizing on one truth and using it to discount other, equally important truths.
Here too I heartily agree. BUT, the next passage will signal my stance for a disagreement:
One such oversimplification consists of the habit some modern people have of exalting the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture into a flat denial of the possibility of any other senses of Scripture at all.
True, but very much less current than the oversimplification of people wanting to defend Scripture by exaggerating the estimates of what is incidental and resorting to the allegoric sense when the literal one will do just fine. As soon as you actually get at it.
This denial of a second sense in Scripture can lead to curious results, as a friend of mine discovered one evening watching one of those "Mysteries of the Bible" shows on TV. On the show were a couple of theologians eager to get their 15 minutes of fame on the tube. So rather than talk about the Faith, they obligingly told the camera that Jesus was not born of a virgin and based their claim on the allegation that St. Matthew misunderstood the prophet Isaiah.
The Literal Sense will do just fine. Isaiah very much did prophecy that Christ was to be born of a Virgin.
This statement may sound somewhat peculiar to some publics, but is nevertheless right. I will first let Mark Shea state the problem, before giving my solution:
It's like this, said the scholars: A couple of centuries after Isaiah wrote, the Hebrew Bible (including the book of Isaiah) was translated into Greek (since many Jews were spread over the Greek-speaking ancient world and were forgetting their Hebrew just as European immigrants to the United States forgot their Yiddish in an English-speaking culture). This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (that is, the Old Testament) is called the Septuagint.
Now in the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 we read the prophecy that "the 'almah' shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name 'Immanuel.'" "Almah" means in Hebrew "young woman" and refers to any young woman, virgin or not. But when the Jewish translators of the Septuagint translated Isaiah into Greek (decades before the birth of Christ), they did not translate the term as "young woman" but as "parthenos" which means "virgin." Later on, after Christ comes, St. Matthew is reading this Greek translation, not the original Hebrew when he declares of the Virgin Birth, "All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.'" But, said the TV theologians, we now know St. Matthew was mistaken to believe in the Virgin Birth since Isaiah did not say "virgin" but "young woman."
There is a problem in the statement:
"Almah" means in Hebrew "young woman" and refers to any young woman, virgin or not.
It is that we do not know that Almah has never had the exact meaning Virgin.
First of all, I do not know Hebrew, when discussing this earlier I was met with the assertion, as my memory recalls, that Almah is the word for young plus the - even to me obvious - feminine ending -ah. Then, even so, a word that etymologically means "young woman" need not therefore be referrable to just any young woman even not a virgin. This is not based on my expertise of Hebrew, which as just admitted does not exist. It is based instead of my knowledge of how meanings change.
Does Mark Shea know what the word "sad" etymologically means? I suspect a man whose blog is called "Catholic and Enjoying It", and who is often smiling, would think the word "sad" is less applicable to him than the word "glad".
I agree that Mark Shea is more glad than sorrowful. But the etymological meaning of "sad" is NOT sorrowful. It is a description of how Mark Shea feels after eating his favourite meals in the favourite quantities no quite allowed during Lent (be patient Shea! Easter is soon at hand and then there are 50 days without fasting!), and second meaning is how Mark Shea weighs on the scales. So, first meaning is "full" or "having eaten one's fill" (like German "satt"), and that is the etymology. Second meaning is "heavy". It is only FROM the second meaning heavy that you get a third meaning, like "serious" or "important" or "not negligible". And only from there do you get a FOURTH meaning of sorrowful, since our existence on earth is such that mirth is easier overlooked in its importance than sorrow. By the way, I mentioned that "having eaten one's fill" is in German "satt". As for "sorrow" it is in German "Sorge" or "Trauer" (hence "sorrowful" = "besorgt" / "traurig"), but rather with Trauer/traurig as real equivalent, "Sorge" and "besorgt" verging on "[having] something on one's mind" (in a sorrowful rather than merely pensive way). Swedish does not have the word "sad" in the first meaning, but uses "mätt" (a word related to meat, perhaps, and to Swedish "mat"="food"), however "sorrow" or "sadness" (modern sense) are "sorg". And "sorrowful" is "sorgesam".
