Are You Interpreting the Bible Correctly?
The first biggest mistake is replacing Bible time with academics. The second biggest mistake is not interpreting the Bible correctly!
In the Heart of Wisdom packages we recommend How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. I’m rereading this book now. Fee explains every Bible reader is an Interpreter:
“Most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.
Thus, when a person in our culture hears the word “cross,” centuries of Christian art and symbolism cause most people most English-speaking cultures are apt to think that “flesh” means the “body” and therefore that Paul is speaking of “bodily appetites.”
But the word “flesh,” as Paul uses it, seldom refers to the body—and in this text it almost certainly did not—but to a spiritual malady, a sickness of spiritual existence sometimes called “the sinful nature.” Therefore, without intending to do so, the reader is interpreting as he or she reads, and unfortunately too often interprets incorrectly. This leads us to note further that in any case the reader of an English Bible is already involved in interpretation. For translation is in itself a (necessary) form of interpretation.
Your Bible, whatever translation you use, which is your beginning point, is in fact the end result of much scholarly work. Translators are regularly called upon to make choices regarding meanings, and their choices are going to affect how you understand. Good translators, therefore, take the problem of our language differences into consideration. But it is not an easy task. In Romans 13:14, for example, shall we translate “flesh” (as in KJV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, etc.) because this is the word Paul used, and then leave it to an interpreter to tell us that “flesh” here does not mean “body”? Or shall we “help” the reader and translate “sinful nature” (as in the NIV, GNB, etc.) because this is what Paul’s word really means? …translation in itself has already involved one in the task of interpretation.
Therefore, without intending to do so, the reader is interpreting as he or she reads, and unfortunately too select texts from the Bible itself. Every imaginable heresy or practice, from the Arianism (denying Christ’s deity) of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Way, to baptizing for the dead among Mormons, to snake handling among Appalachian sects, claims to be “supported” by a text. Even among more theologically orthodox people, however, many strange ideas manage to gain acceptance in various quarters…”
There are, for example, Christians who, on the basis of Deuteronomy 22:5 (“A woman must not wear men’s clothing,” NIV), argue literally that a woman should not wear slacks or shorts. But the same people seldom take literally the other imperatives in that list, which include building a parapet around the roof of one’s house (v. 8), not planting two kinds of seeds in a vineyard, etc.
The first task of the interpreter is called exegesis. Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible. This is the task that often calls for the help of the “expert,” that person whose training has helped him or her to know well the language and circumstances of the texts in their original setting. But one does not have to be an expert to do good exegesis.
In fact, everyone is an exegete of sorts. The only real question is whether you will be a good one. How many times, for example, have you heard or said, “What Jesus meant by that was . . .” or “Back in those days, they used to . . .”? Those are exegetical expressions. Most often they are employed to explain the differences between “them” and “us.”
Exegesis requires knowledge of many things we do not necessarily expect the readers of this book to know: the biblical languages; the Jewish, Semitic, and Hellenistic backgrounds; how to determine the original text when the manuscripts have variant readings; the use of all kinds of primary sources and tools. But you can learn to do good exegesis even if you do not have access to all of these skills and tools. To do so, however, you must learn first what you can do with your own skills, and second you must learn to use the work of others. The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text.
Knowing How to Read a Book
One of the best things one could do in this regard would be to read Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book … many people simply do not know how to read well. To read or study the Bible intelligently demands careful reading, and that includes learning to ask the right questions of the text.
There are two basic kinds of questions one should ask of every biblical passage: those that relate to context and those that relate to content.
Fee explains the Two Kinds of Context: Historical and Literary
…The historical context, which will differ from book to book, has to do with several things: the time and culture of the author and his readers, that is, the geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting; and the occasion of the book, letter, psalm, prophetic oracle, or other genre. All such matters are especially important for understanding.
It simply makes a difference in understanding to know the personal background of Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah, or that Haggai prophesied after the exile, or to know the messianic expectations of Israel when John the Baptist and Jesus appeared on the scene…
This topic is beyond the scope of a blog entry and has been addressed wonderfully in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee. It is an excellent introduction to reading and interpreting the Bible. It looks at the overall big picture and bridges the gap between the scholar and the layperson.