Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 5)

Privileged elite interpreters & self-perpetuating systems

The Reformation was about taking authority away from a man and giving it to a book. The Catholics could control their masses through the doctrine of papal infallibility, the Protestants through the doctrine of Bible inerrancy. – Glenn Steers

Church leaders in the 1500s (like many church leaders today) did not think the average christian was capable of  understanding the scriptures. They felt christians needed priests to explain to them what God demands of them.

Nowadays Christians are allowed to read bibles, but “leaders” think they need to be given “lenses” (basically doctrinal boundaries) through which to interpret the scriptures. This is the purpose of bible colleges and seminaries – not teaching people to ask questions and find their own answers, but rather teaching their own brand of theology.

As Christians, we are taught by our leaders to believe certain ideas and behave in certain ways. We are also encouraged to read our Bibles. But we are conditioned to read the Bible with the lens handed to us by the Christian tradition to which we belong. We are taught to obey our denomination (or movement) and never challenge what it teaches. – Frank Viola

To think that there are special people who are masters of discovering the “correct interpretation,” we have to assume that a “correct interpretation” exists. What if there is no correct interpretation? What if God only intends to dialog with us through our reading of bibles, not to reveal truth through correct interpretation?

But no scholars or seminarians say this kind of stuff!

Actually, there are plenty of them who do. But, yes, it’s kind of difficult for many to do so because it could mean that they lose their job! No more need for “bible teachers.” It is a circular and self-perpetuating system to validate their own profit-generating practices.

The sacredness of the bible is the basis for seminaries and bible colleges. It would be immensely difficult for people there to accept that the scriptures are not special in the way they think it is because it would make their life-long devotion to a book look silly.

In other words, they may have personal reasons for supporting the religious view of bibles.

Thus, support for the sacredness of bibles is also a circular; the scriptures validate seminaries, and seminaries validate the scriptures.

Ultimately, whether intentionally or not, doctrines about bibles (such as inerrancy, inspiration, and authority) have been used to give power to those with knowledge. They become the arbiters of truth, for through their knowledge of the scriptures, they have the power to rightly discern.

But my trust in the scripture’s authority is not only based on reason but on experience as well. I’ve experienced that what it says is true, therefore I know it’s true.

But remember, that’s what you’ve been told ever since you became a christian. You were told that God speaks to you through the scriptures, that it is God’s word, etc. So you believed that. And our beliefs affect our experiences. This is called confirmation bias.

God will speak to you through whatever. So if you spend a bunch of time reading bibles, then he will speak to you through that regardless of whether it really is inerrant, inspired, authoritative, etc. How do you know that if you had been told that some other books were sacred that you wouldn’t have had similar experiences with those books (and hence think they were sacred)? This is not to say that all books are equally valuable; I’m simply pointing out that anyone’s belief in anything is necessarily affected by subjective bias.

Ultimately, biblical interpretation is something not for qualified individuals but for communities.

It can seem as if biblical scholars are the privileged interpreters of scripture. They alone can determine what the Bible means. But the Bible was written for believing communities, not critics, and real biblical interpretation happens when scripture does something to such a community. When the church places special emphasis on an academic and critical approach to scripture, it easily sets up a new type of priestly control of the Christian community by a guild of experts whose work is authoritarian, not in the sense that it cannot be questioned, but in the sense that it is the privileged responsibility of an elite. – John Goldingay

We rely on the witness of the church through time (with the hermeneutical trajectory set by the apostles as a central component), as well as the wisdom of the church in our time – both narrowly considered as a congregation, denomination, or larger tradition and more broadly considered as a global reality, all of which involves the direct involvement of the Spirit of God. Biblical interpretation is not merely a task that individuals perform: it is something that grows out of our participation in the family of God in the broadest sense possible. – Peter Enns


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

Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 3)

When authors are not speaking but merely quoting others

Consider the following example given by Steve McVey which demonstrates that the way a sentence is punctuated can change its meaning entirely:

An English professor wrote the words: “A woman without her man is nothing” on the chalkboard and asked her students to punctuate it correctly.
All the males in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
All the females in the class wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing!”

The original Greek and Hebrew texts of the scriptures didn’t use punctuation. Thus, all the punctuation you see in modern translations were added by translators. But since all punctuation is added by inference, it is not necessarily correct (both where there is punctuation and where there is no punctuation, i.e. everywhere!).

Let’s take a look at some examples of how punctuation could affect our interpretation of the scriptures. Specifically, we will look at the modern usage of quotation marks, whose function is to mark off text that is a reference to the words of another person.

We know that various concerns and questions came to Paul from the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:11; 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1). 1 Corinthians thus serves our purpose well; it is chock-full of instances where Paul quotes something the Corinthians wrote to him and then immediately responds to it.

