It can be hard to go from a text to a sermon. The line from past to present can be hard work. But at the root, one must hear clearly what was said. Dave Black looks at a text.
No, this is not a post about the crazy ways people interpret the Bible. It’s about the way in which people make precision difficult in communication. Am I thinking about biblical interpretation? Of course I am. If you have to guess what I’m thinking about and I don’t give you a clue, “biblical interpretation” is a good bet.
When I teach Greek or Hebrew, and as I’ve mentioned, this is to people by ones and twos, not in seminary classes, I try to emphasize basic linguistics. How does language work in day to day usage. I can illustrate what I mean by people messing up interpretation using a one line rule I give my Greek or Hebrew students: People are lazy. This rule applies, for example, to the reason why sounds tend to drop out of common phrases. “Good day” becomes “g’day,” an expression that may be more commonly used in Australia. (I say this so that I can get in a bit of a pet peeve. Check this sort of stereotypical thing out if you can. In this case, I find “g’day” in an article titled Outrageous Aussie Stereotypes Debunked. Not promising!)
But my “people are lazy” rule has many problems (or exceptions, if you wish), which also illustrates one of the problems of language. People are diverse. What I think is easy to pronounce someone else may find next to impossible. I remember vividly trying to learn to pronounce a few Hungarian words while driving with my translator. She would pronounce the word and I would imitate. It always went downhill from there. In Hungarian actual vowel length, i.e. the length of time a vowel sound is sustained in speech, is phonemic (i.e., it impacts the meaning). In English, this is not the case. I was taught long and short vowels, but they were not sustained for different periods of time, but were actually different sounds. (That’s a very loose way to explain it! See? I mess up interpretation too by being lazy.) For me, properly judging the length to sustain a vowel sound was next to impossible. For her, it was second nature.
So another rule: Things you have become accustomed to doing will seem easy. To you.
People just don’t follow one set of rules. We may have learned in English class that a paragraph consists of a thesis sentence, followed by three explanatory sentences, and ended with a conclusion. How many paragraphs in this post look anything like that? I tend to paragraph by sound, and often set off a sentence that would either be a conclusion or the introduction of a new element by itself, simulating the pauses for emphasis I might use in public speaking.
Like this one.
When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors (J. Paul Grove at Walla Walla College for those who might know), required me to turn in three sermon outlines a week as part of a course in Hebrew prophets. I thought this was a horrible requirement, as I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I was going to be a biblical scholar. Bless Professor Grove! It turned out to be one of the better exercises of my educational process because it made me think of a connection between the data I was accumulating and the real world. It didn’t result in even one sermon outline that I would ever use in preaching, even though I have preached frequently. That’s because I vigorously eschew three point outlines and diligently work to violent rules of homiletics.
Which means that I’m human. I don’t always follow the rules.
I turn this now to structure, which I discussed a bit yesterday. Studying structure is good in interpreting scripture. Just don’t be too structured about it. I’ve been asked if I accept various outlines of Hebrews, such as Vanhoye’s. I guess it depends on what you mean by “accept.” I find a great deal to commend his work, but I don’t find that any structure is followed closely. I believe that in studying Hebrews you have to carefully track what the author has done, the ways in which he connects and interweaves his topics. He’s flexible; the interpreter must be flexible.
Just like getting stuck on one label when trying to communicate, getting stuck on a structural label can be harmful to your mental health. People rarely follow the rules completely. Most commentaries that I’ve read do provide caveats about their structural conclusions. You should provide more.
Flexibility is a key to sound interpretations, because people are flexible.
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)
A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.
That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.
On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.
What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.
I found Should we read the Bible literally via Facebook, and want to commend it to my readers. I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect the writer is perhaps more conservative than I am, yet he makes many points I frequently try to make. I think he may be a bit too optimistic on the hope of recovering the word “literal” from popular abuse.
I’ve often said that if I could take one saying away from Christian conservatives it would be, “The Bible plainly teaches …” Our frequent disagreements as Christians seem to challenge that idea. It’s always possible that the teaching is plain and we just want to work around it, but who has the right view and who’s working around? It would be better to just bring forth the arguments in favor and let someone else decide how plain it is.
On the other hand, the phrase (regarding the Bible) that I’d most like to take from liberals is “We don’t take that literally.” The problem is, how do you take it? The meaning of the word “literally” is “literally” not that settled. Biblical scholars and theologians use it differently than the general population. So whether you’re telling someone to take it literally or not, the odds are they’re going to understand it differently.
