People who know me know that I have been on something of an intense reexamination and realigning of how I’ve read the Bible and how that relates to various beliefs and doctrines I’ve held. The main catalyst for that has been my own journey through recovery and letting go of a lot of past things. What do I believe when I am not required by my past or my social structures to believe anything in particular? What does my journey look like when I do not feel like I have to arrive at a particular outcome and can just see where the road takes me?
As part of this, a renewed interest has sparked in my own life in looking at the Bible as a historical document and how that helps us understand how the original receivers of Scripture might have heard it. In fact, the whole reason this online experiment exists is for me – to document my attempts at bringing this perspective to the Scriptures and seeing how they can speak through that corridor.
I have several good, wise, and especially patient friends who are beside me in this, and while they may agree with some things and critique others, they all share in common the willingness to let me bounce wildly off a few walls before coming to rest.
But in these reexaminations, certain questions occur to me and to them like:
- Did everyone get the Bible wrong after the first century?
- Do we have to read the Bible according to the framework of the original audience, or is it ok to read it in other ways for various purposes?
- Is it wrong to get something out of the Bible if it wasn’t part of the original context?
- Do you believe that the only people who understand the Bible are you and Andrew Perriman?
And so on.
These questions and others like them (with the possible exception of #4 – the answer to which is “no,” btw) basically boil down to the same issue: what do we do with varying interpretations of the Bible? Is one of them correct and the rest are wrong, or are they all correct in some way?
There Has Never Been One Interpretation of Scripture
One reality we have to acknowledge is that there has never been a time when the believing community carried a single, unified interpretation of Scripture as far as we know.
As we look through rabbinic and pre-rabbinic literature, we find dialogue, debate, and disagreements among teachers both about translations and the teachings of Scripture. Most commonly, these disagreements are allowed to stand side by side as authoritative treatments and, to this day, Jewish seminaries will teach their students to read the Torah in pairs so that they might debate its meaning and, in the process, learn and discover new facets.
By the time we get to the first century, there are several, main divisions of Judaism with multiple subdivisions. These are not over small issues, either, but on questions as large as whether or not there is a resurrection of the dead, or how many Messiahs there would be, or whether or not angels and demons are real beings. The divisions were not limited to purely doctrinal matters, either, but deeply practical ones: Did certain laws pertain only to those who labored in the Temple or all of Israel since all were a holy priesthood to YHVH? Since the laws tend to be general, what specific practices are required or forbidden?
This isn’t even getting into Christian history with its own schisms. The Monophysite debate erupted into outright violence between cities. Nowadays, we have so many Protestant denominations that it gives more credence to the theory of multiple universes. At every possible branching point of doctrine, a Protestant denomination exists that went the other way.
Roman Catholicism posits a singular, unified voice on Scriptural teaching in the Magisterium, but even if one believes that (which I do not), one still has to reckon with the fact that Scripture and faithful followers of God went most of their history without any kind of divine provision of certainty or doctrinal unity. There is no Old Testament version of the Magisterium, and arguably the New Testament version of the Magisterium hasn’t always been in lockstep, either.
The widespread multiplicity of meanings that readers get out of the Scriptures is as old as the Scriptures themselves. Even (especially) the more historically minded of us need to take care that we do not talk about the views of “the ancient Near East” or ” first century Judaism” as though this were one, monolithic thing.
Is this upsetting to God? Possibly, but the fact that we can have the Spirit and still read Scriptures very differently sort of makes you wonder how big of a deal this actually is to Him. Maybe it’s enough that we’re all generally pointed in the right direction of fulfilling His vision for the world.
Believers Have Often Held that Scriptures Have More than One Meaning
This may offend our logical sensibilities, and may especially offend Protestant sensibilities. For example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, Section IX, we read:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
However, we have to keep in mind that those Reformers were both reacting to what they perceived as excesses in the Roman Catholic church as well as establishing the logical prerequisites for the doctrine of sola scriptura. If you remove the authority of the Church to tell you what to believe and place that authority in the Scriptures, then the Scriptures had bloody well better say only one thing.
However, this disposition was shared with neither Judaism nor a decent chunk of church history.
It was several months ago that I was reading the Ruth Rabbah tracking down the source of a particular Messianic interpretation of Ruth 4:14-15. As it happens, different rabbis had different takes on who this passage was talking about, but one of the rabbis offered that the passage was talking about six, different people: David, Solomon, Israel, the Messiah, Boaz himself, and someone else I forget. It caused him no tension whatsoever to say that this passage was about all of those different referents.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that every passage of Scripture has four meanings: the historical, the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and the anagogical, and this is a standard part of Catholic exegesis.
This is not to say these people are necessarily correct. It is to acknowledge, however, that in the long history of the Scriptures and their interpreters, not only are there disagreements on the meaning, but there is a well-attested sense that a given passage can mean more than one thing.
Meaning Comes From Both Readers and Writers
Here is the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
There was a time when it was very popular for English teachers to tell their students the poem was about suicide, and if you read it, you can see it in the imagery relatively clearly. In a sort of allegory, a man pauses to consider taking his own life and entering into quiet, beautiful oblivion, but he ultimately decides that he has obligations and commitments to which he must be faithful, so he continues on.
