Many ordinary readers of the Bible feel very nervous when interpretation is mentioned. For some, ‘interpretation’ means ‘making the Bible mean what it doesn’t say.’ For others, it becomes the realm of experts who are schooled in complex issues of language and philosophy and threatens to remove the possibility of reading for themselves. They are offered the priesthood of the commentator, who tells them from expert knowledge what the ‘true’ meaning of the text is.
But interpretation is impossible to avoid, in part because of the nature of language, in part because of the nature of the Bible, and in part because of the nature of Christian faith. That is why I have written the latest Grove Biblical booklet How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions. Like other Grove booklets, it does not claim to be the last word on the subject—how could it be, in such a vast field—but at least a first word, offering some places to start. The material started life as a series of seminars at the New Wine North summer conference in 2009, and some of it was posted as articles here. The contents are as follows:
The material in the booklet has been expanded, reordered and revised from the material in the connected blog posts, with questions for reflection added. Ia m conscious that the issues here are very much starting points—or ‘essentials’ as I style them in the blog posts—but that each of them raises questions for further exploration.
On the question of genre (or ‘kind of writing’), the lingering question is always ‘how do we know?’ How do we know what kind of writing a text really is, and what that means for its reception by its first audience? This is an important question not just for the obscure and bizarre parts of the Bible, but for ones that are pretty central. Some years ago, Joachim Jeremias proposed that Jesus’ parables were a kind of storytelling that had only one point, but this observation has since been disputed. And it is instructive to see how the word ‘parable’ is used in the NT; in Mark 3.23, Mark uses the word ‘parable’ for Jesus’ analogy between Satan and the strong man, something we would not normally include within this kind of speech. And yet genre recognition is an inescapable part of reading; it is something we do all the time; and it is regarded by many as the essential starting point for making sense of any text.
The moment we raise the issue of historical context, large questions arise about how we know things about history at all, and whether we fit what Scripture says into what we ‘know’ about Scripture, or whether we treat Scripture as a historical source (taken on its own terms) alongside other historical information that we have. This question is acute in relation to the New Testament, which appears to be making historical claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but it is chronic in relation to the Old Testament, where questions of history are more complex since our non-biblical sources are more scant and contested. Yet we know that ‘a text without a context is a pre-text’, and no text can be removed from its context without losing or changing meaning. Raising questions of the content of biblical texts and their place within the whole canon of Scripture also opens up debate—but it is debate which we cannot avoid if we are faithfully seek to listen to what Scripture says.
Although the visual has had an important place in Christian devotion, the Judeo-Christian tradition is distinctly verbal in its constitution. It is through words, and in particular the words of Scripture, that God makes himself known. This is undergirded by the central theological importance of God’s words as powerful, effective and creative throughout the narrative of the Old Testament—God’s creates with speech, calls his people, forms them through spoken commands and calls them to holiness to the words that ‘come to’ his prophets. But it is confirmed by the central theological idea of God’s self-expression in Jesus described as ‘the word made flesh’ in John 1, carried through in the canonical summary of Hebrews 1: ‘God has spoken in many and various ways, but in these last days has spoken to us by his Son’. The Christian traditions that focus particularly on the Bible have sometimes been criticised as turning the flesh back into words again, but that is to ignore the theological connection made between the person of Jesus and the apostolic testimony of the New Testament writings. The testimony of the witnessing apostolic community (see Acts 10.41) is that which leads us into personal encounter with Jesus the living word, and it is the source given to us in which can test, shape and form our personal experience.
Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
Human language can never unambiguously convey human meaning; even in conversation with people we know, we often think ‘Now, what did she mean by that?’ This is especially true of writing which, like the Bible, originates in particular times, places and cultures, and these are now at a distance from us. Language functions at a number of different levels. Words have ranges of meanings (often called the ‘semantic range’), but the range of meaning of a word in one language will never exactly match the range of meaning of an equivalent word in another. The English ‘have’ can mean ‘to possess,’ but it can also mean ‘obliged to’ (as in ‘I have to leave now’). The French ‘avoir’ has some overlap with this, but is also used in descriptions of age (‘J’ai trente ans’) which do not carry over into English. It is an act of interpretation to decide which part of the semantic range a word means before we can even translate into another language.
Words also carry meaning by making reference within a particular cultural context, and when read in a different cultural context, that meaning needs interpretation. If Jesus is ‘the good shepherd,’ what does that mean in an agrarian (as opposed to a post-industrial) context? And what does it mean in the context of other biblical language about shepherds? Words and language also communicate by means of their impact, which might shock, startle, surprise or reassure, and discerning this impact is another act of interpretation. Finally, words communicate by their very shape and sound, particularly in poetic writing. This is why some translators choose to focus on the meaning of words (in ‘literal’ or word-for-word translations), others focus on more contextual questions (‘dynamic equivalent’ translations) whilst still others focus on impact (paraphrases like Eugene Peterson’s The Message).
There is a parallel between the vulnerability of God in coming to us in a particular time and place in the incarnation, and the vulnerability of God in speaking through this particular text with its questions and challenges. The test is always: will we allow God to speak to us, to offer a fresh word, to question and challenge us and lead us into new understanding? These are central issues in the life of every disciple.
There are plenty of resources which explores each of these questions further. If you mention your own favourites in the comments below, I will expand this list accordingly.
On genre: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee
On canon: What’s the Bible All About by Ian Paul and Philip Jenson. The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen. A Walk Through the Bible by Lesslie Newbigin.
On context: Exploring the New Testament Volume 1 on the gospels by Steve Walton and David Wenham. Volume 2 on Acts and the Epistles by Stephen Travis, Howard Marshall and Ian Paul.
You can buy How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions from the Grove Books website for £3.95 post free in the UK, or as a PDF e-book.
Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
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