15 September 2012

Interpreting the Bible

Today I got asked "Is it possible to accurately channel the bible, given that there are so many different interpretations available? Genuine question, not flamebait." Thought I'd repost the reply here.

Sure, fair question. Assuming it isn't about translations or source of text. (But if it is, these are built on evidence-based processes using thousands of historical manuscripts, etc. Be suspicious of anyone says that only 'their' translation is correct). Different translations often serve different purpose (e.g. with varying tradeoffs between readability vs more literal translation of original text, which have less readable grammatical structures)

Facetiously, there are so many different interpretations because people try to interpret it, rather than just read it. Reading the Bible is a comprehension exercise, like reading the paper, and for the most part it's pretty clear what it says. Unclear parts often become clear once more context is read; or when historical customs/geography/sayings are uncovered (often in the footnotes). Some parts are just plain unclear, but these tend not to be about topics that catch the public eye. Given it's a book to be understood by all people in all times, I wonder if some parts just aren't meant for us now.

Unsurprising, not everyone who presents an 'interpretation' is doing so with honest intentions. Many try to use the Bible in the same way politicians use statistics: for support, rather than illumination. Reasons include:

  • to deceive others
  • to deceive themselves
  • to self promote by trying to value-add

Some ways that people arrive at the wrong meaning include:

  1. like most documents, it's pretty easy to make it say the exact opposite of what it clearly says by quoting out of context; and you see a fair bit of that.
  2. interpreting descriptive text as prescriptive text. (e.g. Abraham did this or that, but that doesn't mean that he was right to do it, let alone that we should do it).
  3. trying to apply Old Testament rules to modern times. The Bible is clear that most don't apply now, along with why they did then, but don't after Jesus.
  4. claiming it says something on a topic that it is silent on. (e.g. should children be baptised? some say yes, some say no, the Bible doesn't really say at all).
  5. try to interpret text that is clearly poetry, parable, dream or metaphore, as literal. With a bit of context it's usually pretty easy to tell which is which.

Watching someone put a clearly wrong interpretation with a clear agenda is about as frustrating as watching people get up and say that climate change isn't happening. :)

p.s. I can't remember where I heard some of these analogies, but felt should at least say they're not original.