Saturday, December 23, 2006

9 Interpretation

Good observation skills move you well down the road toward good interpretation. You have tried to observe what the text says. Now you want to know what it meant. In reality these two movements take place simultaneously and are hard to separate from one another. When you "observe" that the thought of Romans 1-11 leads to the thought of Romans 12-15, you have not only observed something, you have begun to "interpret" Romans. Whether you are coming from the text to life or from your life to the text, you will want to have the skills of observation and interpretation at the table with you to give their voice.

We saw in the hermeneutics section that words only take on definite meanings in a context. So the process of interpretation is the process of finding the right context against which to read the various words of the Bible. In this "text to life" section, we are focusing on determining the original meaning of biblical texts, because these were the first meanings these texts had, and they deserve our respect.

In life, however, these may not be the most important meanings of the text for us. God may meet you in these words in a way that places them in your context with a divine urgency. We will say more about the context of our "horizon" in the next section. But for now, we are discussing the skill of knowing how to read the text in its original contexts.

The Immediate Context
The most determinative context of all for the original meaning is the immediate literary context of the specific words you are looking at. A word or set of words can mean many things both literally and metaphorically. All words have a certain range of possible meanings that they can take on. They do not mean all these things at once (overload fallacy). A specific context locks them in to one of these (less often a text can also have a double entendre, a double meaning).

One common fallacy among Bible students is to take specific meanings a word or phrase has in one context and read them into another. So if the word "cast out" is used in relation to demons in a passage in Mark, they might read spiritual warfare it into another place where the same word is used. You can't do this. "Casting out" will only have overtones of demons if the passage you are looking at uses the word in that way! This is a form of what is called the overload fallacy--putting more meaning into a word than it should have at any given time. And it is most often done when a person brings too much "baggage" with them from one place where a word is used to the next.

This type of mistake is made so often that it is worth another paragraph. Take the word faith. Its basic meaning is pretty small. So in Greek the word pistis can mean many different things: "trust," "belief," "faithfulness," "proof," and so forth. But it does not mean all these at the same time. And more importantly, it does not always mean "trust in the unseen" just because it has this specific connotation in Hebrews 11:1. This is perhaps the most common error in word study, to take very specific meanings a word has in one context and then overread those connotations into a completely different context. Thus the word faith in the verse that says "Does their faithlessness nullify the faith of God" (Rom. 3:3) has nothing to do with justification by faith or faith in the unseen. In its immediate context, it simply means the faithfulness of God, period.

To get a sense of the immediate context of a word or passage, you need to follow the "train of thought" leading up to it. This involves the skills of detailed observation we mentioned in the previous section. For example, many students of Romans notice that Paul somewhat redefines Israel in Romans 9:6: "not all descended from Israel are Israel." But this is not the immediate context of Romans 11:26 where Paul says "all Israel will be saved." The previous verse to it clearly uses "Israel" in its normal sense in reference to ethnic Jews--"Israel has experienced a hardening." The immediate train of thought in 11:25 thus pushes us to take "all Israel" in 11:26 as a reference to that ethnic Israel whose hearts were hardened in Paul's day, not to the redefined Israel of 9:6.

As a method, you might begin the interpretation of a specific passage first with a detailed observation of it and then a preliminary glance at the immediate context to brainstorm. You might then move out through the contexts that follow below, each time revising and revisiting your initial brainstorm. By the time you have considered all the various contexts of the passage, you will be ready to draw a more definite conclusion on what it meant originally in its immediate context.

Broader Literary Context
We mentioned the broader literary context of Romans 11 above. Romans 9-11 form a section of Romans that you could "survey" in its own right. In the case we gave, the immediate literary context trumped the broader literary context in Romans 9. But usually, the broader literary context will only help you hone in on the likeliest meaning of a specific passage.

By the "broader" literary context of a passage we mean the rest of the section and the rest of the book in which that passage appears. We might also include here other books by that same author, remembering that the different authors of the Old and New Testament used various words and concepts differently from each other. The Old and New Testament are even in different languages, so you certainly can't assume that an English word from a translation of the Old Testament will have the same meaning as an English word from a translation of the New Testament.

This might be a good place to mention another fallacy: the anachronistic fallacy. The anachronistic fallacy is when you mistake a meaning a word took on later in the history of a language (or sometimes, just later in history period in any language) and read it back into a time when it didn't exist. Thus although the Greek word for witness is martyr, it didn't take on the sense of a martyr until after the New Testament was written. Similarly, the Hebrew word for soul (nepesh) never had the sense of a part of me that could detach at death. A "soul" in Hebrew is always alive (as opposed to a part of a person that survives death) and refers to an entire living creature--it can even refer to a living sea creature! "Adam became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7).

