Posted by: clavelle | February 16, 2009

What’s Your Interpretation??

How many of us get our firm foundation (that’s assuming we have a firm foundation!) for our morals from the rape scene of Sodom and Gomorrah, the attempted sacrifice of Abraham’s own son to a God who told him to do so, or the complete destruction, pillage, and murder of men, woman and children in the Battle of Jericho??  No one, right?  But the problem is that for many of us claim the Bible is what gives us our morals and is the supreme supplier of moral axiom and yet we have nothing to say for stories such as these.  We write them off as “symbolic” or “allegorical” without even the slightest of hesitation.  As Dawkins says, “We pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty” (The God Delusion, p. 275).

So what criterion do we use to decide which scripture stories to accept, promote, and even root our life in, and which stories to dismiss as crazy, products of the times or a symbolic adventure?  Dawkins argues that this is the dilemma that people who make these claims run into.  He states, “We must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits:  a criterion which, wherever it comes form, cannot come from the scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not” (The God Delusion, p. 275).  I don’t want to use this space to discuss how we come to our morals or what that independent criterion is.  What I want to highlight from this chapter is that we utilize and root our lives on scripture many times without giving it much thought and simply trashing the stuff that doesn’t fit with us.  We often are unable to give good reasons, whether through the historical critical method, literary method, or rational argument to discuss our position.  How do we interpret responsibly scriptural passages?  Can we hold different interpretations on fundamental Christian beliefs and still be in the same company?  The following I’d like to discuss and hopefully hear some responses.

Without getting into too much detail over the origin and development of the scriptures, what we have with the Bible is not a single book, written by a single author or even close group of authors, at a single point in history.  The Bible is a library:  Each book has its particular history, context, author, purpose, language, structure, etc.  Dawkins highlights that this library hasn’t and isn’t collecting dust on the shelf but has been handled and played with for centuries.  The Bible is “a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and “improved” by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” (The God Delusion, p. 268).  So how do we (if we even choose to and think it worth it) navigate through this very human and historical text and determine how it must be read.  One method is the historical critical method.

The historical critical method seeks to understand the history surrounding, influencing and being shaped by the text itself.  This method observes the political, religious, cultural, and linguistic realities at the time the text was authored.  It also engages in redaction and form criticism in which we study the form the piece of literature takes, it purpose, its redaction or the editing that has taken place in hopes of better understanding what the author originally intended.  This is key and a the value of the historical critical method:  To discover the intentionality of the text, rather than our own interpretation or spin.  However, is this the “best” way to interpret scripture?  Do we lose something when we exclusively treat scripture this way?  Does it substitute a faithful subject engaging the text in favor of a scientific and rational analyst?  My personal experience with the historical critical method has been incredibly positive.  I have received a greater awareness of the text themselves and find myself being much more responsible with how I use the text.  Certain knowledge has enriched my understanding of certain stories and sayings, and it gives me a more down to earth view of the scriptures.

I also engage the scriptures in a very personal, subjective and communal way.  I am part of a Christian Life Community (CLC) here on campus and we read scripture and interpret it according to our own life and the life of our communities.  For those who have a background in the historical critical method, the tools can come into use and lead us to an interpretation that speaks much more to where we are at when we are engaging all of our selves, our memories, our theology and our tools.  To those who don’t have a background, it’s just as good.  They interpret the scriptures by engaging with it, asking questions, letting the scriptures breath and speak to there lives.  This doesn’t mean that scripture is relative, that there is no real meaning.  It means that we believe in the ability of the scriptures to interact with the human person; we believe that the scriptures aren’t some “Do no touch” property that must safely  handled by rational scientists far removed from engagement, but that they are alive and come alive when they penetrate and interact with us.  My theology professor in El Salvador, Sister Peggy, said something which I have never forgotten and I think speaks to this type of interpretation and relationship with the Bible.  She said, “I have such faith in the scriptures that I play with them!”

However, Dawkins asks us a good question:  “By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which are literal?” (The God Delusion, p.280).  Obviously, the tools of the historical critical method helps us to understand which method of interpretation could be most appropriate.  For example, the story of Adam and Eve, in my opinion, should not be taken literally.  The Earth was not created in 6 days, the astronomy is inaccurate, the number 7 is the perfect number in Hebrew culture, the creation myth is rooted and borrows from many other creation myths around that time, such as the Babylonian creation myth of Enuma Elish.  The Hebrew culture created this myth to talk of there origins, there purpose, and there relationship with God.  The literal, which all of us in the Western culture take so seriously, is not what is important here.  The question is not if Adam and Eve existed or if the earth was created in 6 days.  The answer to both questions is a negative.  What matters is what this story tells us about God’s relationship to the world and our relationship to God, as well as the establishment of identity, origin and purpose.

