→ 1. 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[ref]See “Colored Lens“ See below for a discussion of presuppositions.[/ref] 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 millenniums. 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.[ref]Technically, this process is called eisegesis.[/ref] 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.[ref]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.[/ref]
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.[ref]Winn Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure (GEA) (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2007), 16[/ref] 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.[ref]Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 74.[/ref] [Scripture] is ordered more like a library than a story.[/su_pullquote]
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.[ref]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.”[/ref]
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,”[ref]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.[/ref] 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.[/su_pullquote]
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.[ref] 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.[/ref] 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.
There is a variety of literature in which the writers of Scripture made their presentations. Many readers are simply unaware of the kind of literature they are reading as they read. Our inadequacies in this area make readers prone to make God say something he never said. Our Western influence causes us to read with a literalness with which the ancients to whom the texts were written would have never understood.
There are several main types of literature in our sacred text: narrative, covenant-law, poetry, prophecy, wisdom, gospels, parables, apologetic history, letters, and apocalypse. In addition, Scripture has many other figures of speech that the authors used to help their first listeners and readers understand their message. They used similes, metaphors, apostrophes, personification, hyperbole, metonymy, synecdoche, riddles to name a few. In addition to major literature and other literary types, there are intertextual allusions[ref]Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure, 37. These are allusions found in the New Testament that draw attention to stories found in the Old Testament. As an example, the resurrected Jesus in the garden is an allusion for the first hearers and readers to think about the first garden story in Genesis.[/ref] of which the present reader needs to be aware. As we learn to recognize these types of literature, we will surely read the text differently.What if we learned to honor God by taking time to understand the ways in which he sent his word to us?[/su_pullquote]
When we go to a fiction, history, or poetry section in our local library to look for a book to read, we know what kind of literature is on those shelves. We have been taught that we don’t read poetry the same way that we read a narrative, or history the same way we read fiction. If readers are aware that they are reading a mystery novel, they will read it differently than if they were reading a section of poetry. One wonders why we don’t apply this same common sense approach to reading Scripture.
If we recognize literary reading to be true of books we purchase from Amazon in print or Kindle form or check a book out from the local library to read, then we should recognize them in Scripture as well. What if we learned to honor God by taking time to understand the ways in which he sent his word to us? With the understanding of what kind of literature we are reading, we read with literary freedom. But, if we are not informed about the kind of literature we are reading in Scripture, we will keep reading Scripture in a straight jacket of monotonic lateralization. Remember, a piece of poetry (think Psalms and large sections of the Prophets) is no less true than any other type of literature. I think that our fear is that if we allow ourselves to read with this freedom, we will somehow become liberal in our understanding of the text when actually the opposite is true.
The ending section of the book of Revelation may have caused untold fear at this point to generations of Scripture readers. John writes:
We read in fear and trembling that we are changing the sacred text,…[/su_pullquote]
If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Rev 22.18-19, NIV).
We read this at the end of our Bible and suppose that it is referring to the whole Bible when it really applies only to the book of Revelation. We read in fear and trembling that we are changing the sacred text when in fact the literalness that we read with is changing the text.
Every reading journey starts somewhere. In the reading journey, our presuppositions[ref]A presupposition is to suppose or assume beforehand; or to take for granted in advance.[/ref] are our starting points. They are our colored lens. Our starting point will always determine our ending point. As an example, If we were to take a ride from the beginning of I-5[ref]For readers outside the United States, the “I” means Interstate. These are special marked roads that run north and south in the US designated with odd or even numbers, i.e., I-5, I-15, etc., and east and west with numbers like I-10, I-40, etc.[/ref] at the Canadian border at Blaine, WA, and travel south to its ends just below Chula Vista, CA, at the Mexican border, we can only go through towns and cities that I-5 goes through. Other cities cannot be reached while on I-5. Let’s say we were in Portland, OR, and wanted to drive to Reno, NV. We can’t make that journey on I-5, because I-5 doesn’t go through Reno. In short, we can’t get anywhere on that highway except where it takes us. Our beginning point really does determine our ending point. In Bible reading, a presupposition is the root belief(s) we hold from which, as we read, all our other thoughts and beliefs flow.
Let’s think about this in terms of the topic “end times.” If we believe that the church will be raptured before a tribulation, that would be our beginning point, our presupposition. As we read Scripture, we discover all kinds of verses that support our presupposition. Such is the presupposition of the Left Behind series of books. Presuppositions are also at play in our present topic of women in ministry. If we believe that Genesis teaches male hierarchy in creation, then we collect all other material in our Bible reading to support that presupposition. If, on the other hand, we read Genesis as not teaching male hierarchy in creation but equality, and we follow the storyline through the fall to the new creation in Christ, then we collect material that supports that point of view. There’s nothing magical about this process. Our starting point determines our ending point.
Here’s another example: when we read Arabic numbers like 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 in our sacred text, we assume that we are reading quantity, i.e., there are seven plates on the dinner table. However, what if we are reading those numbers in terms of quality, i.e., “there are seven plates on the dinner table” could be understood as “there is one perfect plate on the dinner table.” For the ancient reader, this latter reading would be a more normal reading.…the version of the sacred text we choose to read causes us to wear colored shades and see things differently.[/su_pullquote]
Finally, the version of the sacred text we choose to read causes us to wear colored shades and see things differently. Translators make interpretative decisions, which then affect the way in which we read. As an example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7.1: “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” In early translations, there were no quote marks around “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This caused readers to think that this statement was a “Paul saying” rather than a “Corinthians saying,” which Paul was quoting and then refuting that saying in the following text. You can take a look at my Kindle eBook Veilless in Corinth to see an example of how this literary reading works.[ref]Winn Griffin, Veilless in Corinth: An Interpretative Read of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 [a Kingdom Praxis Solo], Basileia Publishing: An Imprint of Harmon Press. http://amzn.to/10KHD4d (accessed January 23, 2012).[/ref]
We need to be intentional to discover what our presuppositions are. Being aware of our presuppositions is the first step in changing them, which will surely change our reading and interpreting of the sacred text for the better. To accomplish this goal, it might be well if we were exposed to the different approaches to reading to help us discover how we read. We start with the premise that God is a speaking God.