Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Interpreting the Bible

Throughout the history of the Church there has been an ongoing struggle to assert and establish the "true" meaning of the Bible for Christians as they try to live out their lives. The struggle continues to this day - much to the dismay of some and the perplexity of others.

Those who are dismayed find the huge variety of approaches disconcerting. How, they ask, is it possible for Christians to come to such differing conclusions about the Bible such as are displayed by fundamentalists on one hand, and modern liberal critics on the other? So different are their approaches that conflict between them seems inevitable - an uncomfortable situation for those who think that Christians should agree about the essentials of their Faith.

The perplexed tend to be onlookers - those for whom traditional Christian teachings don't ring true and who therefore would not claim to be people of faith at all. Perhaps just because they are outsiders, they find the idea that God speaks to us through holy writings quite preposterous. The Bible, they say, obviously consists of writings of people who were reflecting on their lives. It is therefore in reality "... a range of human responses to God, not the word of God direct" [1]. They may correctly point out that most Christians, when asked what their authority is for holding up the Bible as "the Word of God", usually quote the Bible - obviously circular reasoning and therefore logically invalid [2].

The technical term for the act of interpreting Bible texts is exegesis. It derives from the Greek word meaning to expound, to bring out the meaning of a writing. Exegesis is a universal technique, used daily by every one of us - though the process is usually beyond our immediate consciousness. We use exegesis whenever we explain the meaning of what someone said, for example. The boss exclaims, in the context of wage negotiations with union members, "This river will one day run dry." It may take other employees to help the union understand that the manager is asserting that there may one day be no money with which to meet their wage demands.

This may seem a humdrum example; but it nevertheless involves exactly the type of interpretation with which a preacher seeks to help a congregation understand the meaning behind, say, the New Testament account of Jesus feeding five thousand people, or Paul's thoughts on kosher food. Literary critics who expound the meaning and significance of a novel are doing exegesis. So also is the commentator who expounds patterns of meaning in the confusing double-speak of politicians.

Exegesis in the Church has evolved gradually since its earliest days. Strangely enough, its roots lie in the Jewish Bible (the so-called Old Testament) and in the struggles of early Christians to make sense of the death of Jesus. The asked how it could be that this holy man, called to preach and live out God's loving acceptance of all, could have been brought to such an ignominious end? The person who meant so much to them seemed to others no better than a common criminal of the worst sort.

Both the Roman and Jewish cultures of the time regarded ultimate authority as deriving from the past. When a question of law or ritual came up in Rome, it was to ancient sources that the city turned for a resolution [3]. Jews consulted their own source book, broadly known as the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). This was generally thought of as a synthesis of God's revelation, the definitive guide to an individual's conduct towards other people and the Divine [4]. An enormous body of interpretive exegesis by Jewish scholars and sages has grown up around the Torah.

But early Christians had no such source of authority. How then were they to convince others of the truth of their claims? It is likely that the first Christians thought of themselves as Jews; and that their fellow Jews no doubt regarded them as peculiar if not heretical. But, as the teaching of Paul of Tarsus shows, the Torah as such could no longer be a valid source of authority because Jesus had ushered in a new "covenant" or contract with humanity, one in which law was no longer the measure.

So Christians, Paul among them, turned to the entirety of the Jewish scriptures as the ultimate source of authority for their teachings. In particular they focused on a section which they thought related directly to the person of Jesus - the book of the prophet Isaiah. The New Testament is crammed with references to Jesus using images from Isaiah to explain and confirm the meaning and significance of his life [5]. Those images have become part of Christian tradition and indeed, through the Church, of the cultural landscape of the West. So, for example, Handel's Messiah comprises themes and images from Isaiah and is still sung in many places every year even though those who listen to it tend to be ever more secularised.

But for our purposes here the main thing to note is that Christian exegetes made the fundamental assumption that what had been written long before the time of Jesus was prophetic. That is, that the "real" meaning of the text lay not in any particular references to the time it was written, but in a figurative or spiritual meaning which only Christians could see and properly understand. 

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah, for example, was obviously Jesus (cf Isaiah 49.6). The Prophet had equally obviously been enabled by God to see through the veils of time and thus speak directly to any and all in later times who had eyes to see and ears to hear. God had spoken through Isaiah to those who came after, the inheritors of true insights into God's ways and purposes. The author of Luke's Gospel establishes the principle:

God's prophets in days gone by said that the
Chosen One would be badly treated. So it all 
went according to expectations ...

