Lawyers and the Bible

I’m a lawyer, and this short post makes a few points about how interpreting the Bible is like and unlike what lawyers do.


Among the major similarities are these:  Two major lawyer activities are interpreting texts and making arguments (including counterarguments) about what texts mean.  The latter skills, significantly, require you to learn to distinguish good arguments from bad arguments.  All applicable to Biblical exegesis, too.

There’s also this:  The Bible has some key similarities with many legal texts.  Like the former, the latter are typically written some time ago, but remain (and were intended to remain) in force indefinitely.  For both there were multiple authors, who wrote at different times.  Sometimes it is argued that an old text needs to be reinterpreted in order to conform to new conditions; needless to say, such “liberal” interpretations are resisted by “conservatives” in both instances.

In addition, the Bible is quite long and so are many legal texts (consider, for example, the U.S. Code), but you want to interpret various parts of each so that they are consistent with other parts.  This is one reason why structure and context are important.  It also means that sometimes it makes sense to give one section or passage greater authority than the other, conforming it to be consistent with the more authoritative parts rather than the other way around (see my discussion — in the section labeled, “NLRB v. Catholic Bishop and the Bible” — on this particular point here).

Here’s a specific issue that we find in the Bible and in legal texts:  Suppose there are explicit prohibitions against A and B; does this mean that something that is sort of like A or sort of like B is prohibited, too, especially if it in some way falls between A and B?

Both the Bible and legal texts sometimes make use of external evidence to determine their actual meaning.


But there are differences, too.  One obvious one is that there is no “client” in Biblical interpretation, in the sense of looking only for arguments that yield a particular outcome.  On the other hand, for a variety of reasons one outcome might be preferable than another for Biblical as well as legal texts.

There’s also this:  Frequently lawyers can console themselves, or a judge, that an undesirable result from the correct interpretation of a text can always result in the text being changed.   “If Congress didn’t intend or doesn’t like this outcome, it can always change the statute.”   Interpreters of the Bible don’t have this consolation.