Part 1. Christians cannot accurately interpret the Bible
Wait! Before you go reaching for that post reply button, wouldn't it be better to see what I have to say to support the above assertion?
I have recently been accused of yanking Bible versus out of their context and twisting their meaning to make them support my point de jour. I asked the accuser for a specific example of where I had jerked a verse out of context and I asked them also to explain how the context changed my interpretation. This person declined to point out the error of my ways using any specifics other than the blanket assertion that I had done so.
So, I thought it might be interesting to post a few of my thoughts on interpreting the Bible.
The first observation I would make along these lines is that each person will approach the Bible with a different set of assumptions. Each person will have their own starting point from which they will try to explain the things they read. In other words, they will first try to make everything fit into their existing presuppositions or worldview. I will make a bold assertion here that most Christians (and I will use the term Christian from this point forward to mean most Christians) will be limited in their options of interpretation simply due to the fact that they worship the story's main character. They may be able to subsume various interpretations into their worldview without their overall belief in Christianity being destroyed and there are as many flavors of Christianity as there are Christians (or so it seems) but any explanation of a “problematic” passage that would violate their main view that Christianity is true and the Bible is God’s word to man would be rejected. So the first major hurdle is the question of objectivity and bias.
Can a Christian be unbiased enough to allow the Bible to speak for itself even if it goes against his/her current beliefs? The Christian might counter and say that the non-Christian is not qualified to interpret the Bible at all! What could an atheist know about spiritual things? Doesn’t the Bible say that God’s ways are higher than man’s and his thoughts higher than man’s? Who, afterall, would have a better chance of understanding SOME of God’s word than a child of God?
I cannot speak for everyone but I used to be a child of God and I used to think I understood the Bible. Of course the more deeply I dug, I uncovered more problems for my Christian worldview. The tiny details were getting harder and harder to fit into my Christian big picture. At some point the evidence against Christianity’s veracity became more than a preponderance. The idea that Christianity was not what I had believed became more than a possibility. It became a likely probability and finally it became the only logical interpretation. The new evidence I had uncovered had forced me to revise my big picture in a radical way, to say the least. I suppose a few Christians could be unbiased enough (eventually) to change their worldview to the point that they completely reject Christianity as true. I did.
I say all that to say basically that the Christian (on the whole) cannot entertain certain interpretations - those that would severely damage or even destroy the religion as a whole (as they understand it) – even if they are the best explanations by far. The Christian will try to harmonize everything in the Bible into one cohesive worldview that they can somehow live with but this only works to a point. As an atheist ex-Christian, my current underlying assumptions allow me to interpret the Bible without any limitations imposed on me because I no longer worship its main character and I have no vested interest or stake in my eternal disposition for I no longer believe I have a soul and I no longer believe in an afterlife and I am not forced to believe that the Bible is completely true at face value. Since I am no longer “inside” the religion, I have a more objective view of it.
Although the Christian will want to deny this to be true, if they stop and think about it, they should agree. Any time someone is IN a situation, it is hard to understand it with the completeness and clarity of someone NOT in that situation (hindsight is 20/20?). John can see Joe’s problem a mile away but Joe cannot.
I know there are Christian scholars who run the gamut from KJV only literalists who believe there is not one single error in the Bible to those who reject all the miraculous parts of the Bible – even the resurrection of Jesus! I'm not entirely sure how you can deny the resurrection and still call yourself a Christian but I'm sure they have their reasons. But the average Christian, the one who believes that the Bible is the Word of God and everything in it is true, will not be able to entertain certain interpretations - even if the text is clear and unambiguous. The overarching subprogram running in the background of almost all Christians is one that will reject any explanation of a passage or concept that violates the notion that all scripture is “god-breathed”.
Where do Christians get the idea that the entire Bible is without error?
Look no further than second Timothy 3:16 which says that all scripture is God-breathed or inspired by God. Well, in that case, God would never allow it to contain errors or misleading information, right?