In Romans 15.12 Paul refers specifically to Isaiah, one of many such references which litter the New Testament:

... and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come
with worldwide authority, bringing hope to everyone."

Some moderns tend to sneer at this approach to "the truth", regarding it as typical of religious lack of reason and sophistication. They fail to understand that an allegorical rather than literal method of interpreting texts ruled supreme from early Greek times until well into the 16th century and later - just as it remains normal in some cultures to this day. It is not merely a witless aberration used by gullible Christians, but a time-honoured method of making sense of the world.

Christians were, in other words, doing nothing new when they read into Isaiah meanings for the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Taking into account the entire width and breadth of human history, it is the modern analytical, reasoned approach to exegesis which is unusual - not the figurative, allegorical and intuitive.

Be that as it may, by the third century the Christian scholar Origen (c.185-c.284) had already worked out what he regarded as the basics of all good exegesis. It's worth quoting Augustine of Hippo (354-430) on the subject as he strove to convince his Roman contemporaries that the Bible met all the standards of fine writing:

... we must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of teaching can be set down as figurative [6]

The writings of Christianity were therefore to be regarded as multi-layered or multi-dimensional. They were like this, thought Augustine, because humanity through the Fall had become unable to understand God when he spoke directly to them. So the Divine message had to be put over through stories and images.

By the twelfth century Christian scholars had worked out a more complex approach:

  1. The allegorical sense of a Bible text remained the most obvious. For example, Christ is called the "Lion of Judah" because he has those attributes we give to a lion. Indeed, some thought that God created lions to give us just that insight.

  2. The Old Testament prefigured the New Testament, just as the Bible itself could be taken as explaining (in a spiritual sense) the real meaning of events as history moved on. So, for example, the Great Plague of London in 1665 could be explained as God punishing the city for its moral excesses.

  3. The text of the Bible could validly be turned or bent to reveal the moral lessons it contained, lessons which were not otherwise easily accessible to sinners.

  4. The literal sense remained, of course. It is from this aspect of the Bible that we learn what actually happened in history. For example, many thought that a careful analysis of the opening section of the Book of Genesis tells us how and when the world was made. (Bishop James Ussher in the 17th century worked out that the time and date of the Creation was the night preceding Sunday, 23 October, 4004 BCE.)

It was in the 16th century that a radical change became apparent in the way people in the West were thinking about the "real" meaning of the Bible. Roughly speaking, it came about in two main phases:

  1. The fist phase came with the Reformation in the 16th century and onwards. The process is complex, but it can be summed up by saying that interpretation shifted into explanation. That is, instead of working out the meaning of the "then" for the "now", Reformers sought to elucidate the original meaning of the texts to those who wrote them. It was this meaning, and this meaning only, upon which Christians now were to base their teachings.

    Unfortunately, analysis of Bible texts was soon sidetracked as both Protestants and Catholics abandoned their theological task and merely sought to justify their entrenched doctrinal positions.

  2. A small reservoir of scholars continued examining Bible texts from the relative safety of the universities, which were growing as a consequence of the Europe-wide movement we now call the Enlightenment. They sought to understand the Bible in a rational way, as literature and independently of the doctrinal shackles of the churches. As this approach moved on into what we now call biblical criticism, it can be described as an increasingly scientific attempt to understand the Bible in its original context.

The impact of the critical approach on "what the Bible really says" has been nothing less than revolutionary. Exegesis is now - at least in some churches - impossible if not invalid if the exegete is unfamiliar with the literary and historical cultures within which the entire Bible originated. In addition, the competent exegete should also be aware of the particular context of an individual text. It is, strictly speaking, no longer valid to extract a text from its context and proceed to build a castle of meaning upon it (which is not to say that this doesn't frequently happen).

In other words, a considerable degree of textual criticism is now a necessary precondition to exegesis itself.

It's fair to say that in the past 300 years or so, every jot and tittle of the Bible has been critically examined. While new fashions of exegesis emerge from time-to-time, it's not far-fetched to say that not much more is likely to be wrung from analysis of the texts we now have. It might happen that some new text is discovered which gives us new data to work with. However, given the degree to which the Middle East has now been ransacked, and the considerable financial value of ancient documents, this appears somewhat unlikely.

How then has the nature of exegesis changed in the recent past [7]? The following points may help summarise the situation, while a very brief and simplistic exegesis of an important text from the New Testament may help clarify the changes.

