Reading the Bible necessarily includes interpreting the Bible. For many people, interpretation is a confusing process. Here are some of the most confusing aspects of Bible interpretation you should know about. Once we have identified them, we'll talk about how to avoid them as much as possible!
Let me begin by asking you a question. Have you ever experienced roadblocks during your attempts at Bible navigation?
Maybe you are wondering what exactly Bible navigation is. If so, let me explain. When the Apostle Paul gives instructions on navigating the Bible to a young man named Timothy, he gives him an important place to start by saying, “Do your best”. What an interesting piece of advice. More than that, it is probably not a concept that we think of often when reading the Bible.
Do you remember some of your experiences as a child? Maybe you were involved in sports or a liberal art that had a competitive dynamic to it. I hope you didn't have a cruel parent who loved you more or less as a person depending on how well you did! But if so, hopefully you had at least one adult in your life who encouraged you after a game or tournament. Maybe they asked you the simple question: Did you do your best?
Although reading the Bible is not a performance or a competition per se, it is vital that we think about our reading and studying as something that we actively do. Doing our best when it comes to reading the Bible is not something that magically happens, it takes action! More than that, it takes our best efforts. Let’s look at the entirety of Paul’s instruction to Timothy about doing his best:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (English Standard Version, 2nd Timothy 2:15).
Paul indicates to us that 'handling the word of truth' (i.e.. Bible navigation) involves two dynamics: studying rightly and studying to our best ability. But this means that we must know where we are going. The writers of a helpful book called Introduction to Biblical Interpretation say it this way,
“the goal of hermeneutics is to enable interpreters [i.e. You and me as we read the Bible] to arrive at the meaning of the text that the biblical writers or editors intended their readers to understand” (pg. 153).
It's Also A Mindset
Agreeing with this end goal of interpreting the Bible is an important step in the right direction. If you don't set a goal in place, you will never know what challenges to overcome. To take a road trip from the state of Georgia to Massachusetts, you must have Massachusetts as the end goal. This is the only way to know what roadblocks to anticipate along the way- not to mention what roadmaps to use. This is exactly the kind of Bible reading that Paul encourages Timothy to practice.
To be sure, you and I are not Timothy, but we are beneficiaries of the biblical text and thus, we should make every effort to read rightly and to our best effort. When thinking about how to get to our destination, we should think about roadmaps and roadblocks so that our travel is safe and successful. Here are a few points of emphasis that we should keep in mind.
Let's talk about the Bible navigation of time. When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he said to them “About the other things, I will give directions when I come” (1 Corinthians 11.24). How convenient it must have been for the Corinthians to be able to say “Ok Apostle Paul, and when you get here we have some questions about chapters 12-14!”. Although the original audience may have had the luxury to ask Paul to clarify some things in his writings, modern readers do not have this convenience. And with each passing year, we are farther and farther removed from the original time of writing. It is true in saying, “Simply put, the world has changed in substantial ways since then” (Klein et al. 13).
To be clear, Bible readers do not have to be academic historians to understand the Bible, but understanding something of the immediate events happening during biblical times can certainly help us. For example, interpreting the letter to the Romans is easier when the political and social backdrop is known, such as the fact that Emperor Claudius banished Jews from living in Rome (Acts 18.2). After his death, Jews were welcomed back into Rome and suddenly, Christians of both Jewish and Gentile ethnicity were dwelling together in one church.
Suddenly, we understand (at least to some extent) why Paul speaks so much with a Jewish/Gentile dynamic in the book of Romans. If we do not study this information, we are more likely to take particular texts to inaccurate conclusions, while those who study such issues are able to bridge the gap of time in considerable ways.
So what are some action steps? One easy way to get acquainted with the time of writing is to simply get a good study Bible and read the introduction to the book of the Bible you are studying. Any good study Bible will at least have a few paragraphs of helpful information about the life and times of the author and audience. The ESV Study Bible is a good place to start.
Next we have the Bible navigation of culture. It must also be considered that cultural separation is a large challenge to biblical interpretation. This relates closely to time, but it functions slightly different. When Paul speaks of head coverings (1 Corinthians 11.2-16) or Jesus speaks of the faith of a mustard seed (Matthew 17.20) there were cultural understandings of those topics by the original hearers that we simply do not have with equal understanding in 2018 America.
One remedy for this would be an analysis of the Jewish landscape and climate so that we can understand why mustard seeds were used as an analogy by Jesus, just as a study in the use of garments in the 1st century would help interpreters understand what Paul means by head coverings.
Again, good study Bibles will almost always have something to say about these cultural issues but consider finding a book documenting ancient near-eastern culture (Old Testament time) or the Roman Empire in the first century (New Testament time). To help in this, there are two good books: Introduction to the Old Testament and Introduction to the New Testament which cover these issues with each book of the Bible.
Third, there is the Bible navigation of language. As demonstrated in How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, the authors demonstrate how technical the translation of the Bible can be from Hebrew and Greek into English (or other languages for that matter). First century citizens of the Roman empire were able to read the New Testament with little difficulty, since Koine Greek was the dominant language of the people (Ferguson 28-29), but this is obviously not the case in the 21st century.
Even for those who do not attend Bible college or seminary, language aids exist in literature and online, so that people can study the language with greater detail how words are used throughout the Bible, and how they were used in other historical writings (see Biblehub.com for example). Bill Mounce, who’s textbook on Biblical Greek is basically the gold standard in Bible colleges and seminaries, has produced a Greek textbook and video series specifically for those who want to use basic Greek tools for Bible study called Greek For the Rest of Us. Check it out!
The fourth Bible navigation is massive: worldview. Although worldview as a concept is normally left to the philosophical world, we must understand that everyone has a worldview of sorts. This worldview is not a passive view of the world, but what actively dictates the course of our lives and greatly determines how we read the Bible as well. Take for example the current worldview of postmodernism, which rejects the idea of absolute truth.
This idea may be completely new to you, but consider how many people adopt a postmodern reading of the Bible, a sort of “new day, new meaning” mindset. Think of how may times you have heard someone describe to you that they enjoy reading the Bible because every time they read a particular passage, they get something a little bit different! This postmodern approach proves to be a dangerous culprit since it inevitably makes the whole process of Bible interpretation meaningless.
What is the answer to this issue of worldview as relating to biblical interpretation? The answer is a faithful, consistent interpretive process that falls in line with what was originally meant. This based on the authors purpose to their audience, not what we think or feel as a result. Let me stress that reading the Bible is not a blank slate for anyone! We all have worldviews and they affect how we read the Bible. The Bible stands above us as “the word of truth” as Paul describes it to Timothy.
Arriving Safely at Your Destination
Having looked briefly at these challenges to biblical interpretation, Bible readers have a place to navigate- establishing what and where the destination is. Remember, we are seeking to arrive at a destination (meaning of the text) and the directions and roadmaps to get there must be considered (time, language and culture). The next step is to anticipate the roadblocks and detours that can potentially ruin our trajectory (worldviews/presuppositions).
Today’s Bible readers stand in a great place of hope! We have so many examples available and research material to be utilized. Although each passing year adds to the gap between now and the original context of the Bible, each passing year also represents further research and evidence to lend to the interpretive process. Overcoming each challenge will help us to arrive safely at our destination- God’s intended meaning and message of the Bible! So every time you sit down to read your Bible, don’t forget to ask the question “Where am I going?”
So have you met these roadblocks in your own Bible navigation? Identifying these roadblocks is a great first step in getting to your destination, which is a good and wholesome Bible reading experience.
What other types of roadblocks have you come across?
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