We started the ER Bible Study two weeks ago: End Times and Revelation. The first two weeks have been focused on issues of interpreting (in general, but specifically the Bible). I have used a simple outline of items that Dr. James Voelz uses for teaching the topic.
Challenges of Interpreting
A. What are the Scriptures and what is the nature of this text?
How do we approach the Scriptures?
- Do we see the Scriptures as the words of humans? What are the implications of such an approach?
A follow on question is: Are the Scriptures the record of the developing religious consciousness of humanity of their sense of the divine? The answer will affect how we approach the Bible, and how we explain the relationship between the parts.
- Are they the words of God, but contextualized? That is, how does God maintain being the author of Scripture and still we find differences in style?
- Or are the Scriptures the words of God, but specialized not contextualized?
- Are the Scriptures truths dropped out of the sky? Does that mean that they are coded messages? That is, is every fifth letter taken to be significant? And it is the combination of those letters that reveal something (like an oracle)? Do they contain hidden messages? In each case, they are the words of God, but are not seen as literature.
- Or do we see the Scriptures as the words of God but also the words humans? In this case, we treat the Scriptures as any other writing, that is, as literature. So whatever they are, they are fully the words of God, but are never less than the words of humans, I.e. literature. This means that we can study the Scriptures using the tools that are useful for studying any literature. We can examine the genre, form, purpose, etc.
B. What will we interpret? What is the text?
This sounds odd at first, but it is necessary for us to be clear about what we are actually studying. We do not have any original writings of the the New Testament (or the Old Testament, for that matter). We have handwritten copies (called manuscripts) of copies of copies of the originals. And no two manuscripts are identical.
When we come to a text to study, we have to see what the manuscript differences are. If there are differences in the available original language manuscripts, we have to see how that affects how to interpret and understand the text. Consider Mark 16 (specifically vv. 9-20) which in the manuscripts shows three different endings. Two of the oldest manuscripts end at v. 8. But that leaves an unsatisfactory, not to mention unusual ending for the Gospel.
So they went out and started running from the tomb, because trembling and astonishment overwhelmed them. And they said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid.
And in the Greek, it is even more startling because it ends with the word ga¿r, unknown elsewhere in the New Testament (and other era readings). And then it ends with dramatic statement: “the disciples were afraid.”
So, we find two alternate endings for this text. The longer ending includes vv. 9-20 (as included the KJV/NKJV, and offset in other translations). And the shorter ending has two verses to “complete” the Gospel. Many scholars note the difference of style in these verses from the rest of Mark’s Gospel. Also, 42 new terms are used in these 12 verses that are not used elsewhere in Mark. And three depending on whether you consider it part of the text will determine how you will interpret the texts (16:15-16, and then 17-18).
Here we find manuscript differences with three words. While might seem small, they have significant influence on the text and even doctrinal understanding.
NKJV: “But of that day and hour [the end] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.
NAS: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
In this case, if the phrase is included, then that affects how we understand Christology (specifically the two natures of Christ: divine and human). The question arises: How can the Son not know, if he is true God? And it affects our understanding of the trinity.
C. What meanings do the words have?
We actually have two problems here. The original language texts of the New Testament are in Greek. So we have to deal with the meanings of words in those languages, at the time they were written. But now as people living in the 21st century we also have to deal with the text in English, and what they mean.
There are two extremes in regard to the necessity of knowing Greek to understand the text. One states that we must read the text in the original language. The other states that there is no reason to ever read the Greek, translation is sufficient. The reality is between those extremes. That is, to read in the English allows the reader to gain the sense of the text and the main content. But reading the Greek provides greater precision and understanding to complement. As Dr. Voelz notes, the difference is between watching a sports event on black and white TV vs. going to the game. The game and its overall movement are the same, but greater insight comes from seeing it live. That’s what Greek provides for the text of Scripture.
Examples of understanding the text and meaning:
John 3:16 How do we interpret/understand “so” [Greek: ou¢twß] (so much? or in this way?)
NAS: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
HCSB: “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
1 John 1:9 Compare whether there are two characteristics of God or more:
NIV (two things, then also forgive)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
NKJV: ινα: purpose or result [less likely]
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The Greek word is ινα. Perhaps it is best to translate as “God’s faithfulness and justice/righteousness consists in forgiving sins”
D. How do words relate? Syntax
Matthew 27:53 . How do we understand the relationship between “coming out of the tombs”? Does it connect with the crucifixion? Or does it connect with the resurrection? What difference will that make in understanding, teaching, and preaching the text?
E. How do meanings relate to one another
1 Cor. 8:10 what is weak? Does the weakness refer to the person or conscience?
“If his conscience is weak” ESV
“Conscience of him who is weak” NKJV, weakness is not related to conscience but the person
Do we translate and understand it as “If he is weak,” or “because he is weak”? Note that using the dictionary doesn’t help the reader to understand the text.
F. Complex issues (Blanks in the text)
In these cases, the writer and original readers have some knowledge that allows them to understand gaps in the text. But for those of us removed from the original text by 20+ centuries, we have trouble filling the gaps. Perhaps the best example of this is 2 Thes. 2:7
τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας·
μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται.
For the mystery of lawlessness is already working;
only the holding one right now until it/he comes to be out of the midst
We will explore more of the text and syntax in the next session.