“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”

14 May

Back to 1 Timothy. Or maybe not just yet. Some further understanding of the communications process as a whole may help us to assimilate the sheer impossibility of a “literal” interpretation, whilst pointing us in the right direction to begin to grasp what the text may actually mean. Might help with the rest of the Bible too…

Communication never occurs in a vacuum. All communication involves  the construction of a message by a communicator for an intended recipient or audience within a particular context or situation – the process of codification. The recipient then decodifies the message to understand its content. If that communication is intercepted by a different, unintended recipient, in a different context, the original message will rarely be preserved.

I realise that in one sense all humanity is the intended recipient of God’s communication in Scripture. But rather than attempt to design a document that would always be relevant to all whilst speaking directly to none, God chose to work in and through human cultures, revealing and grounding eternal truth in the specifics of a particular people in one place and moment in time. The Bible is not the Qur’an, which is accepted by Muslims as an earthly replica of the eternal heavenly “mother book”, dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. In a “Back-to-the-Future” style immortalization of seventh century Arabian society, the Qu’ran brings humanity immovable instructions for living, to be rigidly obeyed always, everywhere and by all, not interpreted or discussed. This the Bible does not do. Just as the Word became flesh in Jesus, fully human in one place and time, so God’s word has consistently found expression in and through human agents who, moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke to the world they inhabited, in terms familiar to their contemporaries. We are eavesdroppers on that conversation, intruders in a world not our own.

Recognizing this is fundamental to understanding any communication. Unless we are the intended recipients of a message delivered within our own context, we are liable to miss the point. Let’s face it, we experience enough miscommunication with people whose language and culture we share, even with those individuals we know inside-out. If everyday communication can be anything but straightforward, we should not be so surprised that understanding Scripture adequately presents challenges.

We will consider the place of “context” itself later – first I want to unpack the concept of shared knowledge which is fundamental to the communication process.

Communication takes place on the basis of the presumption of shared knowledge of a shared world – we assume that a person not only speaks our language and thus understands our words, but also that they understand them in the same way that we do. If I ask my kids, “Fancy a McDonalds?”, I not only assume that they know what a McDonalds is, but also that “fancy” does not, in this context, carry the same meaning as, “He fancies the new girl in year 11” or even “Well, fancy that!”. This shared knowledge enables me to make myself understood without having to say, “Would you like to go to a restaurant, part of an American food chain called McDonalds, that sells things like hamburgers and chips and fizzy, sugary drinks and me buy you something to eat and drink there?”.

(Astute readers will notice that even the long-winded version in fact also depends a good deal on shared knowledge. Without many common reference points, the ensuing conversation might sound a little like this:

“What’s a McDonalds?”

“A hamburger”

What’s a hamburger?”

Well, it’s something we eat, made of minced beef…”

What’s beef?”

Beef, it’s meat from a cow.”

What’s a cow?”

It’s a large animal…

Like a pig?”

“No, bigger than a pig…”

Like an elephant?”

No, not as big as an elephant, more like a huge pig, but with horns…”

What are horns?”

Horns. Forget the horns, like a huge pig.”

As big as a tiger?”


Aren’t you afraid of it? And how do you catch it then?”

Never mind about that, we just do. Then we take the meat, cook it and put it in a bread bun…”

What’s bread?”

Bread. Well, we make it with wheat flour…”

What’s wheat?”

It’s grain, seeds from a plant… Oh, so you got that bit.”

Er, yes, of course. Carry on”

OK, so we get the meat, and put it in the bread, with ketchup, no wait, ignore that, with other stuff…”

What other stuff?”

Oh, just stuff, whatever you want really.”

Oh, OK.”

And then eat it with chips and a Coke.”

What’s a…?”

Just shut up and eat!”

And so we could continue, though I imagine this is enough to illustrate the point.)

So, communication – both spoken and written – is constructed with the assumption of shared knowledge; without this, conversation would become quite simply tedious, endless detail being needed to clarify meaning. The process of enculturation, by which we become functioning members of our society, builds a body of shared knowledge into us which is then taken for granted in communication between members of that society. Sub-cultures also have their own particular “sub-sets” of shared knowledge that facilitate communication between its members whilst simultaneously setting them apart them from outsiders. Where this shared knowledge is absent, for example between people of different cultures, the potential for misunderstanding is endless, amplified by any increase in cultural distance.

So far, so good. Now let’s see what this has to do with the Bible.

As we have seen, Scripture is in the first instance a record of communication between people in one specific time and place. Its message was for them, not for us, people bound together by the same shared knowledge. There are occasional glimpses that the authors were aware of the difficulty that potential readers who did not share their own background may have encountered. In narrating Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women, for example, John adds a sentence to explain her surprise that Jesus, a Jewish man, would address her, a Samaritan (Jn.4:9). Mark was probably thinking of Roman Gentiles when trying to shed some light on the Pharisees’ ceremonial washings (Mk.7:3-4), an obscure subject for the unenlightened. But most of the time, like any other communicator, they were unaware of the invisible boundaries of the world within which they lived – and wrote.

Thankfully, the task of linguistic translation has been done for us and we can read Scripture in our own languages. But comprehension of the words themselves does not in and of itself ensure understanding of meaning. Designed with its immediate audience in mind, and constructed using the shared knowledge that connected them with their surroundings, we will only hear Scripture’s heart to the degree that we are able to enter that world and become party to what they knew. And that applies to 1 Timothy too.

(This post is a follow-on from the previous one. Title quote attributed to Robert McCloskey.)

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