“We quote Jeremiah 33:3 as our life verse, but we don’t know beans about the context.” [Former Biblical Interpretation Professor at Welch College, Dr. Robert Woodard]
Read Part 1, An Introduction to this series here.
Read Part 2 on the Old Testament Canon here.
Read Part 3 on the New Testament Canon here.
Read Part 4 on The Transmission of the NT here.
Read Part 5 on the Translation of the Bible here.
It is entirely possible to believe that we have the right 66 books, that we have the original wording for every verse of the Bible, and that we have good translations…and still miss the message of the Bible. It’s possible to believe everything I’ve said in the previous articles and still reject the Bible as outdated and irrelevant. Because the next step in getting from “God said” to “I hear and obey” is interpreting it. And that presents a new set of challenges and opportunities to attack the credibility of the Bible.
The Bible has often and for a long time been used to call my God racist, hateful, vindictive, supportive of slavery, a megalomaniac (a big word for ‘arrogant jerk’), against women and a whole host of other things which would be true even if the Bible’s content is historical and accurate.
You can only be arrogant if you are not God
I am very much convinced that quite often, these accusations against God and the Bible are made by people who do not understand how Biblical interpretation works and filter it through their myopic cultural lens, which is a poor way to attempt to understand anything.
Today I want to talk through reasonable methods for interpreting the Bible. We must remember at every turn that the Bible was written to cultures, languages and time periods vastly different than our own1. Vastly. It amuses me when people say that parts of the Bible are “weird” to them. I can a assure you that a 9th century B.C. Hebrew-speaking Jew would find 2016 America “weird” in many ways. Biblical interpretation–often represented by $5 words like hermeneutics and exegesis2–cuts through the weirdness and tries to understand Bible verses and passages the way they were written to be understood: the way their first readers understood them3. By teaching this, I think it will help even defenders of the Bible avoid mistakes in trying to understand it, and will certainly help us understand why many attacks on the Bible are leveled out of ignorance.
We don’t know beans!
Sound biblical interpretation is all about context. In this essay we will look at several ways context matters. As taught by Dr. Julius Wong Loi Sing, there are three “worlds” of any Bible text:
- The world behind the text (The culture, history, time, etc. of the writings)
- The word inside the text (Immediate context of verses, grammar, word meanings, etc.)
- The world in front of the text (Application)
To give a practical example: Let’s say 500 years from now someone uncovers a note written to me by wife that says, “I got a flat on Central. I walked to Armando’s and they towed it for free! But I paid $79 to them for a new one.” The world behind the text looks at Chicago culture in 2016. It asks questions like: Where is Central? Who is Armando? How much money is $79? How did people transport themselves in that time? Things like that. The world inside the text asks things like: What does ‘I got a flat’ mean? What does ‘free’ mean? What does it mean that they “towed” it? Both of these worlds have to interact to find out what that note from my wife means. To us, the meaning is simple, just as the the Bible’s meaning was to its original audiences.
My professors and pastors have often called this the “historical grammatical method” for interpreting the Bible4: God worked through fixed history and culture and reduced himself to the grammar and syntax of a few now ancient languages.
In the example above with my wife there is no need for application because the message was only for me. But the Bible’s message is for everyone so we will deal with application in our next and final essay. For now we deal with the first two:
First World Problems
Let’s look at the first world: the world behind the text.
Historical and Cultural Context
People accuse the Bible of being pro slavery. But knowing more about Ancient Near East cultures that surrounded Israel in the centuries before Christ and during his time can help us grasp why that is not the case5.
Even though there are laws governing slavery in the Old Testament and even though no New Testament writer goes out of his way to lambast slavery and evil, we must understand that the Bible 1) does not generally speak to slavery as we think of it from American history in the centuries leading up to our Civil War and 2) does not endorse or promote slavery as good or even ideal.
In comparison to the pagan culture around them, the OT laws on slavery show mercy and more humanizing behavior towards slaves, and gave rights to slaves that were unheard of for that time6 . There were ways to gain freedom, laws against mistreatment and in Deuteronomy 15 we can see God’s desire that in an ideal situation there are no poor and no slaves7 (which I will add, was exactly how the Garden of Eden was and would supposedly have remained without sin). The situation at times was still very rough even for slaves in Israel but we can see God moving his people toward an ideal a little bit at a time, which we will discuss more below.
