For my birthday last year, Jo gave me a great gift. She volunteered me to help Sherlock Holmes, which I gladly did. And you can, too. When you subscribe to “DearHolmes.com,” Sherlock will send you a letter each week from someone in need. Your job is to find the clues in the correspondence and solve the mystery. At the end of every month, Sherlock himself writes to the victim and reveals who did what and why so that you can check your suspicions. I solved three cases. I caught the vacuum cleaner crook, closed the case of the abducted attaché case, and discovered why desperadoes were digging in the dining room. It was great fun, but I like deciphering what clues mean, solving problems and understanding how things fit together. Perhaps, that is why I am so driven to talk about how to interpret and “piece together” the Bible’s meaning.
As you already know, this series of posts deals with the science and art of interpreting the Bible. To help us along in this pursuit, I will be interacting with Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s book, The Bible With and Without Jesus, as a sounding board. Here are two scholars (both Jewish) who look at the same Bible we do (roughly), but see things very differently. Now, the goal here is not to prove Levine and Brettler wrong or to convert all of us to Judaism. It is to look at how we approach the Bible and how we go about the process of interpreting it. Now, it helps that this book is engaging and fun. Plus, using TBWAWJ will bring to the surface many topics which are very important, but we wouldn’t normally touch them. (By the way, Levine is a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School; Brettler is a professor of Jewish Studies at Duke University, and TBWAWJ was published in 2020 by Harper Collins).
Now, Levine and Brettler wrote the book, not only to show how the Jewish understanding of the Bible differs from the Christian understanding, but also to help both of us better understand each other and, “at the minimum, respectfully agree to disagree” (pg. 4). And (no surprise here) our differences all come down to how we are interpreting our Bibles. That being the case, where do we even start to have a meaningful conversation? Again, let me quote from the book (pg.5):
“This is no easy task. It involves appreciating what biblical texts meant in their earliest contexts and then explaining how over the centuries different communities with different concerns developed differing interpretations. It also means understanding how these ancient scriptures became weaponized. . . . This war continues today, when a Christian tells a Jew, ‘You obviously don’t understand your Bible because, if you did, you would see how it predicts the Messiah Jesus,’ and when a Jew responds, ‘Not only do you Christians see things in the text that are not there, you mistranslate and you yank verses out of context.’ Neither position is helpful. When you read through Christian lenses, what the church calls the ‘Old Testament’ points to Jesus. When you read through Jewish lenses, what the synagogue calls the ‘Tanakh’ speaks to Jewish experience, without Jesus.”
Pay special attention to what they are saying in those last four lines. When you read the Bible through Christian lenses, you see that the Old Testament points to Jesus. If you read it through Jewish lenses, it doesn’t. Why? Because when it comes to interpretation, where you begin (presuppositions) and what you expect to find (expectations) shape what you will find, including what you will see as the meaning and as the purpose of a passage. Now that is hard to swallow, but it is true. It is also hard to swallow the suggestion that I see things in the text that are not there, that I mistranslate verses, and that I yank verses out of context. Normally, those are fighting words! But maybe that’s the problem.
A while back, I came upon a quote from Rachel Held Evans that really struck me. She said: “When Christians tend to turn to Scripture to end a conversation, Jews turn to Scripture to start a conversation.”
This quote struck me because the first line described me to a “T.” See, I grew up believing that my job was to defend my position by shooting down my opponent’s. TBWWJ offers another way: to stop arguing and, instead, actually listen to what the other person is saying. Maybe, a key component in learning to interpret the Bible is to hold our views on what it is saying loosely, to approach our views on Scripture with humility, and to interact with those who disagree with us with grace. Maybe, what we need is more conversation starters and fewer conversation enders.
Look at that! We are not even out of the introduction to TBWAWJ, and already we have isolated three critical insights. First, the presuppositions we bring to the text shape how we read the text. Second, the expectations we have of the text shape what we find in the text. And third, our interpretations should be bathed in humility and grace, not in defiance and competition. If all you get from reading TBWAWJ are these three points, it was well worth the price tag – wait, what? I bought the book and I am reading it, while you are only reading these posts. You, my friend, are coming way out ahead on this deal!
But let’s go back. Why is interpreting the Bible so difficult? Let me count the ways! The Bible is written by many different authors over many different centuries in many different circumstances. Let me break that down. The Bible is ancient (Pete Enns notes that we are “as distant from the time of King David—3000 years ago, about 1000 BCE—as we are from the far distant future of 5000 CE.” Yowser!). The Bible is often ambiguous (Think about that. The Bible tells us to keep the Sabbath holy and to honor our parents, but it doesn’t really define what work is or how to honor them. In fact, the whole Ten Commandments with any and all clarifying remarks take up less space to print than the first page of this blog!). The Bible is also diverse (Ezra tells the people to divorce their foreign wives, but Malachi tells us that God hates divorce. Jesus says divorce is adultery except in the case of sexual immorality and Paul agrees, except he add desertion as another legitimate grounds for divorce. How’s that for diversity!). The Bible is also context-driven; and yet, we often don’t know the context. The Bible is also translated which provides all sorts of problems, but provides numerous jobs for modern-day Bible translators (but remember the Italian proverb: the translator is a traitor). To further complicate things,
I’m sorry, let me repeat myself: the ancient Hebrew text was written without vowels and spacing and without punctuation marks (See what I did there?) The book suggests we try our hand at doing this by giving us an English example: “GDSNWHR.” What’s your best guess as to what this sentence means? And I could go on with many more examples of what makes interpreting the Bible difficult, but you get the idea. The Bible is not easy to interpret. Never has been. Never will be.
And that has led many to formulate principles that we can use when we are reading the Bible. The great Jewish scholar, James Kugel, offers these four principles that guided ancient Jewish interpretation. See what you think of these? Do they resonate or do they rub you the wrong way? (Kugel is quoted on pg. 25 in TBWAWJ):
- The Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text. Thus, texts need not mean what they obviously mean.
- Scripture contains one great Book of Instruction, and as such is a fundamentally relevant text. Even when a prophet is speaking to his generation, he is not speaking only to his generation.
- Scripture is perfect and perfectly harmonious. Consequently, texts that appear to be contradictory are not; it is the interpreter’s job to make them comport.
- All Scripture is somehow divinely inspired. Therefore, scriptural language is not quotidian, human language. When a friend says, ‘I will meet you in 70 minutes,’ she expects you to be waiting in 70 minutes; but when God says through a prophet Daniel, ‘You will be restored in 70 years,’ that could mean 490 years
Wow! If these principles are even close to being true, no wonder the Bible is hard to interpret!
Let me wrap things up today by leaving you with four questions to think about until we meet again in 7 days (or is it 49 days or 49 years?).
(1) What do you think of these four ancient Jewish principles? Do you agree or disagree with them?
(2) Why do YOU think the Bible is so difficult to interpret and understand?
(3) What principles do YOU use to interpret the Bible?
And finally, (4) which verse from the list below best capsulizes your feelings right now?
A) Psalm 35:11 – “Ruthless witnesses come forward; they question me on things I know nothing about.”
B) Job 21:14 – “Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways.”
C) Job 21:6 – “When I think about this, I am terrified; trembling seizes my body.”
D) Ecclesiastes 12:12 – “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”
Oh, wait! GDSNWHR! What did you decide it meant?
If you are upbeat and positive, you probably saw the letters as offering hope: “God is now here!” But if you are a pessimist, the letters probably spelled out, “God is nowhere.” How’s that for some interesting interpreting!?