Gleason Archer advises everyone to assume that the Bible is error-free and any contradiction or error is just an “apparent” or “alleged” contradiction or error and that an “adequate” explanation exists even if no one has found it yet. From his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, page 15:
In dealing with Bible problems of any kind, whether in factual or in doctrinal matters, it is well to follow appropriate guidelines in determining the solution. This is most easily done by those who have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible over a number of years and have consistently and faithfully memorized Scripture. Some guidelines are as follows:
- Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not yet found it. The aerodynamic engineer may not under-stand how a bumble bee can fly; yet he trusts that there must be an adequate explanation for its fine performance since, as a matter of fact, it does fly! Even so we may have complete confidence that the divine Author preserved the human author of each book of the Bible from error or mistake as he wrote down the original manuscript of the sacred text.
This, then, is the overriding filter through which any possible interpretation must first flow. There cannot be a valid error in the Bible and if something seems like an error it is a mirage with a perfectly acceptable explanation to be found – even if no one, scholar or layman, has found it to date.
Unfortunately, even the interpretation of second Timothy 3:16 by Christians is incorrect due to the fact that they have no need to question what they have been told. They jerk the verse out of the textual context as well as the historical context in which it resides. At the time second Timothy 3:16 was written, the canon of the New Testament had not yet been decided and the New Testament writings certainly weren’t considered sacred scripture on par with the Old Testament at that time. Second Timothy 3:16 can only be referring to the Old Testament. To further support this interpretation (that second Timothy 3:16 is not referring to the New Testament as being God-breathed) let’s look at the verse above within its immediate context.
2nd Timothy 3:14-17:
14) But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15) and how from infancy you have known the ***holy Scriptures***, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17) so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Now, it is even more clear. The “all scripture” in verse 16 is referring to the Old Testament as can be seen in verse 15 which immediately precedes the well-known proof text for biblical inerrancy.
So, how could the writer of the above verse mean the New Testament when the New Testament canon had not even been determined? Furthermore, did the author have the proud notion that his own letter was on par with the Old Testament? The very height of hubris!
No, the only interpretation that makes sense without violating the facts (all we can know regarding the issue such as when the NT WAS considered holy scripture, etc) is that the author meant “Old Testament”. This does not rule out an error-free Bible, though. But it cannot be used as a single proof that the New Testament (or even Old Testament) is error-free. Besides, a claim is not a proof but merely an assertion.
Part 2. What do you need to know in order to understand the Bible properly?
If you really want to understand what is going on at any level (micro, macro) here are some things that are not only helpful but I’d say crucial. The following is just a brief attempt at setting down some of my thoughts. It in no way represents all of my own understanding and certainly not that of those who make a living studying the Bible.
Chronology of the documents
One thing that helps with a proper understanding of the Bible is a good understanding of when the documents were written and who (if possible to know ) wrote them. Most Christians will say it doesn't matter because the Bible is the Word of God but without knowledge of which documents were written first, there is no way to understand the relationship between them. Was Matthew really written before Mark? Was Matthew really written by Matthew??? Did Paul write his letters before or after the first gospel was written? When was Acts written?
Knowing the chronology of the documents (or at least a general idea of the timeframes put forth by most critical scholars) answers further questions that would otherwise be much harder to answer.
For example, knowing that the Pauline epistles were written before the Gospels allows one to have a framework from which to do further study. It answers many questions right off the bat such as, was Paul influenced by the gospel of John? Clearly it would have been impossible since the gospel of John was written sometime between 90 and 120 CE and Paul's epistles were written some forty years or so earlier.
Although some of the chronology is debatable, knowing the document chronology also helps in seeing the evolution of Christian beliefs as they developed over the first two centuries. The primitive, bare-bones gospel of Paul in the 50’s is contrasted with the more developed Gospel-style, church-oriented approach of Acts and the pastoral epistles written in Paul’s name which were written from 70 to 100 years later, well into the second century.
The geographical and historical setting
The general time frame and geographical area also play a part. Nothing is created in a vacuum and the writings of the New Testament are no exception - they cannot be for this would violate the natural way things come about. So an understanding of the milieu of the Old and New Testaments and the incredible influence of Rome and Greece upon Jewish thinking regarding the New Testament is important.
For example, knowing that Paul’s writings were around 15 years prior to the Jewish/Roman war of 70-74CE informs our understanding of Paul’s situation and therefore, sheds more light upon his epistles, especially his belief that the last days were upon him. It would have been easy to believe that the end was near while Rome was ruling the Jews and conflict happened on a daily basis. It was no wonder he felt that way with the impending war just 15 years away.