In the New Testament we can see the the idea of slavery is much less harsh and the New Testament authors move the view of slavery ethic even more towards the ideal of no slaves. Slavery in the NT cultural context was often not as repugnant as we think of today; History teacher and REO contributor Dave Lytle says historians estimate about 1/3 of people who lived in Rome were slaves and some were highly educated and chose to sell themselves into it to climb the social step ladder. Beyond this, the NT makes it clear that slaves and free people are equal in the kingdom (Galatians 3:28) and Paul’s letter to Philemon is an evidence that the NT was moving toward the ultimate ethic of no indentured servitude8. He says to not treat Onesimus as a slave but as a brother.
So why didn’t God use the Bible to abolish slavery? N.T. Wright compares it to modern cars destroying the ozone–Bible preachers don’t preach against that these days because cars are a part of how life functions, even if they do cause great harm9. Slavery was similar; it was a part of the fabric of life for those cultures and abolishing it quickly would have been imprudent10. Yet we can also see from above how God was moving corrupt cultures (including his own people Israel) away from it little by little. When a situation is as awful as you find in cultures of the Bible, you cannot change things overnight. It is similar to trying to go into a war torn, dictator governed country and starting a democratic republic (or whatever you consider to be the ultimate ethic for government). It will not be done very quickly11.
Jesus in Matthew 19 speaks to this when he says that God permitted divorce in the OT because people’s hearts were hard12. God permits things that he hates at times because people’s sin takes them so far from his ideal. (Please know that I believe there are justifiable biblical reasons for divorce that Jesus and Paul taught as well.)
Total Bible Context
Often times the Bible will explain things in other parts that help us understand hard passages better. The killing of the Canaanite people in Joshua is often used to demean the God of the Bible as bloodthirsty and a murderer. But if you read God’s words in Genesis and Deuteronomy, you can see that Canaan was a wicked country that engaged in some of the most vile and depraved acts a people group can. And that God waited centuries before finally judging them, showing mercy and patience. When people point out that God commanded that Israel kill the “women and children” it is important to understand that the women may or may not have been as wicked as the men (in Genesis God could not find even 5 total people that were righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah).
And as far as the children go, it is at least possible that God was sparing them from growing up in a circumstance that almost certainly would have led to their lives begin far away from God, as their ancestors were. Yet, no matter what conjecture we can come up with about why God did or didn’t do anything in the Bible, we can always follow up with more questions and more doubt. And at some point we have to ask ourselves, “If God did everything the way I think he should, wouldn’t that make me God?” At some point faith that God sees and knows all has to be a part of what we cannot see when interpreting the Bible. We also must acknowledge that if God is the author of life, he has the right to give it and take it. This is why it is not hypocritical for commanding not to murder and yet causing the the death of people.
Total Bible context can be seen as a way to fully understand some passages in the Bible that seem degrading to women. Without trying to make Paul say things he doesn’t say in certain passages about women being silent in church, we should also note that there are other passages in the Bible where women are prophetesses (Exodus 15:20, Luke 2:36), leaders in the church (Acts 18) and leaders in Israel’s history (Judges 4, 2 Kings 22). Whatever we believe about Paul’s words in his letters, we cannot rip them from the context of the whole Bible.
Another example: if we are to understand Psalms 32 and 51, we must first read 2 Samuel 11-12 because when David wrote those two psalms, the events of 2 Samuel had just happened. The Bible is meant to be read as a whole, not parts here and there removed from their greater context of God’s complete story to mankind.
By this I mean that there are two Covenants (a better word than “Testament” as I explained in Essay #2 in this series) in the Bible and sometimes we must know the difference between the two if we are to understand the Bible’s commands on certain topics.
The New Testament church, our present Christian church, is no longer under the Levitical law as found in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are, however, laws that were repeated in the New Testament for believers to continue to follow. So there is no contradiction in a Christian believing that some things in the law are still applicable (like I believe stealing is wrong because Paul says it is in Ephesians 4) and some things that are not applicable to today, like not believing that we must not wear clothes made of two different fabrics. I’d say even the oddest of the Levitical laws had a principle behind them that made sense to the original audience. For example, it may be that God told his people under the old covenant not to wear mixed fabrics as an object lesson for them not to mix with other pagan nations’ religions.
Regardless, reading through both testaments will help you know which Laws from Leviticus are for all time and which were temporary until Christ came.
Knock the Door Down and Go On In
The Second World: The Word Inside The Text
Beyond the bigger picture of the world (literally at times) behind the text, we know look at the world inside the text and the more immediate contexts we need to understand when understanding a passage or verse in the Bible.