For example, I regard Genesis 1 as never having been written with the intention of developing a sequential, historical, scientific view of origins. Rather, it speaks in the context of its current cosmology and gives God’s role in creation. Contemporary readers would likely have perceived it in those senses, but there’s no necessity that one do so, and the elements the stories are trying to convey are not harmed by changing chronology or method of creation. (In my view, at least!) I do not doubt the reality of God’s action. Is that literal or not? It’s a bit more difficult to answer that question than the example of calming the sea in the referenced article. But that’s why I suggest that “not literal” is also not helpful.
What we have to do is specify how we do read the text. For example, I read Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy and the rest of Genesis 2-3 as myth, in the best sense of that word. “Myth” frequently becomes a synonym for “not true” when, in terms of literature, it speaks to the foundational function of a story in a society. A myth might not be a true story, in the sense of narrative history (we often use “literal” here), but it also might be. Historical events do become myths in functional terms.
Ian Paul makes that point in the referenced article with regard to the story of calming the sea. There is extended meaning. One can take the sea and the boat allegorically, but the allegorical meaning is built, for many at least, on the idea that the underlying story really happened. I would disagree that one can’t get allegorical meaning if one doesn’t take the story as historically real, but there would be a difference in that meaning.
All of which simply leads back to the first point. We need to be careful with our use of language. I think that too many Bible students use their own definition of literal, by which I mean the one understood by most Bible scholars, and tell people they should interpret the Bible literally. People in turn believe they are being told to make the Bible concretely applicable no matter what. Which problem is not helped when someone like Tim LaHaye says to take the Bible literally if at all possible, and then applies it by making all the symbols of Revelation apply in a concrete sense to future physical events. Some of the words in Revelation do refer to such things. Others refer to spiritual things. There is a variety of usage. It’s a vision; expect some variety in the author’s (and Vision-givers) intent.
Most importantly, try to be aware of how you are taking a passage. Literal/figurative is not adequate. What type of figure is it? What time of reality does it reference?
In answering those questions, you may well discover why I so dislike hearing that “the Bible plainly teaches.”
I tend to harp on hermeneutics. Sometimes that’s precisely what people want me to do. Groups that have me back to speak twice, at least, are generally happy with that topic. But others find it annoying, pedantic, and perhaps intellectually snobbish! “Why can’t we just read our Bibles and get on with it?” they ask. Or “Quit making it so complicated!”
I understand their frustration, but without a great deal of sympathy. Christians have been “just getting on with it” for centuries, and the result is that we’re scattered all over the map in terms of how we understand scripture. I don’t consider having a variety of interpretations to be a problem in itself. To those who yearn for the magisterium, I would say that this simply means choosing one probably wrong option and then sticking with it.
To a certain extent, just getting on and reading the Bible is a workable devotional approach. But even so, such a devotional approach requires a filter. Just try reading Numbers 31 devotionally and you may see the problem. Now there are many approaches to handling Numbers 31, though the most common one seems to be to pretend it’s not there as long as possible. Pretending that less enlightening (or apparently so) passages aren’t there is an approach to interpretation and application.
This approach can even be made explicit. I’m embedding a clip from The West Wing, in which Toby Ziegler discusses the death penalty with his Rabbi. In this discussion the fictional rabbi expresses explicitly an approach many take implicitly. (To those annoying people who like to point out that various quotes/clips/etc come from fiction, I’m aware of it. I find fiction an excellent source for launching thinking.)
Relatively few people (though there are some) would state this quite as explicitly as the rabbi does at the end, “wrong by any modern standard.” But it’s a common hermeneutic in practice.
And as long as you’re prepared to argue modern standards or what seems, to you, to be spiritually enlightening, and to do so with other people who share your view of “enlightening,” that approach will work. It works quite well on the more conservative side as well, just with different definitions applied to what to keep and what not to.
The Bible is susceptible to this sort of thing because it does reflect a long time period and lets us see a variety of experiences in different times and places. It doesn’t codify that much, and where it does, it is often under circumstances that don’t apply. In a post yesterday I used Leviticus 18:22 and 19:34. Those each evoke extremely controversial topics. Here’s another text I used in the same Sunday School class:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, 3 or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— 4 when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, 5 or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt. 6 And you shall bring to the priest, as your guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. 7 The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the Lord, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby. (Leviticus 6:1-7, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
In this passage the class largely came to the same conclusion about what applied and what didn’t with some variation. Feeling guilt, accepting responsibility, making restitution—these all seemed very applicable. Not so much bringing a ram without blemish.
