Understanding Bible Interpretations and Christian Perspectives on the Bible
Considering how many of my future posts may involve studying the Bible, it would be very beneficial early on to discuss biblical interpretation. In this article, I will discuss the basics of Bible interpretation, as well as dissect the flawed ways most Christians, and even some atheists, interpret it.
Putting faith aside, as many atheists and freethinkers do, the Bible is nothing special. It is not some revealed word of God, but rather, a collection of works assembled over the course of around one thousand years. It can sometimes be difficult to interpret, even for the most sincere truth seeker, because it was written in a context much different than our own. It was also written in languages other than English, and translations can at times skew and obscure the original meaning. It was written by many authors in an evolving cultural and theological context, with layers of theology imposed upon previous layers of theology. While many Christians take a look at the top layer and attempt to read it as a single coherent work, this view is often misguided and wrong, because it imposes a context that is often different than what was intended in the original text. I have also noticed some ex-Christian atheists do this as well and it sometimes loses them debates. For people to truly understand the Bible for what it is, it is important to learn the historical and cultural contexts it was written in and to peel back the “layers” of theology and culture so to speak, because sometimes what is interpreted at face value and what is interpreted in its proper historical and literary context are two different things.
While free thinkers generally start with few assumptions and try to build knowledge up, many theists often bring their own presuppositions to the table in obtaining knowledge. In the case of the Bible, this is no different. Whereas freethinkers should be like scholars, attempting to understand the Bible for what it really means, and make judgment calls based off of that, Christians often use the Bible to uphold or confirm their preconceived beliefs. While many Christians claim to care about “context”, their idea of context is much different than it would be for a scholar or an atheist. They often interpret it within a theological context, assuming it is divinely inspired. These assumptions can vary among Christians, but most Christians I have previously engaged with believe that the Bible’s very words were influenced by God to varying degrees. They often impose a theological context on the text, making it say something that it never intended to say. We see this in the Bible itself, with New Testament interpretations of the old testament. For example, there is a lot of talk in the New Testament about Old Testament prophecies allegedly predicting the life of Jesus. I will not get into all of them in this post, but a prominent one is the idea that in Isaiah 7:14 predicts that a virgin will bear a son. This verse is often used in the New Testament as a prediction of Jesus, who was allegedly born of a virgin (Matthew 1:22-23). The problem is that this interpretation of Isaiah is wrong on so many levels. First of all, if one reads the context of Isaiah 7, Isaiah was predicting that King Ahaz, who was worried about the contemporary Assyrian threat, would have a son, and by the time he grows up enough to have a solid basis of morality, the kingdom that he dreads will no longer exist (Isaiah 7:1-16). This verse literally has nothing to do with Jesus at all. A second problem with this interpretation is that the idea of a virgin giving birth is a mistranslation.The word “virgin” was mistranslated from a similar word, which meant something along the lines of “young woman”, which makes way more sense in context.That being said, the New Testament interpretations of the old testament that many Christians accept is not necessarily the correct interpretation of the works at hand.
Biblical literalists and fundamentalists generally take the strongest stance on the Bible. They believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant. They often believe that it is the literal word of God, and as a result, that it cannot be wrong, and that it cannot contradict itself. If it is wrong or contradictory, then it is unreliable, and the entire worldview fundamentalists rely upon is undermined. This leads to all kinds of strange conclusions in practice. When talking to theists about the origins of the universe, they may believe that the world is around six thousand years old, because it is in the Bible. If one presents them with evidence, they will deny it, rationalize it away somehow, or say that they’re interpreting the data differently because they believe the Bible. This is why some fundamentalists will say that radiocarbon dating is wrong , that the flood explains much of the geology we see, or even that just because the universe looks old does not mean it is old because God could make a young universe that looks old. The ultimate presupposition for all of these beliefs and claims is that the Bible is to be trusted over the physical universe we live in whenever a contradiction arises. When the universe contradicts the Bible, the universe must somehow be wrong, which leads to a blatant denial of reality.
We also see a similar pattern of behavior in terms of fundamentalists interpreting Bible contradictions. Many fundamentalist Christians assume that the Bible cannot contradict itself, and if it does appear contradict itself, the reader is interpreting it wrong. Now, if one has a scholarly Bible and perhaps read some work by scholars such as by Bart Ehrman (his book, ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ is an excellent place to start), they will likely see contradictions rife in the text, since they have learned to peel back the layers of theology and see how various parts of the Bible fit together with one another. They will see that accounts by different authors actually do contradict each other. However, keep in mind, fundamentalists often treat the Bible as a single work inspired by God that does not and cannot contradict itself. One might ask them how Judas died, since the account of Matthew and the account of Acts are different from one another, and they will likely come up with a complex scenario explaining away the contradiction. They will say that while yes, Matthew described Judas hanging himself (Matthew 27:5) while Acts described him falling in bursting open (Acts 1:18), both happened. They will say he hanged himself and then as he decomposed, he burst open, so there is not a real contradiction there. In other words, a skeptic can present any contradiction, no matter how obvious, and fundamentalists will find some way to explain it away, often violating Occam’s razor and constructing elaborate scenarios in order to do so. They do this because any admitted contradiction undermines their entire worldview. However, what scholars believe about these two verses is entirely different.
