Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

Many people sometimes wonder how I come to certain conclusions in my articles about Christianity, because I seem to be interpreting the bible in different ways to arrive at different positions than most have always had. So I decided to write this down as a bit of an explanation of what I’ve learnt in my short life reading the bible and being a Christian, and how that has influenced what I’ve written, taught and lived over the years, and what I’ll be writing, teaching and living going forward. If there’s one thing I know though, applying these lessons to the way you look at the word of God will change your life, as it has mine (and will make you less susceptible to all the numerous deceptions blowing to and fro every day). So I’ll start with some that I’ve mentioned already elsewhere, and move to some more difficult terrain.

 

Lesson 1: Chapters and Verses

The chapters and verses in the bible are not “inspired”. They are man-made, an effort began by a certain Prof. Stephen Langton of the University of Paris in 1227. God didn’t put the chapters and verses there. Therefore it is possible that these demarcations may prevent you from seeing the full picture that the divine inspirer of Scripture himself intended that the authors of the books of the bible communicate. As a result, the mantra has been “never read a bible verse on its own”. This I think is the number 1 sin of most Christians with regards to the bible, and we seriously need to repent from this attitude. We need to ensure we read whole chapters to get the full meaning of what is being said, not pick individual verses and twist them to our delight. Examples of such abused passages are Jer 29:11; Ps 105:15; 3 John 1:2;

 

Lesson 2: Audience and Context

The second lesson I learnt was that it was important to know who the audience of a book is, and what motivated the writing of the book. This is of huge importance when we look at the New Testament, especially the Epistles (of Paul, of Peter etc.). In the first century when Paul wrote his letters, they were meant to be delivered to churches, not to individuals (except letters like Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus etc). These letters were read and deliberated upon when everyone was gathered at a meeting, and the Apostles knowing this was the practice always addressed themselves to the church, not to a person. Unfortunately, our individualistic culture today has inadvertently worked to erase this corporate nature of the epistles, and we read it with a “letter to me” mindset every day (as someone said, they are not God’s “love letters” written to us). And for English speaking readers the matter is further aggravated because we don’t have a different word for the plural “you” and the singular “you”. And therefore every occurrence of “you” is taken to be “me”, not “us”. A clear example is Col 1:27, where the phrase “Christ in you” should be read in our minds as “Christ in us”, not “Christ in me”.

 

Lesson 3: It’s contains Stories about Israel and God

Lesson 2 becomes increasingly important when we begin to see what the Bible is truly about – how God intends to save the world through a people called Israel. God’s intent has always been that Israel will be blessed, and the nations of the world will be blessed through them, that Israel will be the light that shines for the nations of the world to see (these are mostly what the NT calls “promises”). Jesus coming and his work sought to show that Israel had failed in that task, and that he was now creating a new people in whom those promises of God will be fulfilled i.e. the church of God. This is what Paul says is the mystery of Christ in Eph 3:10-11  – “His [Gods’] intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my emphasis). Therefore the Apostle’s ministry was centered on how “the church” as a people will stand out, not necessarily how “I” as an individual will. It is the same as God desired that Israel as a nation will stand out, not necessarily how a particular prophet or citizen of Israel e.g. “David” as a person will. If we don’t get that the bible is about Israel’s destiny (and therefore the church’s destiny), the current winds of individualism, consumerism, selfishness etc. will drown us, because we’ll only look at the bible as some motivational tool for “quick verses” to pursue our personal ambitions, instead of seeking to understand the story of Israel, and how the church together can achieve it.

 

Lesson 4: Worldview is Critical to Understanding the Bible

There is a phrase I grew up with in my life and always believed till now, but which I now find inadequate – “Scripture must interpret scripture”. One of the hardest and rudest awakenings that I had to humbly accept at some point was that without an understanding of the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the bible, I will definitely get some things wrong, no matter how much I apply the principles above, no matter how much I want scripture to interpret scripture. For me it was ok if I didn’t pay attention to the right principles of exegesis (interpretation of the word), and got it wrong. But this thing called worldview was totally new to me. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When my old car used to give me a lot of trouble, I would take it to the mechanics, and when they told me I needed to buy a spare part, they always preferred to buy a second hand one (what we call “home used” parts) instead of brand new ones. I never understood this, until I realized later that they recommended this because our spare parts importers were more interested in profits than in solving customer’s problems, so they imported inferior and cheap replacement parts, and sold it at exorbitant prices. Therefore the mechanics had lost faith in the supposedly “brand new” parts, and preferred parts from chopped down cars which were brought from Europe and US.