That doesn’t reflect a bad hermeneutic. In this case, most people were distinguishing lasting principles from temporary requirements. Both Judaism and Christianity have theology that removes the need for animal sacrifices in the present.
The problem comes in when we try to discuss, and more particularly when we try to enforce our view of scripture on someone else. I’m fond of a quote from one of the books I publish, Philosophy for Believers. On page 119 of that book he says:
Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook.
In this case, I’m not simply looking for considerations that are overlooked, though they are, but for the underlying approach that results in a particular view. Quite frequently the way someone understands a scripture is simply locked into the tradition so thoroughly that an individual doesn’t even think about why. A single tradition might function well that way, but when you then discuss the text with someone else, the argument gets immediately heated.
The reason these arguments get heated quickly is both that we often have a great deal of emotion (way too much, I believe) invested in our religious views and spiritual practices, and also that the other person seems obtuse and perhaps bullheaded not to see the obviously correct and plainly clear meaning of the passage presented. But you may have grown up and studied in a tradition that sees that passage completely differently. The difference may be in what applies and doesn’t, but it can also be in just what it means and how it applies. (I discuss this more in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method.)
Let me give an example. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says a number of things, but I had a debate that dealt with two of them. It started with this one:
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
Now it happens that I believe that this is an intensified command that we should conduct all of our dealings with others truthfully and with integrity, and thus it would negate the need for an oath. I would go so far as to consider “I swear to you” in conversations or business dealings to be at least unnecessary, and probably more so, it reflects the idea that some of my conversation can be a lie. I don’t think it forbids me from taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in court, though I consider “so help me God” to be questionable for the same reason as “I swear to you.” I speak always with God’s help, not being able to take my next breath without it. The words I would utter in court should be no more and can be no less with the help of God than any others.
Now you can disagree with me on my interpretation. That’s part of my point. I’m not even fully explaining my approach, though many will see how I’m reading the passage. I’m certainly, in this case, allowing Jesus some hyperbole. For example, I would identify “anything more than this comes from the evil one” as hyperbole. Am I right? That would be an excellent point for discussion.
Which, in this exchange, my correspondent and I did. I asked him how he interpreted it. He told me that it should be taken in the plain sense. I asked him to define that further. He said it should be taken as it would be understood by any high school student in the U. S. Having dealt with not a few high school students, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but I then brought my counter-example.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
My question here was (and is) just how an American high school student would undersand “tear it out and throw it away” or “cut it off and throw it away.” I see these as hyperbole, emphasizing the need to avoid lust, to get in ahead of the cause of adultery and not just stop before one crosses the threshold.
My correspondent said that this passage should be understood as one’s willingness to stand up for one’s principles even to physical assault or martyrdom. I have great doubts that this is the way the average high school student would read the passage.
Now for me, further discussion of the applicability of the passages would require that we first address our points of interpretation. Is it possible that Jesus used hyperbole? If not, just what does the second passage mean? If he does use it, is the first passage actually using hyperbole or is that just my literary excuse to get out of obeying the command of Jesus?
All of those are great questions to discuss, but to discuss them profitably, we need to ask the questions under the question. In this case my correspondent was willing to do that. Some think I tell this story to denigrate my correspondent. In fact, the discussion was quite profitable and enjoyable. Yes, we disagreed profoundly in the end, but I certainly learned.
There is one further layer worth mentioning and that’s to ask why a particular hermeneutic is chosen. We’re not actually stuck with our hermeneutic. We had to delay my discussion with Dr. Alden Thompson (Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers), but it will be rescheduled. That’s where we discuss the inspiration of the Bible, and how one understands that will impact what hermeneutic one will use. Back when I was an extremely arrogant undergraduate, Alden is the one who set me to thinking about this more seriously.
I read Joshua 24, including Joshua’s farewell speech today. There are quite a number of texts in this chapter that are quoted regularly without any knowledge of their source or of the circumstances. One is Joshua 24:15 “… as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Now there’s a pink elephant in the room, the genocide of the Canaanites, which is generally ignored. I will just point out that it cannot actually have happened quite that way, because the Canaanites survived in large numbers, as the book of Judges tells us. Yet there’s still the issue of the claim. That’s a shocking point in a story, but I’m going to ignore it today myself.
