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John Odendaal
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Biblical interpretation

12 June 2014, 07:22
Here's a little paper I wrote back in 2003 while I still had time to devote to academia (B.Th). It may be of interest to some; theist and atheist alike.

In biblical exegesis, the interpreter is faced with a number of challenges.  Discerning meaning from ancient texts is not such a straightforward task—there are many factors that must be taken into account.  This essay is a brief survey of the factors involved.

As the exegete, we are confronted with a multiplicity of exegetical methods.  Raymond E. Brown discusses these briefly in his book An Introduction to the New Testament (1997: 20-29). He makes the distinction between textual, source, form, redaction, canonical, structuralist, narrative, rhetorical, social, and advocacy criticisms.  And while Brown suggests that these approaches “must be combined” (pg 28), others take a different position on the matter.  König et al (1998: 298) point out that some believe a single approach to be the only legitimate one, while others believe “there may be an element of truth, of value, of usefulness, in all or most of them”.  B.C. Lategan suggests that the literary form will determine the appropriate method (Anchor, Vol. III, 1992: 153-154).  There are those who single out certain exegetical approaches as inappropriate in all cases. For instance, McQuilkin labels naturalist, supernaturalist, existential, and dogmatic approaches as “faulty” (1992: 23-24).  But the dispute in exegetical method is only one of the problems that interpreters are faced with.

The Bible refers to historical events, and biblical authors placed great emphasis on people, places and events (Hayes, 1971: 8). Of the New Testament, Brown points out that “it was written in a particular political, social, cultural and theological milieu”.  As the corollary, the exegete should take into account the historical and socio-cultural settings in order to understand the text on its own terms, and not from a 21st century context.  Historical study of the world behind the text, therefore, is needed to form the necessary frame of reference for an adequate understanding of Scripture.  Without such knowledge, the reader will be unable to bridge the hermeneutical gap between antiquity and modernity.

The adoption of the mindset of biblical authors adds to the complexity and difficulty of biblical interpretation.  Deist et al submit that awareness of the “primitive” character of society to which the audiences of biblical texts belonged is essential (1999: 47).  The difficulty of this exercise becomes more evident as T. S. Milton notes that even “personal intercourse between individuals of the same nation and language is often difficult and embarrassing by reason of their different styles of thought and expression” (1999: 20).  One example of this can be seen in the second letter of Peter, where the author found things in Paul’s epistles that were difficult to understand (II Peter 3:16).  And if this can occur in such a short space of time and such close proximity, the probability of it occurring with 21st century exegetes examining the writings of ancient authors is far greater. Therefore, one must make an effort to become aware of the mentalities of biblical antiquity.

In keeping with the mentalities of the biblical authors, one should keep in mind that the text was shaped by their personal interests, experiences and problems.  As R. H. Stein notes, “the meaning of a text depends on the specific conscious will of the author” (1997: 38), and an awareness of this calls for the added awareness of the ideological nature of the Bible.  For example, Habel et alpropose in their book The Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies (1995) that “any appropriation of these concepts of land in debates about the contemporary issues demands that we first take into account the ideological force of the text being considered” (pg. 3).   It is also stressed that adequate attention should be given to the particular ideological or theological thrust of the literary context of individual words in exegetical practice.  A biblical author’s motivation in wanting to communicate with his or her audience may have been quite different on separate occasions.  For instance, an author’s motivation may have been to inform, encourage, praise, admonish, complain, or blame, amongst other things, and this calls for examination of the relationship between the author and his or her intended readership.

The interpreter plays a large role in the hermeneutical process.  No exegete approaches Scripture without presuppositions about the text he or she is interpreting.  As an exercise in assessing one’s “disinterest” as an interpreter, the re-reading of the Bible is effective as it highlights the subjective process by its results—the perceived meaning of the text sometimes changes.  In light of this, the pretense of academic neutrality or objectivity should be abandoned (Barton, 1998: 13) but at the same time our presuppositions should at least be consistent (Best, 1978: 99).

Probably the most important presupposition employed by biblical interpreters is their preconceived idea about the nature of the Bible.  For instance, Brown (1997: 29-34) examines the general positions with regards to divine inspiration and revelation.  Many interpreters regard references to divine inspiration as totally inappropriate in scholarly study; others make divine inspiration so dominant a factor in interpretation that the limitations of human authors become irrelevant; and others take an intermediate position by accepting divine inspiration as important for interpretation, but assert at the same time that God’s role as author did not bypass human limitations. 

The question about divine inspiration is held to be crucial by some because they believe Scripture to be fundamental to God’s revelation to mankind.  Once again we are met with a number of different positions regarding divine revelation.  Some afford no role in interpretation to revelation, and assess truth mostly through logic rather than faith; others believe that every word of Scripture constitutes a divine communication of truth; and some contend that Scripture is not revelation but contains it.  Of course there are those who assert that divine inspiration has no validity, and some who deny divine revelation absolutely. 

Whereas the questions of inspiration and revelation are linked to the subject of biblical inerrancy, there are other ways in which the Bible is perceived (Engelbrecht et al, 2000: 78-79).  Some describe the Bible as a reflection of religious ideas by certain people, in that socio-political issues were addressed from a religious perspective in which a god had a significant role.  Others think of the Bible as a collection of texts documenting God’s activity in history and humanity’s response to that activity.  And finally, there are those who ascribe only a literary role to the Bible, focusing on artistic and aesthetic merit.

In conclusion, it is clear that biblical interpretation is faced with issues that have a fundamental impact on the meaning discerned from Scripture.  The interpreter needs to deal with the various exegetical methods, the gap between antiquity and modernity, the contextuality and ideological role of the Bible, and most importantly, his or her own presuppositions about the very nature of the Bible.

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