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Bible interpretation

A brief history of 4 methods

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History of four interpretive methods - literally the Word of God, as a historical document, as midrash, and as folklore:

bullet Literal interpretation: Until the 15th century CE, essentially all Christians analyzed much of the Bible literally. They believed that the Bible was inerrant. Its authors were inspired by God. Events happened exactly as described in its text. After the 15th century, developments outside of religion started to make these beliefs more difficult to maintain:
bullet The astronomical findings of Kepler and Galileo in the 16th century were the first to seriously threaten this belief system. Cosmology, as described in the Bible was found to be in error. The idea that stars traveled on the underside of a metal dome -- the firmament -- that separated earth from Heaven was found to be in error.
bullet Further religious strains occurred in the early 18th century when it became obvious to most scientists that the earth's geological processes were exceedingly slow, and must have been accomplished over incredibly long periods of time. Bishop Ussher had predicted that the world was created in 4004 BCE. This left inadequate time for mountain ranges to erode and others to build up.
bullet Benjamin Franklin proved in the 18th century that lightning is a natural electrical phenomenon, and not thunderbolts hurled by Satanic powers.
bullet In the 19th century, Christians in large numbers started to abandon the institution of human slavery, rejecting the concept of one person owning another person as profoundly immoral. Passages throughout the Bible had justified, condoned, controlled, and accepted slavery. People began to wonder how the Bible could accept and regulate a practice which was so immoral, and to do it without criticism.

The result of such scientific and social stressors caused some Christian denominations to question the inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible. They gradually abandoned certain beliefs, and generated a major split in Christianity between Modernism and Fundamentalist. The split continues today. Fundamentalist and some other conservative Christians still interpret much of the Bible literally. One example is the battle between supporters of creation science and evolution.

bullet Interpreting the Bible as a historical document: Considering the Bible as a historical document can be traced back to the start of "biblical criticism" in Germany. Theologians used all of the findings of the social and natural sciences to examine the Bible and other contemporary religious writings. They rejected the miracle stories in the Bible and sought natural explanations. In 1835, David Strauss' book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) triggered a quest for the historical Jesus -- a search to reconstruct an accurate image of Jesus as he existed at the first part of the 1st century CE. Sacred texts of the Christian Gnostics and other early Christian groups which did not make it into the official canon of the Christian Scriptures are studied. Sections of the Bible, such as those dealing with slavery and the suppression of women were rejected as representing a less enlightened social order and the sexism of biblical writers. The findings of these modernist religious academics were radical. Many lost their jobs because they openly expressed their ideas. However, their findings did not necessarily filter down to the person in the pew. Many clergy hold beliefs about the nature of the Bible which they would feel uncomfortable sharing with their congregations.
bullet Midrash Interpretation: The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures appear to have employed Midrash extensively. This tradition seems to have been continued by the writers of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). This would be reasonable to expect, since all but one of the New Testament authors were of Jewish background and midrash would form a major part of their religious culture. (The author of Gospel of Luke and of Acts may have been a Gentile; he apparently knew little about Jewish customs).

Near the end of the first century CE, friction between the early Christians and mainline Judaism mounted. At the same time, Paul and his followers were evangelizing the Gentiles (non-Jews). The result was that the Christian movements became predominately non-Jewish and eventually anti-Jewish. Being ignorant of the Midrash tradition and antagonistic towards the Jews, the early Christians began to interpret the Christian Scriptures literally.

Christian theologian Michael Goulder pioneered the Midrash interpretation of the Gospels in the mid-1970's. 3,4 Bishop Spong widely introduced Midrash to the public. 5

bullet Folklore interpretation: Ancient stories were circulated for decades or centuries via an oral tradition before being fixed in written form. Some were legends and myths; others were accounts of real events. Various groups within a religion or culture passed on different versions of the story. By the time that multiple versions of the same story were written down, many discrepancies -- mostly minor -- had developed.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today

  1. Charles Pellegrino, "Return to Sodom and Gomorrah: Bible stories from Archeologists", Random House, (1994), Page 235-237. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Ibid., Page 264.
  3. Michael Goulder, "Midrash and Lection in Matthew", SPCK, London, UK (1974)
  4. Michael Goulder, "Luke, A New Paradigm", Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield UK, (1989). Review/order this book
  5. John Shelby Spong, "Liberating the Gospels : Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes," HarperSanFrancisco, (1997). Review/order this book
  6. "The Virgin Birth in Catholic Theology," New Advent, at:

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Copyright ? 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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