The Origin Of The Bible
The 66 books of the Protestant Bible contain diverse types of literature and were written in three different languages by dozens of authors from diverse cultural backgrounds and walks of life over many centuries. The Old Testament writings were penned and compiled over a period of about 1,000 years the New Testament writings span perhaps 100 years. Hundreds of years passed between the writing of the last book of the Old Testament and the first book of the New Testament.
While many writings were understood to be authoritative by Christians in the first century A.D., it took hundreds of years for the early church to sort through the diverse body of writing related to the Christian movement and finalize the canon of authoritative writings that comprise the Bible today . The many versions and translations of the Bible available today reflect centuries of scholarship and collaboration among Christians of various traditions.
Pagan Stoic Allegorical Interpretations Infiltrated Judaism
In his writing On Creation, the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria used a Stoic allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the Old Testament to justify his pagan Stoic ascetic unbiblical attitudes to pleasure and his pagan Greek attitude to males being like the human reason and females being like the human sensations or feelings, when he wrote: And it is on this account that Moses appears to me in the particular laws also which he issued in the respect to animals, deciding what were proper to be eaten, and what were not, to have given especial praise to the animal called the serpent fighter. This is a reptile with jointed legs above its feet, by which it is able to leap and to raise itself on high, in the same manner as the tribe of locusts. For the serpent fighter appears to me to be no other than temperance expressed under a symbolic figure, waging an interminable and unrelenting warfare against intemperance and pleasure
The above example typifies how easy it is to invent false doctrines by finding symbolic interpretations contrary to the verses surrounding context and to other verses in the Bible on the same topic.
How To Understand The Language Of The Bible
Jesus took bread and said, Take and eat this is my body . Did Jesus Christ intend for this statement to be taken literally, or was he using symbolic language, a figure of speech? Christianity has been divided on that question for centuries.
Whenever we read the words of the Bible, we are faced with a choice: Does God intend this passage to be taken literally, or is the meaning symbolic or metaphorical? Is the language used strictly literal or is it a figure of speech?
Our goal in understanding the Bible is not to prefer either literal meanings or figurative meanings. It is to understand what God intended the words to mean. Sometimes God intended a literal meaning, sometimes a figurative meaning, and occasionally both. We need to explore each context.
You May Like: What Does The Bible Say Happens After Death
The Risk Of Biblical Literalism
The Rev. Wil Gafney, whose doctorate is in Hebrew Bible, is an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse a deeply meaningful faith in God, scripture and, in Christian tradition, Jesus. That faith is frequently buttressed by personal experiences with God and the scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. For many, to deny the truth of the scripture would be to deny God of the scriptures.
The assumptions about that truth often go unexamined. We must ask about the intent and genre of the text. Biblical literalism requires reading all of the Bible as being intended to relay a series of historical facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds of speech and writing, which we use in combination to make our points: irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, quotes in and out of context, etc. Insisting on biblical literalism flattens out the richness of the text and its multiple contributors. And even among Christians, there is no single Bible: there are different books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles.
Insisting on nonsensical interpretations, especially from literal readings of nonliteral texts, can erode one’s credibility.
What Does It Mean To Interpret Scripture Literally
Numerous critics of a literal interpretation of the Bible argue that the word literal implies taking words at face value while ignoring figures of speech.
For instance, critics often point out that poetic language exists in Scripture and that a literal interpretation would lead people to a faulty understanding of a verse.
In Isaiah 55:12, the Bible reads, You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Many people would rightly argue that the mountains and hills were not really singing, and the trees were not clapping their hands since this is a figure of speech. However, people who interpret the Bible literally would agree.
Those who follow a literal interpretation take the Bible plainly and read it normally. Literal interpreters of the Bible recognize that there are different genres in the Bible, such as poetry, epistles, and narratives.
Furthermore, they acknowledge figures of speech in Scripture, like in Isaiah 55:12 or the Book of Psalms.
To avoid confusion, many people who follow a literal interpretation of Scripture prefer to use the term historical-grammatical interpretation.
This indicates that their hermeneutical method focuses on understanding verses in their proper historical and grammatical context. Recognizing the cultural and textual context of the verses are also essential components of a literal interpretation.
