If you’ve read the other articles in this section, you may be wondering how it is that we can legitimately move in some of the directions we’ve taken in terms of defining words such as Kingdom and Law and interpreting the basic concepts and message of Jesus. You may or may not have heard interpretations such as these before, and you may be wondering how in the world we can come to such conclusions without doing violence to, deviating from the original intent of the Scriptures–our Bible.
You’re not alone. First let me assure you that nothing you read here is completely original or unique. All the key points being made have their sources in respected scholarly work out there in academia. These concepts are not our ideas alone, but represent a body of work and of thought. What may be unique is our particular collection of that thought, our emphasis, and our illustration of what it all means. But it’s not “new” and it’s not pulled out of thin air; it’s gleaned from the work of others, especially those closest to the Hebrew and Aramaic language and culture. “There is nothing new under the sun” applies to us now as much as to Solomon three thousand years ago.
A question I’m often asked is, “Why do you have to dig into the ancient language, culture, and worldview of the times in which the books of the Bible were written? Why can’t we just read the ‘simple meaning’ of our English version? Didn’t God inspire the books and preserve them for us so that we can read them as is?” Sometimes this is true. Sometimes we can read our English translations through the lens of our modern, Western worldviews and get a pretty good idea of the author’s intended message, though the ancient context will always bring much more depth and insight. But sometimes the context or meaning of specific words or idiomatic expressions used or extreme cultural differences will so color the intended meaning as to make it completely alien to our “simple meaning.”
How literally should we take the Bible? Only as literally as the authors intended. How literal is that? We’ll only know the answer to that question by knowing the authors as best we can–and that means delving into the author’s language, customs, and worldview. For instance, did you know that for the ancient writers of Scripture accuracy and truth were not the same thing? We as modern Westerners equate the two: if it’s true, it must be accurate, and if it’s accurate, it’s true. Not so with the ancients. They were free to play with accuracy in order to communicate truth. We most often see this played out in the use of numbers. Numbers had meanings beyond their numerical value in ancient lanuages. That’s why “sacred” numbers like 3, 7, 10, 12, and 40 keep popping up–they mean something that conveys truth beyond the mere numerical value. Geneologies were routinely “telescoped” to come out evenly to these numbers (especially 7 and 10) in order to make statements about the person being described. Numbers of people and days and battles, etc. were also subject to this treatment.
Ancient authors didn’t understand today’s copyright laws either. Books were largely written anonymously or a student would write under the name of the teacher or master of his school rather than under his own. This was not plagerism, it was giving honor to the teacher, or telling the reader that this work comes from the school of thought of this or that teacher. Everyone understood this, so no harm was done. We don’t, and so misunderstand how the authors intended their work to be used.
Jesus spoke to his listeners in their language, through the lens of their customs and view of the world. Unless he needed to redefine specific terms and concepts such as Kingdom and Law, he let stand their “simple” interpretation of his words–which is why we can’t let stand our “simple” interpretation, which is much different. Unless Jesus was willing to allow his first followers to misinterpret his message, we must assume that whatever they would have understood of the normal usage of his words is what he meant to convey. And that means we need to step into the sandals of those first century Jewish hearers in order to get back what Jesus and other Biblical writers put into the text.
We believe God inspired our Scriptures. But he let men write them–in their own languages, with their own knowledge of grammar and syntax, with their own limitations of thought through the looking glass of their customs and culture. Eastern culture was and is fundamentally different from Western culture. It may come as a shock, but Jesus was an Eastern man speaking to an Eastern audience. We need to step into that way of thinking. Ancient Eastern languages like Hebrew and Aramaic are fundamentally different from Western languages like Greek and English. We need to understand how these langugages function and convey thought in order to really grasp original intent.
This is our view of how we go about responsibly interpreting our ancient Scriptural texts. This is our view of the inspiration of these texts by God. Hopefully we can use this as a mutual starting point together, or it will most likely be a very short journey.
Here for more on inspiration and inerrancy.