Interpreting Scripture is a wonderfully complicated endeavor because the Bible is a complex compilation of literature.
Interpretation is art and science. It’s a craft that takes many years to learn and is never mastered. Beware those who claim to have mastered it.
It’s rarely biblical scholars who make such a claim. In fact, they admit all the time that they don’t always know what they are talking about.
Open up an English translation of the Bible, especially to a book like Amos or Hosea, and look down at the footnotes.
There you will find things like, “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” Or “LXX,” which roughly means, “We know what the Hebrew manuscript we’re using says but it doesn’t make as much sense as the Greek translation of a different Hebrew manuscript, so we’re giving you an English translation of a Greek translation of the Hebrew.”
Biblical translators do a wonderful job. Too good, in fact. They make reading the Bible seem simple and straightforward.
By contrast, modern readers of Shakespeare are keenly aware that though they are reading English, it’s the English of 400 years ago.
Some words don’t quite mean the same today as they meant then. There are historical facts about late 15th century London that Shakespeare’s original audience would have understood that we don’t inherently understand. There are cultural assumptions that we don’t share.
Modern readers of Shakespeare understand that they need some assistance from Shakespearean scholars to fully grasp the text.
Modern translations make the Bible, parts of which date back almost 3,000 years, seem readily accessible to the average reader.
Even when a passage is confusing, it’s not because we’ve failed to understand the translation, it’s that we can’t make sense of what we read. We’re not sure what to do with it and feel that we are missing something.
For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that a woman should “have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels.”
There is a clear meaning of the text, but there’s something behind it that we need to make sense of it all. We need answers to questions, such as:
Why do angels require a woman to have a symbol of authority on her head? Whose authority? Is it like a veil, which signifies that a woman is under authority, or a crown, which signifies that a woman has authority over others?
In these situations, we ask pastors, seminary professors, archaeologists, linguists, historians of the ancient near east, and other people for help.
We consult Bible commentaries, Bible dictionaries and other resources to try to find those missing pieces of information that we clearly lack in order to make sense of it all.
These resources often mention translation issues or how a word’s meaning is different from one culture to another.
They give insight, for example, into the cultural practices of fifth century B.C. Canaanites or first century Greco-Roman society.
They highlight the literary context in which a passage is found, or the cultural context in which a statement is to be understood.
Often this will make the passage understandable. And sometimes what we thought on initial reading was the clear meaning of the text ends up being something quite different when we take all of this into consideration.
All too often, however, modern readers never bother to take these things into consideration when the plain meaning of the text makes easy sense to us.
We just move on, confident in our ability to read the passage and understand it without taking the time to really study it and avail ourselves of all the resources available to us.
And then, when pastors, seminary professors, linguists, historians of the ancient near east and other biblically learned people try to tell us that what we take as the clear meaning of the text isn’t so simple and there is a different way of looking at it, they are often accused of “trying to explain away what the Bible clearly says.”
It only clearly says it because these women and men have done such a wonderful job giving us easily accessible and readable English translations of ancient works from cultures and worldviews that are vastly different from our own.
Give them some credit and approach biblical interpretation with the same humility they display when they add footnotes that essentially say, “We really aren’t sure.”
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.