Appendix: Interpreting the Bible

You might wish to reflect further on who you really are by using the Bible. But, as you know, confusion and harm can come about from misinterpreting the Scriptures. A few basic facts can help you to avoid misunderstanding. For Christians, the Bible is the word of God. God’s word comes to us in human words. So we need to understand the human meaning to properly hear what God wants us to know.

To understand the human meaning, we need to recognise that the Bible contains many different ways of speaking. In fact, it is more like a library than a single book. It contains different kinds of literature: historical narrative, fiction, poetry, biography, drama, and so on. To treat them all the same is to misuse the Bible. This happens when every sentence is regarded as a divine message or a divine instruction without regard for the different kinds of literature contained therein.

The human meaning depends on what the original authors meant and how they thought. For example, when people experience some event, there is both the external event itself - what happened - and the inward experience of how it affected them. A modern novelist can describe the psychology of the inner experience. But ancient authors could not do that. So in order to do justice to what the event meant to them, they sometimes exaggerated the external details. Dramatisation and hyperbole sometimes communicate the meaning of an event better than mere documentation does.

What makes these different writings one book is their origin in the faith of a people - a people who believed God was involved in their history. Their Scriptures were an expression of their faith, part of their tradition.

The writings of the New Testament are expressions of the faith of the Christian communities, dating back to the lifetime of the apostles or to people who had known the apostles. The Scriptures do not exist separately from the faith community; they are inspired accounts of the faith of the Christian communities. Still, today, the faith of the Christian community worldwide is the touchstone for knowing the true interpretation of the Scriptures. Sometimes the Scriptures on their own are open to more than one interpretation.

The four gospels are a unique kind of literature. They are based on the things that Jesus said and did, but they are not pure biographies. Most of the text is a careful adaptation of what Jesus said and did, made after his disciples had come to understand them. Their understanding was affected dramatically by their experience of his resurrection. That put a new light on everything they had experienced during his lifetime.

Adaptation also resulted from the way the Christian communities used Jesus’ teachings when they preached to others or instructed them. The different endings given to some of Jesus’ parables reflect their practice of adapting his teachings to different situations (see Matthew 22:1-14, and Luke 14:15-24). Further “adaptation” occurred when the individual writers of the gospels selected from the oral tradition what they wanted to include in their written gospel. Their selection depended on whom they were writing for (for example, Jews who already knew the Hebrew Scriptures, or Gentiles, who didn’t). Sometimes, what they included or left out depended on their central theme and main reason for writing. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had their own purpose.

Both the ancient Hebrew authors and the early Christian authors were writing about what had been revealed through God’s involvement in human history. God’s purposes were revealed in the things God did. The Scriptures are like a cover letter that accompanies and interprets God’s actions. What God does is always greater than what words can say.

Human words and concepts are drawn from human experience, and so what lies beyond human experience is difficult to talk about. That is why the writers of the Bible often used stories to evoke a sense of what they were pointing to. In this sense, the story symbolises the teaching.

Some biblical stories are purely fictional; they were composed to teach an important truth. But the truth they teach doesn’t depend on the story being historical. Jesus’ parables are like that. So, too, is the story of Jonah. There are other biblical stories that were written precisely because an extraordinary thing did happen. Because the event was outside ordinary human experience, they needed to build a story around it. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and of his appearances after the resurrection, as well as the accounts of his virginal conception are stories of this kind.

Both kinds of story - the kind that is purely fictional (like the parables) and the kind that is based on something that actually happened (like Jesus’ resurrection) point beyond themselves to what the authors wanted us to know. The details of the story are not the point. For example, the creation stories teach that God is our creator, with all the consequences of that. The authors are not teaching us how God created, even though the story could give that impression.

Finally, while it is necessary to understand the human meaning to understand God’s word, it is even more necessary to approach the word of God with faith:

No one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:11-12)

For Practice

Read and enjoy the book of Job.

For Prayer

Attend, my people, to my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in story,
drawing lessons from of old.
We have heard them, we know them;
our ancestors have recited them to us.
We do not keep them from our children;
we recite them to the next generation,
the praiseworthy and mighty deeds
of the Lord,
the wonders that he performed ...
That they too might put their trust in God.

Psalm 78:1-4, 7