Another example of how knowing the setting helps might involve a look at the epistle to the Hebrews. Why does the author of Hebrews continually depict a perfect heaven, contrasting it with an imperfect earth? Why does the author of Hebrews take Jesus, a perfect high priest residing in a perfect heaven, and contrast him with the imperfect high priests of earth? Why the dualism? Why the… Platonism? The answer is because the author was influenced by Greek philosophy and the dualism of Plato made perfect sense. Heaven was perfect and where the god(s) resided and earth was merely an imperfect copy. This is also partly where the idea of a mediator between the two came to be understood. In Hebrews, Jesus was thought to have been the heavenly high priest who, by his once-for-all sacrifice, superceded the continual sacrifices of the earthly high priests. It is interesting to note that Jesus would have had to have offered his perfect sacrifice in the perfect realm (not on Earth) to maintain the dualism of Hebrews and in fact, the author mentions this very point.
1Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens;
2A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.
3For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.
4For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:
5Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.
You see, the early Christians believed Jesus was sacrificed in heaven and this excerpt from Hebrews hammers this point home. Jesus could not have offered his sacrifice on an imperfect earth and still been a perfect high priest. It destroys the Platonic contrast set up by the author and simply doesn’t fit the rest of the epistles in the New Testament. Much more can be said but again, context is crucial in truly understanding the meaning and here we have, in Hebrews, a great example of Greek influence upon early Christian authors.
Of course, to fully support the idea that Jesus was believed to have died before the world was created and in the heavenly realm, it would require the examination of three centuries of Christian and Jewish writing as well as the historical context. One book that has already done this is “The Jesus Puzzle” which is also readable online.
It’s good to know Greek and Hebrew but short of this, using some lexicon like Strong’s or other brand is the next best thing. If there is any doubt as to the meaning of a word, one can refer to a lexicon as well as various commentaries and other articles by people who CAN read and write in the native languages, not to mention other translations. If fifteen different translations agree and one doesn’t, you might want to ask about the one but usually a comparison will show that most translations agree. If you think a translation is wrong, it must be shown HOW it is wrong and what the correct translation should be. I usually assume the translation is correct unless I have some reason to doubt it or unless someone else has raised an issue regarding a particular word or phrase.
I’ve also found a few deliberately mistranslated passages in the NIV (New International Version), believe it or not. Some might claim the accusation is tantamount to calling them liars and that it would be hard to prove but here is one example of a deliberately mistranslated verse. I’ll explain why it is deliberate as well.
I will give five (of probably 40 or more I could cite) different translations of Jeremiah 7:22-23 and then one more which has a noticeable difference. See if you can catch the difference. (One of these things is NOT like the other.)
22"For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.
23"But this is what I commanded them, saying, Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.'
22For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:
23But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.
21st Century KJV:
22For I spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them, in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.
23But this thing commanded I them, saying, "Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you."
22 For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices:
23 but this thing I commanded them, saying, Hearken unto my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.
Young’s Literal Translation:
22For I did not speak with your fathers, Nor did I command them in the day of My bringing them out of the land of Egypt, Concerning the matters of burnt-offering and sacrifice,
23But this thing I commanded them, saying: Hearken to My voice, And I have been to you for God, And ye -- ye are to Me for a people, And have walked in all the way that I command you, So that it is well for you.
Now, see what looks different in the NIV.
22 For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.
Such a small change but it completely changed the meaning AND removed a contradiction from the Bible (one of the goals of the NIV team). Every translation I’ve seen for the above says that God didn’t speak to the Israelites about burnt offerings after they left Egypt.
22And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.
23Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.
24An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.
There are probably hundreds of other passages I could post here showing that God did speak to them about burnt offerings and sacrifices but regardless of what Jeremiah 22 claims, God spoke to Moses and the Israelites on many occasions post-exodus about burnt offerings and how to perform them. In fact, the entire sacrificial system was instituted by God. So the NIV team decided they'd throw in the little word “just” to sort of smooth out the problem. The problem is that the word just is not in the Hebrew text at all and the only reason the NIB team inserted it was to remove a contradiction from the inerrant word of God.
I’ve never seen a deliberately mistranslated verse in any other version besides the NIV. In fact, here are a couple more just for kicks to help support my accusation.
***1st Samuel 13:5 says that the Philistines had 30,000 chariots. This would be a larger fleet than even any empire recorded in secular history. How could that be? The NIV team removed just one little zero and made it 3,000 instead. Another contradiction removed.
