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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Bible Interpretation

A while ago I came across something new to me ... the Jefferson Bible. Wikipedia writes ...

The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was an attempt by Thomas Jefferson to glean the teachings of Jesus from the Christian Gospels. Jefferson wished to extract the doctrine of Jesus by removing sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations .... Miracles and references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus are notably absent from the Jefferson Bible. The Bible begins with an account of Jesus's birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. The work ends with the words: "Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." There is no mention of the resurrection.

When I first read about it, I have to admit I was a bit offended - hey, the miracles are my favorite part :-) - but then I realized that Jefferson had only done in writing what I actually do in my head. I too delete parts of the Bible that I find unbelievable or upsetting, by ignoring them, and this brings up questions addressed rtecently on both Darius' and Matthew's blogs ... are all parts of the Bible holy and inspired, or only some parts, maybe none? Is it valid to accept the parts you like and ignaore the parts you don't?

To help answer these questions, let's take a trip to the New Testament Gateway and look under the keyword Hermeneutics. Yikes - link overload :-). I picked this site - Biblical Hermeneutics - The Science of Interpreting the Bible - and it seems very informative.

But truth be told, it looks like it will take me quite a while to make sense of the subject of hermeneutics (if ever). In the meantime, a possible method of interpretation is to hold the God found in the scriptural passage up to the God known in prayer, using discerment.

- Thomas Jefferson's " Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth", 1904


Anonymous Mike L said...

Crystal, I think you have sailed into those unknown waters that are labeled, "Here there be dragons." And each dragon has his own set of standards of what to believe and what not to believe.

The early Church sellected a collection of writings and declared that these were the "Canon" of scriptures that were to be accepted as inspired by God. This included writings from both Jewish tradition and from the Early Christian tradition.

While the inspiration of these scriptures has always been held by the Church, there has been debate on how accurate there are in a historical sense. Galileo was declared a heratic because he claimed that scripture was wrong, or wrongly inturpreted, about the sun revolving around the earth. When I was a kid, many thought that the story of the Garden of Eden was "gospel truth."

When I was growing up, the Church discouraged us from reading Scripture, and then only if one used a Bible that had the Church approved notes that explained what it ment. I don't believe that proscription is still in effect, but there are certainly some standards that are official Church teaching. One no longer has to accept the Garden of Eden as an actual place, but one must accept that fact that all men are decendents of one man and one women, i.e. Adam and Eve.

However, to claim that the Bible has no historical value is pushing it a bit. Yes, much of it was transfered as oral tradition, but we now know that oral tradition, particularly among people that do not have a written language can be carried on for generation with little or no change. Perhaps the real question is what was *ment* to be history, and what was ment to be a teaching story. No English speaking person today has a problem with "it rained cats and dogs," we all know what it means. But I don't know what phrases of Hebrew were used in this manner, so I could certainly run across passages that I don't think are valid just because I don't understand the idiom.

N.T. Wright claims that if you understand 1st Century Judism, that Christ's parables make good historical sense and fit well into expaining what He was doing and why and how it fits into some of the Old Testament prophacies.

And always, while it may not be historical, scripture tells us how those people saw and interacted with God. Thus they reveal some aspect of Him that was important to them, and they thought it might be important to us.

Time to go hide while the brikbat fly, but it does give a few ideas to think about.

Love and hugs,

Mike L

6:52 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike :-)

I'm really out of my league in discussing hermeneutics. It's just that it's been a discussion topic on a few of the blogs I visit.

In one case, the discussion was about how Paul seems to accept slavery in Romans - he tells slaves to obey their masters. Does that mean God thinks slavery is OK? That idea was used by christian slaveowners in the past to justify owning slaves.

I'm not clear on how one should interpret scripture ... there are scholarly and theological theories on how to do so ... but if other people are like me, they may be giving the subject some thought.

1:05 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:19 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

PS, Mike, I changed what I wrote a little bit at the end ... I don't know if that made it better or worse :-)

1:22 AM  
Anonymous Mike L said...

Crystal, I really wouldn't worry too much about hermeneutics as a science. I have always thought that trying to apply science to what God is, does, or said falls more than a bit short since no experiement can be repeated, He just isn't that co-operative :-). It seems to me that the more important thing is our feelings and relationship with God.

One approach to Scripture that I have found fruitful, and so have many others, is that Scripture is a love letter to us from God. As with any love letter, there are intimacies revealed, parts that are meaningful only to the two lovers, insights into each other, expressions of affection, information about how the lover feels and thinks and maybe even just endearments.