I’m interested in the fact that the call to faithfulness presented here, described as a torah, or instruction (v. 26, “written in the book of the torah of God”), is embedded in a story. Joshua goes way back to give us the shocking information that Abraham worshiped other gods. There is a much abbreviated presentation of the history that has brought the Israelites to this place.
But the use of story is also challenging. In the book of Jonah, God behaves in unprecedented ways. The book or Ruth presents a story that stands in contrast to specific instructions regarding the Moabites. While Daniel is commended for keeping to Torah, Esther appears to live without people realizing she’s a Jew.
The actual stories present a much more complex picture of God related to his people and God’s people in their activities, ethics, and theology. The story of Samson in Judges is one of those surprises. We can dress it up for Sunday School as a servant of the Lord carrying out his mission for his people with miraculous support, but it really reads like someone who couldn’t ditch the stupid and kept stumbling into ways to kill Philistines, the enemies of Israel. He ends up kill a few thousand while committing suicide.
I believe that theology is easy, but life is hard. Yes, we can debate theology all day, and it’s pretty near impossible to understand the trinity. A pastor friend of mine told me that with the trinity, if you think you understand it you probably don’t. But face it, as much as we enjoy debating theology, mistakes in the classroom have little impact.
When they get into real life, however, theological ideas can end up healing the sick or burning people at the stake. And everything in between. That’s the value, I believe, in reading stories and placing all our theology in real life as much as we can.
It’s not that there’s no truth. It’s not that there’s no right or wrong. It’s just that life manages to scramble our hopes of always having a clear knowledge of it. That’s why we need to exercise our faculties so we can tell.
And when we read stories, and live our lives, we need to go deeper than just finding the moral. If you find just one moral of a story, you probably haven’t thought of it enough. If you learned just one thing from an experience, spend some more time thinking about it.
Life is hard. Theology can help you.
But only if you hone your theology in real life.
(Image credit: Adobe Stock . I have licensed this image, but it is NOT public domain.)
When I am introduced to speak or teach, mention will doubtless be made of my MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages, though the correct degree name will be shortened, and the language skill usually exaggerated. In my mind, however, there are many things that have contributed to my study of the Bible. I’ve never encountered a biblical scholar who found this surprising, but sometimes non-academics are surprised.
I thought I’d list some of the key experiences, many of them not of my choice, which have nonetheless been critical in forming my thinking and informing my study.
- Bible memorization. As a preteen and early teenager I attended a small private school where we memorized substantial Bible passages. By substantial I mean that we memorized Psalm 119, all 176 verses, Genesis 1 & 2, many Psalms, Luke 2, and so forth. We also memorized scatterings of texts on various topics. This memorization, which I certainly would not have accomplished if it had not been required, has nonetheless stuck with me and helps me see the broader picture. I don’t have to go read Isaiah 53 or 58, because I memorized them, and though I could not repeat them in the KJV (which we used), I still have a fair idea what’s there.
- Bible survey. At the same school we were required to memorize titles for most of the chapters (we covered the Psalms by knowing what chapters were in the five books). Along with memorizing, this again helped me with an overview, and made it much easier to find content that I need. I still surprise people by pointing them to a book and range of chapters even when I’m not sure of the specific verse they’re looking for. Further, we had workbooks which asked questions about the text of the entire Bible. These were not thought questions, but content questions. I think it’s unfortunate that people who teach critical and independent thinking often forget that having the facts at hand is useful in thinking, and those who teach the facts often forget that facts strewn about the landscape are not so helpful unless they are critically examined and ordered. Sometimes “Bible study” turns into a simple recitation of opinions, in part because students are so unaccustomed to reading the text and making their own judgment regarding the meaning.
- History and historiography. There is an obvious benefit to knowing biblical history and related ancient history. I think some study of other history–any other history–is of great value as well. One of the problems we have with studying the Bible both “seriously and faithfully” is that we make up special methods for studying it as opposed to other texts. We also make up rules for studying biblical history which might not be accepted elsewhere. There’s no substitute for actually reading and studying some good texts on history unrelated to the Bible.
