Interpretation is the key to unlocking the meaning of stories in the Bible. It could be good, bad and even ugly.
All too often we are quick to sift out a meaning with little attention to the story details such as the particular words, story arrangement and historical – cultural background. We insist that the “Spirit led me” to this or that conclusion. We will take up such claims at another time but the “Spirit led” advocate might also consider; did the Spirit lead scholars to painstakingly elucidate linguistic, semantic, cultural, archeological, and historical details that reveal a quite different meaning? Is it possible that lifetimes of dedicated study revealing the smallest of particular clues hidden for ages in the ancient scrolls or jars in uninhabited places in Israel were “Spirit led”? Perhaps so. These discoveries – if we dare consider it – which are often objective and verifiable might even be superior to our personal interpretation. Controversial? Perhaps so.
The evangelical (and likely the wider Christian) community has come to respect whatever people think a biblical text means. The problem may be part of a phenomenon in society where “gut reactions”, or “instincts”, have become a substitute for rational-empirical decision making. Some scholars have traced the problem to the phenomenon of post-modernism where truth is subjective. The immediate implication is that generations of talented and thoughtful individuals who have poured their lives into answering some of the most insoluble biblical problems are merely tossed aside in preference for a personal opinion. Something has gone terribly wrong in the Christian community where we honor (and pay for) highly trained medical, scientific, and legal expertise but have low regard for trained biblical experts and their findings.
There are at least three reasons for the popular “trust your gut” interpretive method.
Firstly, it takes a lot of time, and energy to understand the Bible. It’s simply easier to “react” to a particular verse than wade through the technical and often dry insights of a scholar.
Secondly – and probably -the more pressing problem to most is the time-financial strain that discourages training. If one decides to get serious about biblical training it could mean hours of weekly labor to read, memorize, write and wrestle with languages, history, theology, and specialty topics. Who wants to spend their precious Saturday’s taking courses and a few hours after work squinting at languages abandoned long ago and even written backwards (e.g. Hebrew)? The kinds of subjects and topics are almost too numerous to list but sure to swallow heaps of time.
Thirdly, let’s also fairly treat the idea that “scholars always have it correct.” Scholars too strain out of the biblical stories some far-fetched interpretations which unfortunately have encouraged many to toss aside “all scholarship” for their own far-fetched ideas. This is a fair point but this is sometimes an over-reaction.
Scholars often (I did say often not always) go through a vetting process where ideas are peer reviewed prior to publication. What makes it through is not always trustworthy but the reader can examine a host of scholars and determine if an opinion is acceptable based upon the evidence and the opinions of other scholars. In a word we can throw out the opinion of some scholars without throwing out the whole scholastic enterprise!
In a recent article in Biblical Archeology Review, exactly this issue came up. Most Christians have read the story or heard a sermon on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). According to the author a number of scholars proposed interesting interpretations for the story.
- The robbers were freedom fighters or dispossessed peasants forced into debt by the unfair Roman andTempletaxation system. The robbers are social bandits fighting against the unjust system and are the heroes in this parable.
- The victim (“some guy”, anthropos tis) is a tradesman who consorted with ritually unclean non-Jews. He deserved his fate.
- The priest and Levite avoid the man because if he is dead and they touch him they would be ritually unclean. They are actually following the Torah correctly and are to be commended for their observance of the Book.
Most are shocked by these interpretations that have been put forward by those wishing to sift a particular meaning. The problem is that all of these interpretations are quite wrong for very good objective reasons. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine comments on these anachronisms (See Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 2012, vol. 38, no.1, p.24).
1) The Greek word for “robber” (lestes) is used here; not a term for “freedom fighter”. The Greek term (lestes) is used in the Gospels during Jesus’ condemnation of theTemple “as a den of robbers” (Matt.21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46) and similarly in Paul’s writing when he referred to “bandits” (2 Cor.11:26). A kind of social message such as “robbing from the rich to give to the poor” or “liberation for the oppressed” is not in view in this parable.
2) The victim did not deserve his fate. Clearly Jesus is filled with compassion for all the sick, widowed, orphaned, and our neighbors (Matt.22:34-40; Mk. 12:28-31). Is it probable that Jesus was making an example of a nameless, occupation-less, non-accused man? If the man had done something wrong perhaps as a collaborator, the data in the parable does not support the hypothesis.
3) The third proposal is also flawed. Among the many reasons to suspect that the priests and Levites response is based upon the Torah alone (Priests are to avoid corpses (Lev.21:1-3)), is that saving a life overrides all other laws (Mishnah, Nazir 7.1). The priest and Levite were actually neglecting known law which respected and sought to preserve life.
The proposal falls further into doubt when it is realized that the priest was coming down (or away) from Jerusalem and was not required to be “clean” for ritual duties. The priest could have helped.
Levine comments that the most shocking feature of this good story is that the third anticipated figure is not an Israelite but a hated enemy – a Samaritan. Relevant to the interpretation is the fact that in the previous chapter, John and James (“the Sons of Thunder”) petition Jesus to call down “fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans” who did not welcome Jesus (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus refused the request and rebuked them.
Samaritans were unsympathetic to Jews and Jesus was no exception. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that Samaritans killed “a great many” Galilean pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem(Antiquities 20.118-136).
It is plain that the Samaritan was the last likely candidate on the list to be the hero in Jesus’ story but he again turns convention on its head by enlisting an enemy to be the sensitive or godly hero (see also: Centurion is commended by Jesus (Luke 7:1-10)).
The Good Samaritan story is shocking to the first century listener and also the “expert in the Law” who questioned Jesus regarding the identity of “his neighbor” whom he is commanded to love (Luke 10:27). Could you really love someone who bitterly hates you? Jesus’ answer is that you can love those who hate you for love (not nationality) is the currency of the new Kingdom economy.
Digging into the background of a story is not really optional for scholar or non-scholar. It is a must to safeguard right understanding of these ancient stories. Do background studies guarantee correct interpretation always? Well yes and no. The question is usually tied to the extent and quality of the research and quite honestly the theological (or non-theological) orientation of the interpreter. In general more data (history, doctrine, languages, cultural studies) is better and consulting various sources (say commentaries) helps control for unusual interpretations.
Good analysis involves interrogating the text. Have you looked up various words in a Bible dictionary such as The Tyndale Bible Dictionary? Was an introduction survey for the particular book reviewed? Have you inspected surrounding passages and their impact on the target text? Are there repeated words or phrases? Is the text drawn from the Old Testament or New Testament thus defining the Old Covenant or New Covenant?
The stories become richer and the lessons more profound as we seek out information helping to define the author’s original intended meaning.
Finally, we should address the matter of training, which is needed to help enhance the believer’s Bible – skills – tool – kit.
Training and learning is a passion with the faculty at The New England School of Theology. We have seen our students grow measurably in their abilities, knowledge and faith through the challenging courses offered at the school. This, in no small measure, is the result of their participation and hard work but never the less accomplished through our structured learning environment at NEST.
It is our hope to continue to offer challenging courses to those in our region at very reasonable cost. Please consider our upcoming classes to enhance your skills and ministry efforts. Good interpretation of a parable, poem, apocalyptic or historical text requires training. Join us today!