Matthew’s account is not one half of an unfortunate story regarding Judas. There is no evidence of any kind that Matthew had any knowledge of the death account presented in Acts, and vice versa. In fact, most scholars see Matthew as attempting to perform Midrash, a Jewish literary format that reiterates a story of the Old Testament. Specifically, Matthew takes a story from Zechariah and uses it to reinterpret the death of Judas in a new light. Both Matthew’s version of Judas’s death and Zechariah 11 both feature the throwing of thirty shekels into the house of the Lord. Zechariah also ends the chapter four verses later by condemning the fate of a shepherd who had betrayed the Lord, though he describes a different death where the oh so righteous prophet wishes that “the sword may strike his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be completely withered, his right eye utterly blinded” (That’s totally the same God who inspired “Turn the other cheek” in the New Testament, right?).
Acts, on the ends, says that Judas’s bowels busted open. Now, this actually sounds like a tradition that pops up in the writings of a particular Church Father by the name of Papias. In approximately the year 150, Papias wrote that “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.” This, my friends, would give us the context by which the early Christians understood this passage. This context is the one we have evidence for, though it is invariably at odds with the idea that Judas died by hanging off a cliff or that his body bursted after hanging for awhile or whatever other ad hoc’d reconciliation the apologists come up with. But because of the priori assumptions of the fundamentalist Christian, they must reject the evidenced interpretations of the Matthew and Acts accounts of Judas’s death and instead invent their own Gospel which is found in neither account! Their interpretations are necessarily skewed and unreliable
Now, many non-fundamentalist Christians reading this post will say that they don’t interpret the Bible literally, but they still believe it. I admit, Christianity is a very diverse religion, and it is only inevitable in a post like this that some interpretation will be left out. However, in my experience, even liberal Christians tend to bring certain presuppositions to the Bible. They are just a lot more slippery in doing so, or sometimes flat out cherrypick the text. While a literalist will deny reality when it contradicts scripture, liberal Christians may attempt to reconcile the Bible with reality, much like literal Christians try to reconcile the Bible with itself. Instead of denying science in favor of creationism, they might simply reinterpret the text to be non-literal somehow. They might claim the creation story is not history, but it was a story meant to reveal some spiritual truth. This seems silly because the main point of the story of Adam and Eve, for instance, appears to be that obedience is good and daring to think for oneself (a.k.a. “be like God”) is the root of all evil, which is not a very good message at all (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:4-5). A liberal Christian might also interpret the Bible’s failings in a way that they are unfalsifiable. Preterists are a good example of this. They rationalize away the failed prophecy that the second coming of Christ would happen in the lifetimes of the people Jesus preached to (Matthew 24:34) by claiming it already happened. They assert that instead of establishing a physical kingdom, God established a “spiritual” one. This seems to be flat out mental acrobatics of someone who refuses to be wrong. We also see this rationalization in the Adam and Eve story when skeptics ask why Adam and Eve did not die the day they ate the fruit (Genesis 2:16-17). They claim that it was a “spiritual” death or some mumbo jumbo. Once again, it is unconvincing, and appears to be a last ditch effort by a believer to reconcile his Biblical beliefs with reality.
Beyond that, some liberal Christians blatantly cherrypick the Bible. Some will admit that the Bible can be wrong, and that while inspired by God it was written by fallible men. The primary problem with this perspective has already been pointed out by fundamentalists. If a Christian admits that the Bible can be in error, how can they reliably interpret it? Moreover, if one uses rationality to interpret the Bible, they are not trusting in the Bible, but in their own reasoning. While I have no problem with people interpreting the Bible in light of reasoning, the question then becomes why claim to follow the Bible at all or give it a special status among books that one reads? It seems this kind of Christian is stuck between two conflicting worldviews, or is what James referred to as being “double minded” (James 1:6-8). Once again, it appears that Christians have presuppositions about God or the Bible that they do not want to let go of, but instead tries to reconcile them with reality.
That being said, this post has attempted to do an overview of Christian and scholarly interpretations of scripture, and attempted to help atheists and freethinkers recognize the presuppositions Christians bring to their interpretations of the Bible, as well as establish a scholarly framework in which we can interpret the Bible in its proper historical context. To summarize what was said above in one sentence, in interpreting the Bible, scholars (and atheists should try to think like scholars if they wish to be correct) often let the facts regarding the historical and literary context of the text guide their interpretation of the Bible, while Christians often presuppose the veracity of the Bible and attempt to make the facts fit their preconceptions, or try to reconcile those preconceptions with reality. This article does not cover the validity of the presuppositions underlying theistic interpretation of scripture, and discussion of the presuppositions themselves are best left for another discussion. It also may not cover every interpretation out there, because Christians are a diverse group with literally thousands of different possible interpretations of their holy book.
For those wishing to learn more about how to interpret the Bible in its proper context, an important resource might be Open Yale Courses, which has academic lectures on the Bible available for free online. It might also be good to pick up a good scholarly Bible with a good commentary, such as this one.
This article deserves a special thanks to our own Nick Duncan, for doing the research on how to properly interpret the two different contradicting stories of Juda’s death.
J.W is an ex-Christian with a lot of interesting things to say. He argues passionately about religion and politics, and bases his views on logic, reason, and evidence.