Biblical accommodation

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Biblical accommodation is the adaptation of words or sentences from the Bible to signify ideas different from those expressed therein. Thus, if a sinner excuses his fault by saying, "The serpent deceived me", he applies the scriptural words of Eve (Gen., iii, 13) to express an idea which the sentence does not convey in the Bible. Similarly, a blind person might use the words of Tob., v, 12, "What manner of joy shall be to me, who sit in darkness, and see not the light of heaven". Here, again, the words would have a meaning which they do not bear in Sacred Scripture. This accommodation is sometimes incorrectly styled the accommodated, or accommodative, sense of Scripture. From the definition it is clear that it is not a sense of Scripture at all. The possibility of such accommodation may arise, first, from some similarity between the ideas in the sacred text and the subject to which the passage is accommodated; secondly, from the fact that the words of Scripture may be understood in two different senses. The first is called extensive accommodation. Examples of it are found in the Church's offices, both in the Breviary and the Missal, when the praises bestowed by the Holy Ghost on Noe, Isaac, and Moses are applied to other saints. Thus the words of Ecclus., xxxii, 1, 5: "Have they made thee ruler? . . . hinder not music" are sometimes applied to College presidents assuming the burden of their office; we need not say that the words of Sacred Scripture have quite a different meaning. The second species of accommodation, called allusive, is often a mere play on words and at times seems due to a misunderstanding of the original meaning. The Vulgate text, Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis (Ps., lxvii, 36) means, in the mouth of the Psalmist, that God is wonderful in His sanctuary (sancta, -orum). The Latin words may also be translated "God is wonderful in his saints" (sancti, -orum), and they are employed in this sense in the Missal. As this second signification was not intended by the inspired writer, the English rendering of the text in the Douay-Rheims version is a mistranslation.

The use of accommodation in the Bible[edit]

It is generally held by Catholic authors that certain passages from the Old Testament have been used over again in the New Testament with a change of meaning. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (xiii, 5) the words spoken to Josue, "I will not leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Jos., i, 5), are applied to all Christians. Other examples of accommodation are the use of Exod., xvi, 18 in II Cor., viii, 15; Zach., iv, 14 in Apoc., xi, 4; Ps., vi, 9 in Matt., vii, 2, 3; Mich., vii, 6 in Matt, x, 36. Evidently, the new meaning attached to the words is also inspired. Rationalistic writers have maintained that similar accommodations are to be found in every case where the Four Evangelists quote the prophecies of the Old Testament. Some few Catholic writers have been willing to grant this explanation for a few passages, but the words in which the Evangelists assert that events in Our Lord's life took place "in order that" the prophecies might be fulfilled are incompatible with the theory that they wished to indicate only a resemblance between the event and the prophet's words. It is probable that no prophecy is used in the Gospels merely by accommodation.

New Testament quotations of Old Testament predictions often seem to modern readers to be accommodations, striking or forced as the case may be, while the New Testament writer, "following the exegetical methods current among the Jews of his time, Matthew ii. 15, 18, xxvi. 31, xxvii. 9",[1] puts them forward as arguments. To say that he is merely "describing a New Testament fact in Old Testament phraseology" may be true of the result rather than of his design.[2]

Catholic rules for accommodation[edit]

Accommodation is used in the Liturgy and by the Fathers of the Church; texts have been accommodated by preachers and ascetical authors. Many of the sermons of St. Bernard are mosaics of Scripture phrases. The Council of Trent forbade the wresting of Scripture to profane uses (Sess. IV, Decret. "De editione et usu Sacrorum Librorum "). Typical rules for guidance in the accommodation of Scripture are:

  • Accommodated texts should never be used as arguments drawn from revelation.
  • Accommodation should not be farfetched.
  • Accommodations should be reverent.


German 18th-century rationalism held that the Biblical writers made great use of conscious accommodation, intending moral commonplaces when they seemed to be enunciating Christian dogmas. Another expression for this, used, for example, by Johann Salomo Semler, is "economy," which also occurs in the kindred sense of "reserve" (or of Disciplina Arcani, a modern term for the supposed early Catholic habit of reserving esoteric truths). Isaac Williams on Reserve in Religious Teaching, No. 80 of Tracts for the Times, made a great sensation, and was commented on by Richard William Church in The Oxford Movement.[2]


  1. ^ Samuel Rolles Driver in Zechariah in Century Bible, pp. 259, 271
  2. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Accommodation". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 121. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Biblical Accommodation". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.