Isaiah 9 gives a helpful case study in how the broader context can potentially illuminate the likely original meaning of a passage. When we read the amazing comments in Isaiah 9:6-7, it is extremely difficult for us not to hear a reference to Jesus: "to us a child is born, to us a son is given ... he will be called 'wonderful counselor,' 'mighty God'..." What other human could someone call "God"? Indeed, despite the context we are about to discuss, this passage, like others in Isaiah, seems somehow to move beyond their first contexts. No matter what the first meaning, we are not wrong to read this passage in the light of Jesus. After all, that is the way the Holy Spirit has long led Christians to read this passage throughout history.

But a look at the broader context of Isaiah 9 takes us back to a similar passage in Isaiah 7: "a young woman will conceive and bear a son and will call him 'Immanuel": 'God with us" (7:14). In the immediate context of that verse, a king named Ahaz is considering asking a foreign nation to make an alliance with him. Isaiah, representing God, does not want him to. God offers Ahaz a "sign" of his favor. But Ahaz will have nothing to do with it.

It is in this immediate context that the well known words of Isaiah 7:14 appear. OK, if you're not going to ask for a sign, then the LORD himself will give you a sign. A child will be born, and before that child is old enough to tell the difference between good and evil, the nations to the north that are bothering you will be gone.

Now, in the original context, the sign is clearly for Ahaz. That makes it highly unlikely that Jesus was the child Isaiah had in mind. After all, Jesus was born over 700 years later. A sign that comes that long after Ahaz is dead is hardly a sign to him! So the Immanuel to whom Isaiah must have originally referred must have been some child born very soon after he and Ahaz had this conversation. Thus, this human child represented "God with us."

Again, the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to see Jesus' virgin birth in the words of Isaiah 7:14--God placed those words against the context of Jesus and they took on new meanings for Matthew. But originally, the sign had to be about a human child born in the days of Ahaz. This child was perhaps one of Ahaz's own children.

When we consider this broader context to Isaiah 9, we naturally wonder if Isaiah 9:6-7 is referring to the same royal child as 7:14, probably king Hezekiah: "wonderful counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace." That doesn't mean that God can't apply the words literally to Jesus as well in our context, even with a different connotation. But the broader context of Isaiah suggests we should probably see the original meaning in terms of some ancient royal figure like Hezekiah.

Historical Context
The historical context of Isaiah also pushes us in this direction. By historical context we mean the background to these words in history, within which we should include all the events and indeed all the other writings of the day. In our discussion of the literary context of Isaiah 7-9 above, we mentioned a number of elements in its historical background: king Ahaz, the kings to the north who were troubling him, his son and heir Hezekiah. If we were to interpret this passage in greater detail we would want to mention the king of Assyria and the destruction of the kingdom just to the north of Ahaz in 722-21BC.

But also in the historical background is the fact that various cultures in the ancient near east, including Israelite culture, could refer to their kings as gods. For Israel, of course, calling the king "god" did not in any way mean that he was a God like Yahweh. Take Psalm 45, for example, which from its context clearly refers to a human king on his wedding day. Look at verse 6-7 where the psalmist refers to the king as "god": "Your throne, O god, is forever and ever..." But the next verse makes it clear that this king is not the real God: "therefore God, your God..." So the Old Testament can refer to human kings both as "sons" of God (e.g., 2 Sam. 7:14) and even as "god" in a somewhat figurative sense.

Acquiring historical background knowledge is a lifetime task. And unfortunately, even if you knew everything there was to know, you would still have such vastly incomplete knowledge of the ancient world that you would not be able to know for certainty what every part of the Bible meant. Even my attempts to interpret Isaiah and Paul are only informed attempts. Various scholars would disagree on various points, and any day a new discovery might force us all to rethink everything.

The best place to get background knowledge is a good commentary on the passage you are interpreting. In theory, the person who has written the commentary has done his or her homework and will inform you of various background information that you would not otherwise have known. There are also any number of Bible dictionaries that can help you fill in this part of the puzzle.

Our section on hermeneutics has already mentioned the matter of genre and how it can affect your interpretation of a particular passage. So we will not repeat what we have already covered there. Genre is yet another type of literary context that you should consider when interpreting a passage.