Now imagine that I’d kept good records of all my repair activities, and I was dead and gone and my grandchild came upon these records. They’d realize that their grandfather always had receipts for “second hand” parts, and they’ll probably come to the conclusion that their grandfather was a miser who preferred to buy “home used” instead of brand new, when in his day brand new parts always worked the best.

This is the problem that ignorance of my worldview and that of the mechanics in my time has brought to my grandson. The reasons behind my actions, he doesn’t understand. He only analyzes what he sees on paper, what he sees in text.

This is the same challenge we are confronted with today. Its 2000 years since Jesus Christ, and all we have as records of him is the bible. And yet we are very confident and cocksure that with the text alone (aka Sola Scriptura), we can understand the people of Israel, Jesus and the 1st Century Christians very well so that we become experts at interpreting the bible. But we forget that a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are better off acknowledging our deficiency and beginning a search into their worldview to understand them, before we even attempt to interpret what we see on paper.

And so my world has been rocked to the core by my personal studies in New Testament history and historians, who have moved me off my lazy bum and who are challenging me to acknowledge my ignorance, to sit up and open up to learn more. Until yours is rocked in this way, I’m sure you will be very satisfied with what you know, probably to your own peril.

Let’s go on to 2 more seemingly disturbing facts about the bible and its interpretation.

Lesson 5: The Bible Itself Has Changed

Knowing that we always defend the word of God as “same yesterday, today and forever”, I’ll advise you not to freak out just yet with my above lesson, but read along with me. The Bible has indeed changed over the centuries, and for good reason. Let me explain how it has changed.

The versions of the Bible we have are always written from translations of handwritten copies (or manuscripts) that we have obtained over the centuries. Because the manuscripts were handwritten (because the printing press was invented in the 16th century), the copiers make mistakes, or sometimes intentionally or unintentionally add content that they feel should have been added to the manuscript at their discretion. Therefore, to get the best translation, it is important to use the oldest manuscript, since it will have less errors and “insertions” than the latter ones. And so here is Prof. Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, on the subject.

“Despite what fundamentalist will have us believe that the King James Version of the bible dropped from the sky onto us in 1611, it [the Bible] was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It was not written in Western tones, nor in user friendly language for Western peoples. It was a Middle Eastern product … [but] the good news is this. We are closer today to the original text of the NT than at any time in the previous 18 and half centuries. Why? Because today we have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT, just a 100yrs ago, there were only 300 to 400 known copies of the manuscript. “

 Now I know some people who religiously defend the KJV as the only usable, “correct” bible interpretation. All I can say to them is that relying on a bible translated from only 400 manuscripts which are 10th century copies of copies of copies, rather than one based on 5000 manuscripts ranging from as eaerly as 2nd, 3rd and other earlier centuries is pure and unadulterated folly. So, if you are truly serious about a clearer, truer interpretation of the bible, take my advice and find a more recent one. I know some people’s churches even go ahead to print their own version of the KJV and put their names on it, but I’m sorry, that ship sailed a long time ago, and you better get with the times.

 

Lesson 6: The Bible Alone is not Enough

Now I’m definitely going to be hanged for heresy for saying this, but again let’s wait till I unveil my argument before you stone me like the Jews stoned Stephen.

Since the Reformation, we Protestant Christians (non-Roman-Catholics) have always sworn by the statement that “The Bible is all we need to know the Truth” and that any Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to pick it up and by the “the Holy Spirit’s guidance”, be able to understand it. This doctrine is typically referred to as “Sola Scriptura”. And yet, it seems this insistence on “bible alone” has rather led to more divisions in the Protestant church than any other branch of Christianity, and there’s no end to this canker. Interestingly, those who led the separation from the Roman Catholic Church themselves came to the conclusion even before their death that this was an untenable position, yet we their ancestors still hold to our tunnel vision on this subject. Hear Christian Smith concerning the foremost leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther himself assumed that the Bible clearly demonstrated the theological beliefs he championed. However, as the Reformation began to spin out of control (in his viewpoint), he backed away from the perspicuity of only one “correct” view and said ‘I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from Scripture that beer is better than wine”. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible).”