So, proving that Almah etymologically means "young" and stands in the feminine noun form is not equal to proving it grammatically in Isaiah's Hebrew meant "young woman" and on top of that referred to any young woman, whether virgin or not. One can easily see how a word starting out to mean "young woman" can easily come to mean "virgin" - especially in a society expecting Virginity to be what young women did up to marriage. And especially if the word ceases to apply at marriage - like Miss becomes Mrs or Mademoiselle becomes Madame.
This is a first problem with the assertion that Isaiah - as the unstated logical conclusion would go - used a word meaning "young woman" rather than Virgin.
There is another problem: how do we know Isaiah wrote Almah? Well, the Masoretic text has, obviously, Almah. But the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) was translated by Seventy translators (hence the name) and it translated the word as παρθενος, which means Virgin. And St Jerome had access to a Hebrew text, and he translated Virgo, which means virgin and is also the very same word. A traditional Catholic or Orthodox, if seeing a contradiction between LXX and Masoretic text, or between Vulgate and Masoretic text will tend to say that the Masoretic text has been deliberately corrupted by Jews.
And indeed after the Jews rejected Jesus, they had a real motive to corrupt precisely that passage. Either by changing the word or by changing the meaning of the word. Either the Hebrew word had been another word than Almah, and in that case they might have stamped copies using it as heretical and Christian and burnt them. Or Almah had had the meaning Virgin, and they had changed the meaning, which was so much easier as:
- Hebrew was a study language so it could be manipulated by an élite if they controlled studies of it sufficiently centrally;
- "Almah" had the etymological semantics appropriate for meaning "young woman."
There is actually a third solution. Suppose Almah means "young woman". Suppose it was the word in Isaiah from the start. Even so, it would automatically carry the meaning of "virgin", due to the Hebrew law. A young woman giving up her virginity was to be stoned. A young woman loosing it by rape was to be compensated. One option for her father being to demand the rapist marry her. In such a scenario, she could possibly be a young woman while conceiving, but not any more while giving birth. Nine months after loosing a virginity a Hebrew young lady was either married or stoned. And if Isaiah had meant that someone would conceive as a young woman though no longer virgin and give birth as married to the child's physical father, he would not have said that word "shall conceive and bear a son". He would have said "yes, a newly wed shall bear a son".
This being so, we must conclude that Isaiah indeed literally prophecied the Virgin Birth.
But he did not literally prophecy that Jesus would be called Jesus? No, but Jesus is a synonym of Emmanuel.
Isaiah did literally prophecy that Cyrus would be called Cyrus. The prophecy was fulfilled through parents who did not know it. But parents must not be in a position to manipulate the prophecy by knowing it.
If we take a prophecy about quite another kind of guy, namely Antichrist, I think people whose parents have choosen names so that Hebrew or Greek sums of the letters shall add up to the number that is 18 times 37 or the 36:th triangular number, may be pretty safe. The name of Antichrist must add up either in a less obvious way (I have heard that Barack Hussein Obama does not add up to more than 501 - but each name has a meaning, their translations into English ... well, you see what I mean), or in a gematria not accessible at his birth (ASCII code was not around when I was born, and at that time - according to Padre Pio - Antichrist was already in the word, I hope I can add "also" - so someone's name adding p that way in ASCII code but his being born well before it was around may be a real sign, especially if no other names add up that way in ASCII code: and so far "Bergoglio" in block letters fits that, and "Pope Francis" is the only prominent such alive today).
If St Joseph had named the child Emmanuel, he would have been seen as manipulating the prophecy. He could be aware that Jesus by its meaning implied Emmanuel, but he had not choosen it himself, he had been ordered by the angel.
This brings us to a point where Mark Shea is wrong.
The first and most obvious point in the New Testament, as we saw in chapter 5, is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The apostles came to believe this, not because they saw the Virgin Birth, but because they saw the risen Christ. And the risen Christ, as we saw previously, is the one who did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17) and, after his resurrection, tells his disciples that "Moses and all the prophets" had written "concerning himself" (Luke 24:26-27). This is where the apostles get the idea that the whole life and ministry of Christ "fulfilled the Scriptures." So far so good.