Also Check: Does It Say In The Bible Not To Eat Meat
Principles You Must Know To Do Proper Interpretation Of The Bible
Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Tim 3:16-17
It is the Spirit who gives life the flesh profits nothing the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. John 6:63
Literal Interpretation, Illumination by the Holy Spirit, , Historical Context, Teaching Ministry, Scriptural Harmony.
So What Does The Catholic Church Teach
To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.
The biblical text which we study is two or three thousand years old its language is very different from that which we speak today. Even if we think we understand the words translated into our own language, this does not mean that we correctly understand what the sacred author wished to say.
Read Also: What The Bible Says About Karma
Is The Bible Always Literal
The word literal is complicated. According to one of the first definitions in the dictionary, literal means: adheringto the ordinary construction of primary meaning of a term or expression.
In other words, being literal can just mean saying what you mean to say, giving primary importance in the moment to what you mean to give primary importance.
What Kind Of Language Is Being Used
In addition to identifying an authors purpose and knowing something about the literary form and conventions they are using, part of interpretation is understanding how an author uses language. Some of our human communication is fairly straightforward, but much of it relies on the hearers drawing inferences that are not made explicit by the sum total of the definitions of the words.
Also, much of our language use is figurative in some way, or is not meant to be taken literally. Think back to high school English class and all those vocabulary words you had to learn: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, euphemism, synecdoche, litote, idiomatic expression. The Bible has examples of all of these kinds of figures of speech.
To further complicate things, words themselves can have figurative senses. In Greek the primary sense of poimen is shepherd, someone who cares for sheep. The secondary, figurative sense is the leader of a church. When Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd in John 10:14, he is using the primary sense of shepherd in a metaphor that speaks figuratively about his love for his people. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul lists some roles in the church that include shepherd , but using that word does not mean we should interpret the passage figuratively it is a very straightforward list.
You May Like: Who Wrote The First Five Books Of The Bible
The Purpose Of Scripture
Scripture is not intended as a moral guide book or a collection of propositions to believe. Its purpose is to reveal Gods plan and purposes throughout human history. According to the Apostle Paul, All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work . Among the most important objectives, Scripture is able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus .
What About The Talking Donkey Isnt That An Ass Of An Idea
What about Balaams donkey talking? Isnt that a stupid, ridiculous, nincompoop idea that Christians support and promote? Thats what some have said to me and in even more blasphemous, profane, anti-God sentiments!
But doesnt this get down to ones view of God?
Since the Lord God who created the universe out of nothing and raised Jesus from the dead, is the God of absolute omnipotence perfectly capable of doing what he chooses to do that is consistent with his nature? Therefore, we need to seriously consider what the Scriptures state. If one has an anti-supernaturalist perspective , there is no way that you will want to consider the speaking donkey as one of Gods supernatural miracles.
This is what the Scripture says concerning Balaam and the speaking donkey for a detailed description of the incident with Balaams donkey talking, see Numbers 22:22-41 . The specifics of the speaking donkey are:
Ronald Allen has noted in his,
Therefore, the answer to the doubting Melissa and all others who doubt the credibility and authenticity of Gods using a speaking donkey to get through to Balaam, is: It is your extraordinarily low view of God that causes you to deny God, the Omnipotent Ones, ability to speak through a dumb animal and an ass at that.
I invite you to read carefully Job 40-41.
Melissa is imposing on Scripture her anaemic understanding of God who cannot perform supernatural events including speaking through an ass!
Also Check: How Long Has The Bible Been Around
A Feel For The Context
We need to get a feel for the context. We need to see the types of literature contained in the Bible, the way it uses poetic language, the way it gives commands and relates history and predicts the future.
To help us in our reading, a simple introduction to the Bible can be helpful. Perhaps you might be able to buy one of the books listed below, or read them at a library. These easy-to-read paperbacks have been designed for beginning Bible students.
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. 4th edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 304 pages.
- Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible, by Jack Kuhatschek. InterVarsity Press, 1990. 163 pages.
- Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study the Bible, by A. Berkeley Mickelsen and Alvera M. Mickelsen. Hendrickson Publishers, 1992. 141 pages.