Word Studies
We have already mentioned word studies as one kind of tool you can use in interpretation. In fact, a word study is really a microcosm of the whole interpretive process. The process of doing a word study might go like this:

1. Get a basic definition for the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word from an original meaning dictionary of some sort.
  • Don't use an English dictionary. Words don't map from one language to another exactly. An English dictionary tells you how words are being used right now in English. You need to know how a Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word was being used at the time an ancient author used it.
  • Don't cut and paste endless dictionary entries from some resource. The goal of a word study is for you to make a dictionary. A word won't mean all those meanings every place it is used. You are trying to find the one meaning the word has in each of the passages you are interested in. A one or two word start is better than 10 full Greek dictionary entries.
2. If you are looking a specific passage, brainstorm what nuance you think the word might have in that immediate context.

This is just a rough draft to get you started.

3. Now look at all the other places in that book where the word (or phrase) is used.

Start a list of different meanings the word can have (don't mix them together).

4. Now look at any other places the word might occur in any other books by the same author.

Expand your list of possible meanings the word can have as necessary. You are creating a range of possible meanings and making your own dictionary.

5. Now, for historical background, look at the rest of the places where that word is used by other authors of that day.

So start with the rest of the New Testament if you are studying a Greek word. Look at the Greek Old Testament if you are doing a New Testament word. If it seems like a New Testament author is building on some Old Testament passage, focus on it. But if the author isn't using the Hebrew Bible, it is really irrelevant to bring in the meaning of the Hebrew original. Indeed, it is not at all certain that a New Testament author will pay any attention to the original context of an Old Testament word or passage.

Or look at the rest of the Old Testament if you are doing a Hebrew word. But don't look at the New Testament for the original meaning of an Old Testament word. That is a path to anachronicsm.

As much as you are able and as information is available, explore how the word or phrase was used in the "secular" writings of the day. How did secular Greek speakers use the word "gospel"? What ancient near eastern literature might give hints about the meaning of "Leviathon"?

6. Now return to the passage in question. From the "dictionary" you have created, select a meaning for your passage that seems best to fit its immediate context.

Word Fallacies
Before we leave word studies, we might mention some of the more common word fallacies that you hear from time to time. We have already mentioned two.

1. The overload fallacy

... when you bring meanings to a word from elsewhere that it just doesn't have in this specific context.

2. The anachronistic fallacy

... when you read meanings into a word that it just didn't have at that point in time and history.

3. The etymological fallacy

... when you assume that the meaning of a word is a function of its parts.

This is probably the most common fallacy you hear from the pulpit. So the Greek word for church, ekklesia comes historically from two shorter words: ek ("out of") plus kaleo ("to call"). You will often hear preachers saying then that the church consists of those who are the "called out" ones.

But no New Testament author would have thought about this any more than we think about the fact that the word understand comes from under plus stand. In fact the word ekklesia is used of an angry mob in Acts 19:41. This is a fine sermon illustration of the church if you tell your congregation that you are making an illustration--not interpreting the meaning of the word "church" in the New Testament.

4. The root fallacy

... when you assume the meaning of a root word carries over into other related words.

So the word bapto means "to dip." But that does not necessarily mean that the word baptizo, "to baptize," has to mean immersion. The early Christians probably did primarily immerse when they baptized. But the word baptizo does not always mean to dip. In Mark 7:4 baptisma probably means simply "to wash."

5. The word-concept fallacy

... when you so connect a word to an idea that you assume the idea isn't there when the word isn't there.

6. The one-meaning fallacy

... when you assume a word can only have one meaning.

Summary of Interpretive Method
We are now in a position to summarize the process of arriving at original meaning of a biblical text.

1. Come to the text prepared! You have prayed for the illumination of your mind and have honed your skills of observation both for the big picture and for the details.

2. Take a quick look at the immediate context of the passage you want to interpret.

Brainstorm without closing your mind.

3. Now go to the broader literary context.

Gather evidence. You might even make two columns: one for evidence and the other for your inferences--what you think that evidence implies. If you are studying a word, see how that word is used in the broader context. Consider the genre of the book or passage in question. Look at other books by the same author if you can find any.

4. Now go to the historical background.

Where does this book/passage fit in the flow of history and culture? How would Joe Ancient have likely heard these words?

5. Now go back to the immediate context of the passage and lay out the most likely train of thought given all the evidence you have gathered.

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