Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 4)

Linguistic difficulties in biblical interpretation

A linguistically detailed approach to biblical scholarship is not only compatible with, but also essential to, modern Christianity. Analyzing the Bible as an inspired piece of literature without taking into account the scientific constraints of human language is misguided. A deeper understanding of universal grammar and semantic roles of lexemes, morphemes and contextual clues are needed to ensure that biblical language is conceptualized in the same mind frame as language today.

And to make matters more difficult the speaker may be either unaware of the real message he was encoding, or unwilling to admit to the message, so that he can disown the message if it seems politic to do so. In the same way the listener, possibly because of his relationship to the speaker, may ‘perceive’ a message that cannot be detected by anyone else. If he claims to perceive it, on what grounds can anyone else deny that it is there? Certainly not by analyzing the offending utterance as though it were a cold sentence.

There is, in fact, an ultimate imprecision in utterances that is likely to discourage the linguist looking for objectivity in his theories of language. – Peter Cotterell

The techniques used to translate a text should determine to a degree the way in which we interpret that text (you can see an explanation of various translation techniques at the link at the bottom).

Yet most people remain ignorant of the various possibilities, or if they are aware their knowledge is usually significantly limited and thus largely unhelpful for interpretive purposes (e.g. some people merely use the broad translation categories of literal and paraphrastic).

Most of us (including myself) do not have any more than a basic understanding (if any at all) of the linguistic elements that are relevant in interpreting biblical texts, such as morphemes, lexemes, and opaque and transparent meaning, differences between the connotation and denotation of words, etymology, idioms, homonymy and polysemy, literary and cultural context, and genre.

I once heard someone say that, for certain modern biblical notions (e.g. hell), there are no syntagmatic or paradigmatic analyses of the scriptures that can account for them. I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I asked a Greek scholar. This was the response I received:

A well formed sentence and a badly formed sentence is easy for a native speaker to spot, but difficult for a non native speaker to spot. Sometimes an author can deliberately use a “bad form” as a way of mockery, emphasis or for other purposes. There are also ways in which a native speaker can see how one phrase points to a certain social strata whereas another phrase points to a different social strata. But the non native speaker would not spot such a thing easily.

If I were to say something that used a typically Jewish phrase followed by a typically Irish phrase, English speaking people could easily pick up on my use of sub culture code-switching. They could then better understand why I did such a thing and be able to infer what might motivate me to say such a thing.

But when reading Koine Greek, do we really know enough about that language to pick up on such nuances and then appreciate what such things might say about what is being implied, or inserted. Paul’s apparent statement about women in 1 Corinthians 14 for example contains what appears to be a syntactical anomaly that brings doubt to its genuineness and the likelihood that it is an insertion into the context.

But we do not have enough syntagmatic knowledge about Koine or Hebrew to identify and then interpret every occurrence. So we cannot identify certain nuances that could have a radical impact on how we read the text.

As to the paradigmatic problems, we find that certain elements of a language get combined in a manner that creates a very specific meaning that might be unrelated to the elements as they exist separately. The word butterfly has little to do with butter or flies nor is it something that looks like butter flying. We do not have the paradigmatic information that would allow us to pick up on many of these phrases and some of them that we have picked up on are not easy to prove.

For example. The fear of the Lord” is a phrase that has nothing to do with fear or even with the Lord. But proving this is not easy. It is likely that the phrase was used to refer to a respect for nature. That is, you cannot jump off a 100 foot cliff with jagged rocks below and expect you won’t get hurt. Nature just does not work that way and so if you want to live to a natural age you best not run into the dangers of nature. Respect the world as it works as the Lord created it and you will live happier and longer. This is what “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” actually means. But proving that is not easy especially when there are those who want you to be shaking in your knees at the thought of what God can do to you if you displease him.

The languages of the biblical text are dead languages. No one speaks them today in the exact same way they were used back in the day. As a result, we are somewhat in the dark in identifying such structures and then interpreting them once identified. – Bob Greaves


Also see:

Translation Techniques

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s