When novel readings aren’t.

I had a brief conversation a while ago with someone who thinks it’s more difficult to speak about the Bible in straightforward ways these days. It seems to no longer say what it says; if I say, “This passage means this,” there’s often someone who will say, “It looks like it says this, but what it actually means is this.” And I agree; it does seem to take more work to talk about the Bible these days.

While I imagine sometimes people do say “it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means” simply to try to find ways/excuses around passages they don’t like, and that’s not good, in many cases there are good reasons for the shift towards a different reading of the text. Some of them are pretty commonly known: questions of cultural differences, genre, dealing with an ancient text and related expectations, and so on. But there are other factors to consider as well.

1 – Sometimes seemingly new ways of reading scripture are actually correctives to relatively recent innovations in reading scripture. A “new” interpretation may actually reflect a more ancient understanding of a passage. What we’re used to or were brought up with may, quite naturally, seem like the normal understanding of the Bible, but may in fact be the new reading. Slightly different but related is the idea that previous generations and especially the ancient church—not to mention different branches of the church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—have read the Bible in very different ways than some modern ways of reading.

Example: dispensationalism and rapture theology (think Left Behind series), are relatively modern ideas (late 19th century). I don’t think the majority of prior generations of Christians would have read the Bible in this way, but today it seems to be the majority view of the conservative evangelical church in North America. And so correctives come along (e.g. N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope) which may seem new or novel, but actually reflect scripture and the history of the church’s interpretation more faithfully. How conservative evangelicals tend to read Genesis 1 is another example.

2 – New readings may also reflect the realization (or remembrance) that our experience and reason play a part in interpreting scripture. If the Bible says that rocks are soft, but I experience the hardness of a rock falling on my toe, then I have a conundrum. But the problem isn’t with my experience of the rock, nor is the problem actually with the Bible—the problem is in how I read and interpret the Bible, or perhaps what I understand the Bible to be. I may need to read it differently. Obviously the Bible doesn’t say rocks are soft! My point is simply that sometimes we impose things on the text that the text itself doesn’t allow or ask for, and so there are correctives made.

3 – New readings also reflect the realization that with some things that we call “biblical” we’ve tended to proof text. For example, Paul says in one passage that women should be silent in churches, and historically we’ve stopped there, end of story—the Bible says it, I believe it. But these days we may be more honest about the fact that Paul also talks about women prophesying in church and women apostles, for example. And so we’ve had to adjust our reading and interpretation of scripture to reflect the realities within scripture itself.

These three overlap as well. And I’m sure there are others. This is the reality of being honest about scripture and tradition. “New” readings aren’t always to be dismissed as “liberal” or “revisionist” readings. Sometimes they restore or reset our understanding to more ancient and biblical views (which, I suppose, is to say, the more “conservative” view).

I always find it refreshing when I see the Bible in a new way based on something the Bible itself says—when scripture has something to say about itself.

12 thoughts on “When novel readings aren’t.

  1. Phil L

    “How conservative evangelicals tend to read Genesis 1 is another example.” Indeed. I was raised to believe that a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis was the only option, and acceptance of evolution would probably lead to loss of my Christian faith. I now interpret Genesis as a story of God’s creation, but not a literal account. I’ve found Biologos to be a good resource.

  2. Marc

    Hi Phil. I’ll have a look at that link. I am aware of a chain of significant Christian voices through history who weren’t too concerned about evolution (when known about) or about Genesis 1 presenting scientific, cosmological information. Billy Graham, (CS Lewis?), GK Chesterton, John Calvin, (Martin Luther?), Augustine…

  3. Toni

    As you’re aware, Marc, I’m one who has gone from being essentially a thinking (hopefully) fundamentalist 20 years ago to now suspecting that, along with some inspiration, there’s an awful lot of the authors of the books themselves embedded in the bible.

    It was always so easy – read it and believe it. There has almost been an assumption that the biblical authors practiced some kind of automatic writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit. But at this stage I suspect God to be much less directly involved in the bible’s authorship. Involved certainly, but through a much more open inspiration than 21st century humans might like.

    The thing that really started me off like this was studying Exodus, but the enabler was realising that the picture of God I’d created simply wasn’t true. The whole 40/40/40 years thing was so clearly not historic detail (the word ‘true’ here isn’t appropriate) and likewise a bunch of other stuff as you wander through the passage that I simply had to suspend belief in the idea that this was intended to be a historical account.

    There’s a thought from John towards the end of his gospel where he says that these things were written that you may believe, and I’d say that’s probably why the bible is as it is. It isn’t a report of progress so far for humanity, but a series of documents about how people have found a way to believe what’s going on in the world around them, and sometimes to guide and encourage those who are struggling with that.

    The problem for me with this is Jesus. He cuts across the rest of the bible, apparently requiring some very specific things, yet the stuff that should back this up doesn’t seem to happen *now*. I’m still trying to figure out what this means.

