In Brief

The world behind the text is a window. Through this window we look to the past, to the time of the author who produced the text, and to the time sometime earlier in which the text was set. The general approach is historical.

The world of the text (also known as the world within the text) is a picture. This picture shows us the text as it is and what it says now through its literary features. The general approach is literary.

The world in front of the text is a mirror. In this mirror the reader sees oneself within the text, and sees other readers, the believing Church over many years, challenged to respond to it now and into the future. The general approach is theological (‘faith seeking understanding’).

The window, picture and mirror are ways of seeing the one beautiful scene. All ‘three worlds’ overlap and interact with each other. Biblical interpretation is incomplete if one world is unduly emphasised to the neglect of the other two. We bring our questions to the Biblical text and it – the Word of God – in turn questions us.

The books of the Bible were not addressed to us in the first instance. We read them in a different time and culture than the people who first wrote the Biblical texts and who first received them. To interpret part of the Bible is to find and explain its meaning. Exegesis finds the meaning of Biblical texts through the application of the theories of interpretation (known as hermeneutics). The Three Worlds of the Text provide an uncomplicated interpretive structure in a way that is consistent with Catholic teaching on biblical interpretation.

The worlds of the text have three dimensions:

  • the world that gave rise to it – the world behind the text
  • our world as readers today – the world in front of the text
  • what is in the text – the world of text (sometimes called the world within the text).

These dimensions interact with each other. It is essential to recognise that meaning is a conversation between all three worlds.

The text

The commentaries on the website place the actual text first. This is because you need the text to speak first. You commence by reading the text first, wondering about its form, content and meaning and posing any questions that you have about it. After that, the material under each of three worlds, interacting with each other, will further assist you to interpret the text.

The world behind the text

The world behind the text studies the time and culture that gave rise to the text and enquires about its original context. It asks questions about the history in the text and about the history of the text; in other words, about the world of the time in which the text is set and about the world that produced it. The events presented in a text and the final step of authorship can be decades apart (in the case of the Gospels) or even many centuries apart (in the case of the Pentateuch). The world behind the text looks at the prevailing historical, cultural and religious situation, the geography, the likely author and community, and the history of its transmission. The tools of the historical-critical method such as source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism assist this enquiry.

The common structure to the commentaries on this website treats the world behind the text under the headings of:

  • The world of the author’s community
  • The world at the time of the text
  • Geography of the text
  • Questions for the teacher.

Brisbane Catholic Education suggests some questions you can ask about the world behind a text:

How is an understanding of this text influenced by what we can learn about its context?

  • What can we learn about the cultural world of the time in which the text was created (for example: the significance of “the land” of Israel; values, customs and beliefs; reference to festivals or heroes; status of individuals; demography; social hierarchy and relationships between characters and peoples; purity codes; moral codes; understanding of God; relationship with other cultures/peoples)?

How is an understanding of this text influenced by the community that produced this text?

  • What can we learn about the community for whom this text was originally created?
  • What is happening at this time in history in the community for which the text was written? Where is it on the timeline of Revelation History?
  • Who authored, edited and/or translated this text? Is there more than one author? Is it the work of an individual or a community? Is it possible to establish authorship at all? Does the author draw on other texts in creating this one?
  • Why was the text created?
  • Why has the author chosen specific words or phrases?
  • What messages might the text have conveyed to its original audience?

How is an understanding of this text influenced by what can we learn about its development and communication across time?

  • Is there an oral tradition evident? When was the text first put into written form? In what language was the text first set down? Do these factors affect the meaning of the text for its original audience?
  • Were there any historical or cultural events that caused the text to be edited or translated across time?

The world of the text

The world of (or within) the text examines it as literature. It examines the literary form or text type, its setting, structure and story line, the characters and their interactions, what the text is trying to do, the literary techniques the writer uses to convey the message and convince the reader. The tools of literary criticism assist this enquiry.

The common structure to the commentaries on this website treats the world of the text under the headings of:

  • Text & textual features
  • Characters & setting
  • Ideas/phrases/concepts
  • Questions for the teacher.

Brisbane Catholic Education suggests some questions you can ask about the world of a text:

How is an understanding of this text influenced by what is actually in it?