Let’s start with the most obvious: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2). Here, explicitly states prior to quoting the Corinthians that he is addressing what they wrote to him. Note, however, that Paul doesn’t need to explicitly say that he is now going to quote something the Corinthians wrote like he did in the previous verse every single time he’s about to quote them, because the Corinthians would know when they were being quoted, since they wrote the letter to Paul. (Note that this is also true for every other letter Paul wrote.) Keep this in mind as we consider some other verses in the following paragraphs.

1 Corinthians 6:12 reads, “‘All things are permissible for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are permissible for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” You’ll notice that there are quotation marks around the phrase “all things are permissible for me” (this phrase also occurs in verse 10:23). In the Greek, however, there is nothing to indicate that this phrase is a quote. Why do translations, then, add quotation marks here?

Well, there is no solid, irrefutable reason. In fact, these verses in 1 Corinthians have not always been understood as quotations. It was thought for hundreds of years that this was simply Paul himself saying “all things are permissible for me.” It is simply the case that as time passed, more and more people became convinced that Paul, rather than stating something himself in these passages, was quoting what the Corinthians had written to him.

Now I want to take a look at another passage in 1 Corinthians that can be interpreted in a similar manner, although this reading is not popular at the moment.

“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first one keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches. Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:29-35).

The careful reader who reads this in context will have noticed that elsewhere Paul is clear that women do speak in church (specifically, they pray and prophesy; 11:2-16). Paul also encourages the whole church to function in Chapter 14. He writes, “for you can all prophesy one by one” (v. 31) and “when you assemble, every one of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation . . .” (v. 26). These contradicts the complete forbiddance of women speaking at all in verse 34 and should hint you that something else is going on here.

Contrary to what the verse says, the command actually is not even in the Law (i.e. the Torah). What’s actually being referred to is the additional Jewish rules created by ancient Rabbis and passed down by oral tradition called the Talmud. Specifically, it says:

It is a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men.
The voice of a woman is filthy nakedness.
A woman’s voice is prohibited because it is sexually provocative.
Women are sexually seductive, mentally inferior, socially embarrassing, and spiritually separated from the law of Moses; therefore, let them be silent.

We are now better equipped to understand the verses. Paul was quoting the Talmud and rebuking the Corinthian view of women. Thus, he responds, as he does in other parts of the letter, to the paraphrase of the Talmud or quoting the Corinthians with, “What! Did the Word of God originate with you? Or has it come to you only?” (v. 36).

My point here is not to convince anyone that this is in fact the correct and true interpretation of this passage. Rather, it is to point out that, for the vast majority of people who read the scriptures, the possibility of interpreting this passage in this way did not even enter their minds. And yet, such an interpretation is completely valid and, furthermore, says the exact opposite of what a “normal” interpretation (that Paul is not quoting but simply speaking) would say. If a phrase is not in quotation marks, that means Paul himself is affirmatively stating it. If it is in quotation marks, however, that basically means that Paul is referencing it in order to refute or correct it. So the significance of whether something is in quotation marks or not is huge! (And so is people’s general ignorance of this interpretive possibility.) And yet, there’s no way for us to be absolutely sure whether a phrase should or should not be enclosed with quotation marks!

I close with an explanation of how this literary technique is used in Romans:

Romans 7, for most of western Christian history has been read as an autobiographical text about Paul’s post conversion struggle. It isn’t. It is the human story prior to our being liberated in Jesus. It is a retelling of the old Adamic story. There is a shift in “voice” between Romans 7:6 and 7:7. This was an ancient rhetorical technique known as prosopopoia. Witherington: “This rhetorical technique involves the assumption of a role, and sometimes the role would be marked off from its surrounding discourse by a change in tone or inflection or accent or form of delivery…signaling a change in voice. Unfortunately for us, we did not get to hear Paul’s discourse delivered in its original oral setting, as was Paul’s intent.” Thus it is that when we read Paul’s letters where he is “role playing” we don’t pick up on the signals and read everything as though it was all Paul! A contemporary novelist writing in the first person does the same thing. This is also why Paul sent someone to read his letters out loud, they would know where to make the change of voice or inflection! The same phenomenon occurs in Romans 1:18-32 which is Paul role playing the false teacher he is combating throughout Romans. Douglas Campbell has used this to good effect in his book The Deliverance of God. Romans 1:18-32 is the false gospel being combated, not Paul’s view. Try that one on for size! Paul also role plays the false teacher in Romans 2-4 and 9-11. For a long time, Christian exegetes read everything in I Corinthians as having come from Paul. Now we know that at certain places Paul is quoting from the letter the Corinthians wrote to him. We also do this when we want to accurately reproduce something someone wrote before we respond to them. These ancient ways of communicating are not lost to us. We have the manuals of the ancient rhetoricians to guide us and help us understand just how it is that when Paul’s letters were read in the house churches, the lector (reader) would orally change the tone of voice. For too long Paul has been viewed as double minded, saying first this, then that. When he is read this way his letters are really mumbo-jumbo and we can spend centuries arguing back and forth and throwing “well, what about this verse?” questions at one another. But when we realize that Paul is using a device where he role plays then we can distinguish his own thoughts, beliefs and voice from those opponents he is arguing against. – Michael Hardin

Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 2)

The goal and method of biblical interpretation

[In Jewish communities,] biblical tensions and ambiguities are solved in multiple – even contradictory – ways, and these solutions are allowed to remain side by side in these authoritative canons of Jewish tradition. The stress seems to be not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding conversation with Scripture with creative energy…As quite distinct from Jewish interpretation, the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture. The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside by scholarship hostile to evangelical Christianity. Whatever tensions remain are addressed either by posing some direct solution (however ingenious) or by moving the problem to the side (“We know it has to fit somehow; we just aren’t sure how”). – Peter Enns

The idea that the scriptures should be taken apart and analyzed logically came from Greek philosophy, the establishment of universities, and the Enlightenment. The scriptures, unlike how the Jews treated them, began to be treated like manuals for individuals instead of writings to corporate bodies, which is what they originally were. Those of us who grew up in the Western world inherited this post-enlightenment rationalistic mindset that assumes that the purpose of the scriptures is to communicate factual truth.

Early interpreters of the OT, the NT authors, and Jesus, however, treated biblical interpretation not as a means of discovering ancient meaning but of using the scriptures to validate their present understanding of the scriptures. Thus, they anchored their interpretation in what they believed to be right and manipulated the texts to suit their purposes.

It is precisely a dispassionate, unbiased, objective reading that is normally considered to constitute valid reading. But what may be considered valid today cannot be the determining factor for understanding what the apostles did. Another way of putting the problem is that apostolic hermeneutics violates what is considered to be a fundamental interpretive principle: don’t take things out of context. So, it is thought, we cannot have New Testament writers taking the Old Testament out of context. But we must learn to look at it differently. – Peter Enns

When the scriptures are considered to be the absolute truth, the act of interpretation, because it varies according to the subjective experiences of people, is in inherently divisive. Yet, as the Jews’ hermeneutic demonstrates, the scriptures do not have to be understood that way.

Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 1)


Reading a text necessarily involves interpreting a text. I suppose when I started my studies I had a rather unsophisticated view of reading: that the point of reading a text is simply to let the text “speak for itself,” to uncover the meaning inherent in its words. The reality, I came to see, is that meaning is not inherent and texts do not speak for themselves. If texts could speak for themselves, then everyone honestly and openly reading a text would agree on what the text says. But interpretations of texts abound, and people in fact do not agree on what the texts mean. This is obviously true of the texts of scripture: simply look at the hundreds, or even thousands, of ways people interpret the book of Revelation, or consider all the different Christians denominations, filled with intelligent and well-meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions. – Bart Ehrman

There is a vast array of factors that influence how we interpret the scriptures (see the link at the bottom of this post). For example, whether they like to admit it or not, people have to choose whether a passage is literal or figurative or whether it is theologically correct or not. Even those who say that it is all literal and all theologically correct are making a choice (namely, they choose to believe that all of it is true).

As a result, no one’s interpretation of the bible is unbiased. We all have interpretive assumptions that we bring to the scriptures, whether we are conscious of them or not. For example, many assume that the scriptures are divinely inspired by God (there is no widely, much less universally, accepted proof for such a proposition.)

When someone says “I believe whatever the bible says,” what they really mean is that they believe their own interpretation of it.

There is no absolute point of reference to which we have access that will allow us to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context. – Peter Enns

We do not read the Bible the way it is; we read it the way we are. – Evelyn Uyemura

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means. – George Bernard Shaw

It is therefore possible to “prove” anything you want to from bibles (at least to yourself). People find what they want to from bibles. They find evidence for and convince themselves of what they want to believe. Some people do this intentionally, but even people who are reading the bible in a sincere pursuit of truth unknowingly make this human mistake. Consequently, when there is something we wish to be true, we will favor interpretations that favor what we want to believe.

Reading the scriptures is a subjective endeavor; you can never remove you and your interpretation from the picture. (This alone is sufficient to render ideas like the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of the scriptures as useless since there is no guarantee that our interpretation will extract the inspired, infallible, and authoritative meaning. This is not to say, however, that all interpretations are equally valid or equal in value.)