Some stories, when engaged metaphorically or symbolically, enrich and deepen our understanding of the scripture and make them real and come alive in our time.  Ignatian contemplation utilizes our imagination, memory and context as a vehicle in which the scriptures speak to us.  Obviously, we must recognize the boundary’s, the some interpretations go just to far.  But the point is that we operate within a framework in which our imagination, memory, will, fears, smells, sights, sounds, and touches are all encouraged to embody the story, to make it live once again with us.

So then how do you interpret a story like the Virgin Birth or Mary?  Do you interpret is literally?  Must it be interpreted literally in order to be considered amongst Christian company?  What does virginity mean?  Do you think of purity and obedience?  Do you think of resistance and strength?  Do you think of “Yes!” to God’s will?  Do you also think of “No!” to that which seeks to compromise it?  Do you think of virginity solely in the sexual sense? Do you interpret it as the virginity of the soul?

Most importantly, does one interpretation have to be in order to be a Christian.  Does the Virigin Birth have to be interpreted literally and believed in order to be a Christian?  I look forward to hearing comments.  My opinion would be that it may not be so cut and dry, or it may for some be exactly that.



  1. Ryan,

    I enjoyed your great summary of Dawkins’ thoughts regarding the Bible and discussion of the historical critical method.

    To address your question of ethics and deciding which passages from the Bible are to be taken literally and which are to be taken figuratively, I really do not think there is a great answer. In my gospels course, we have been discussing this matter. I have come to the following conclusion. People have the power of reason and free will, both of which I see as gifts from God, but atheists may argue otherwise. The source of these abilities really is a secondary matter, but they still remain. We have the discretion to interpret what should be followed as vital to a Christian life and what is not in line with today’s morality. The later stories which we do not take as literal today, must have a deeper meaning behind the language of their day. In dealing with these passages we are required to seek a deeper meaning.

    On a related note, I was hoping that we would discuss the following in class, but the topic was never openly approached. I am of the opinion that people do not get their moral sense of right and wrong solely from sacred scriptures. Each person knows through reason and life experiences what a correct action is. I am not saying that scriptures do not have a place in guiding or forming our ethics, but I would claim that scriptures’ roles are secondary to that of reason.

    As far as the virgin birth, the issue is very tricky. The official Catholic teaching states that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Jesus was born. This must be a miracle, because this is biologically impossible. However, there is no explicit statement of this in the canonical gospels, but a description can be found in the gospel of James. Thus, the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity is tradition, not something taught infallibly or even contained in the gospels. I personally do not see the problem in questioning Mary’s perpetual virginity if one maintains faith that Jesus was truly the Son of God and son of Mary, human and divine. Even Matthew leaves the door open in regard to Mary’s virgin status after Jesus’ birth. “He had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to her son” (Mt 1:25). In short, to be a Christian I do not think it matters if one believes in Mary’s perpetual physical virginity if he or she believes Jesus was the Son of God. As you say, the teaching could just as easily be taken figuratively and be interpreted as relating to Mary’s purity of soul and obedience to God’s will.

  2. Maybe I misinterpreted Ryan’s message, but what I thought he was bringing up in his question of the Virgin Birth was whether one had to believe that Jesus was fatherless in order to be considered a Christian (If I’m wrong, everyone can just disregard the rest of this post). I think this point brings up the much larger question of what it means to be a Christian, and what a name like “Christian” can mean at all.

    Names, it seems to me, are very fickle and prone to interpretation. Dawkins, for example, could be considered a Christian on the basis that he respects Jesus’ moral teachings. On the other hand, I have a friend who believes strongly that Jesus was God, but doesn’t consider himself a Christian because he doesn’t feel like he fulfils the morality taught by Christianity. I mention these examples just to show that if you limit your definition of Christian to just a label, it can be applied to nearly anything.

    If, alternatively, you assign a real meaning to Christianity, I personally think the best definition would be a member of the Church (i.e. the community) which traces its heritage to Jesus’ ministry. In this traditional definition, the test of a Christian is traditionally held to be affirmation of the Nicene Creed as accepted by the community; and a part of the Creed is that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.

    I suppose you could make the case that the Biblical usage of ‘virgin’ is meant symbolically, but I don’t think it can be argued that the community as a whole thinks of it in that way. So, it would seem to me based on this line of reasoning, to see the Virgin Birth as symbolic rather than literal would set someone apart from the Christian community.

