To Read or To Interpret?

Let’s start out with a fairly basic question:
“Do we need to interpret or study the Bible?”
Some of you may be asking this or have asked it before, because we often have felt or heard someone say, “we don’t need to study the Bible, we just need to read it and do what it says”, or that “people tend to make things overcomplicated”.

And there’s a lot of truth in this.

We do need to aim for the simple meaning of the Bible when we read it and above all the reason for reading the Bible is so that we can put what we learn into practice. The difficulty we face with a passage like Phil 2:3 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (NRSV) is not understanding it but living it!

Also there is a real danger in digging so deep when we’re studying that we muddy the clear simple message of the Bible. It’s probably important to say right here that the aim of Bible study is NOT “uniqueness”. We’re not trying to find something that no one else has ever found before and “out-clever” the world.

As we said, the aim of Bible study is simply to get at the plain meaning of the passage. This does come from reading, but at the same time we can’t simply read the Bible at face-value for 2 reasons:

  1. Nature of the reader (because of who we are):
    Whether we like it or not whenever we read something we interpret as we read. By that I mean, when we read something we imagine what’s going on –we try to make sense of it. However, when we try to understand/interpret the Bible we are influenced by all our past experiences, culture and associations. For example: when we read that people prayed we often view them either standing or sitting with their heads bowed and eyes closed (because that’s what we do!), whilst often prayers were done with eyes open, hands outstretched and head lifted back. When we hear the word ‘flesh’ in our language today we think of our physical body, whilst Paul often uses it of our sinful nature. Choosing to not interpret is just not an option, we can only choose whether to do it well (and try to make our understanding closer to God’s intent) or do it poorly.
  2. Nature of the Bible (because of what the Bible is)
    Just take a moment to think about what the Bible is… It’s the Word of God written by humans throughout history. It’s amazing, because there’s an awesome balance here! Because the Bible is God’s word it is eternally relevant – its message speaks to us throughout all time. But because it was written by humans for humans, God’s words were expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of the people of the time and was written to address their problems/questions.Because of this we have to realise that the Bible isn’t always speaking directly to us. Now wait a second, what do I mean by that, because didn’t we just say that the Bible is eternally relevant? Well 1 Corinthians is a letter written to people who lived in 1st Century Corinth right? So while the Bible is God’s word to us, it was first God’s word to them! 1 Corinthians was a letter to them, written in their language, in words they would understand, in a way they would understand, about their questions/problems. For example read 1 Cor 13:4-6. We commonly use these beautiful words to describe what love is and you’ll often hear them in weddings (I used them for mine!). They do describe love, but what we have to remember is that they are the aspects of love that the Corinthians needed to hear. A read through 1Corinthians shows us that the 1Cor 13:4-6 matches up with the issues the Corinthians had. It is not a complete description of love, if these verses were in Philippians for example, they might look quite different (but still be true).

    So for Corinthians to have any meaning for us we have to learn to read it as they would have read it (not try to read it as if it was Paul’s letter to the Adelaidians!). And because we are so far removed from them in time, plus we have a different language, different ways of thinking and aren’t familiar with their problems, we have to study the Bible so that we can hear it as they heard it. Once we know what it said to them we can work out what it is saying to us.

How to Study:

So there are two tasks in Bible study: we have to first understand the ‘then and there’ – what it meant to the original hearers, and then we have to hear God’s word ‘here and now’ – hearing that same message in our lives today.

This does NOT mean that we’re making Bible study so complicated that it’s out of reach for most of us. Bible study is simply reading the Bible but also asking the right questions as we read so that we properly understand ‘then and there’ and ‘here and now’. The questions we have to ask are pretty common sense and we’ll go through them in our next post.

Summary:

  • The aim of Bible study: to understand the simple meaning of a passage
  • The 2 tasks in Bible study: understand the ‘then and there’, and then discern the ‘here and now’
  • Bible study is reading the Bible and asking the right questions as you read
  • What questions do I ask? Wait till next week!!

References:

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.

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Narrative – How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

While I’m preparing an in-depth post on the narrative genre in scripture, here’s some thoughts from “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”.

