How to Interpret the Bible 101
Alright, this post is an extension from the comments found in a previous post. I feel that the comments were the start of a very good discussion buried under a post that was unrelated, and I thought that it would be good for everyone to benefit from them. Feel free to go back and read the original comments if you like.
A good friend of mine from college, Phillip Stokes, challenged my method of interpretation in that he felt that the original intent of an author can never be known, nor can we ever truly know what the original readers/hearers would have taken from the text. Instead, he argues, we need to focus on the history of interpretation; we can know how the text has been understood throughout the ages by various interpreters.
An excellent example of Phillip’s view is illustrated in the following video. N.T. Wright takes the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden and tries to read it in a way that Jews living in the century before Christ would have understood it (this video might also be of interest to the commenters of the historicity and Adam and Eve posts).
(Thanks to the Pangea Blog for posting this video to twitter this morning)
Now, my immediate reaction to this type of reading of Genesis is to use it as an argument that the final redaction (at least) of the book obviously took place after the exile, because it is simply too much of a coincidence that the author would not have intended the audience to read exile in the Adam and Eve story.
Now, Phillip asserted that, although we have plenty of material from the ancient world, our ability to understand the material is in question. This is because, as we discover more and more from the ancient world, our viewpoint is constantly changing. Our understanding of the text depends on our understanding of the ancient world. To this point, I agree completely.
To say that we cannot know anything, however, is to throw the baby out with the bath water. It is like saying that if we might ever be proven wrong, then to come up with a hypothesis is futile. If we followed this thought process we would have no scientific method whatsoever!
Finally, I want to address the issue of whether or not a text can have meaning outside of its original context. My answer: yes and no.
A text can mean something different to me when I read it than it might to you when you read it. These meanings, however, tell us much less about the text than it does about you or me and our current situational contexts. If you read Augustine’s interpretation of the text, you learn more about Augustine than you do about the text!
The meaning that we can gain from a text in its canonical form (see my post on Brevard Childs’ view of Isaiah for a simple overview of canonical criticism) is most telling of the time in which the text was finally redacted. Tearing apart the text (via source criticism and other such devices) to find the original sources is fun, but it can be fruitless if taken to an extreme.
Finally, I agree with Phillip that we can never be completely impartial when we come to a text. We can still try to be as impartial as possible, but he is right; our entire understanding of the text and the ANE as a whole is based upon partial and biased reconstructions.
I would invite all of you who might be reading this to comment with your thoughts on the matter! How do we interpret a text?