Also see:

God was God and Truth was Truth Before There was a Bible (by Jim Palmer)

Distractive Biblical Obsession (Part 2)

bible revelation

Part 1

Bibles are not the number one way God speaks to us

At least, according to bibles they’re not. Jesus, the Word of God, is, and he lives in us.

In Exodus 20:18-19 Israel in essence says, “Hey God, quit talking to us. If you want to tell us something, please write something down for us that we can always refer to. We don’t want to talk with you. But if you feel like you have to say something to us other than what you wrote down, you can talk through Moses. But don’t talk directly to us.” Israel thus began relating with God through rules and regulations.

Yet after more than a thousand years of studying their scriptures, the Jews could not recognize the Messiah to which it pointed. Why should we expect to fare any better?

Consider also that making bibles the central way God speaks to us effectively puts some at a disadvantage. It makes reading, and more specifically verbal communication, the most important form of communication with God. But the truth is that some people are better and are more interested in and capable of that kind of communication than others. For example, dyslexics and those in cultures that do not have systems for writing down their language. Do they need a “Moses,” a mediator other than Jesus, to communicate with their Daddy? Sounds like the Old Covenant to me.

I write this to those of you who cannot read…Discover Christ in you, and read him. Your illiteracy is in no way a limitation for God to reveal himself. – Madame Guyon

Further, since reading bibles requires interpretation, those with the most biblical knowledge would also have the greatest advantage. Those who have not gone to seminary or received some kind of formal training are made to be dependent on their pastor or some teacher, who is supposedly more capable of hearing God through reading bibles due to their informed interpretations.

Yet those who preceded the Law, such as Abraham, had no problem directly communicating with God without need for an external mediator or writings even while completely lacking in any knowledge of God. How much more us, in whom Christ has been revealed!

Part 3

The Nonexistence of “The Bible”


The phrase “the bible” comes from the Greek “ta biblia” meaning “the books.” Indeed, it is a collection of “books” (writings that can be categorized into genres such as historical record, love poetry, ancient biography, and epistle).

But truth be told, there is no “the bible”. There are only bibles – different translations based on different interpretations from different collections of manuscripts transcribed by different transcribers to form different canons.

There’s an Italian saying, “traduttore, traditore.” Translated this says, “translator, traitor.” Essentially it means that perfect translation from one language to another is impossible. Even the translation of this saying demonstrates its truth, as the full rhyming of the two words is lost in the English. This saying holds even truer for extinct languages, such as Koine Greek (the primary language the New Testament was written in), because it is impossible for people such as ourselves to grasp them to the extent that we do our native tongues (as the original writers and readers did).

Every translator is also an interpreter, because there is no translation without interpretation. It is impossible to translate without preconceived notions and biases interfering, regardless of whether their interference is intentional or not. Further, translation trivializes the currently popular doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy/infallibility because such properties do not carry over into translated products. Even if the original manuscripts, which are forever inaccessible to us, had such properties, their transcripts and subsequent translations (what we have) are not.

But even if we do not translate and instead read the transcripts (which are not the original manuscripts) in the languages they were originally written in, since the languages are not native to us, nor are we people living during that time period, nor do we know the full context in which they were written, nor do we have relationships with the authors – all of which were true of the original readers – our understanding of the writings would not only be limited but most surely flawed as well (in some ways, at least). This remains true no matter how much academic effort is made to study the languages.

(A note on past transcriptions and modern publications: Most past transcribers were and most modern bible publishing companies are profit-making ventures, often very profitable. To think that everyone involved in transcription and translation knew or knows Jesus personally is an assumption. Thus, we don’t know their true motivation for transcribing and translating. We would have to assume that unbiased accuracy was and is the transcribers’ and translators’ highest priority because, for example, translations that would seem to promote unpopular doctrines might be more likely to be discarded, even if they seem more accurate, since they could negatively affect sales.)

“The bible” give the impression that there exists a single authoritative entity. But if there really is such a thing, where is it? If it really does exist, please show it to me; I would like to see it!

Naw, it ain’t real. “The bible” is only a figment of religious imagination.

Some might object that ultimately it is not up to our rational minds but up to Holy Spirit to open our eyes as we read bibles. To that, I would agree. Yet I would add a question: Since it’s up to Holy Spirit, why, as has often been assumed, does it have to be through this one particular book that he teaches us truth? I don’t believe it does. God is not limited by a book in communicating with us (as the scriptures themselves attest), nor has he ever claimed that he would reveal himself to us primarily through a book (although humans have claimed so).

He communicates with and reveals himself to us primarily through Jesus.

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…the exact representation of [God’s] being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).