- Sociology. I hated my undergraduate sociology, but I’ve come to value that area of study, though I still consider the one undergraduate course I took to have been seriously deficient. People are people, and studying how people behave and respond helps me read Bible stories more faithfully.
- And yes, language. Learning to read the biblical languages is valuable in many ways, including being able to spot nuances in the way things are expressed more easily. One of the most important things I learned, however, was how complex the process of translation can be. When you are first learning to read another language (and often for much longer), you are really mentally translating the text into your native language. It can be a struggle and should give you a great appreciation for those who translate on a professional basis. It’s so much easier to criticize scattered renderings where you have a strong opinion than it is to produce a quality translation of a substantial portion of the source text.
- English, my native language. The process of understanding an ancient text and then expressing it in modern terms will tax your knowledge of and fluency in your native tongue. Many times I have been trying to express something from the Greek or Hebrew text and have stumbled for lack of a good English expression. Many really bad ideas in biblical studies have resulted from this, such as claims that “English can’t really express this idea.” The real issue is can you use your native language creatively.
- Church life. I don’t think you’ll understand the Bible unless you’ve experienced church. I don’t mean that church is such a good representation of what’s in the Bible. Usually not so much. But a great deal of the Bible story is about people trying to form and maintain communities, and if you haven’t actually tried, you may not understand them. I hate church politics, but at the same time church politics is a necessary thing. Politics is what happens when people try to act together. You can do it well or poorly, morally or immorally, but you will have to do it.
- Experiencing family. I have nothing against folks who are single, and I remained single until I was 42, and then married and acquired a family all at once. When I was single I was always of the opinion that raising children was likely more difficult than I could imagine. I was right! But again, understanding people who thought of themselves as God’s family is easier after experiencing the parent side of being a family as well as the child side.
There are other things that have helped, but I hope I have made the point that there are many things other than languages, and indeed many things other than academic study that help one understand. These other elements are even more important if one wants to teach. Being able to clearly express a set of ideas involves not only knowing those ideas well, but also knowing the medium of expression (language, art, etc.) and the audience well. The hermit professor, sitting like Simeon Stylites atop an ivory tower, has little impact on the world around.
But further, I suspect not one reader of this post does not have one or more of the experiences I listed, or perhaps others I have not. That means that the person without the degree in biblical languages also has a contribution to make. We ought all be prepared to listen and learn.
That is, study it in English if English is your native language, and when your knowledge of biblical languages isn’t up to the task. Face it. For most people, even those who have some study of biblical languages. Different levels of study of the languages provide different levels of benefits. But for most people, the best idea is to study the Bible more carefully and thoroughly in the language they actually know.
There’s a sense among people in the pews that knowledge of Greek or Hebrew provides some sort of magic key. This even affects pastors, who want to look up a particular Greek or Hebrew word in order to spice up their sermons or to find the real meaning of a text. The problem is that looking up a particular Greek or Hebrew word and then wielding that definition like an axe, chopping chips out of the text, more often misleads than enlightens.
For laypeople, the approach is often to find “the meaning of the Greek” through a commentary, or even worse through a concordance such as Strong’s. A correspondent once sent me a complete translation of a verse derived from glosses (single word or short phrase translations of a term) in Strong’s, in which not one single word was translated correctly in the context. One could, however, track the English words back through the concordance to a Greek word which did, in fact, occur in the verse.
Words do not have singular meanings. It is more accurate to say they have fields of meaning, sometimes called semantic ranges. I look out the window in front of me and I see a number of things that I would call “trees,” yet they are not identical. Some are larger, some are smaller. At some point there is the transition between “bush” and “tree,” and “bush,” again, covers a range of items. The actual boundary is set by usage. Now that I live in Florida, I have to realize that Floridians call things “hills” that northwesterners would call mounds or bumps, while there’s nothing in easy range of here that a northwesterner would call a mountain.
If you have the time and inclination to learn the biblical languages, by all means do so. But if you don’t, what can you do?
Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t just go to the most literal translation you can find. People often believe that by using the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, or something similar, they are getting closer to the source language. In one way, these versions do get you closer to the original, an I don’t have a problem with using any of them. Just don’t assume that they take care of getting you closer to the original.
