Overcoming Simplistic Understandings of Scripture: Biblical Interpretation,Doing it Right Part 5


If there’s one point in this “series” that I hope has been stressed it’s the fact that Scripture is meant to be understood and that there are certain facts that believers, and even non-believers, need to keep in mind when engaging the text.

Back in the first post, I pointed out that there are a number of different types of texts that are in the Bible, and failing to recognize those differences, even within the individual books themselves, can set one up for misunderstanding. Similarly, misunderstanding the different literary devices that the writers employed can cause one to stumble over the text. The use of numbers can also impact one’s understanding of the text because ancient writers would sometimes use them symbolically. A final stumbling block is usually the social and historical context of the writers, as most people seem to forget the difference in the social expectations that are the actual product of working out the fullness of revelation.

In this post, like the previous ones, we are going to look at something that is often overlooked in dealing with the text, namely the issue of the fact that editing of the text took place in history and how that affects understandings of the text both positively and negatively.

The Facts of the Matter

A close, critical reading of the text, often reveals that Scripture displays editorial marks on the text. These editorial marks are regularly discussed in scholarship and are often used to leverage arguments against either the reliability or the truth of the text. If one reads a modern exegetical commentary on just about any book of the Bible, one is likely to encounter any number of discussions about alleged historical “problems” and use of anachronism in the text. YouTuber, scholar, and agnostic Josh Bowman, who goes by the name Digital Hammurabi, has a rather interesting and informative series on the Book of Daniel that demonstrates how someone can make good observations about facts but draw questionable conclusions regarding the text. The question is, what “problems” can we face when interacting with the biblical texts that aren’t really problems?

See also this series on unpacking the complex history of ancient Israel

Problems… but Not Really Problems

If one looks at a list of supposed biblical contradictions, one will most likely see matters of chronology being raised. Probably the best example would be the fact that the synoptic gospels place Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem temple towards the end of their narratives, while John places it at the beginning. This has led to some creative resolutions, such as asserting that there were two separate incidents rather than a single one. The problem with such is that it assumes that all of the gospels are trying to be chronological in their presentations, when only one—Luke—seems to be concerned with any orderly arrangement of events, while the others appear to be ordering their narratives thematically. If such facts are acceptable in the New Testament, why can’t they be acceptable in the Old?

Such a consideration goes back to the facts that should have been recognized early: the biblical texts are ancient, being ancient they don’t adhere to modern literary standards or practices, so why should they be judged by modern behavior?

So, when trying to understand the text, what do we need to keep in mind aside from other points raised in this series?

1.Don’t assume chronology. Unless the text makes a point of saying that it should be understood as giving a chronology account assume that it isn’t. Remember that the author(s) of the text we’re concerned about preserving facts, not order. We should consider that the text was often assembled in segments and that there is a likelihood that sometimes segments may be placed in the text out of order either because of accident or intention.

2.Don’t assume that the texts are unbiased. The writers had biases and while they were writing historical documents, they were writing to a particular audience with particular expectations. This means that no ancient historical text is free from this fact and to assume an unbiased, dispassionate presentation of mere facts is to make an incorrect assumption. There’s often a measure of national or ethnic pride woven into the tapestry of the documents that have to be considered.

3.Don’t get swept up in simplistic understandings of the texts. In understanding something about the origins of the text, especially in contrast and comparison with other ancient texts, there is a tendency to dismiss the facts of complexity and nuance in favor of a fundamentalist simplicity. It’s too easy to dismiss certain facts that might be uncomfortable rather than seeking integration into faith.

Seeing as point 3, is the general thrust of this post, in brief, it is one of the most detrimental to the Christian faith that I have seen. There’s no telling how many atheists I have read that claim to have lost their faith is almost always due to some kind of rigid, simplistic biblical literalism that has no place for the observations of scholars. They were never exposed to it, nor were they challenged to think through it.

See also: The Stumbling Block of Inerrancy

Being a person who likes to think, I immerse myself in the scholarship and really think about all of it, not just part of it. One of the benefits of independent study of the scholarship means that you don’t have to accept the conclusions of particular scholars but are free to draw your own conclusions. It’s in failing to recognize the historical nature of the text in relation to its origination in history in contrast to what is said about the text in the text itself means that one doesn’t have to accept false dilemmas. The text can be what it is (a product of history) and what is needed by the faith (the sole, infallible rule) without violating either as long as we don’t sink into simplistic thinking that is often the result of fallacious reasoning.

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