As for the slavery angle, it does make things a bit difficult for the literalist, doesn't it? How about some of the laws on uncleaness? Or divorce, or selling female children into slavery? And there is at least one refference to a man sacrificing his own daughter to God because of a promise he made. It would also seem that God wasn't too bothered by either prostitution or by polygamy either. Oh well, maybe this is just the historical part, or maybe we can figure out a reason to just ignore it. On the other hand I can remember when the bishops were adament that capital punishment was not anly moral, but served a good purpose and should be practiced, so maybe that is the modern day example of variations in scripture.

And I think that your ending is excellent, now if I can just figure out how to properly "discern" I will have it made :-).

Love and hugs,

Mike L

8:12 AM  
Blogger Darius said...

To me, it looks so definite that everybody has been interpreting the Bible all along, emphasizing some parts and deemphasizing or ignoring others, that I don't find this idea problematic.

For the church, for example, to pick up on the last supper scene and focus on it to the point of taking it literally and turning it into the doctrine of transubstantiation... It seems to me that they might just as well and easily picked up on the verse where Jesus tells the disciples to call no one on earth their father, for they have but one Father who is in heaven - and rejected "Father" as a title for priests.

Or take Martin Luther's "justification by faith alone." I know that came from a particular passage - in James? So his take on the NT was to deemphasizes the many passages that talk about doing good works.

At an even more basic level, even though I think we can be pretty confident that the historical Jesus existed, we know almost nothing about him in historical terms. The New Testament is a document produced by a community that had come to believe certain things about him, and tells us what they had come to believe. So the NT itself is a highly interpretive group of writings.

Thanks for the link. I'm in good company there with Matthew - I really like your blog and his.

10:37 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Ditto about the discernment :-)

10:40 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Darius,

as for the historical Jesus, there's tons of info. Here's a site with some Jewish references to his existence - link and this page at Mark Goodacre's NT Gateway has some historical Jesus links ... you might like the Jesus Seminar stuff.

It's true that the NT tells us what other people believed, but we can ask ourselves what must have taken place to cause such a belief, one that would likely get them killed. And if you're approaching the subject not just as an historian but as a christian, you have more than just hsitorical sources on which to rely ... you also have religious experience, which is subjective but still makes an impression.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Just a point of cultural curiosity... I've notice that "hermeneutics" is a term used heavily by Catholic Bible scholars and "exegesis" by Protestant Bible scholars. I can't really tell if they are supposed to mean the same thing, or is there is a subtle difference.

The Jefferson "Bible" is interesting and points out a truth that Albert Schweitzer observed when talking about the study of the historical Jesus - Scholars have a tendency to look down the well of history and to see a reflection of themselves. Jefferson was trying to see Jesus as an anti-supernatural, rationalist, enlightenment figure. In the 19th century, scholars like Bultmann were seeing him as a teacher of universal brotherhood. Jesus Seminar scholars see him as an egalitarian champion for the poor and oppressed. I agree with Mike in a way, in that if you really want to look at the historical Jesus in addition to, or instead of the Jesus of faith, you need to try to understand him in the milieu of Second Temple Judaism and 1st Century Galilee and Judea. The scholars who try the hardest to do that are the ones I give the most creedence to.

7:34 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I don't know the answer to the difference between Exegesis and Hermeneutics, but sometimes I visit a page - a biblical studies definition page and it says ...

Exegesis = The exposition of a biblical passage that involves the application of specific critical methodologies. The aim of this exercise is to produce a homiletical or theological piece based on the exegesis. Most exegeses are divided unevenly into lower criticism (textual criticism) and higher criticism. Under "higher criticism" is included the philological, historical, form-critical, redaction-critical, and literary-critical study of the text. Ordinarily exegesis proper, as a literary undertaking in its own right, requires knowledge of the relevant biblical languages and is normally an exercise assigned in divinity schools and seminaries. flh

Hermeneutics = Greek: "interpretation." The study of how one interprets texts (for our purposes, the biblical text). For instance, one may interpret the biblical text with a view to deriving its moral teaching. This would be a moral hermeneutic. Another might interpret the text to discover its meaning for Christian dogma. This would be a dogmatic hermeneutic. Another might be interested in its historical meaning, and this would be a historical hermeneutic. flh

Now, if I could only understand what all that means :-)

12:48 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Jeff said...
I've notice that "hermeneutics" is a term used heavily by Catholic Bible scholars and "exegesis" by Protestant Bible scholars. I can't really tell if they are supposed to mean the same thing, or is there is a subtle difference.

Exegesis is interpreting a text using a well-defined set of rules.

In other words, when you exegete a text, you are applying your hermeneutic.

8:26 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Matthew.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Yes, thanks Matthew. I get it. I think.

Question is, is one entitled to do hermeneutics without being an exegete?

7:04 PM  

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