Why do many people say the Bible must be interpreted? Can’t it just be read and understood?
We begin a new study this quarter on the uniqueness of the Bible and how to read and understand this very unique literary work. Why must the Bible be interpreted? First, it’s because we (people in the Western world, anyways) are separated from the original author and audience by…
- thousands of miles and unfamiliar geography
- between nearly 2,000- and 3,500-years’ time
- two languages largely unrelated to each other and foreign to us
- different cultural values, lifestyles and relatively primitive technological development
Each of these differences contributes to difficulties in automatically understanding the original Hebrew (and Aramaic) Jewish Scriptures in the Old Testament and the Greek Texts that make up the New Testament Christian Scriptures.
But these challenges are not insurmountable. It’s possible to travel to Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and other places mentioned in the Bible; we can understand the topography since much remains the same of mountains and plains, of sea, rivers and lakes. Archaeology has uncovered many Biblical sites and provided evidence of life during the time of the Israelite monarchy or the time of Jesus. It is possible to learn Greek and Hebrew and read the original languages with a high degree of accuracy and certainty of the author’s original meaning for vast majorities of these texts. The marvelous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have affirmed our preservation of modern copies of the Old Testament, while the sheer number of ancient handwritten copies of New Testament Greek manuscripts—over 6,000 fragments or whole books or letters at the time of this lesson—and the incredibly small number of significant differences between them, contributes to our confidence in the original authors’ words.
The Bible is written in human languages with words, using Hebrew (and some Aramaic) in the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament, and Greek in the Christian Scriptures of the New Testament.
In both Testaments, the Word of God plays a central role. The Hebrew word dabar and the Greek word logos have a similar range of meaning: a word, concept, idea, speech, or just “thing.” Much like someone saying, “I’d like to have a word with you,” it usually means more than just one single word.
Most frequently in the Old Testament, the word dabar is used for speech or ideas from God, much like in the Deuteronomy 32:45-47 passage where Moses tells Israel to keep the law as they enter into Canaan. To Moses, to Joshua, to Judges, and to priests, kings and prophets, the word of the Lord came to teach, instruct, direct, inspire, and correct.
The Greek version of the original Hebrew Old Testament, called the Septuagint, translates the word dabar as logos, indicating that they are largely synonymous. We don’t always see this use in our English translations, but the word logos also shows up in reference to the 10 Commandments as the “10 words” of God.
This concept becomes vital to understand because the New Testament refers to Jesus Himself as the very logos, that is, the idea of God. Jesus is the embodiment of the Old Testament word(s) and ideas from God, including the 10 Commandment law, and the messages of Psalmists, prophets, and kings.
Knowing the original languages and how the words were used thousands of years ago reveal more clearly to us how Jesus Christ comes to fill the Old Testament full of meaning.
How might we relate the Old and New Testament concept of word to our technologically-literate society who read less, and rely more on video?
Contributors to the Bible as a final composite whole include shepherds, kings, prophets, fishermen, scholars, Jews, Gentiles, rabbis, farmers, governors, and others. All writers were male, as far as we know (even so, women’s perspectives are not absent from the text, nor are their interests ignored or sidelined!). Not all of those asked to speak for God were willing; but even the reluctant or resistant, such as Jonah, provide important perspective to the plan of God throughout history. Read through the scriptures in the Sabbath School lesson related to the different authors and you’ll see some of their different backgrounds.
As scholars become more comfortable reading the original languages, the unique style, grammar, vocabulary, and way of thinking of each author becomes apparent. John’s Greek is much more simple than Paul’s, and Luke’s is more refined and educated than both John or Paul. Old Testament Psalmists use much more expressive, picturesque and multi-layered language in their songs than is used in the Laws of Moses. In spite of these differences, later writers use earlier authors and build on their work as authoritative.
Does the multiplicity of authors in the Bible make it more or less reliable in your view? Why or why not?
Beginning with Genesis 3 and God’s intervention in the human predicament known as “the fall,” predictive prophecy gives hope to sinful people. Someday, God will bring about an offspring of the woman who will bring an end to the deceitful serpent. This optimistic promise is the foundation for all other prophecy in scripture, as it reveals what God wants to do. He will fix the sin problem by being intimately involved with His creation, by making a covenant with them, and even becoming one like them—an offspring of the woman.
Throughout the Old Testament, the hopes of this coming deliverer—often one chosen or anointed by God—are expressed when a new leader, king or prophet arises, especially when the birth is miraculous (see the stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Mrs. Isaiah, and Elisabeth and Mary in the New Testament). The prophets try to keep Israel faithful, because it is through this people—offspring of Abraham—that God promised to be a blessing to the nations. Thus we find Israel’s prophets building on the Messianic (“anointed”) hopes. The Sabbath School quarterly for this quarter lists a number of these prophecies.
Beyond the direct prophecies, many stories, institutions, places, and events also have a “parallelism” to the birth, ministry, life, death, resurrection, and kingship/priesthood of Jesus. These are called “types,” and once you begin to see them, they’re nearly impossible to miss. Many of the Old Testament prophets quoted in Matthew’s gospel are typological applications of people or events.
As far as I know, no other significant religious work in the world contains the type of predictive passages found in the Bible. It is unique to Judeo-Christianity. The fact that the future could be foretold with such amazing accuracy has convinced many of its divine origin. If it could be this knowledgeable about the future, then it lends credence to the historical and ethical/moral sections as well. One week’s lesson this quarter will focus on prophecy.
Is there an Old Testament prophecy relating to the Messiah that is most compelling or meaningful for you?
The Bible as History
That the Bible records actual history has been the subject of much debate. But many of the Biblical characters find attestation outside of the Bible record, and the historical sections of the Bible (e.g., Samuel, Kings, Ezra/Nehemiah) can reliably guide archeologists and historians as they reconstruct the past. We know where most of the Bible’s stories took place, that they happened to real people who actually lived. It is not just a “religious” work, nor is it written as fiction, even “Christianized fiction.” The role the Bible plays in one’s individual life and faith is rooted largely on the factuality of the events recorded in the Scripture. How can the God who preserved Noah on the ark preserve you today if the flood event never happened? Why should we take a future judgement seriously if Sodom and Gomorrah were just fictitious places? Why should I believe that Jesus was anyone special if he was only a myth? More will be said this quarter about the Bible as history, too.
The Bible was written over nearly 1,500 years by a number of different authors, yet many readers discover it tells a unified story rooted in our world’s history. What lessons might this suggest about its inspiration, it’s overarching narrative, and the main Actor(s)?
There is no book like the Bible for its complexity, depth of message, and value for personal life—both here-and-now and as preparation for eternity. As valuable as the book is, it should be no surprise that God’s enemy would like to see it set aside, misunderstood, or misused. As we delve deeper this quarter into how best to read and interpret, I hope you will find both insight into its amazing mysteries and tools to better understand God’s message for our time and your own life.