In 2,000 years, will someone look at the symbolism surrounding Pope John Paul II’s death and say it was embellished? CNS photo

Biblical events, symbols and fact

  • May 28, 2015

One of the joys of the Easter season, just concluded, is the ample readings from the Gospel of John. Indeed in the final days of the Easter season, as Pentecost approaches, the Church gives us at Holy Mass the last verses of John, culminating with the summary of the Christian life given to Peter by Jesus: “Follow me!”

All the Gospels, especially John, include various details rich in symbolism. This poses a challenge for biblical interpretation, which often treats such events as creative flourishes by the biblical author to illuminate a particular point. An extreme form of this approach denies even dogmas of the faith; Jesus was not virginally conceived, but rather the story speaks of His unique relationship with the Father. More commonly, it denies the historical accuracy of major miracles of Jesus; the multiplication of the loaves and fish did not actually take place, but was invented by the author to show that Jesus persuaded people to share their goods, or some such. In milder form, it might argue that the birth of Jesus did not actually take place during the first universal census, but the Gospels make a spiritual point, namely that when it came time for the whole human race to be counted, Jesus Christ was present.

Against this, the Church teaches the historicity of the Gospels and professes that if something seems richly symbolic it is because the divine author of sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit, arranged it so.

The mother of all such examples is the 153 fish miraculously caught in John 21, passages from which accompany us throughout Easter. Why did John write that there were 153 fish in the net? What does it mean? Why did John insert that there?

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