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I realise there's always a level of interpretation neccesary when reading anything, but the level of interpretation needed to understand the Bible is very high when compared to everyday reading - some people spend their entire lives trying to understand what it means.

Example

If a friend says to me:

I'm going to the shop, I will be back before 1PM.

I don't have a reason to interpret this statement as meaning 1PM tomorrow, or 1PM next week.

We could compare this to Luke 21:32:

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place

This to me means that all the prophecies described in the bible would happen while the generation that Jesus spoke to was still alive.

However it's often interpreted to mean something entirely different. Here is one Christian interpretation:

(This refers) to a future generation that sees the events He spoke of prophetically.

Note: I'm not asking specifically about this interpretation it's just an example - I'm asking in general why it is subject to a high level of interpretation.

  • Is it because the Bible was written in another language, and we can't assume it has been translated properly?
  • Is it because the Bible states that it's not always to be taken literally?
  • Something else?
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People have answered this with "how" (historical, cause/effect) type answers, but I feel like there is a deeper "why" question here -- why would God allow the Bible to go this way? Is this your real question (because that's my question)? –  zipquincy Sep 22 '11 at 13:32
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Everything is subject to 100% interpretation. What does this mean to you: أنا أحبك. How about this: Я люблю тебя.? Or this: Miluji tě.? They mean nothing to you (I'm guessing) because you don't know how to interpret these languages. If I say I love you, you have a much better idea how to interpret it. But even so, it's rather out of context--what do I really mean? 100% of communication is 100% subject to interpretation. –  Flimzy Mar 6 at 23:10
    
@Flimzy With the Bible each interpretation can wildly differ (sometimes regardless of the authors knowledge of context and history). It's definitely subject to higher levels of interpretation than everyday language. The question is why? –  CiscoIPPhone Mar 12 at 23:01
    
@CiscoIPPhone: I disagree. Completely. It's exactly the same as any other communication. So the answer is: The question is based on a false premise. –  Flimzy Mar 12 at 23:01
    
@Flimzy I don't know how you can say that when there are thousands or more varieties of Christian denomination, many of which exist because they have interpreted the bible in different ways to the others. –  CiscoIPPhone Mar 12 at 23:06
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4 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

The Bible is subject to several different types of interpretation and criticism. This is for various reasons:

  1. It was originally written in languages that are no longer spoken. The ancient Greek and Hebrew that it was written in are similar but dramatically different than the current forms of those languages (languages morph and change over time).

  2. Translation from one language into another is not a lossless conversion process. You can lose some of the meaning and significance in the translation from the source material. You can also introduce noise into the new copy through lingual nuance. This is why so many different English translations of the Bible exist; reading several translations will often give a clearer picture, but sometimes you just have to go back to the original language.

  3. It was written for and by ancient cultures that we share very little cultural reference with.

  4. It was written over a great deal of time by a variety of people in a variety of places on a changing cultural landscape.
  5. It's a piece of historical literature and thus subject to the same interpretation and criticism as all historical literature is subject to. Pages and volumes of ink has been spilled on Chaucer and Shakespeare, in more recent times, and Plato, Aristotle and Josephus in more ancient ones.

  6. It is considered to be the word of God. If God spoke it then it should be examined carefully to see what it says.

  7. Finally, it is considered to be "living" meaning that it is constantly applicable to our daily lives, even though it was written ages ago. To emphasize this Hebrews 4:12-13(NIV)

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

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+1 for ancient Greek and Hebrew being very different from modern Greek and Hebrew. Just look how difficult Shakespearean English is for modern English speakers to comprehend, and that's with only about 4 centuries worth of language drift. –  Mason Wheeler Sep 8 '11 at 12:01
    
But if this is God's word, the reference book he gives us for how to live our lives and how to achieve salvation, why leave all these factors in place -- why not make everything absolutely clear? Why not guide translators to perfect translations? What is His purpose in leaving things open to question? For example, why the heck isn't it made crystal clear whether or not Jesus was God, or the reality & nature of the Trinity, or whether works can get you to heaven? Since there is debate on these subjects, the word is obviously not clear -- assuming God has a good reason for this, what is it? –  zipquincy Sep 22 '11 at 13:29
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The most common Christian viewpoint is that the Bible is the infallible word of God.

If a particular part of it seems to contradict reality or another part of the Bible it must be the interpretation that is incorrect ergo there has to be an interpretation that makes sense (regardless of how obvious that interpretation is).

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I wasn't planning on writing an answer to my own question, but after submitting the question and thinking about it I came to this conclusion. –  CiscoIPPhone Sep 8 '11 at 11:17
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The Bible consists of many books from different times, in different languages. Every one of these books is very old, and comes from a culture very different from ours. Thus there are many reasons why the communication could fail -- i.e. we might misunderstand what a given passage was meant to communicate.

Compare to the U.S. legislation, written in plain English quite recently. How many people make a living off of interpreting it?

What's more, Christians consider the Bible the Word of God. That makes it very interesting and gives a strong motivation for trying to understand it. That alone is enough for someone to commit their life to studying the Bible. Moreover, like CiscoIPPhone's answer explains, those considering the Bible infallible don't believe there are any contradictions in the Bible -- so some will work really hard to explain any claimed contradictions.

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Um, let's see. There's the president, the House of Representatives, the Senate.... :D –  RCIX Sep 8 '11 at 16:13
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Every text is subject to interpretation at some level. The deeper the subject matter, the more this is true. The Constitution of the United States has been interpreted many different ways, and people argue about its meaning even today.

The other answers regarding language, culture, and time all contribute to the problem. The fact that the text is considered by many interpreters to be infallible adds another dynamic: an interpretation of one part of the Bible cannot contradict the meaning of another part. Actually, I find this to be a help in interpretation. A difficult passage may be explained by other parts of the Bible.

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