Sensus plenior

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A sensus plenior, or "fuller sense," is an interpretation received from God. The divine interpretation of a passage may be different than the one intended by its human author.[1] The term was introduced by Catholic theologian Andrea Fernández in 1925 and was popularized by Raymond Brown in the 1950s.[2]

The authors of the New Testament interpreted various Old Testament passages as messianic prophesies. Peter justifies this practice as follows: “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation."[3] Some of the interpretations given by the apostles have been questioned by modernist translators and commentators.

Translations may be classified as either conservative or liberal depending on how they present these passages. The King James Version (1611), the New International Version (1978), and the English Standard Version (2001) use sensus plenior. The Revised Standard Version (1952) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989) ignore New Testament interpretations and translate Hebrew text from a Jewish perspective.

NRSV is the Bible translation preferred in secular and academic study.[4] It gives the intentional sense of the Hebrew. Like NRSV, ESV is a revision of RSV. Unlike NRSV, it restores traditional Christian understandings.[5] The authors of the New Testament were generally more familiar with the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, than with the Hebrew original.

New Revised Standard Version Septuagint (Brenton) English Standard Version New Testament (ESV)
Isaiah 7:14 Matthew 1:22-23
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.[6] Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.[7] Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.[8] All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).[9]
Psalm 16:10 Acts 2:31
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.[10] Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.[11] For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.[12] He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.[13]
Genesis 22:17 Galatians 3:16
I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,[14] I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is by the shore of the sea, and thy seed shall inherit the cities of their enemies.[15] I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies,[16] Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.[17]
Psalm 45:6 Hebrews 1:8
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;[18] Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a sceptre of righteousness.[19] Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;[20] But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.”[21]

As you can see from the chart, Matthew quoted the version of Isaiah's prophecy given in the Septuagint. In Acts, Peter also quotes from the Septuagint rather than from the Hebrew. In the case of Genesis 22:17, ESV's "gate of his enemies" is a literal translation. The grammar is smoothed over in NRSV.[22]

The human author of Psalms intended "O God" as a deification of the king. Paul interpreted it as a reference to Jesus. RSV gave this passage as, "Your divine throne endures for ever and ever."[23] This imposes a modern Jewish perspective according to which no human can be deified. Both NRSV and ESV restore the traditional Christian sense of the passage.


  1. Brown, Raymond E., The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture (Baltimore: St. Mary's University, 1955), p 92. “The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation."
  2. Longenecker, Richard, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, xxxii. 1999.
  3. 2 Peter 1:20
  4. NRSV is used in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (2010). This has "ecumenical" annotations appropriate for secular Bible study. It is currently Amazon's No. 1 religious book.
  5. ESV is used in The Scofield Study Bible III (2006), a renowned Christian-oriented study Bible.
  6. Isaiah 7:14
  7. Septuagint Esaias 7:14
  8. Isaiah 7:14
  9. Matthew 1:22-23
  10. Psalm 16:10
  11. Septuagint Psalm 16:10
  12. Psalm 16:10
  13. Acts 2:31
  14. Genesis 22:17
  15. Septuagint Genesis 22:17
  16. Genesis 22:17
  17. Galatians 3:16
  18. Psalm 45:6
  19. Septuagint Psalm 45:6
  20. Psalm 45:6
  21. Hebrews 1:8
  22. The Plain Sense(s) of Scripture: Questioning interpretive singularity in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
  23. Psalm 45:6