I’ve divided this post into two parts: a list of ten general rules, and then some specific applications.
Here are ten rules for interpreting Biblical texts, especially difficult ones:
- There’s a strong presumption in favor of all Scripture being true (if we can freely ignore any passage in Scripture that we find difficult, then what’s the point in worrying about the meaning of any of them?). It follows from this that we have to try to harmonize different passages of Scripture. Thus, if passage A can be interpreted in two ways, and one of them is consistent with passage B and the other is not, then the former interpretation is to be preferred over the latter.
- We have to distinguish among genres. For example, a translation that suggests God wants us to behave cruelly in Numbers’ law-giving is different from a prayer that contemplates cruel behavior in Psalms. The truth of poetry or a parable is different from the truth of an accountant’s ledger.
- The older a text is, the greater the possibility that there may be some transmittal issue. All Scripture was inspired, but that doesn’t mean that over time some human beings might not have made some transcription mistake. See this post elsewhere on this blogsite, which concludes, “This does not mean that we we should not try to ascertain [Biblical texts’] original, inspired meaning — to the contrary, it underlines the importance of doing so.”
- Consider different translations in wrestling with textual meanings.
- Context can shed light on text.
- Just because the Hebrews did it doesn’t always mean God wanted or commanded them to do it.
- Speeches now in quotes may have been just summaries, according to the reportage custom of that time.
- Beware about concluding that different accounts of the same event must be conflicting accounts; thus, one account not including something that appears in another account is not a contradiction. For example, if witness A reports that a man got off the bus, and witness B reports that a man and a woman got off the bus, that doesn’t mean that both accounts aren’t true. Perhaps witness A didn’t see the woman, or didn’t think her getting off the book was important enough to include in his narrative.
- Similar events may have occurred more than once. So, for example, if Luke quotes Jesus as saying something one way, and John quotes Him as saying it a different way, that may just be because Jesus said it one way one time and another way another time. Public speakers often give the same speech multiple times, and there are inevitably variations each time. Likewise, Jesus could have performed similar miracles more than once, which can account for apparent inconsistencies in Gospel accounts of them.
- Events need not be presented in chronological order. If Luke writes that Jesus said A and writes later on that Jesus performed miracle X, and John writes that Jesus performed miracle X and writes later on that Jesus said A, the two accounts need not be inconsistent. Perhaps Luke thought he would report first on Jesus’ sayings and then on Jesus’ miracles, and John thought he would do the opposite: So what?
Here ‘s a brief genre-related discussion: Is the book of Job true? It seems to me plausible that it might be treated as an extended parable that is offered not for its literal truth but for the truth of what it teaches. When Jesus told about the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, He was not offering them as literally true incidents that happened in history; likewise, Job’s story might be considered in the same way. This is certainly consistent with the way it presents itself, as poetry and with a stylized frame, as Robert Alter’s commentary discusses.
This might be true within the book of Genesis, too: The creation story may be understood differently from, say, what happened to Joseph. And with regard to the former, there are of course actually two creation stories there, side by side, and if they are not literally compatible, then an obvious suggestion is that one of them (probably the second) is not intended to be literally true — the Jewish authors were not stupid and would recognize such an obvious contradiction — but mythopoetic.
That suggests, by the way, what might be an eleventh rule to bear in mind in interpreting Bible texts, namely that the authors were not stupid. Thus, if your interpretation leads to a result that has obvious problems, those problems would have been obvious to the author, and so your interpretation is probably wrong.
Finally, note that the laws later in the Torah are not, I don’t think, presented in a value-free way as just something that happened to be the rules for some old desert tribe: They are presented as God’s rules in a way that is not to be limited by historical context.
And here’s a point related to text and context: If Scripture is the Word of God, then taking it as a whole will avoid many forest-for-the-trees/intricacy-disproportionate-to-its-interest problems. For example, consider predestination. Over and over again Scripture urges us to do certain things and not do others (for both actions and belief, by the way). So we should. Scripture certainly presupposes that we have the freedom to choose, and of course is certainly feels like we can make choices as we go about our daily lives. What difference does it make to us if, in some sense and at some level, God knows what we’re going to do? We still have to choose how we live, and we might as well choose well rather than badly, just in case the extreme predestination folks are wrong. Why argue or worry about it?
It may seem nonfalsifiable to say (a) this incident is so illogical that it must be true, and (b) that incident is so logical it is also likely true. But some incidents may have seemed illogical then but we can now see the logic, so we can eat our cake and have it, too. E.g., women seeing the Risen Lord first. (This point is really more about textual believability than textual interpretation.)
I’m going to repeat here some points that appear in my discussion elsewhere on this site of Marcus J. Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (I think most of these belong more to me than Mr. Borg, so don’t blame him):
- If God wanted to speak to all ages (including especially the ancients), he would be limited in the scientific sophistication His Scripture could have. If the ancient Jews all considered a whale to be a big fish, and had no other word for it, what else could the Book of Jonah call it?
- If the second Creation story in Genesis was originally written and understood metaphorically, that’s quite different — in terms of textual inerrancy — than if it was meant literally and we are trying to save it by a metaphorical interpretation. It’s a genre point.
- Some things we just may not understand.
- And bear in mind all that the Bible, including even the Old Testament, gets amazingly right.
- Think of the extent to which numbers are a problem with Old Testament credibility — people’s ages, the size of armies, and the like — and consider whether for some reason this ought to be discounted. Were there contexts in which numbers back then were intended not to be taken literally, but more as qualitative measures, given people’s more limited ability to be precise in all measurements? Just asking.
- The Bible is not economically egalitarian. There are good rich people, and indeed sometimes God makes them rich to show His favor (Job, Jacob); but the rich are not to oppress the poor, and indeed should be compassionate to them (Boaz).
- Can one book of the Bible (e.g., Proverbs) be tempered by another (e.g., Job, Ecclesiastes)? That is, is it fair and better to read two generalities that point in different directions not as simple contradictions but as two complementary and mutually tempering truths?