We conclude this chapter by isolating tHow to Read the Bible For All Its Worthen summarizing principles for interpreting Old Testament narratives that should also help a reader avoid certain pitfalls as one reads.

1. An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
3. Narratives record what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral application.
4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently, it is just the opposite.
5. Many (if not most) of the characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect—as are their actions as well.
6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21:25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
8. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
9. Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fourth Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 111.

The Need to Understand Genre

Continuing our exploration of Bible study methods, we’ll be looking at genre next. Here’s a quote that explains the need to understand genre.

One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that, in order to communicate his word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.

To interpret properly the “then and there” of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one also needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres). The way God communicates the divine word to us in the “here and now” will often differ from one form to another. For example, we need to know how a psalm, a form often addressed to God, functions as God’s word to us, and how certain psalms differ from others, and how all of them differ from “the laws,” which were often addressed to people in cultural situations no longer in existence. How do such “laws” speak to us, and how do they differ from the moral “laws,” which are always valid in all circumstances? Such are the questions the dual nature of the Bible forces on us.

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fourth Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 26–27.

Bridging the Gap – Culture and Language

“We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages.We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviours are considered rude or polite. And yet we hardly notice… we tend to read Scripture in our own ‘when’ and ‘where’, in a way that makes sense on our terms.” (1)

Those who have had the opportunity to travel overseas understand the need to learn about local culture in the places they are going to visit. It could be dangerous not to! You might behave quite differently in Dubai compared to how you would in London or New York. Yet we can be so familiar with the Bible that we forget that opening its pages is an experience of different languages and cultures to our own. The Bible is written in Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic. At the time each Biblical book was written, these were the most relevant and accessible languages to the original audience. Thousands of years later, the Bible is now translated into the native languages of millions of people around the world(2).

The cultures of the Biblical world were very different to our own. One of the most significant differences being the ‘collectivist’ mindset that is entirely different to our Western ‘individualist’ mindset. There was less emphasis on individuality and more emphasis on the whole group. In a collectivist society it might be considered cruel to let individual young people make important life decisions on their own. A decision like choosing who to marry would require the help and advice of parents and the local community. Why would you leave a young person to muddle through something so important on their own? In a collectivist culture this might be seen as thoughtless and unkind whilst in our Western individualist culture we might feel that such an approach encroaches too much on our individual freedoms.

We often read our own cultural values into Biblical passages. We may instinctively think that when Paul exhorts women to dress “with modesty and self-control” he is telling them to be sexually modest, to cover up. We gloss over the rest of the verse that adds, “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” which indicates Paul is talking about ‘economic modesty’. He is saying women should not flaunt their wealth to others. This is not to say that sexual modesty is unimportant (Paul is probably referring to sexual modesty when he mentions “respectable apparel”) but it is not the main focus of Paul’s comments. Peter makes the same point in very similar words in 1 Peter 3:3-4. Sexual modesty clearly wasn’t as much of a problem as economic modesty for the original audience of Paul and Peter’s words.

We need to make sure that we take time to carefully understand the Biblical culture of the passage at hand and do not unconsciously impose our own cultural values on the text regardless of whether those values are right or wrong in themselves.

Once again we have listed some resources below that can help you develop an understanding of the Biblical cultures and how they differ from our own. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes is especially helpful for highlighting small cultural characteristics Westerners have that we are often entirely unaware of.

(1) Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 11.
(2) See the United Bible Societies’ website at  http://www.unitedbiblesocieties.org/what-we-do/translation/global-scripture-access/

Resources

Books and Book Excerpts

  • The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy
  • Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien

Web Resources

Note: we have not repeated resources from the previous post although many of them are still relevant here. Instead, we will soon be setting up a separate ‘Resources’ page (next to the About link at the top of the page) that lists all of these recommendations and more.

 

Bridging the Gap – Time and Place

We are separated from the people who wrote and received books of the Bible by between 2000 and 5000 years. That’s a long time! We look at black and white pictures of our grandparents or great-grandparents and wonder about how different their world was. They lived only a hundred or so years ago, the Bible is from 2000 years ago.

