The Bible- You don’t take it literally, do you?!?

My new LesbianFriend added the following thoughts after my post “How can you base your beliefs on a book that has been edited and translated hundreds of times?”  I thought it a great opportunity to address the question: “How do you interpret the Bible?”

Yourlesbianfriend writes:

[An excerpt] “History books typically have more than facts, however. They are also filled with analysis of events and cultural context, two things the Bible lacks… I do believe it’s important to temper the text with context and analysis rather than taking it literally word for word.”

My response:

The Bible can be difficult to read and understand because we do not live in the cultural, historical context of each passage of scripture. The Bible is a collection of 66 books, by 40 authors written over 1500 years.  It was written in three languages on three continents.  There is prose, history, genealogies, poetry, parables, prophecy, proverbs, epistles, etc… “Yet, it fits together into one cohesive story with an appropriate beginning, a logical ending, a central character, and a consistent theme.

Authorship includes the young and old, scholars and lay people, prophets, priests, exiles, a physician, fishermen, a shepherd, etc.  It would be hard to find another book that speaks one over-all message with such a variety of authors.

So how do we interpret any given passage?  Well, given the diversity of genre, authorship, location and language the answer is “How did the author intend for the passage to be understood?”  This is called exegesis, which means interpreting scripturedrawing out of the text the author’s intended meaning and application.  Did the author intend for his words to be taken literally? In the case of Jesus’ parables the answer is no.  Parables are stories used to illustrate one or two main themes or principles.  Are the Ten Commandments to be taken literally? Yes.  The grammar of each command is written in the imperative mood.  Is the Song of Solomon literally talking about the Shulamites’ breasts being fawns? No. What about her belly being like a bushel of wheat? In these two instances we have to understand the mindset of how the Hebrews described beauty in a woman, which is very different from the 21st Century Western cultural description of beauty.  Are we to believe that the writers of the gospels, Acts, and the Epistles literally meant that Jesus rose from the dead?  Yes.  Otherwise there would be no need to identify numerous eye-witnesses to the resurrected Christ and their own personal testimonies about their experience with Him.  As the Apostle Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain.”

Are there areas of mystery where biblical Christians disagree about an interpretation? Yes.  But often this has to do with one’s hermeneutical approach: hermeneutics is the art and science of text interpretation.  There are essentially two schools of thought: (1) the method I have described above, which involves exegesis – interpreting the individual text in its appropriate historical, cultural, and genre context; vs. (2) the allegorical approach, which spiritualizes virtually every text and which does not necessarily believe the scriptures were historical in time and space.  This approach is based largely on eisegesis, which means to read one’s perspective or worldview into the text.  This is an unscientific approach based in bias without an open mind to where the text might lead.

The first approach mentioned above based in good hermeneutical methods and exegesis has resulted in many basic, orthodox, and fundamental core biblical beliefs.  There are secondary and tertiary beliefs, which various Christians disagree on, but these are issues to discuss and debate but are not worth dividing over.  The core fundamental biblical beliefs, however, are worth fighting for and dividing over.  Those who would say Jesus was a good man, a prophet even, but not the Son of God who was raised from the dead are using an allegorical approach to interpretation based on eisegesis and are not seeking to understand the author’s intended meaning.  The same is true of what Jesus said about marriage and sexual immorality (i.e., Jesus specifically said that any sex outside of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman is adultery [moichia] and immorality [pornia] – see Matthew 19:4-9 & Mark 10:1-11). In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say that lust after someone who is not your husband or wife is adultery (Matthew 5:27-32), and since marriage is only between a man and woman in Jesus’ eyes, then Jesus’ intent was also to cover homosexuality in the category of pornia (this word pornia is the broadest Greek term for sexual immorality and covers all forms of sex outside marriage as God ordained marriage in Genesis 2:24).  Those who would disagree with this interpretation of Jesus’ words do so based on the allegorical and eisegetical method of interpretation, which is not good scholarship.

Exegesis seeks to understand the author’s intent and go where the grammar studies, word studies, and context studies lead.  Good commentaries are useful in these studies – but one has to be knowledgeable of the hermeneutical approach of the author of the commentary and it is advisable to read multiple commentaries to gain a broad perspective and real grasp of a particular passage in order to understand the author’s intent.  If the author of a commentary is using an eisegetical approach, stop using that commentary (this is even true of the super fundamentalist literalists who insist that one read everything literally – for these people are not seeking to understand the author’s intent but rather are using an eisegetical, biased approach to push a conservative, fundamentalist, biased, hate-filled perspective – avoid this and the opposite progressive approach – both are not reading scripture as it was intended).

As for commentary, there are many passages within scripture itself that are simply descriptions of historical events. Those are distinct from the passages that are prescriptive, where God is prescribing a method, law or course of action. Sometimes God Himself gives an analysis (or commentary) of events and other times we simply see the blessing or destruction that follows human decisions (e.g., polygamy, as discussed in my post “Ya know, polygamy seems pretty biblical.”) Jesus presents his own interpretation of the Mosaic Law during the Sermon on the Mount (called a Rabbi’s yoke, which was a radical commentary/interpretation on the Old Testament law).

Regarding context, the breadth of writing over such a long period amidst numerous cultures offers context in and of itself.  The true biblical scholar will interpret passages primarily based on other verses within scripture.  Anyone can form a doctrine based on a handful of verses taken out of context.  For example, those who would say that homosexuals alone deserve to go to hell make that statement at the expense of innumerable verses which clearly state that we ALL fall short of the glory of God and under Christ ALL can come and find refuge and transformation.

To be considered “biblical” one must consider the whole council of scripture when establishing their beliefs.  That’s a lot harder than latching onto a couple verses that we like, or tagging Jesus’ name onto our self-serving beliefs.  But when we base our theology on everything from Genesis to Revelation, we get a true picture of who God is and His will for our lives.

For more on Jesus and His prescriptions for His followers, see “Christianity according to Jesus.”

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2 thoughts on “The Bible- You don’t take it literally, do you?!?

  1. Well, I think somebody has studied hermaneutics! I have too, though, and it’s good to see people who are actually studying the Bible and able to defend their faith, rather than just “Jesus said so because he said so, that’s why!” Love it.

    • Thanks. I must admit that the seminary-trained, Greek and Hebrew-reading, beard-sporting, wonder-man that I live with put some polish on this post for me. But I promise, they’re all my thoughts. 😉

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