I'll probably never come up with a model for teaching hermeneutics/Bible approach that feels fully cooked. You've probably noticed that bloggers sometimes hash and rehash the same issues over and over. It's the thing that really gets under their craw or preoccupies their minds. Hopefully there is at least one pearl per obsession.
Mine is probably hermeneutics--how to read the Bible. There is a host of things that I think are obvious about the Bible, starting from things most people would immediately see when pointed out to areas where I think a lot of card carrying Bible scholars border on the incompetent because they don't see it.
I have a dream of writing a book or teaching a class that unfolds these paradigm shifts in a way that is sequential and obvious, yet that in no way undermines a solid faith. I get glimpses of what something like this might look like, but am just a few IQ points short of reaching the far off country. Yesterday again I caught a glimpse during the new MA orientation for the Seminary (by the way, over 40 new students Thursday--absolutely unbelievable... more to come).
So here are some of the early paradigm shifts I talked about yesterday. I saw a glimpse of a journey, and this was the first village on the path, Interpreter's Progress.
1. The Bible was not written in English. It was written 2000-3000 years ago over a thousand year period in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
2. We do not have any of the original copies of the books of the Bible. (They're not being stored in Jerusalem or the Vatican, for example. They're gone, disintegrated, lost to history). This is not a cause for doubt, but there is a certain gap between us and the exact original text of the Bible (indeed, some question whether it even makes sense to speak of an "original text," which may have been somewhat fluid from the start). There is a whole branch of Bible experts whose task is to try to decide what the Bible originally said on the level of detail.
3. There is no one correct translation from one language to another. Look at an interlinear. The word order is different from one language to another. The possible range of meanings for words and phrases from one language to another is different, meaning that all translation involves interpretation. You should use multiple translations to get a better sense of the possible meanings and issues of the original. Fallacies: words do not have just one meaning (one meaning fallacy) or one core meaning that plays itself out in every instance of the word (lexical fallacy).
4. And while we're at it, the meaning of a word in the past does not necessarily tell you what it means today (etymological fallacy). Similarly, what a word means today doesn't necessarily tell you what it meant in the past (fallacy of anachronism). Meaning in the end is a function of contexts, not individual words. The magical meanings you often hear from the pulpit are often the overload fallacy, where the meaning of contexts is confused with the meanings of individual words.
5. A word without a context is a range of possible meanings for a certain time and place. It is a cloud of possibilities without a specific or fixed meaning. Only in a context does the meaning of a word become specific and fixed. Such contexts go beyond mere reference to connotations and are intertwined with socio-cultural context. "If a lion could speak, would we understand him," given that the "culture" and world of a lion is vastly different from the world of a human? In the same way, depth of meaning requires us to know the cultural context of a book of the Bible.
6. The Bible is not one book but dozens of books written at different times and places. However inspiration works, it did not eliminate the personalities and vocabularies of the individual biblical authors. In fact, one potential way of fitting together parts of the Bible that do not seem to fit is to recognize that different biblical authors used the same words in different ways.
7. A dictionary is a popularity contest of meaning at a particular time and place, ranked from most popular to least. New meanings are added over time (e.g., skank) and old ones become archaic and are eventually removed. Many of those who think they understand the King James don't--the meaning of the words have changed from what they were in the 1600s and today.
8. And as a sideline, the KJV was never made with the idea that it would never be updated. NO ONE who was part of the original translation thought such a silly thing. It actually was updated several times and the version you buy in the store today is from the late 1700s. Of course, feel free to use the KJV if you don't worship it.
9. So to know what Paul meant, we would need a sense of his personal dictionary, a Tarsus AD50 Greek dictionary (which of course doesn't exist). Even that's not quite right, because as a traveling man he no doubt had a mixed Greeklish vocab with some Semitisms and pick ups from here and there. In the age before the internet, you can imagine that Greek dialect varied somewhat from place to place. The kinds of resources we would need to go really specific on these sorts of matters (an AD50 Corinthian dictionary, Ephesian dictionary, Philippian dictionary, Greek Jerusalem dictionary) just don't exist. And just to be clear, they did not have dictionaries back then.
10. So to understand Matthew, you need to read Matthew on its own terms first, before mixing it with Mark or Luke or John. This of course goes beyond vocabulary to the story itself, since it seems like ancient historians and biographers did not operate like modern historians. There was apparently some freedom to form such stories and an oral dimension to it as well.
But that's enough for one sitting...