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)

Myth in the Scriptures

Would an inspired book necessarily be historically and scientifically inerrant? There is no particular reason to think so. One could not be sure, as fundamentalists would like to think, that an inspired book would not contain inspired myths and legends, even fiction. There are other non-factual genres in the Bible, after all, like the Psalms. Who is the theologian to tell God that he cannot have included certain genres in his book? If we know God’s literary tastes in such detail, then I suggest the Bible is altogether superfluous. We already know the very mind of God before we even open the Bible! – Robert M. Price

Today I’m writing about mythology as it relates to the scriptures.

First of all, let me clarify that when I say “myth” I don’t mean what it means in popular usage, namely a story or belief that is simply false. Rather, I mean the very specific meaning it has as a genre of ancient literature.

Historians of the Near East didn’t use the word “myth” to mean untrue or made-up. These ideas may be included, but it is actually used to get at something deeper. Peter Enns defines myth as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” Another good definition, given by Alan Dundes, is, “A sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind assumed their present form.”

As the quote at the beginning explains, we have no good reason to assume that the scriptures do not contain any mythical accounts. This is true even if we grant that the scriptures are inspired. There is nothing about the category of myth that could inhibit God’s ability to speak to us through it.

On the contrary, God speaking to people according to paradigms that were already held would significantly help their comprehension; otherwise his communication would have been incomprehensible (e.g. if God communicated to people thousands of years ago with our modern worldview, which, unfortunately, many people read back into their interpretation of the scriptures).

Many assume that a modern recording of history (with an emphasis on factual accuracy) is more valuable than myth, and therefore that’s what God did in the OT. But is God really concerned about us getting our facts straight? What if he only cares about our beliefs to the degree that it affects how we relate with him and others? What if he’s interested in the message that is communicated more than making sure the statements recorded are true propositions?

Ancient peoples did not attempt to describe the universe in scientific terms. Myths in the scriptures would not have the goal of telling historically and scientifically accurate stories; they wouldn’t derive value from catering to what is merely our modern worldviews and academic practices. Rather, myths have value because they have analogues in other civilizations. It was in the differences with those analogues, and thus in comparison, that the myths spoke its message. (So what happens when we lose sight of the analogues and there is nothing to compare it to? We simply take everything in it, enforce concepts of modernity on the text, and say “well, I guess all of it must be true.” This misses the purpose of the myth and therefore what it tries to communicate.)

Let’s look at some examples of myth in the scriptures.

The land Abraham came from (Mesopotamia) and that he was called to (Canaan) both expressed stories of origins in mythic categories for a long time. What makes Genesis unique is not that it is historically accurate unlike the similar mythic stories of its time but that it begins to reveal the God that is different from all the gods before him.

God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham – and everyone else – throughout. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one. – Peter Enns

Since the  ancient Near Eastern stories are myth and the Genesis stories are extremely similar to them, Genesis should also be understood as myth. This is expected since Genesis is an ancient document, not a modern one. Just because our culture does not understand origins in terms of myth doesn’t mean that we can make something that was written as myth fit our modern perspectives or judge them based on standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision.

The literal interpretation [of Genesis] is only about a hundred years old, and that approach to the Bible came out of the Enlightenment, which requires a Eurocentric post-scientific-revolution worldview that none of the writers of the Bible ever considered. I more favor a literary interpretation; understanding not only the cultural context but also the genre and style that certain sections of the Bible were written in. And the first eleven chapters of Genesis are written in the genre of a creation myth: fantastic imagery used to package the explanation of how we got here. I think reading the Bible like a textbook full of facts is not only quite silly, but also sucks out all the enjoyment of reading the Bible. – Andrew Love

Jesus’ claims are another good example (although perhaps not exactly myth in and of themselves, they were definitely derived from myths). Put simply, they weren’t unique. Indeed, Jesus wasn’t trying to be. He was making a comparison between himself and other people or objects that were the subject of the claims. When Jesus said the things similar to what others had previously claimed, he did so knowing that when he did so those people or objects would be brought to the minds of his audience.

The point isn’t that Jesus’ claims are false. Rather, their meaning is only revealed in light of their prior uses and meaning to which he was making comparative statements. And, truth be told, most people are ignorant of the historical contexts of certain phrases in the scriptures such as “so-and-so is Lord” or “such-and-such is the light of the world.”


Also see:

Genesis and the Myth of Enuma Elish

The Good News According to Rob Bell

10 Christ-like Figures Who Pre-Date Jesus

WTF – The story of Jesus isn’t unique? Of course it isn’t.

Is Jesus Unique?

Distractive Biblical Obsession (Part 3)


Part 2

Bibles can be read too much

I’d like to propose that bibles can be read too much. In other words, you can waste time reading bibles, and bibles can be given too high of a place in a believer’s life.

Many teach that the more time you spend reading bibles, the stronger your relationship with God will be. Spending time reading bibles is equated with spending time with God, and knowing your bible is equated with knowing the Truth.

But we can know the scriptures but not know the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

This is precisely what was demonstrated by the Pharisees during Jesus’ time on earth.

The reason many like the concept of the scriptures as the ultimate revelation from God is because it is concrete and understandable (or so they think). When people lack the faith to experience relationship with Jesus in their own lives (which can often be something that is not by sight), they turn to bibles to rely on the written records of the experiences of other people and thus miss out.

Of course, the scriptures are good and God speaks to us through them. But part of the reason for that is because some people spend tons of time reading them. God works with what he’s got. When people expect to encounter him especially when reading bibles, that’s when they will.

People only experience what they expect.

I used to believe that I could only encounter God when I prayed, read bibles, or sang worship songs. Consequently, those were about the only times I in fact did consciously encounter God. But when I began to believe that I could encounter him anywhere and everywhere, I began encountering him in every facet of life, whether I was drinking coffee, working, or watching a movie.

What about the Bereans? Weren’t they more noble for searching the scriptures?

Go read Acts 17:1-13. The Bereans that were written about were Berean Jews who knew the OT well. The reason their searching of the scriptures was noble was because they were confirming that Jesus is the promised Messiah according to the scriptures, not because studying the scriptures has merit in and of itself. It doesn’t even say that they kept studying after confirming that Jesus is the promised Messiah. The OT foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah. The Bereans correctly used the OT to discern whether Jesus really was the Messiah. Thus they were “more noble” than the Thessalonians because the Thessalonians didn’t do that but rather got jealous and tried to abuse Paul.

If you, like many, have at some point said, “I just don’t feel like reading the bible,” I don’t blame you. After reading the same thing hundreds of times it is normal for people to not want to read it again. But when people are told and believe that bibles have divine properties (e.g. that it is living, breathing, and active (Hebrews 4:12), which is actually a reference to Jesus), they will continue reading it despite their feelings, telling themselves, “I just need to persevere and push through my emotions.”

I encourage such people to learn to trust their feelings and emotions, which are not independent of God.

Where would you like to encounter him today?

Part 4