The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical Critical Method

Written by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.

(Paulist Press, 2008)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


Fitzmyer is one of the giants of Catholic biblical research in second half of the 20th Century, and is known most widely for his contributions to the Anchor Bible Commentaries and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. One might say that he has sat in a middle field between the more conservative writers, some of whom, for instance, appeared in the book I reviewed last time, Opening up the Scriptures, and his not-quite-as-careful collaborator in the new Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond Brown. This middle position is what makes Interpretation of Scripture an important, challenging read.

I would not say that Opening up the Scriptures sugar-coated the essential problem of ‘scientifically approaching’ the Scriptures. Its general focus was constructive: let’s define the Catholic view and let’s do the kind of exegesis that incorporates these disparate methodologies. This book, on the other hand, wants to spend a little more time stating the problem, emphasising its intractability and identifying the sources of resistance to historical criticism in the Church. In this regard, it perfectly complements Opening up the Scriptures.

This is a collection of essays that were gathered up from Fitzmyer’s vast number of writings composed over a great number of years, and they are specifically focused on the problem of the historical critical method in Catholic scholarship. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a defense of the method. But it is much else besides, as I have stated above. Most of this book is thoughtful and challenging, even though I would disagree with some of it. It provides an excellent précis of the ‘problem’ itself as well as a good account of all the key concepts.

I found the fourth chapter a lucid account of the introduction of scientific principles into the Church’s study of biblical revelation. Chapter 6 provides a useful analysis of the ‘spiritual sense,’ which we have discussed in relation to De Lubac’s great study, by setting it within the larger problem of authorial intention and by comparing it to the modern sensus plenior, ‘the fuller sense.’ But in the end, I cannot agree with the begrudging, minimalized role he affords it. Fitzmyer is unwilling to see the Bible as a mystical text in the full sense of the word, i.e. to accept that meaning can leave historical context behind. It is one thing to say that the historian as a historian cannot access this meaning, another thing to say that it therefore does not exist. Our essential disagreement lies in the fact that he would say that every meaning must be consonant with the literal sense that is itself knowable to historians, at least in theory, while I would not be willing to confine it in this way. Various texts were truly prophetic, that is to say that they made no sense to the prophet’s contemporaries, and could not, because they were given to these people, but to us or to some people in the future.

The final essay on Raymond Brown was a touching tribute to a friend, but it could have been so very much more: Fitzmyer might have offered an explanation for why Brown’s controversial positions were worthy of consideration despite the merciless criticism of his enemies. That would have been a sensible tact for a book dedicated to defending the historical critical method.

These criticisms aside, it is a good book, a concise account of the theoretical issues at stake. Of course, it would be a challenging read for someone totally unacquainted with the field, and therefore perhaps not your best place to start.

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