What is not so good however is that it is easy for the modern reader to adopt a kind of "checklist" mentality about messianic prophecy, as though every first century Jew had an agreed-upon set of "Messianic Verses" in the Old Testament against which all messianic claimants were measured. Indeed, many books of Christian apologetics today lay out precisely this sort of schema:
Prophecy: Source Fulfillment The Messiah must... In the Old Testament in the New Testament Be the born in Bethlehem Micah 5:1 Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-7 Be adored by great persons Psalm 72:10-11 Matthew 2:1-11 Be sold for 30 pieces of silver Zechariah 11:12 Matthew 26:15
and so forth. One could easily get the impression that all a first century Jew had to do was follow Jesus around, ticking off prophecy fulfillments on his Old Testament Messianic Prophecy Checklist and he ought to have known everything that Jesus was going to do before he ever did it.
This is why nobody before these events says, "Why, it's plain from Scripture that the Messiah will be born of a virgin, rejected by the chief priests, handed over to Gentiles, crucified with thieves, risen, ascended, and that he will abrogate the circumcision demand for Gentiles as he breaks down the barrier between man and woman, slave and free, Jew and Gentile." Even the disciples themselves, close as they were to Jesus, make it clear they did not anticipate the crucifixion, much less the resurrection, one little bit-even when Jesus rubbed their noses in it (Mark 9:9-10). As John says, they did not understand from the Scripture that the Messiah had to rise from the dead, even while they were standing in the mouth of the empty tomb gawking at his graveclothes (John 20:1-10).
The problem is that the checklist did in fact exist. I do not know about a set list of items with a fixed order and all, that, but a Jew who had studied the Scriptures and waited for the Messiah would know what he was looking for. The shepherds were told and had probably no previous studies. I do not know what verbal prophecy their presence fulfilled, but they did so to speak stay in Bethlehem as colleagues to young David before he was a King. He too was a shepherd. So, their adoration fulfilled the words "dixit Dominus Domino meo" since to those that knew it, they were showing forth King David acknowledging the main character of that Psalm as not just his son (which is allegorically shown by the shepherds being obviously older than Jesus) but also his Lord.
But the shepherds didn't know. Nor did the disciples.
Even the disciples themselves, close as they were to Jesus, make it clear they did not anticipate the crucifixion, much less the resurrection, one little bit-even when Jesus rubbed their noses in it (Mark 9:9-10). As John says, they did not understand from the Scripture that the Messiah had to rise from the dead, even while they were standing in the mouth of the empty tomb gawking at his graveclothes (John 20:1-10).
They were chosen among people who had not studied. Galilean Fishermen would very obviously not know the checklist. Pharisees would know it far better than they. They would be ticking off occasion on occasion as they hoped for a discrepancy between Jesus' actions and the prophecies. And they would time after time be disappointed. And the disciples would simply not know all that was happening. Close as they were to Jesus. The one man with some real Hebrew letters among them was St Matthew. And he had been neglecting them for years on end as he was collecting taxes. Sts Paul and Barnabas would have known all this too, but they were not yet among the disciples.
So, though one prophecy was fulfilled in a way that was literally true but not literalistic - Jesus fulfilling Emmanuel - nevertheless the fulfilment of these prophecies (those on checklist) were literal fulfilments, but not allegorical fulfilments.
We get to allegory when Jesus explains ALL of the Old Testament as prophecy, not just the prophetic passages.
We get to allegory when David saying "the Lord said unto my Lord" is allegorically present in the shepherds of Bethlehem. We get to allegory when Jesus explains how Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is a prophecy in very great allegorical detail of his own via Dolorosa. We get to allegory when the stars fighting from their orbits against Sisera are there again as the Sun goes dark over Calvary. We get to allegory when the fleece of Gideon is a prophecy of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But for the proper understanding of Isaiah 7:14, we can be satisfied with the letter.
Mark Shea does not quite miss that:
So, for instance, Hebrews 2:13 quotes Isaiah 8:18: "Here I am, and the children God has given me." In its literal sense, Isaiah is speaking about his own disciples with no hint of messianic intent behind these words. Yet the author of Hebrews sees Christ, far more than Isaiah, fulfilling the text. Why? Because Christ and his Church are, most fully, what Isaiah and his disciples were in a kind of foreshadow.
That indeed is what the Sensus Allegoricus is all about.
Pope St Xystus I
Romae natalis beati Xysti Primi, Papae et Martyris; qui, temporibus Hadriani Imperatoris, summa cum laude rexit Ecclesiam, ac demum, sub Antonino Pio, ut sibi Christum lucrifaceret, libenter mortem sustinuit temporalem.