Biblical exegesis

One of the most useful passages in the Bible is in Saint Peter’s second general Epistle (3:16, if I may be so pedantic). There are quite a few parallel passages, but in this his second “encyclical,” our first Pope says explicitly that there are passages in Scripture hard to understand. The ignorant and the unstable are inclined to twist these, and it is sad because they do it to their own destruction. It seems a fair remark to me, for I have often seen this happen, and as an ignorant and unstable person myself, to say nothing of immodest, I have sometimes felt I knew better than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church could know through twenty centuries of careful exposition. In other words, I still have Protestant tendencies: though I find with age they are fading away.

“I don’t know” is a good answer, especially when it is the truth. This is more often than one might at first suspect, for in what appeared straightforward questions of Biblical exegesis, I have often discovered that I were a fool. So is everyone dependent upon translations, and too, those who believe they know the original tongues quite well, for each contained traps enough for their native speakers. Language provides a gloss on experience, but often the gloss is on closer examination less clear than the experience to which it refers. Trying to reconstruct the experience from the gloss — or as we might say, the full reality of Christ from the Scriptures — may require more than the linguistic and archaeological knowledge supplied even through our drive-in post-secondary institutions.

I was thinking this when some members of my Commentariat were discussing the passage, “And I say to thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The question was about what the gates of hell would be doing — surely they will not be attacking anyone. For what it’s worth, my first two cents would have been to observe that πύλης could mean “gates” quite literally, but in the Greek of that age meant also by extension some power or authority. Also, that in my Peshitta, or Aramaic version of the Scriptures (and Aramaic was, apparently, the language in which Jesus was originally speaking), the verb equivalent to the Greek κατισχύσουσιν which suggests “prevail,” comes through to English better as “withstand,” so that the whole clause may be translated, “the doors of Sheol may not shut upon it.” Now, the Greek verb was itself future, indicative, and active. We would thus indeed be discussing what happens to the gate, and not what the gate will be doing.

The whole passage, somewhat mysterious by the time it is rendered into English, and perhaps a little philosophical and abstract at the edges of the Greek, becomes crystal clear in the Aramaic. Or so I am given to understand: for I am frankly unable even to give taxi directions in that language.

Scripture may be twisted, but the Church cannot be stopped. And Christ, whose Church she is, may go anywhere He pleases, even into Hell, as he demonstrated. This — and please correct if I am wrong — is consistent with what the Church has taught through all the intervening centuries: that there is a hole in the Enemy’s defences. Verily, the Enemy’s defence is finally one big hole; but now I am going a little beyond Scripture, into scholastic territory.

Sometimes we may find that the hole has even wormed into our Church. But I wouldn’t panic: holes have a tendency to close over time. They lack structural integrity. And it is best to avoid arguing with a hole, or otherwise jumping in. For in Christ’s mysterious words, “Resist ye not evil.” By doing good instead, we fill the ground around and assist the hole in collapsing. On the better days, true Authority arrives with the plug.


The paragraphs above were not inspired by Scripture nor Tradition, incidentally, but by a couple of heretical (Mormon) missionaries who got into my building, ignoring the warning against solicitors at the front door. They have just been seen off by my magnificent superintendress, aptly named “Angelina,” who revels in her title as “the Scottish harridan.” (And did she put the fear of God into them!) My task was simply to keep them talking until Angelina arrived. Biblical exegesis was the trap.