The interesting thing is that this interpretation is wrong, according to Robert Frost. Frost was up all night writing a different poem, “New Hampshire,” and when he went out to see the sunrise, he had a mental vision of a person riding a horse by the woods and stopping to contemplate them, and he wrote a poem about it.
But here’s the kicker – all those people who read the poem and took something away from it about suicide, were they all wrong? What if someone were contemplating suicide but read Frost’s poem, and it encouraged them to keep going? Is this illegitimate?
What gives Robert Frost the authority to tell you what you can and cannot get out of his poetry?
When anyone creates communication, they have something in their heads they want to communicate (with the possible exception of art that is specifically designed for you to fill in your own meaning, e.g. much of modern art). The text is the medium they create to try to convey that idea – whether it is a speech, a written text, a statue – whatever.
However, as any parent can tell you, there is a big difference between the message you intend to send and what the receiver makes of it. In some contexts, we would consider this a failure. We wouldn’t want an architect to draw up blueprints for a skyscraper and hand them over to a builder who subscribed to an allegorical interpretation of them.
In other contexts, however, what a text means to the reader may differ from what the author had in their head, and this is not only not dangerous but may, in fact, cause the text to spring into even greater purpose.
We see this happening the Bible, itself, as Jesus and/or the gospel writers will take passages out of Israel’s history that quite clearly are envisioning their local, current situation at the time of their writing. Yet, Jesus/the authors will reuse those texts to explain Jesus, and they are not shy about this.
Is this wrong? Is this illegitimate?
I ask you, is it wrong for someone to read Frost’s poem and find it an artistic and thought-provoking picture of contemplating, but ultimately rejecting, suicide?
I do not think that is wrong. I think it means the text can be valuable for people in different ways and, as they share their reading into a larger community of readers, we can appreciate the poem in ways we did not, before.
What would be wrong, however, would be for someone to say that the suicide thing is what Frost wants all of us to take away from his poem, and that leads me to my last observation.
Not All Proposed Meanings are Equally Plausible, Valuable, or Likely to Reflect the Intent
It’s one thing for me to read a text and take away something of personal significance. It’s another thing altogether for me to announce that as “the meaning” of a text, or what the text “teaches,” or what “God says,” or anything that might imply that how a text reads to me is also what the author intended or the role the text played to the original audience.
I could read a newspaper article about a drop in the stock market as an allegory of an individual’s struggle with emotional depression, and that’s fine (although I might find it valuable to also recognize that the stock market is dropping), but I need to be careful about making that interpretation in any way anything other than something I got out of it personally. If I were to tell people that the stock market article was “really about” a person struggling with emotional depression, I should be prepared for people to point out that this is not what the author intended or how anyone else read it because newspaper articles report news and are meant to be read as such, not as allegories.
Let’s take my favorite chestnut, Jeremiah 29:11:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)
If a teenager is about to enter college, reads this verse, and finds comfort there, I’m not going to take that away from him. The text has affected him in a personal way that may not at all be the original intent of the passage, but it was used by him in a helpful way that had meaning for him.
However, this passage is to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. God is promising that He will rescue them from Babylon and bring them back to their land. That’s who He’s talking to and that’s what He means. There’s nothing about anyone else except Israelite exiles in Babylon and God making good on His promise to Abraham. There’s definitely nothing about teenagers or college or careers or what have you.
It is because of this that I am on very shaky ground when I tell someone else that God has promised that He has good things in store for their future, and I quote that verse.
What I might do is tell someone, “When I read this verse, it reminds me of God’s commitment to His people and His promises. I feel like He could be talking directly to me, and that always brings me comfort and confidence.”
All fine and good, but that is not and should not be the same as me telling someone that’s what the passage means. In terms of possible meanings of Jeremiah 29:11, the meaning that “God has an awesome future for each and every Christian” is hugely unlikely, not just because we can obviously see in people’s lives this is not true, but the fact that Jeremiah 29 circumscribes who and what it is addressing. Other contexts are notably absent.
A very good question, however, would be: can it mean both?
I’m ok saying that as long as we keep in mind what we mean when we say it. There are no indicators that Jeremiah 29:11 is meant to fit any historical circumstances but its own. And yet, we also know that the biblical authors themselves will repurpose passages to describe something happening in their own day.
Could this passage, for example, be used to comfort an imprisoned church in China? The historical circumstances would be similar in some ways. I think it could be (and is actually a lot closer to the original passage than the college thing), once again, being very careful with requisite qualifiers and a knowledge of what we’re doing.
And this is kind of where I’m at with all this. The Scriptures had something to say to their original audience. Knowing what this is not only helps us get at The Meaning of the passage, but it also provides some sanity checks if and when we repurpose it or look at our own circumstances through the lens of that text.
But at the same time, we also should allow for the fact that an individual will get meaning from a text that is just for them. Like looking at art, it will mean different things to different people at some level, and I have little ground and even less motive for telling someone what they got out of a passage is “wrong.”
But we do need to understand what we’re doing when we do that, and I’m not sure most of us do.