Interpreting Jesus

Question: I was talking with a Protestant friend who scoffed at the literal interpretation of “This is my Body” by saying that Jesus also said, “I am the door.” How should I answer this objection?  

Emma Smithson, Colorado 

Answer: As with any written text, some sophistication is necessary when reading the Scriptures. All-or-nothing approaches, which hold that the Bible is to be read in an entirely literalist way or that it is all merely symbolic, must be avoided. The more authentic question is which texts are to be read and understood literally, and which texts employ metaphor, simile, hyperbole or other literary techniques? 

Thus, it would be strange to read Jesus literally when he says, “I am the door.” This would require us to think of Jesus as a large wooden plank, with a doorknob. It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus is speaking metaphorically when he says this, since the specific context of the saying — and the wider context of the overall Scriptures — in no way encourage us to think that Jesus spoke in a literalistic manner here. 

When it comes to the Eucharist, there is a very different conclusion to be reasonably reached. When Jesus says, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” we are on good grounds to conclude that he is not speaking metaphorically. This is because the wider context of Scripture supplies and insist upon a literal interpretation. 

In particular, Jesus insists in John 6 that the bread he gives is this true flesh for the life of the world. The Jewish people, listening to him that day, understand him to be speaking literally and most of them scoff and murmur in protest. Though Jesus could have corrected their interpretation and insisted he was only speaking metaphorically, he did nothing of the sort. Rather, he intensifies a literalist interpretation by insisting that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Many, horrified at this, left him and would no longer walk in his company. 

St. Paul also teaches that holy Communion is a partaking of the body and blood of Christ and goes on to insist that those who receive it unworthily, sin against the body of the Lord. 

A final bit of contextual evidence is supplied by the fact that the early Church, as seen in the writings of the Fathers, universally understood these words in a literal way. 

Hence we are on good ground in insisting that the utterances of Jesus, “This is my body … This is my blood” are to be interpreted literally. This also illustrates the kind of sophistication necessary when approaching sacred Scripture.

Chapter and verse

Question: I have heard that chapters and verses were not part of the Bible until much later. Who added these?  

Addy Thomas, Neptune, N.J.

Answer: You are correct. Enumeration of chapters and verses are not part of the original biblical text. These helpful conventions were added much later. 

The setting of the biblical text into chapters occurred in the 13th century when the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, assigned chapter numbers in order to make the reading of the Bible easier. The enumeration of the text into verses did not happen until 1551. Robert Stephanus, a Protestant former Catholic, classical scholar and printer, published the first such Bible in Paris. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.