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How People Mess Up Interpretation

How People Mess Up Interpretation

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:

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

So NOT the Logic of Hebrews!

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.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Structure

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Structure

Dave Black commented on the structure of this passage, and I’ve been trying to work with it a bit. I do a loose form of phrasing when I study, in which I break pieces of the passage in some detail at times and leave others less chopped, so to speak.

This morning, my Sunday School class, always small, was canceled due to absences, so I spent some time chopping! Here’s an image of what I did. This is a large image. If you want to actually read it, you can click on it, but if you have your Greek NT nearby, you should be able to see just the shape.

<a class=1 Thessalonians 1-1-10 Greek" width="470" height="1024" srcset=" 470w, 400w, 1738w, 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 470px) 100vw, 470px" />


Now I don’t know if this was of any value to you, because it’s just my way of thinking about the structure. You may find it hard to follow. I know there are some phrasing systems that are different.

Nonetheless, it helped me, though I don’t think it finally answered the questions I had. You might want to read Dave’s post (which I copied to so we’d have a good link!) before this discussion.

There seemed to be two major questions, first whether 1:2-10 should be divided into two paragraphs (2-5, 6-10) or seen as one, and second whether one could imagine a division of the text that used 1:1-3 as a division.

As to the second question, I could not see when I first read this how it could be divided in that way. First, there is a clear division, in my view, between 1:1 and 1:2, and second, there is no division that I can see between 1:3 and 1:4. I think eidotes is likely parallel with poioumenoi in modifying eucharistoumen. (Pardon some loose transliteration.)

As to the first, this results from the e-mail that was sent to Dave, challenging the division between 5 & 6. The most logical reading seems to me to relate verse 6 right back to the thanksgiving of verse one. My blue line on my image above would should the structure if 6-10 is a different paragraph. My red line subordinates it to eidotes in verse 4. I was having a hard time seeing that logic until I had broken this down and bit and read it several times. It could be, but I would lean to making 2-10 a single paragraph and tying verse 6 back to verse 2. Lean, not fall head over heels into.

I rarely post this sort of stuff. I’m not really an expert, and the epistles are not my normal stomping ground, but one must venture off of comfortable territory at some time or another!

I do want to call attention to Dave’s article and his post because I think it is unfortunate that so many of the epistles are chopped into pieces in the way they are used in the church. We have our proof texts and our favorite passages, but we don’t read them as a whole. They’re short. You can afford to sit down and read the whole thing. I can afford to sit down and read all of 1 Thessalonians in Greek. It’s fun, and it’s profitable.

On something this short, I recommend starting a study by reading it 12 times, preferably in different sources. It’s a good time to polish up your Latin or French, or if you’re not into languages, just use a number of English translations. People tell me they’ll get bored reading the same thing 12 times. I haven’t found it to be so. I recall being challenged to try this on the Sermon on the Mount. I promised to stop when I found nothing new. I read it over 30x, and stopped just because I needed to study other scriptures. How can it be boring?

But even more, we neglect so much of the Pauline material in the Bible. Galatians and Romans are the big things, but I think you won’t understand Paul unless you read other epistles. I think 2 Corinthians is another one that is neglected, and by neglecting it, we miss some of who the apostle Paul was and how he led churches.

Those are my thoughts instead of teaching Sunday School!

What do you think?


Another Link on Hebrews Structure

Another Link on Hebrews Structure

Dave Black provided me with a link to his article, The Problem of the Literary Structure of Hebrews: An Evaluation and a Proposal, and I wanted to link that here and connect it to the previous post.

Without intending violence to the overall value of the article, I found one of the most helpful parts to be a summary of Vanhoye’s structure and outline. Anything that has the word “chiasm” in it gets at least a second, if not a third, look from me!