  1. The use of allegory has long since been abandoned by the vast majority of theologically educated people, and by most preachers - except perhaps in the further reaches of Christianity. It is only fair to point out, however, that allegory may often creep in unnoticed, as in the common (and also biblical) interpretation of the Parable of the Sower.

  2. The development of a spiritual sense of a text remains normative. That is, an ordinary literal sense of a text can be elaborated in terms of the inner orientation of a Christian which is in turn seen as edifying a person's faith.

  3. Equally common today is the use of a text to build up notions of right action (morals) and effective methods of arriving at right actions (ethics). A good example is the more and more frequent use since the 1970s of Bible texts to bolster right action in relation to global warming and climate change.

  4. Never far from the average exegete's consciousness is the use of texts to clarify and affirm traditional or official doctrine. Doctrinal pronouncements from the Vatican are typical of this emphasis.

  5. Less common, and apparently more difficult to handle, is the use of texts to establish what is, or is not, historical. This type of exegesis is particularly pointed when it relates to the person of Jesus. A great deal of traditional teaching about Jesus collapses when it is confined to what we know historically about him [8].

This final point may be illustrated by a text widely known to Christians, and generally regarded as highly significant in assessing the meaning of the life and sayings of Jesus. It is that found in John's Gospel:

Jesus answered [Pilate], "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here (18.36).

An exegesis of this text might consist of the following sort of point:

  • Just as he indicated when commenting on paying taxes to the Romans (Matthew 22.21) Jesus is reaffirming - this time at an ultimate point in his life - that he will not enter and take part in any struggle for temporal power. Therefore Christianity, while it may get entangled with politics from time-to-time, is essentially about the salvation of the individual soul.

  • Christians have a civic duty to be obedient (as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians) to our worldly masters. But ultimately their obedience operates at a spiritual level in the sense that Christians constantly seek to obediently respond to the redeeming love of God.

  • It is clear from these words of Jesus that Christians are not to resort to violence in order to achieve worldly ambitions. Indeed, it may be (though this can't be certain) that all Christians should at least consider adopting total non-violence as an essential part of their lifestyle.

  • Having said this, it's relevant to note that some Christians maintain that Jesus was essentially a political revolutionary and can quote texts to support their position. If they are right, then we should all be prepared to take up arms, given the right circumstances, and kill oppressors in order to achieve justice and freedom.

There must be an enormous number of variations to the above few possibilities. But they are all in a sense stymied if an exegesis of the text establishes from the beginning that Jesus in unlikely ever to have uttered these words. This is in fact the conclusion of a great majority of scholars. It is based on a considerable constellation of factors which revolve around (a) the comparison of John's Gospel with the other three gospels; (b) an analysis of the original Greek text in the light of what we know about oral transmission of sayings; (c) the very late date of the gospel; and (d) the high probability that the author of the Gospel was primarily concerned with communicating theology rather than history in the sense that we know it today.

In short, exegesis in Christianity has its roots deep in classical Greek and Hebrew cultures. In recent times it has been radically impacted by the advent and development of the reasoned, scientific analysis of the Bible in the same way that any other document can be analysed. This does not mean, however, that traditional exegesis has disappeared - but only that many Christian exegetes, no matter how well theologically educated, pursue exegesis as though the historical criticism of the Bible has not happened.
[1] See Anthony Freeman on The Bible
[2] See The Sins of Scripture, John Shelby Spong, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
[3] The Ancient City, Numa De Coulanges, Dover Publications, 2006
[4] The Torah by B Grossfeld in Dictionary of New Testament Background
      IVP, 2000
[5] For a detailed treatment of this see The Fifth Gospel, J Sawyer, CUP, 1996
[6] Quoted by R Collins in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM, 1983
[7] Exegesis is usually differentiated from hermeneutics, which is strictly
     speaking the theory of the interpretation of texts. But the difference is not
     always clear, except to say that from the time of Origen exegesis has been
     thought of as the praxis or "doing" of interpretation. That is, theory is
     supposed to produce the right kind of praxis or method of doing exegesis.
[8] This doesn't cancel out the primary aspect which underpins all exegesis from
      the earliest times - namely the notion that the meaning of Bible texts is
      multi-dimensional. There is no intrinsic reason why a historical "fact" about
     Jesus - that is, one which meets standards set by professional
     historians - should not be interpreted in just the same way as any other text.

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