Immediate Verse Context
Most people who read the Bible carefully can see that when Paul wrote Phillippians 4:13, he didn’t mean unilaterally that he could do anything but rather that he could find contentment in all circumstances. At least that is the primary application. You get that from immediate context in Philippians 4.
Also, if you look at context by disregarding chapter and verse divisions, which were added hundreds of years after the Bible was written and canonized, it helps understand things better. In 1 Peter 3:1-7, wives are told to submit to their husbands. Yet if you read 1 Peter 3 right after 1 Peter 2, you can see that Peter is telling wives to do what Jesus did. Jesus was equal to God and yet submitted to him (meaning submission does not have to equal inequality) and endured unfair treatment. By giving wives the example to follow of Jesus, Peter’s Lord and God, he is doing the opposite of demeaning them.
1 Corinthians 13 is used in weddings and for very good reason: the biblical definition of love should work in the most intimate of relationships. But it is notable that 1 Corinthians was written to a church and not a marriage so we need to be practicing this kind of love in church as well–especially to those who wrong us and hurt us.
Ecclesiastes is another example, discussed briefly in Part Two of this series. You cannot take everything you read at face value in that book because the author was at the end of his disobedient life and depressed. The book in general is written with a different perspective than most of the Bible.
You cannot read a Psalm, which was probably written with a lot of emotion, the same way you read one of Paul’s letters. They are different types of writings. Some types of writings, like parables, are figurative. Others are literal. When Jesus said “Preach the gospel to everybody” we do that literally. When he said to “pluck your eye out,” that is not literal. Those are obvious examples, yet people often treat every book of the BIble as though they were the same genre.
Similarly, when you read narrative, it is important to note that often he Bible is telling us what happened, not what God wants to happen. It tells us what is, not what ought to be. No one would use King David’s sin with Bathsheba to accuse God of wanting adultery to happen. Yet we often justify actions by saying “So and so in the Bible did it”. You need more than human behavior in narrative to prove something is what God wants you to do.
The Gospels are narrative: four accounts of Jesus’s life, teachings, death and resurrection. Yet they all differ on details, especially about the resurrection. One Gospels says the tomb was already rolled away, another says it was not. One says there were two angels, another says there was one. The reason is that even though they are stories, they are not court documents. The evangelists who wrote the Gospels were not concerned with details and trying to find contradictions in their stories is often a fruitless endeavor. Just because they have different details does not mean any or all of them are lying or that what they said happened didn’t happen. When witnesses have the same exact details of events it often means they have colluded to make up a story. Real witnesses of real events will often differ in minor details.
Having said that, we must admit there are, on the surface, contradictions in the Gospels that are harder to explain. Most notably it seems that John says that The Last Supper happened on Wednesday night while the other Gospels are clear that it was Thursday night. That one is not so easily explained and I recommend I. Howard Marshall’s Last Supper and Lord’s Supper for speculation on why that is and possible reconciling of the passages.
There are several other random things about Biblical interpretation I have been taught over the years. Like, that the Greek words for love “agape” and “philos” are often synonyms and that “agape” isn’t always some special kind of special love from God13. Or that when Jesus quotes from Psalm 22:1 on the cross saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” it is likely that his hearers would have understood the first part of the psalm being a reference to the whole Psalm and that Christ was also saying he knew God would save him from his suffering, as Psalm 22 teaches.
I say these things to close with the idea that the Bible is deep and not to be studied at a surface level. I do not say this to discourage you. I say to encourage you to get involved in a Bible believing church, read as much of it as you can, get a study Bible, go to Bible studies, check the books I’ve cited throughout this series of essays (found at the bottom of each essay), do whatever you can to learn more. Learn more about context, Bible history, culture and all the rest I’ve written about here.
God not only holds us accountable to what we know but how much we try to know. In the US we have so many resources to learn about the Bible. Utilize them. The more you know God, the more he is glorified. And that should be our end goal.
Read Part Seven Here.
- Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis, 18 ↩
- For a definition, see Walter Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 42-44 ↩
- Köstengerger and Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, 93 ↩
- Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 179-180 ↩
- Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster, 135 ↩
- Christopher J. H. Wright, Walking in the Ways of the Lord, 124 ↩
- Copan, 127-131 ↩
- Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ: A New Testament metaphor for total devotion to Christ, 57-61 ↩
- Taken from a Q&A found at www.youtube.com/Does the Bible Support Slavery? ↩
- Murray, 61 ↩
- William Webb, Slaves Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, 30-66 ↩
- Ibid, 42-44 ↩
- D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 28-32 ↩