Symbolic Bible Interpretation In The Early Church
Justin Martyr, almost a century before Origen, discusses the very same things in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew
Trypho said “Scripture compels us to admit . That’s obvious. But there is a matter about which we are deservedly at a loss. That is, about what was said that he ate what was prepared and placed before him by Abraham.
Here, Trypho the Jew admits to Justin Martyr that the Scripture says that those three men were really the Lord and two angels. But the idea that God would eat literal food threw them for a loss.
Not Justin. Justin was familiar with everything that Origen would say almost a century later, so he had a ready explanation.
I would say that the Scripture which affirms they ate has the same meaning as when we would say about fire that it devours all things. We certainly should not understand that they ate, masticating with teeth and jaws. Even in this case, we should not be at a loss about anything if we are even slightly acquainted with figurative modes of expression.
Trypho gave in to Justin’s Bible interpretation. He did so because even the Jews knew about the figurative interpretation of Scripture. Justin specifically asked him.
“Perhaps you are not aware of this, my friends, that there were many sayings written obscurely, in parables, mysteriously, or in symbolic actions, which the prophets who lived after the persons who said or did them expounded.”
“Assuredly,” said Trypho.
Recommended Reading: Chronological Reading Plan Of The Bible
Literal Bible Interpretationand Bible Contradictions
Today, there is much controversy over literal Bible interpretation. Most of that is due to scientitific discoveries of the last 200 years.
However, it is not evolution or science that has driven Christians away from a literal Bible interpretation.
As far back as A.D. 225, one Christianwho could not possibly have heard of Charles Darwin or of evolutionexplained why Scripture was never meant to be a literal, historic document.
His explanation, which I am about to give you, is full, logical and powerful. I am also going to show you that it is not unique to Origen, the author of this marvelous, insightful discussion on Bible contradictions and literal Bible interpretation.
So buckle your seat belts. You have probably never heard an argument like this one because it’s been lost to most of Christianity for centuries.
One Last Early Christian Example Of Symbolic Bible Interpretation
I do not want to tire you by producing the whole litany of early Christian writers who can be shown to agree with Origen’s method of Bible interpretation, so I’ll give you just one more. This is from around the year 185, about halfway between Justin and Origen:
The Law has figuratively predicted all , delineating man by the various animals. Whichever of these, it says, has a double hoof and ruminates , it proclaims as clean Who then are the clean? Those who make their way by faith steadily towards the Father and the Son, for this is indicated by the steadiness of those animals which divide the hoof. And they meditate day and night on the words of God so that they may be adorned with good works, for this is the meaning of the ruminants.
The apostle Paul went even further than Irenaeus in applying Scriptures about animals to humans.
In 1 Corinthians 9 he argues that God does not care about oxen, so there’s no way that the law about not muzzling an ox while it treads the corn was really only about oxen. “No doubt,” he says, “it is for our sakes this is written.”
Recommended Reading: Is The Holy Trinity In The Bible
The Importance Of A Literal Interpretation
Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. When most readers open a newspaper or book, they assume the author intends for them to understand what he is saying. They also instinctively assume that, to understand what the author is saying, they must use a literal, or normal, hermeneutic: They must interpret the text literally or naturally, unless the context indicates otherwise.
Interpreting the Bible is no different. The goal is to understand what the human author, as he was moved by the Holy Spirit, intended to say. We do so by using a literal hermeneutic , unless the context indicates otherwise.
Unfortunately, much of Scripture, especially the Old Testament, is interpreted by replacement theologians who use what is known as the allegorical method. It assumes there is a deeper, more spiritual or mystical, understanding of Scripture beyond the mere literal understanding and that this hidden understanding is found only by those who are able to search out its secrets.
This mindset is especially prevalent when it comes to prophecy. With the allegorical method, prophecy is not to be taken literally but, rather, figuratively and symbolically.
The allegorical method, however, leads to several major errors:
1. Jesus Comings. It is hermeneutically inconsistent. Replacement theologians interpret prophecies related to Jesus First Coming literally, but prophecies related to His Second Coming they interpret figuratively.