What Does The Bible Mean?

Tonight I am going to be lecturing on ‘How Do Other Cultures Read the Bible: Insights from the Worldwide Church’. Come along if you are in the High Wycombe area.  One of the points of my lecture is that people from different cultures come to the Bible with different backgrounds, asking different questions and with different concerns. This means that people from different cultural backgrounds discover different things in the text, all of which contributes to the richness of the Christian church and of our understanding of God.

The problem with this is that many people insist that Scripture has only one, plain meaning and that there is only one way to read any given text (which tends to be the way that the writer in question wants us to understand the text).

In the last couple of days I’ve come across three blogposts, all excellent in their own way, which approach this question of how we read the Scriptures from different points of views.

Andrew Wilson essentially defends the idea that there is a single central reading of Scripture. Though he shies away from the idea that he has everything nicely tied up himself. This is a long blog post and very difficult to pull quotes from, but it is well worth a read.

Doug Chaplin takes a different slant to Wilson and argues that holding a too rigid view of the original texts of Scripture is more of an Islamic approach than a Christian one:

Translation is embedded in the Christian Scriptures to such an extent that there is no form of Christianity which does not depend on it. The words spoken by the incarnate Word are only given to us in human translation. And they’re often translated or transmitted or interpreted differently between the earliest sources for them.

None of that excuses a scholar engaging with the original languages of the texts of which they purport to be a scholar. That’s one of the fundamental rules of the academic game.

It does, however, suggest that the tendency in Protestantism to venerate the original language autographs of the text in good Islamic style is one which is refuted by the nature of the New Testament texts themselves.

Following on from Doug, Archdurid Eileen of the Beaker Folk makes more of the same theme:

The scriptural basis of the Christian faith lives primarily in translation. We don’t have Our Lord’s words as he originally spoke them because the Gospels are not in his native tongue of Aramaic. Which makes any claim to be using the “originals” very nuanced when we go to our Greek New Testaments and try to drag the beauty of John’s Gospel out of them.

But it’s not even that simple. Because if we are reading Jesus quoting Old Testament scripture, we have to bear in mind that the Old Testament that the early Church tended to use was the Septuagint – a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Common Greek.

And so we have passages where Jesus – an Aramaic-speaking Jew, presumably – is quoted (in Greek) referring to passages in the Hebrew Bible, but the Bible he is quoted using is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – presumably (and this is presumably, I realise – I have no way of proving this) a version he didn’t use. It’s as if I wrote a life of Spurgeon, and wherever he quoted Scripture I subbed in the words from the Douai-Rheims Bible.

Eileen sums up this approach to the Scriptures like this:

A glory of our faith, it seems to me, is that through the competing narratives of the Bible stories and the scope for flexibility and imprecision that the story of the words entails, the work of Spirit and man or woman in interpretation goes on. We share a belief that can morph into a thousand expressions of life. And rather than regret that, I’m going to celebrate it.

While Andrew describes this point of view rather differently:

Rather, in reality it (the Bible) expresses multivocality (speaking differently to different people) and polysemy (texts have underdetermined meaning). Our only hope – and here I oversimplify – is therefore to read it all as pointing to Christ, and to leave decisions on the multitude of issues on which it does not speak clearly to the church.

Personally, I find myself falling somewhere, uncomfortably, between the Andrew Wilson and the other two bloggers. Experience has taught me that our cultural background and heritage has a significant impact on the questions we ask of Scripture and the answers that we find in there. Andrew’s excellent paper reflects the European academic background, influenced by the reformation and enlightenment from which it springs. This doesn’t mean he is wrong, but it almost certainly means that he hasn’t got the whole picture.

Then again, delightful and exciting though Doug and Eileen’s view of a polysemic Scripture may be, I find it rather difficult to accept that the Bible lacks precision to the degree that they seem to argue that it does. I find myself sitting on the fence – why don’t you read all three posts and see what you think?

By the way, I am aware that Eileen is not a real person (nor indeed a real Archdruid).

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