Tag Archives: interpretation

Beat until stiff and stand in the fridge

20 May

Words do not carry immutable meaning as defined by an entry in a dictionary. Certainly, they bring core meaning with them, but words are moulded both by the words that accompany them and the stage on which they are placed. The whole is irremediably more than the sum of its parts.

This is true of every single piece of communication, the Bible included. Meaning must be deduced from the context in which communication is constructed and the way words combine together, as much as from what any one word itself may be said to “mean”. Context is everything in interpreting language.

In biblical interpretation, the literary context is one level that needs to be explored: genre of language, the paragraph as a unit of thought, the flow of the author’s argument, grammar and syntax, and the meaning of individual words as used by that writer, in the rest of Scripture, or in contemporary writings. In that sense, the Bible is literature, and behaves like any other piece of writing. We ignore that to our detriment.

Beyond the level of literary context, historical and cultural context provide the keys for correct understanding. A couple of examples I trust will help us when we – eventually! – get back to 1 Timothy.

Numbers 5:11-31 contains an example of what is known as “trial by ordeal”, a means of appealing to the supernatural for confirmation of guilt or innocence. Jealous husbands pay close attention. (Nothing here about husbands straying from the marital bed, but that’s another story…)

If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband […] and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure – or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure – then he is to take his wife to the priest. […] After the priest has made the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the [offerings] for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you […] may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have […] defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband […] May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.” He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering.

Outside its immediate historical context, this procedure is quite simply beyond comprehension, and may even strike us as barbaric and sexist. When considering a passage such as this, pretty much everyone can see the need to take the historical background into consideration. All Scripture has its own historical and cultural context, however, which conditions how a passage was written, even if on a surface level the text appears to be more immediately understandable. We cannot just assume that they thought as we think today. What would the text have meant to them, in their world, at their time, with their cultural norms?

One more. Beyond general historical-cultural context, much of the Bible was written with specific circumstances in mind, and nowhere is this more marked than in the epistles. Known as “occasional” documents, most were written to concrete people to address specific needs or questions; they were provoked by “occasions” of concern to the writers, most often situations of heresy or conflict that needed correction. It is rarely possible to unearth every detail of the circumstances behind a portion of an epistle – reading them can at times feel like listening to one side of a telephone conversation – but we must at least try. Let’s take a passage from 1 Corinthians:

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him […] Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. […] Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. […] From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none. […] So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (1 Corinthians 7:20-38)

Without telling us exactly what difficulties the Christian community of Corinth was facing, Paul does at least let us know that his instructions are not permanent but relate to the needs of the moment. Imagine the theological gymnastics needed if we were to attempt obedience to Paul’s words in all places and times… The epistles do not always reveal to us the circumstances that motivated the apostle to write, but again, those circumstances were nevertheless there, and influence how the text is to be read. To interpret without attempting to see the underlying situation is to invite misunderstanding; doing this with 1 Timothy 2 has had drastic consequences throughout church history.

Sound like hard work? Mmm… maybe it is, but that does not make it any the less necessary. In our interaction with Scripture we can get motivation for the “harder” stuff by the “easier” things. Some gems sit John-Three-Sixteen-like on the surface; others require a “search for wisdom as for buried treasure” attitude to find them. Collecting a few surface gems can give motivation to dig a little more deeply, but dig we must.

Because, as you no doubt already know, a text without a context is often said to be a mere pretext. I would go a little further than that: a text without a context becomes a con-text, a word with the authority of Scripture which can be used to say absolutely anything, in order to impose already decided meaning and manipulate those who listen to us. We owe it to God, to his Word and to his people to aim to do better than that.

So, respect the literary context. Find out as much as you can about the general historical and cultural background to a passage. And discover the immediate “occasion” that underlies it. Read the text with all that in mind, particularly if reading a cookery book. Otherwise “beat until stiff and stand in the fridge” might get you into more trouble than you bargained for.


“The audience are literally electrified and glued to their seats”

7 May

Having just watched A.N. Jacobs’ TED talk on “The Year of Living Biblically”, in which he tried to live out – literally – every one of the Bible’s commands, I thought it a good moment to fire off a couple of thoughts on biblical interpretation. You see, a couple of Sundays ago we hit 1 Timothy 2 in our small group Bible study… certainly got people talking — thankfully with respect and much grace, albeit not always with a whole lot of understanding — and it’s been going round in my head since then.

Just how are we supposed to view this text?

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1Timothy 2:8-15)

Whilst some called for a “literal” interpretation, we soon got into deep water with that one. It went a bit like this:

What is modesty, decency and propriety in dress sense? In India it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to show her midriff under a sari, but in Spain? If topless is OK for Kalahari Bushman women, why is it frowned upon for good Christians at the beach? Is decency, then, in fact a cultural construct with no absolutes at all? And if so, how do we assign absolute value to anything in Scripture? Who decides what is cultural and what is not, what is to be taken “literally” and what needs cultural unpacking?

