We read the sacred text in a different context (geographically, historically, and culturally) from the one in which it was originally set. We are worlds apart.
Much of our time reading the Bible is spent in what could be called “individual devotional reading.” We have come to believe that what we understand in our devotional reading is what the text actually means. We have not been taught to look at the historical and cultural background into which these stories and accounts were first introduced. We have presuppositions 1 as we read. We think that our understanding of the text we are reading is in fact the same meaning that the author had as he wrote to his audience. While in fact, the context of the author and the context of the present reader are distant from each other by a minimum of a couple of millennium. Our presupposition then causes us to read with a bias. What we ingest in this method of reading is often polluted. What God intended as “living water” becomes contaminated water.
Without realizing it, we often read our current culture back into the text without allowing the text to live in its own history. In reality, there is a vast ocean between the first author/listener/reader and today’s reader. 2 We read all kinds of things back into the text from our current timeframe that the divine and human author never intended. The result: we make God say things he did not say. This especially occurs in reading prophecy. 3
It seems that during the 1500 year period in which the Bible was written that God delighted in telling his story through many different authors, about forty of them, and using many different media to communicate his message. All of these stories are expressed in the words of people from a different culture than ours. The contributing authors were kings, prophets, shepherds, philosophers, educated, and unlearned. 4 Through these vehicles, God chose to provide a story for everyone to live into. What those stories meant to those first folks is what they will mean to us today. 5
Over the years, the text that we have in our Bible has been arranged in a specific order. This arrangement often prevents us from reading and understanding it. It is ordered more like a library than a story. In addition, the insertion of chapters and verses may be the single largest factor of causing us to misread the text and widen the culvert between us and the writing of the text. 6
A present reader has to be intentional to bridge this gap. Recently, Hailee Steinfeld who played Mattie Ross in the 2010 remake of the classic Western “True Grit,” 7 shared in an interview how she not only had to learn the script for her part, but she also had to learn what the words of the script meant during the time frame the movie portrayed to give the proper nuance to the words as she presented them. Hence, she had to interpret. One could wonder if they are intentional to do this in movie making, shouldn’t we have the same intention when reading the sacred text?
As modern English readers, our propensity is to apply the common definitions of the English language words as they appear on the page. And if we are still reading the antiquated King James Version, we are reading English words that are 400 years old that are translations of the two primary languages of the original texts: Hebrew and Greek. The same is true if we are reading the newest New International Version. 8 So, unless we are reading the original languages, we must be honest with ourselves, we are already reading an interpretation. It’s called a translation. However, reading a translation alone does not bridge the “world apart” gap as you will read below.
- See “Colored Lens“ See below for a discussion of presuppositions. ↩
- Technically, this process is called eisegesis. ↩
- John McTernan, “Bible Prophecy and the Television,” www.defendproclaimthefaith.org/Bible_Prophecy_and_The_Television.htm (accessed January 26, 2011). For an example of this “reading back into the Bible,” see the above website about how one should understand Revelation 11.9 in light of the creation of TV. ↩
- Winn Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure (GEA) (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2007), 16 ↩
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 74. ↩
- Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure, 20. “The books of the Old and New Testaments were divided into chapters from an early time. The Pentateuch was divided by the ancient Hebrews into 54 sections, one of which was read in the synagogue every Sabbath day (Acts 13:15). These sections were later divided into 669 sections of unequal length. The Prophets were divided in the same manner into passages. In the early Latin and Greek versions of the Bible, similar divisions were made. The New Testament books were also divided into portions of various lengths under different names with titles and heads or chapters. In modern times, this ancient example was imitated, and many attempts of the kind were made before the existing division into chapters was fixed. The Latin Bible published by Cardinal Hugo of St. Cher in A.D. 1250 is generally regarded as the first Bible that was divided into our present chapters, although it appears that some of the chapters were fixed as early as A.D. 1059. This division into chapters came gradually to be adopted in the published editions of the Hebrew Bible, with some few variations, and in the Greek Scriptures. The division into verses came in A.D. 1551 when Robert Stephens introduced a Greek New Testament with the inclusion of verses. The first entire English Bible to have verse divisions was the Geneva Bible A.D. 1560.” ↩
- A bit of trivia. In the 1969 version, the character played by John Wayne had a patch on his left eye while in the 2010 version the same character played by Jeff Bridges wore his patch on his right eye. ↩
- The latest version in a long line of NIVs was released online in 2010 and will be released in print in 2011. Denny Berk, “The Release of the NIV” http://www.dennyburk.com/the-release-of-niv-2011/ (accessed December 27, 2010). The usual cry in controversies between translations is that the newer ones (like NIV) “leave out” something that the older one (usually KJV) has put in. The facility of this argument is that using an older English translation as the “authorized version” is the wrong place to start. A newer translation should be judged against the original languages not a distant translation of the original languages. ↩