One of the easiest trick questions I’ve tried to use to draw people’s attention to this problem is 1 Cor 14:34 – “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”. I typically ask the question “where in the law does it say so”, and I’m yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. This is because this is not specified anywhere in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what most Christians know as “the law”. However, scholars like John Zens will point out clearly to you that this is contained in the Talmud, or the oral traditions of the Jewish people which they also held in quite high esteem alongside the Torah.

Now, in what way is “Sola Scriptura” able to answer this question, without invalidating itself? Should we not be opening our minds to the fact that this “bible alone” mantra is a dead one (and has been dead for 500 years since the originators themselves gave up on it?). Are we not limiting ourselves in the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use us in pursuit of the kingdom of God?

 

Lesson 7: The Gospel is not as Simple as the 4 Spiritual Laws

I have spoken at length on this subject, so I’ll leave this for another day.

 

Conclusion

There’s much more lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share, but we don’t have all the time. Suffice it to say that these leave me feeling quite worried for those who choose to live their Christian lives by feeding on daily devotionals (Daily Manna, Daily Bread, Rhapsody of Realities and such. Seriously?). I feel quite worried for those whose Christianity revolve around TV evangelists (who are so many I won’t bother naming). I feel extremely harangued by those who only listen to and live by what their pastors have taught them. I also worry for the Christian apologist and evangelists who continue not to see the monumental impact of worldview analysis of the life and times of Jesus to the message we preach about him, continuing in the old mold of “come and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven”. It’s so 1611.

Today we have much clearer knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus and of the early Christianity, but we are more satisfied with the quick fix that will give us prosperity, wealth, and emotional satisfaction. Contemplative, questioning and thinking Christian are a rare species, and yet we think we are “free” and the rest of the world is “enslaved”.

If we are going to grow in Christ (and be faithful to him and his purpose for the church), we have to go beyond these comfort zones. My worry is that the literate Christians amongst us who can show the way are sitting in comfort drinking the Kool-Aid, how much more the illiterate amongst us, whom we have a huge responsibility to guide into the truth from the many false sharks around us.

 I can’t end without a quick note from Ben Witherington on this subject

“I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more Pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher.  He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” 

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.” (Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Preaching- Pt 3“)

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

  1. Indeed, Thank you for sharing these eye-opening thoughts!

    Could you kindly suggest the sources from which we can obtain the translations of the Bible from the over 5000 manuscripts as well as other scripts that will give us the correct worldview from which we may interpret Scripture?

    This article has really enlightened me. Thanks once again!!

    1. Hi Aba,
      Regarding the question on bible translations and manuscripts, I explained further in the article here http://scmin.org/in-defense-of-modern-translations-or-why-the-niv-hating-is-getting-old/

      As for the question of worldviews, it will always be an ongoing learning effort for Christians. God chose to reveal himself to a particular people who had particular cultures and particular challenges, but through whom he still intended to achieve his worldwide goal. This means that this process of revelation, if it was to be understood by these people, will also be couched in some bit of their culture and history. Therefore the process of appropriating God’s mission so it can be applied for modern times across different cultures cannot be divorced from the need to understand the kind of relationship that Yahweh had with the people of Israel.

      This is why over the past 2 centuries, Christian scholarship has paid a lot of attention to understanding the culture and context of the bible, so we don’t end up imposing our own mis/understanding on it. One of the key set of methods in this process widely acclaimed by Protestant scholars is the historical-grammatical method, and that is revealing that 2nd Temple Judaism is very important to understanding the New Testament, whiles Ancient Near Eastern culture is also very important to understanding the Old Testament.

      My advice to any serious student of the bible is to learn from world leading scholars who are helping in this effort, so that our understanding of the bible is more complete.

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