But back to Paul’s list for now. When it comes to hairstyles, just how elaborate is elaborate? Curlers OK? What about highlights? Perms? Gel must be acceptable, though we have no agreement on how much hairspray we can use before reckoning that it really must be classed as elaborate if it needs that much to keep it in place…

No gold? What, none at all? What about my wedding ring, that’s hardly bling is it? And pearls — are cultured pearls OK? Imitation pearls? What if you can’t tell, is it OK to ask someone if their string of pearls is genuine? We’d better stick to silver, emeralds and rubies then, at least they are not banned! We could even start a new line in 1 Timothy 2 compliant luxury jewelry…

Back to clothes. At what price does a shirt become expensive? What if I got a $129.99 pair of Levis in a sale for $14.99, or last year’s model as a hand-me-down from my must-have-the-latest-fashion more-money-than-sense neighbours, do they still count as “expensive clothes”? Anyway, isn’t price a relative concept? What is expensive in Bangladesh might be cheap in Brick Lane. And if that is relative and cultural, maybe the whole text is. Where does that leave us? Whatever, one thing is clear if we are after literal interpretations — there is no mention of make-up, so don’t worry ladies, at least you can keep the lipstick, foundation and “I’m worth it” mascara.

And that’s all before we get to the thornier issue of women teaching and holding authority, or even speaking at all. “If they could just keep quiet, that would save us all a lot of headaches, ha ha”. LOL… not; jokes from stereotypes don’t help achieve consensus in understanding. Maybe we should allow women to take on roles where they don’t have to be telling men what to do? That does away with leading worship then — “Please stand to sing the next hymn…” But there again, the Greek word used — αὐθεντεῖν, authentein — seems to mean “to usurp authority” more than just to hold authority. Maybe a woman can do anything as long as a man has told her she can. Or maybe it’s just about wives and husbands, not all women and all men; as long as her husband is happy, it’s OK. Not sure where that leaves single women though. Maybe they are exempt and can do what they like. Or maybe they are the ones that should just keep quiet…

Whatever, let’s not forget that all this isn’t Paul’s big idea — he draws it from Scripture. The biblical underpinnings of our theology are vital. So, yes, Adam was formed first. But if creative order is that important, wasn’t the donkey formed before Adam? And for that matter, even if Eve was the first to take a bite out of the proverbial apple, Paul — who elsewhere lays the blame fairly and squarely with Adam — does appear overly harsh in suggesting that all women share her undiscerning taste in fruit peddlers.

What’s all this about Eve anyway? Well, maybe Paul really does mean that all women are gullible and easily deceived, so it’s best not to let them teach. It’s not all bad news, though. We are only going to ban women from teaching men; they can still teach heresy to our children in Sunday school if they like. And it only applies to church too — teaching, even adult literacy, is still an ideal career for the good Christian woman wanting to make a positive impact on her society.

Then, just when we think we might be making some progress against a strong headwind, we hit verse 15 — not very good news for the single ladies in our midst. The theological overtones of “saved” are strong and resist any other translation — but am I really to think that salvation for men is by faith, and for women, by having kids? Could it not be instead that Paul means that women will be kept safe through childbirth? Given the number that die in giving life to another, that would hardly seem likely. Unless, that is, we are going to accuse those that do die of “lack of faith” (plus, in this case, love and holiness with propriety), the universal get-out clause for every case of non-recovery at the hands of a faith-healer. The dead don’t argue, so perhaps we will just have to take their word for it… Whatever, this verse cannot be separated from the rest; we cannot sanction a “literal” interpretation of verse 12 unless ready to to the same with verse 15. The two form part of one unified thought in Paul”s mind and must be understood together. The necessary flight from dogmatism that accompanies a humble reading of verse 15 is not a bolt-on extra to categorical statements about the role of women in church but has to characterize our reading of the whole passage.

So much for a “literal interpretation”.

In reality, a “literal interpretation” of Scripture is as unreal as an unbiased opinion. An opinion, of necessity, carries the individual’s bias. Likewise, as soon as we use the word “interpretation”, we leave “literal” behind. Whilst we may be deceived by some “easier” texts into thinking that we take Scripture literally, we do not. Everything we read is understood through the interpretive filter that connects us with the world around us. So the question is not whether we interpret Scripture or take it literally, but whether we interpret it well.

What does that mean for 1 Timothy 2? That will have to wait for another day.

PS. For those mystified by the title, the BBC television commentator Ted Lowe made that statement during a particularly exciting (!) snooker match. His other classic comment was from the 1970s, aiming to help viewers who were not privileged to own one of the new colour televisions: “Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”

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