***2nd Samuel 24:13 says there were 7 days of plagues while 1 Chron. 21:12 says there were 3. So, what does the NIV team do with 2nd Samuel 24:13? Right. They simply put a 3 where the actual Hebrew 7 was. Another glaring contradiction eradicated from God’s inerrant word.
***The NIV team of translators also changed Ahaziah's age from 42 to 22 in 2 Chronicles 22:2 to make it agree with a parallel statement in 2 Kings 8:26.
Trust me, there are more. To me, this is sad when your overriding subprogram is allowed to override God’s command to not lie.
So, it’s possible for something to be mistranslated by mistake or deliberately but these are the exceptions and not the norm and if anyone hides beneath the claim that all or even most contradictions and errors are due to mistranslations of the original text, they are gravely mistaken. The problem is that they cannot accept the meaning that stares them right in the face.
Ability to entertain ALL possible interpretations
This one is self-explanatory and the more devout and “fundamental” a Christian’s views are, the less this can be employed.
A little manuscript familiarity doesn’t hurt
What language was the original manuscripts of the New Testament written in? How many copies of the 27 books are there in existence? What is the earliest copy we have? Are there any with multiple endings and edits? Do they all agree down to the letter or do many contradict each other? What does Majority Text mean, for crying out loud?
By knowing that the entire New Testament was originally written in Greek, for example, you open the door to some ideas and close the door on others. You might ask why primarily uneducated Jews writing their account of another Jew would choose to write it in Greek instead of Aramaic. Maybe Greek had become a sort of de facto writing language for the more educated Jews? The more facts you can learn the closer you’ll be to something called reality.
Basically, everything matters. Your interpretation should try to harmonize all things and not just the immediate context or a few other select passages that you use to support a pet belief. As an example, one might say that the Gospel of Matthew is divinely inspired and an independent witness to the life of Jesus. This interpretation, however, violates the text of Matthew for Matthew copied huge amounts of text verbatim from Mark’s written gospel and made editorial changes to the story to improve it. This is not the action of someone writing down their own recollections of something that happened – something so memorable that no one would have been able to forget it or get the facts wrong. And certainly the contradictions introduced by Matthew's edits do little to support the idea of divine inspiration. It is the action of an author who was improving upon a great story by taking the parts he liked and adding parts and improving upon existing parts. This was a common practice among Greek writers practicing the art of storytelling. Mark started the whole ball rolling and Matthew saw a good thing and improved it but Luke took both Mark and Matthew and created yet another version (he says he used previous accounts in the very first few verses of his own).
I'd like to close off now with a little more support for my original assertion that Christians cannot accurately interpret the Bible.
Jesus said he would return to Earth soon and in fact, he stated that it would be within the lifetime of his contemporaries. He promised to return before all the people of his generation had died. But this automatically destroys Christianity by making Jesus either a liar or a false prophet and therefore cannot possibly be what Jesus is saying. Let’s look at the main verses and you decide. A look at the context would also support the case but with so many clear references, I’ll just leave further study up to each of you.
Jesus speaking to a crowd of people along with his disciples:
Mat 16:28: I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Mark 8:38-9:1 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."
Luke 9:27 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."
Jesus speaking to his disciples just prior to sending them out to preach the good news:
Mat 10:23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Jesus instructing his disciples privately on the Mount of Olives on when the end will come and when he himself will return:
Mat 24:34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Mark 13:30 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Luke 21:32 "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Jesus talking to the high priest at his interrogation:
Mat 26:64 Jesus says to him, *Thou* hast said. Moreover, I say to you, From henceforth ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.
Mark 14:62 "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
With so many verses corroborating the idea that Jesus would return soon and within only a few years (I left out tons of other support such as all the parables to be on the watch for the master to return and Paul’s belief that he would personally see Jesus return to claim him) who would need to deny the face value meaning except one who’s entire religion would crumble into dust if they ever admitted it?
The clear meaning is that Jesus was going to return DURING that generation. DURING the lifetime of his contemporaries. Each and every verse above corroborates this conclusion. But in spite of the overwhelming clarity of the meaning (even without considering any context or other verses that support it), the Christian cannot accept it and must do as Archer suggested above and wait for an adequate explanation to come along.
Good luck and happy dividing.