|Interpreting the Bible
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" .
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
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 . 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 .
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 . 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
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
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
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 .
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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
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
? 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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.
 See Anthony Freeman on
 See The Sins of Scripture, John Shelby Spong,
 The Ancient City, Numa De Coulanges, Dover Publications, 2006
 The Torah by B Grossfeld in Dictionary of New Testament
 For a detailed treatment of this see The Fifth Gospel, J
Sawyer, CUP, 1996
 Quoted by R Collins in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology,
 Exegesis is usually differentiated from hermeneutics, which is
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.
 This doesn't cancel out the primary aspect which underpins all
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
historians - should not be interpreted in just
the same way as any other text.