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Bible interpretation

Comparing three interpretive methods

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Interpretations of typical passages:

In a separate essay, we describe some of the methods that Christians use to interpret the Bible, including:

bulletUsing a literal interpretation: The events happened exactly as described.
bulletViewing the Bible as a historical document: The passages contain a great deal of mythical content:  magical occurrences which never happened. However the stories themselves are spiritually very significant.
bulletUsing Midrash. The events probably never happened. However, they demonstrate God's ancient presence with believers continues through history.
bulletViewing the Bible as folklore. 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 had developed.

Two examples are described below. The first three interpretation methods are used on the same biblical passage. They are intended to illustrate how devout, thoughtful, sincere, and intelligent Christians can use different analysis techniques and arrive at totally different understandings of the same verses:

Example 1: The parting of the waters:

bulletInterpreting the Bible literally: Moses, in Exodus 15:5-28; Joshua, in Joshua 3:14-17; Elijah in 2 Kings 2:7-8; and Elisha in 2 Kings 2:13-14 actually called upon God to part the waters. Each time, God responded by physically separating the water with, at least in the first three stories, dry land under foot. These were real, miraculous events which happened at a specific time and location. If we were there with a camera, we could have recorded the miracle. God temporarily suspended normal physical laws, such as gravity, and the ability of the sea/river bed to absorb water. The Bible is recording real miracles.
bulletInterpreting the Bible as a historical document: No miracles probably occurred in ancient times as the Bible describes. The stories may well have been mythical. That is, they contained important spiritual information, but described events that never actually happened. If the waters really did separate, the event must have been caused by natural forces. Perhaps a strong wind drove the Red/Reed Sea away from its normal shoreline. Perhaps a tidal wave generated by a volcano temporarily disturbed the water. 1 Perhaps an earthquake dammed up the Jordan river and stopped its flow for a few hours. 2 (The latter phenomenon has been observed six times at that location between 1160 and 1927 CE).
bulletInterpreting the Bible using Midrash: Whether these events happened or not was not important. The stories showed how God continued to work through various heroes and prophets, and how subsequent water separation events were linked to the first event at the Red/Reed sea.

Example 2: The births of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ:

bulletInterpreting the Bible literally:

In the King James Version of the Bible:
bulletMatthew 1:23 states: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son..."
bulletLuke 1:27 to 35 states: "To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary....And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS....The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

John's conception happened precisely as described in Luke 1:3-25. A priest named Zechariah and wife Elizabeth had no children; Elizabeth was infertile and both were old. The angel Gabriel told the priest that his wife would conceive and bear a son who would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (NIV) She did become pregnant and their son was given the name of John. Both Luke and Matthew described how the Holy Spirit came upon the virgin Mary and made her pregnant. The unique conception of John the Baptist and the miraculous conception of Jesus occurred exactly as described in the gospels.

If this belief had appeared in only one place in the Gospels, one might speculate that an error had been made by a copyist, and that the virgin conception reference was not in the original author's copy. The two references vastly reduce that possibility. Mary must have been a virgin when Jesus was conceived.

Disbelief in the virgin birth has been referred to by many early Christian writers as:
bullet"madness and blasphemy" by Gennadius,
bullet"madness" by Origen
bullet"sacrilege" by St. Ambrose, 
bullet"impiety and smacking of atheism" by Philostorgius,
bullet"perfidy" by St. Bede,
bullet"full of blasphemies" by the author of Pr©destin,
bullet"perfidy of the Jews" by Pope Siricius,
bullet"heresy" by St. Augustine. 2

bulletInterpreting the Bible as a historical document: John's conception might have happened when his parents were older than normal. The author of Luke may have exaggerated the age of John's parents to make the conception appear miraculous.

The virgin conception of Jesus did not happen as described in Luke and Matthew. References to Jesus' birth in Paul's epistles and the Gospel of John appear to describe a purely normal Jesus had a human father and a mother, and was conceived in the usual manner. Christianity had to compete with many other religions in the Mediterranean area, almost all of whom had a miraculous birth story associated with their founder, who was viewed as a savior of humanity and a god-man/hero. A miraculous conception was created by the early Christian movement in order to emphasize the importance of Jesus, and to place Christianity on a par with other faiths. Paul had no knowledge of it because the myth had not been created before he died. The author(s) of the Gospel of John certainly would have known about the myth, but rejected it in his writings.
bulletInterpreting the Bible using midrash: The Hebrew Scriptures describe four unusual births similar to John the Baptist in the Christian Scriptures: Ishmael, Isaac, Samson and Samuel. Usually, prior to the birth, an angel appears to an individual; the latter is afraid; the message of an upcoming birth is given; objections are raised; a sign is given; and the birth is considered unusual because he mother was either old or infertile. John's conception is thus tied to repeating stories of unusual births during the history of the Jews, in the midrash tradition. But his conception was doubly unusual because his mother was both old and infertile. This use of midrash points out that John was even more important than any of the four Old Testament figures. By having Jesus conceived by a virgin, the significance of his conception is raised above that of John to the status of a true miracle. This use of midrash implies that Jesus was much more important than either John or the Old Testament figures.

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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 Amazon.com 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: http://www.newadvent.org/

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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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