  • Who are the characters in the text?
  • What happens in this text?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • What text features are in the text (e.g. imagery, metaphor, simile, repetition, contrast, symbol, vocabulary, voice, treatment of sources, grammar and/or style)?
  • What is the most memorable or central scene in this text? Why is this scene central?
  • What key words or phrases, or interesting, new or difficult ideas need further exploration? What Biblical tools can be used to find this information (e.g. Biblical commentaries, Biblical dictionaries, Biblical atlases, annotated Bibles, online Bible search engines)?
  • What evidence can we find in the text of the historical, social, cultural, political and religious life of the time?
  • Who speaks and who is silenced?
  • Can the original language in which the text was written help with understanding the text? Do other English translations give a clue to this? Can concordances and online homilies on the text help?

How is an understanding of this text influenced by its type and structure?

  • Is there a particular structure to this text? Why was it structured in this way?
  • How do different parts of the text relate to each other?
  • What clues or text features help the reader to identify the type of text (e.g. greeting in a letter; sense of touch in a healing miracle; evocative language in a psalm)?
  • Why has the author chosen this style or form of writing to convey the message?

How is an understanding of this text influenced by what can we learn about it from its connections with other Biblical texts?

  • What comes before and after this text?
  • Is the text attested to in other gospels or books of the Bible?
  • Is this text used for different purposes in other books of the Bible?
  • Is this text drawn from or connected to texts in other books of the Bible?

The world in front of the text

The world in front of the text centres on the reader or readers. There are two types of reader. One is you, or an individual who encounters the text in our contemporary world, a context so different from the world that produced the text. Our context is the world we live in, the world we bring to the text, the world in which we read, interpret and make sense of the text.

We are not the only readers and interpreters of a Biblical text. The second type of reader/interpreter is the believing Church over many centuries, a living tradition. Therefore, the world in front of the text also attends to the Church’s history of interpretations and use of the text. Both the individual reader and the Church tradition are ‘doing theology’ in front of the text as they pursue ‘faith seeking understanding’.

The world in front of the text is interested in how the reader responds to a text, how personal experiences or viewpoints, or cultural influences shape meaning for the reader, the contemporary relevance of the text, interpretations apart from those intended by the author and how text can be recontextualised in today’s world. Considerations may include feminist theological reflections on Scripture and readings of Bible from the perspective of the option for the poor or ecological conversion. It considers the way the Catholic and Christian tradition has understood, interacted with and reinterpreted the text over the years, employed it in liturgy and prayer and how it is alive in the life of the Church today.

The common structure to the commentaries on this website treats the world in front of the text under the headings of:

  • Questions for the teacher
  • Meaning for today/challenges
  • Church interpretations & usage

The questions for the teacher are placed first so that the text might firstly interrogate you: how do you respond to the text and as a result of that, what might it be calling you to do in the future?

Brisbane Catholic Education suggests some questions you can ask about the world of a text:

For whom might this text be relevant today?

  • What are some messages from or about God that modern believers can take from this text in their time and place?
  • Is there anything in this text that might be open to challenge or questioning by a modern reader?
  • What factors make it possible for modern readers to bring to this text interpretations not intended by the author?
  • How might gender, culture or life experience, including experiences with religion or religious groups, affect the way a modern reader might respond to the text? How can the experience of the reader add to the richness of interpretation?

How might a modern reader gain a deeper awareness of this text?

  • Exploration of different translation/s of the text?
  • Substitution of alternate images/metaphors?
  • Knowledge of background or contexts of the text?
  • Exploration of the rich tradition of the Church?
  • Application of Biblical criticism (e.g. form criticism, narrative criticism, socio-historical criticism, rhetorical criticism)?
  • Can a line be drawn between reliable and unreliable modern interpretations of the text?
  • Does the Church have a specific teaching about the meaning of this text?

How might this text be used/applied in contemporary contexts?

  • In liturgy?
  • For personal spiritual reflection (e.g. Lectio)?
  • To inspire action for justice?
  • To reassure?
  • To console?
  • In prayer?
  • To challenge the status quo?
  • To invite to belief?
  • Rewritten to engage a particular audience?

Bringing the Worlds Together

Scripture is always more than a ‘text’. It is never detached from the faith it expresses, the tradition that formed it, the Church that believes, celebrates, lives and prays it, and its capacity to transform the reader, irrespective of the reader’s predispositions and prior knowledge.

A complete interpretation brings the world of the author, the text and the reader together. It integrates the historical, literary and theological. This integration intertwines what we learn from our enquiry into the past and present of the text, calling for a response from the reader to become part of the future that God desires.

Brisbane Catholic Education Video

Here is a video produced by Brisbane Catholic Education which explains the Three Worlds of the Text. It features Dr Ormond Rush, Professor of Theology at ACU, and Professor Peta Goldburg RSM, Professor of Religious Education at ACU.