- Instead of #1, choose 3 or more translations. Try to find translations that are committee translations and represent different theological backgrounds. For example, the NASB, NIV, and NLT are all done by evangelical translation committees. They represent three different approaches to translation, but their committees are all conservative. The NASB is formal, the NIV is a kind of compromise version, while the NLT is dynamic or functional. (There are many more differences in approach to translation. Check my site mybibleversion.com and/or my book What’s in a Version?.) On the other hand, the NRSV is quite formal/literal while the Revised English Bible is quite functional/dynamic, yet the committees involved are from mainline denominations and thus more liberal. I recommend choosing your three translations to represent different theological traditions and different styles of translating. For protestants, I’d recommend including the New American Bible or the New Jerusalem Bible, which are translated by Catholic committees. The NAB is probably a bit more literal/formal than the NIV and the NJB is dynamic/functional like the NLT or REB.
- Instead of spending your time looking for glosses to Greek words in a concordance like Strong’s, spend more time studying relevant passages in English. Don’t find a gloss and then force it into all the verses. Rather, study each passage and look for definitions from the context. I mean definitions of the English words provided by the English context in your English Bible. So if you want to know what the “church” is, don’t worry about the definition of ekklesia in Greek. (Dave Black wrote some good notes on this the other day. If you read what he wrote about the Greek words carefully, you will see some of the difficulties in doing this sort of study unless you are very well versed in the language.) Worry about the definition of “church” (and related terms like “body of Christ”) in English verses. How does Paul view this in Ephesians 4, for example?
- In order to keep from getting stuck with the work of just one committee, compare those translations. While the formal translations may be closer to the form of the Greek or Hebrew, you may not correctly comprehend what that form means. Try the options in one of the dynamic/functional versions. Then listen to the context. Many, many misinterpretations are produced by deciding what a word in the original language is suppose to mean and then forcing the verse to fit that meaning. Ask instead whether the definition you have in mind truly fits. In English, for example, the word “car” might refer to an automobile, the part of an elevator you ride in, or one element of a train. You wouldn’t take the elevator-related definition and force it into a passage about automobiles, would you? Don’t do it to the biblical text either. Consider words like “salvation,” which may refer to a moment of new birth, a continuous process of God’s work in the believer, or the eventual salvation from final death, among other things.
- Don’t be afraid of surface reading. Surface reading is a good starting point for study. I like to read an entire book of the Bible through before focusing on a section. That’s harder to do if we’re talking Isaiah or Ezekiel, but for most of the New Testament it’s not that hard. It’s a bit like standing on a mountain looking across a forest before trying to hike through it. You can read rapidly and you don’t need to understand everything. That’s what your later study is for.
- Don’t be intimidated. Those of us who read the languages also make plenty of mistakes. We’re subject to all the same human biases. I thank the Lord for the opportunity I’ve had to learn and for the gift of reading the Bible in its original languages. But none of that work gave me the right to lord it over others or to demand that they accept my view because of my study.
Above all, I encourage you to study the scriptures for yourself and listen for God to speak to you. It is the privilege of everyone, not just of clergy or scholars. Many people have given their time and some have even given their lives so that you can have that Bible in your own language. Make the most of it!
Dave Black has been posting some interesting things on his blog, and yesterday he wrote a bit about Greek and Hebrew language and culture. I’ve put this on jesusparadigm.com to provide a permanent link. Here’s the bottom line:
The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations.
He’s absolutely right. I think it’s difficult to get this sort of thing balanced because of two problems. First, there is a relationship between the forms of language an the culture that speaks it, and second, we like to find a theory that settles everything. So the New Testament must be either all Hebrew or all Greek in thought. Why? Because it’s easier to handle. If I know that the background must be Hebrew, then every time someone uses a background from Greek philosophy in interpreting a passage, I can declare them wrong and come up with one final and absolute answer.
In fact, it’s necessary to check many things. Take Hebrews and “shadows of heavenly things,” for example. Is this an idea based on Plato’s philosophy, or do we adjust it to fit better into some idea of Hebrew thought? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the author of Hebrews actually has his own view of the relationship between earthly shadows and heavenly realities, and that it doesn’t derive entirely from the background.
Which leads be to an aside. One thing that can suffer when we study the background of thought in order to categorize it, is that we can miss the original thought of an author. But we also need to balance that against the soil in which the thought germinated. There’s probably a reason that an author chooses specific words from those available to him in order to express his original thought.