  4. Marc

    That’s quite a change indeed, Toni! I would say recognizing that we shouldn’t impose modern expectations of history and reportage on ancient documents written and compiled in cultures with very different practices and expectations in these areas from ours. But I would push back a bit and say that “true” is still an appropriate word to use, if we can loosen it from our very particular modern expectations a bit.

  5. Toni

    Thanks for replying Marc. Yes, it’s a big change.

    I’d say that true requires something to have been factually correct. For example, if King Hezekiah did not actually have the tunnel named after him built, but it was completed in a later reign, then the bible account would not be true. etc.

    So with Moses, at my most optimistic I suspect substantial incorporation of stories about him into the text to the point that they became understood as fact. It’s culturally very difficult to question the stories you’re taught and handed down as fact – I struggle with this as much as anyone. Thus the account of his spending 40 years in Egypt, then 40 years as a shepherd of sheep before 40 years as a shepherd of Israel doesn’t sit well with the events recorded as part of that time line.

    He’s a youngish man (and behaves like a youngish man) when he kills the Egyptian and flees to Midian where he marries and has a family. After 40 years, give or take, he heads back to Egypt when he falls ill and his wife cuts off her son’s foreskin & touches his feet with it – the son might be 25, 30, 35 years old at this stage? But the account suggests the wife does the cutting and the translations give the appearance that the son is a child at this point.

    They’re off in the desert and Moses father in law rocks up. So his FiL is perhaps a little younger than Moses, but he’s still likely 75 at least at this point, and freely travelling substantial distances across difficult terrain. It would make a lot more sense if Moses were about 35-40 at this point, and his FiL a wiser, older man, still fit and able in his 50s or early 60s.

    Moses family also appear to be in on the long-lived act, but the Israelites over the age of 20 all die in their 40 years of wandering. Then there’s the curious incident of the golden calf in the night, described in bizarre terms and with Aaron getting away with barely a slap on the wrist while people are dying all around.

    Stuff doesn’t hang together for it to be a true, factual account of what happened, but it makes a lot of sense if there were a core of truth (Moses was the man God appointed to get Israel out of Egypt) decorated with a set of stories like balls on a Christmas tree. I’m comfy with history being gently edited to spin stories in the way we see when comparing Kings and Chronicles, but not so happy about things that don’t have a basis in reality. This is also not like the Genesis account, where oral traditions were compiled giving Israel a history, and it’s recognisable as being a religious, rather than chronological account.

    So yes, big change.

    FWIW rather than ‘just’ what I wrote above, actually this journey was started by some friends who insisted that Paul’s words about Jesus being the rock that followed Israel through the desert were literally true, and they believed that Jesus became a boulder that travelled with the Israelites. It took a while, but made me step back and ask what I really believed, and whether I thought the same kind of things as them.

  6. Marc Vandersluys

    Hi Toni,

    I’m not avoiding your last comment! I’m just not sure how to respond. There is the reality that numbers in the biblical record have strong symbolic value. And the New Testament writers (as well as the early church fathers) were fond of reading the OT allegorically (“and that rock was Christ” are, I think, Paul’s words?), something modern, western Christians are really uncomfortable doing. I’m not sure what to do with it myself, to be honest, other than to recognize that this is certainly not *simply* history in the modern sense of the term. We cannot impose our modern expectations on the text (I may have said that already).

  7. Toni

    “The flood narrative is the only account in the entire book of Genesis that has dates, and the reason for those dates is to align this “primeval exodus story” with later Israel’s festival remembrances. The flood dates demonstrably cannot be actual occurrence dates. (p. 84)”


    Consider it a source of frustration to know that a substantial part of the bible was written “that you may believe” to quote John’s Gospel, rather than a record of events.

  8. Toni

    It may be of interest to know that I’ve just ordered The Liturgy of Creation that he references. I’ve just had it with ‘stories’ and need to either understand and agree or reject, but I can’t do ‘shut up and just believe what it says’ any more. Faith without data is dead.

  9. Marc

    Hey Toni,

    I’m not sure how I missed your May comment! I just added that book to my wish list the other day! Let me know what you think of it.

  10. Toni

    First chapter or so looks good. It’s refreshing to neither have inaccurate bits of scripture fudged, ignored or be told to just believe it because faith will overcome the differences. The downside (if that’s what it is) will be that my view of some parts of scripture as not being factual (because they were never intended to be a historical record, but a pointer to faith) with be firmly cemented. I will have become what my younger self rejected.

    I know I’m also going to wish that the ‘faith’ bits were clearly marked out with yellow & black hazard warning tape to distinguish them from the historical bits (if there ever truly were any in the OT).

    There’s a view that the bible is ‘the word of God’ which suggests He wrote it word-for-word through the hands of the original authors. I definitely once subscribed to that view. Now I tend to see much more of it as the recorded thoughts of those who understood themselves to be observing God at work and used their understanding to try to explain what was happening. Inspired by God in a different sense. This makes much more sense of what can sometimes appear to be a capricious god, bringing plagues and doing a bit of smiting. So the bible also records man’s developing understanding of who God might be.

    Time to stop, or I’ll write my own book. 😉

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