  3. I want to start out by saying I am not an advocate of literal interpretation of the Bible as a whole. However, in symbolically, metaphorically, and subjectively interpreting the Bible, we open up greater opportunity for misinterpretation. I think this is what Dawkins is getting at, and if that is the case I agree with him on some level. In the wrong hands, subjective interpretation of sacred text is a dangerous freedom. General acceptance of the idea that the Bible speaks to the individual in whatever way meets him or her best, paves the way for a multitude of problems in the name of Christianity, religion, or even God: suicide bombings are a prime example of such. I know that this is not what Christianity says about the Bible. However, then where do you draw the line? It becomes hard to say let the Bible speak to you here, here, here, and there because the passage is not to be taken literally just don’t let it say … It’s a pretty grey area. My understanding in my reading of Dawkins is that he is attacking this idea. And this is where I disagree with Dawkins’ criticism. My disagreement is in his thinking that there is not an objective truth achieved by scripture that can be translated in subjective ways, all which point to the one true meaning. I agree with Garrett’s statement that scripture’s role is coupled with that of reason in discerning morality. Scripture generally acts as a good example for morality. However, all Christians would agree that there are some morally reproachable actions in the Bible; a good example being the acceptance of slavery. This is when our historical critical interpretation becomes important. It allows us to say that the society of the time did not know better and today we do, so we must interpret this keeping in mind the society in which it was written. Though I do not disagree with this assessment, I do think it provides an opening for criticism. Dawkins has taken advantage of this opening. It is a valid question to ask, if this was once okay but now reason and society tell us it is immoral, then what else does the Bible approve on moral grounds that should not be acceptable? Dawkins does not believe in the power of Scripture and its ability to prove applicable today in spite of the differences in cultural contexts. Therefore I do not think his question is inappropriate. However, Christians put their faith in such a notion, which is why it is sensible to them to discount morally reproachable examples in the Bible and look at the greater message through metaphorical, and somewhat subjective interpretations which point to the greater intention of the message.

  4. This is such an interesting topic and one that has been on my mind a lot this semester with the three theology classes I am taking. I am also in Gospels with Garrett, and learning about the process of how we have arrived at the specific words in scripture today is chaotic at best. Verbal traditions passed down and written by (maybe) professional scribes and then re-written, and maybe confused, and re-written again, and then translated into hundreds of languages, does not seem to present a very reliable source of wisdom. Yet many would argue that the bible is divinely inspired, so all of the words that ended up there are what God was intending all along. This may be blasphemous of me or un-Christian, but does scripture lose its importance or practical application in shaping our lives and helping us to grow in our understanding of the divine if it is not actually “written by God” but rather acknowledged to be the inspired writing of very fallible humans who were passionate about their experience with Jesus? What if we recognize that the words in the bible can relate a very powerful experience of how different people throughout time have understood God, and what we too can learn from this experience in our own lives and own context? I think that still makes the bible a powerful theological tool, but also frees a Christian from limiting oneself to the ideas contained therein, especially the rigid and select ideas chosen to condemn others.

    I think one of the biggest problems I keep coming back to is, can the bible be used to support one’s person argument for faith, or God, or any other theological topic, given that there are enough variations of God and morality presented in the bible to support just about any position one wishes. With this plurality of interpretation, where is the accountability and can there be any object interpretation which is “right”? I think the historical critical method described by Ryan is one of the best tools for this kind of accountability. One first must have a proper understanding of what the text meant to the people who spoke it and read it, before there can be an application to us today. Yet even as I write that, I don’t necessarily agree because I know illiterate Salvadorans who can hear and interpret scripture and find meaning in their own particular life and context, without knowing maybe what that passage really meant 2000 years ago. So I don’t know where that leaves us, but I think as aspiring theologians and people of faith, the role of scripture in argumentation is an important topic to be discussed.

  5. I think that it’s important to note that we are discussing the interpretation of translations – I don’t think any of us are reading the original scriptures in their original Hebrew. That being said, I’m sure that there are things that have been lost in translation (for example, according to Dr. Asen, who does read Hebrew, in the prophetic reference to a virgin birth in Isaiah, the word was actually just maiden; it got misinterpreted when it was translated into Greek).

    Who knows what has been lost or what has been added in the centuries that these texts have been passed down and copied and recopied? The scriptures may have been divinely inspired, but I suspect that 2000+ years of human handling have perverted them a bit. Who knows what the original context of these writings was? Even with all of our archaeological evidence, etc. we cannot understand the Ancient Hebrew/Early Christian mindset any more than they would be able to understand ours.

    My point is that, with all of these concerns, how could we possibly be expected to take the scriptures literally?

    I’m not saying that the scriptures do not have value – of course they do. But I think their value lies in the stories that they tell us. They relay to us how these people related to and understood God. They remind us of our history, our roots. They don’t have to be taken literally to convey this meaning. They just have to inspire something within us, something that will not only bind us to the past, but that will also force us to ask what our experience with God has been, and how we will share it with the world.

    That being said, I wonder if there are other things that could be considered “scripture.” Why does the story just end? Isn’t God still active in our lives? The Hebrew Bible spans thousands of years and recalls so many encounters with God. The New Testament tells us the story of Jesus and the early church, but why should the story end in 100AD (or CE if you want to be fussy about it)? Has God stopped inspiring us? Have we come to terms with our experience of the divine? Have we lost our desire to share our stories? I think we all know what the answer is.

    So I’m wondering what you all think – did the story end with the closing of the canon? If it didn’t, what would we put in our New New Testament? And what would Dawkins do with this idea?

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