Similarly, we have the word hilasterion which either occurs or is closely related to words that occur in other Greek literature and is used in the LXX to translate some specific Hebrew terms. So when it’s used in Hebrews do we import the meaning of kapporeth, do we seek for meaning in its usage in Greek, do we spend our time on it’s etymology in Greek (surely an interesting subject!), or do we look strictly at its context in Hebrews?
I’d suggest that we’re going to do some of all of the above, because it’s likely that the author of Hebrews was acquainted with all of that material. He was skilled in Greek, he was acquainted with the LXX, and he was capable of original thought and composition. The final arbiter needs to be the context of his specific usage, but all those other elements form the soil from which that particular meaning is nourished.
I doubt that very many of those who argue the different positions really deny the role of other options. They just sound like they do as the press a theory. Sometimes, however, the main reason to press a theory is that it is distinctive and thus identifiable as our work. I recall hearing a sermon in which the preacher started by saying that he would show us how everyone got the story of the prodigal son wrong. He proceeded to present some good thoughts, though they were not nearly as revolutionary as his opening statement. He denied some other ideas, though his presentation had hardly made it clear that those ideas were wrong. After the sermon concluded, many people left talking about how they had been so enlightened by hearing the “real” meaning of the parable.
I would have said, instead, that they had heard an interesting interpretation of the parable, one with some considerable value, yet neither so original, nor so revolutionary, nor so exclusive as everyone thought. I had to wonder, however, if things had been stated in my preferred way, with “one option for understanding” and “maybe we should consider” and “different understandings are possible” strewn about in the sermon.
When we’re making a point, the temptation is to present all the evidence in favor of our viewpoint and try to downplay the things that are not in agreement. I encountered this in comparative literature. You could find those who thought that Genesis 1 & 2 were clearly copied from the Sumerian and Babylonian stories, and others who thought they were so different that they were clearly unrelated. The fact is that if you get to choose your elements you can make them appear to be very close or very distant. I’d suggest that the reality is that there is a relationship (I suggested in my work for my MA that this was one of sharing cosmological language more than one of literary borrowing/copying).
Similarly I’ve mentioned the etymological fallacy a number of times on this blog. The idea that a word’s meaning is determined by etymology is a fallacy. But I’ve invented the anti-etymological fallacy to go with that. That’s the opposite error which assumes that any use of etymology in determining the meaning of a word is a fallacy. Determines, no. May have some relationship, yes. Thus I’m certain to look at hilasmos and hilaskomai (amongst others) when studying hilasterion. How much help do I get from etymology? That depends on the particular word, and the circumstances of its use.
The pursuit of absolute and certain answers can tempt us to invent them when they don’t exist. It’s nice to settle back comfortably knowing that all words in the Greek New Testament should be understood as expressions of Hebrew thought. One can discard so many thick, multi-volume sets of references, and certainly one doesn’t need to read all those difficult classical Greek quotes to get ideas of the usage of the word. But comfortable and right are not the same thing.
I can think of so many applications of this that I’d better just stop!
Today in Sunday School class the teacher referred back to challenge I had presented to the calls some time ago. I had suggested reading the prophecies of Isaiah, particularly 2nd Isaiah (40-55) without our “Jesus colored glasses.” I don’t suggest this not because I think Christian readings are inappropriate, but rather because it helps give you a sense of history. Place yourself as best as you can into the place and time from which the prophecies were spoken.
Our Sunday School teacher today, Melinda Henry, brought this challenge back to the class, after she had taken it herself. In her experience an teaching it led to placing ourselves into these prophecies, particularly the servant passages, and seeing there the call to be a servant in just that way.
When she did this I was reminded of when I was first challenged to read this passages in a different way. My undergraduate major in Biblical Languages was offered by the School of Theology at Walla Walla College (now a university). Thus most of my classes were taken with students who were preparing for pastoral ministry.
I took a class in Hebrew prophets from J. Paul Grove, and I confess that I didn’t really like it that much. He was the one to first challenge me to read Isaiah in that fashion. In addition, he had the requirement that we produce three sermon outlines per week derived from the texts we were studying. I hated that requirement and even tried to get out of it by pointing out that I wasn’t going to be a preacher. But the professor insisted.
It was a great experience and has stuck with me ever since. Paul Grove has gone on to his rest (as they would say in his SDA tradition), but I wanted to express my gratitude for pointing me toward some ideas I have used repeatedly in the years since, even though I thought it was wasted effort at the time.