Prelate: Bible Key for More Than Christianity

Says Scripture Is Europe’s “Mother Tongue”

LISBON, Portugal, JUNE 24, 2008 ( The Bible is a cornerstone, not just of Christianity, but of Western civilization, proposed Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi.

The president of the Pontifical Council for Culture affirmed this in Portugal last Friday, when he gave a talk on “The Bible: The ‘Great Code’ of Western Culture” at the Portuguese Catholic University.

According to the archbishop, the Bible is present in Western culture “as structural component of the artistic, ethical and social fields.”

Citing literary critic Northrop Frye, Archbishop Ravasi said that “Scripture is the universe in which Western literature and art acted until the 18th century and, to a great extent, still act.”

The prelate suggested three models that represent “this immense influence” of the Bible.

The first is the “reinterpretative or actualizing: The biblical text or symbol is taken up, and reread within new and diverse historic-cultural conditions.”

On this point, Archbishop Ravasi gave the example of the figure of Job who, “after having been converted by sacred art in an image of the patient Christ, is transformed into a paradigm of the human condition in Kierkegaard.”


The prelate proposed as the second model “that which elaborates biblical data in a disconcerting manner and which we can define as degenerative. In the history of theology and exegesis itself, there have often been hermeneutic deviations and deformations.”

In this case, the biblical text runs “the risk of being reduced to a tenuous background on which are woven new schemes and new meanings, a phenomenon that occurs with many biblical figures,” he explained.

Archbishop Ravasi called a third model “the transfigurative.” This occurs when “art succeeds in rendering visible the secret resonances of a sacred text, transcribing it in all its purity, bringing to light potentials that scientific exegesis only acquires with much effort or even ignores altogether.”

In this line, the archbishop mentioned music “that, in the historical period from the 17th to the early 19th century, often surpassed the figurative arts as interpreter of the Bible.”

“Just imagine what an oratorio might signify, such as Carissimi’s ‘Jefte’ or Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of the Blessed Virgin,’ or Bach’s ‘Passion According to Matthew’ or even, looking at our days, Penderecki’s ‘Passion According to Luke’ or Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms,'” he added.

And he proposed a case in point: “the supreme rereading that Mozart made of a literary modest Psalm, the very brief 117, 116 — loved, however, by Israel because it proclaims the two fundamental virtues of the covenant that binds God to his People, that is, veritas et misericordia, as states the Latin version of the Vulgate, used by the musician, or ‘love and fidelity,’ in a more accurate translation of the Hebrew original.”

In reminding his listeners that the Bible is one of the reference points for the faith and for civilization itself, Archbishop Ravasi quoted Goethe who “said that Christianity is ‘the maternal tongue of Europe.'”

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