Interpreting Biblical stories


I just recently learned that Fundamentalists take the Bible stories literally, and I was wondering what the Catholic view is on interpreting the Bible stories, and if someone could give some examples, ie Adam and Eve, Jonah, Noah, etc.


See CCC (about 110 to about 117)

Keep in mind the difference between the Literal Sense, and taking stories “literally”…To Catholics, the Literal Sense is extremely important, but that does not mean Catholics take all texts literally.


I think it’s a pretty complicated process, but basically for each section of the Bible, contextual considerations about the history and culture of the time period and about how theology relates are taken into account in order to determine how the text was meant to be understood. Sometimes that means a literal translation, sometimes it means translating it as a metaphor or a parable and sometimes it can be somewhere in between.


Dei Verbum, Vatican II

“…the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 32:

“In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. ‘For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.’”

And p. 33:

115 “One can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual….”

116 “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

117 "The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. the allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

  2. the moral sense. the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written for our instruction.

  3. the anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, leading). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem

119 It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God."

“But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.” (St. Augustine)


part 2—

There is no “official” Catholic commentary on the Bible. Approved commentaries range from the St. Jerome (historical-critical school) to the Navarre commentary (Opus Dei). Although some Catholics take a very literal view, very much like Protestant Fundamentalists, this is not the point of Dei Verbum quoted at the beginning. You need to ask yourself “What is the point of the story? Is this detail “necessary for the sake of salvation?””

Let’s take the story of Jonah and the whale. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach. He disobeyed and ran away on a ship. There was a great storm, and the sailors threw Jonah overboard. A whale (“great fish”) swallowed him and he was inside the fish for three days and three nights. Etc. So what’s the point of the story? Easy: Obey God. You can’t run away from God–he is everywhere. And the three days and nights in the whale prefigure Christ in the tomb. The rest of the story? It’s a cool story, but none of the rest of it is “necessary for the sake of salvation.” In other words, does it matter if Jonah fled on a ship or a horse? Does it matter if there was a storm or not? And so on. The details are thrown in to make a nice story, but Catholics are not obliged to believe all the literal details.


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