Our Bible was not written in 21st century English to people from a Western background. It was mainly written in the Ancient Near East to people from a very different culture to our own.

For most of us, the world of the Bible is also a long way from home. Where is Shechem, Beer-Sheba, or the place “called in the Hebrew tongue, Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16)? Where was Abraham’s birthplace, “Ur of the Chaldees”, and what was it like? If we do some research on Ur we can appreciate the faith of Abraham more deeply when we realise that he left behind a wealthy, cosmopolitan city offering a luxurious, idolatrous lifestyle in order to be a stranger and a pilgrim living in a tent for the rest of his life (cp Hebrews 11:8-13). We need to understand more about these places to enrich our understanding of what is happening in the Biblical narratives.

To really understand our Bible, we must find ways to bridge the gap between its time and place, and our time and place. To grasp its meaning, we must properly appreciate its historical and geographical context. For the Old Testament, this means developing some personal understanding of the Ancient Near East. For the New Testament, this means gaining some knowledge of Judea at the time of Christ, as well as the broader ancient Roman world to which the gospel spread.

In the “Information Age” of today, we have a wealth of knowledge to help us. The main tools for finding out facts about Biblical times and places are Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, and resources on Biblical Archaeology. A few suggested resources are listed below. I personally use and recommend Logos Bible Software as a highly capable and expandable tool, well worth the monetary investment. However, I realise some people are limited to using freely available software and resources like E-Sword and programs from the Sword Project.

Resources on Biblical Times and Places:

Books and Book Excerpts

  • The Archaeology of the Bible by James K Hoffmeier
  • Discoveries from Bible Times by Alan Millard
  • Cities of the Biblical World by LaMoine F. DeVries
  • UPDATE (thanks BHC): Archaeology of the Land of the Bible by Amihai Mazar
  • Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton
  • The Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith
  • How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart, Introduction: The Need to Interpret, pp.30-31
  • Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Chapter 1 – The Need for Hermeneutics, pp.13-16
  • The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant R. Osborne, Chapter 1 Context, pp.37-39

Logos Bible Software

E-Sword

  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (free)
  • Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (small cost)
  • Various free map sets available

The Sword Project

  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (free)
  • Various free map sets available

Websites

Facebook Pages

The Bible is simple… right?

Why does the Bible need to be studied? Isn’t its message simple enough to be understood by anyone? Surely it would be unfair of God to expect people to believe him and live according to his Word if it wasn’t able to be understood by everyone? Has not God chosen the ‘foolish’ of this world?

These are commonly expressed concerns when people advocate what is perceived to be an ‘academic’ approach to the Bible. It has an element of truth to it but it is a rather simplistic statement. Yes, God does expect people to understand His Word and believe clear basic doctrines concerning Him and His plan of salvation. But we must also remember that we are not the original recipients of the Bible. God has not spoken directly to us. He has not even written directly to us.

God has communicated His message to special individuals over thousands of years. But he wrote first for them, in their time and in their culture. He preserved the message for us, but it was first written to another people in another time.

The Bible was written to people from a different cultural background to us. The original audience was an ancient one. They knew nothing of the science, technology, medicine, and other things that define our modern world. They knew little of democracy, and literacy was not widespread. It is only in the modern era, from perhaps the 18th century onwards, that literacy has been common. Even today literacy is not as widespread as it should be. Consider then that the original audience most commonly would have heard rather than read the text!

We want to consider the following points (1) over subsequent posts as reasons why we need to engage carefully and thoughtfully in an interpretive process.

  1. Time distance
  2. Cultural distance
  3. Language distance
  4. Geographical distance

Finally, consider the variety of Biblical interpretations there are out there. How many people and Christian groups are there, all disagreeing with each other about how to understand certain points and issues?

This all goes to show that we need to have a systematic approach to understanding the Bible. We need to use methods and resources that we know make sense and are consistently reliable.

The Bible is for us too. But we need to remember we aren’t the original audience, so we need to think about how they would have understood it. Hopefully this blog will assist you with this and help to deepen your understanding of God’s Word and how to study it.

(1) Taken from Klein, William, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2004.