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Often times when I cite a particularly egregious passage from the Bible in an argument with a Christian, they just shrug and say it's not meant be taken literally, that it's parable, or worse - that they don't follow it because they consider it outright wrong.

If scripture can have multiple, and possibly conflicting interpretations, how does one know which one is the right one? And why did this happen in the first place? ie: why does His word need to be interpreted?

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I appreciate that the Bible is often hard to understand, especially when, as you say, some parts are literal but some are parables. But I also find this question hard to answer as it stands. Perhaps you should add specific examples? Or replace the question with multiple specific example questions. It may help you to know that there are many questions here already that ask how certain passages should be interpreted. –  Wikis Sep 23 '11 at 8:05
@WikisAtArea51 It's meant to be a more general question. If I give an example I'll just end up getting one (or more) interpretations on that passage, derailing the real question. –  user729 Sep 23 '11 at 8:09
I think the problem with the question is that it's actually several questions. 1) "How do we know which interpretation is right?" 2) Why did this (possible conflicting interpretations?) happen in the first place. 3) Why does the Bible need to be interpreted? I think if you narrow the focus of your question, it will be much better. –  Flimzy Sep 23 '11 at 8:41
You might also be interested in this question and answer: Do we have to obey the laws of the bible? If so, what laws? –  dancek Sep 23 '11 at 9:18
This question is just begging for a Catholic apologetics answer. –  Rex Kerr Sep 23 '11 at 13:58
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4 Answers 4

You have asked at least three distinct questions in your question... I'm going to answer the one that I think is the most directly answerable, and hope that it satisfies the others as well.

Why does the Bible need to be interpreted?

Every written work must be interpreted.

When most people I know ask questions like this, what they're really asking is, "Why wasn't the Bible written in clear, easy-to-understand language, for someone living in my modern, Western culture to understand without any special effort?"

And when phrased that way, the answer becomes rather obvious:

The Bible was not written with modern, Western culture in mind. Nor was any other ancient text, religious or otherwise.

In fact, neither was any of Mark Twain's work.

When we read any literature, we must consider the culture in which it was written, and the audience to whom it was written.

Further, we have to recognize the various genres of literature contained within the Bible. It contains poetry, prose, letters, history, law, genealogies, and likely other categories I'm forgetting at the moment. Each of these must be interpreted differently as well--and always with a mind toward the culture that wrote it, and the audience it was written to.

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Ooh, plus metaphors/allegories, hyperboles, and idiomatic expressions! –  Richard Sep 23 '11 at 13:47
Yes, agree, plus the problem of translation. –  user unknown Sep 27 '11 at 1:08
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This question is wide in scope because the Bible is a relatively big book and is very diverse within itself. You may need to deal with each one case by case. But here are some tips.

In general, just apply the normal rules of reading as you would with any piece of literature. If an interpretation feels stretched, then it most likely is.

  • Read the passage in context of its place within the section, within the Testament, within the whole Bible. Don't randomly pick verses and read them in isolation. Beware of building a major doctrine out of an individual verse (proof-texting).

  • Understand the section in terms of its own genre. The Bible is made up of many genres and sub-genres. Don't read a narrative or poem as a science text book, or a parable as history. Don't automatically put yourself in the narrative when it doesn't intend to talk about you (it could be leading up to Jesus, e.g. various people like Moses or King David are to be seen as predecessors to him - whether positive or negative).

  • Try to understand the author's intended meaning. It is a mistake to take the post-modern approach where the meaning lies within each individual reader. E.g. the Gospels were intended by the authors to be historical accounts (Luke 1, Jn 20:30) and they also intended to paint a particular picture of Jesus. E.g. The feeding of the 5000. A modern interpretation of this wanted to explain away the miracle and saw that the boy's act of producing his 5 barley loaves and 2 fish set off an example where everyone else produced their own food - enough to feed everyone. But the author's intention was to show a supernatural sign by Jesus (Jn 6:11, 14).

  • Understand that the Bible is an historical document written in a particular time, place, and circumstance. E.g. the epistles are personal letters, but they are not directly addressed to us. You may or may not draw timeless doctrines and principles from them. It depends on how the point is made or the nature of what is being said. E.g. John 3:36 ("Whoever believes") is a general sweeping statement.

    Look for clues within the text on the actual historical context. Understanding this will often help you understand the meaning of the passage. E.g. in Jn 6:15 they wanted to make Jesus king because of Roman occupation of their land, which is the reason why Jesus goes away - they misunderstood what type of king Jesus would be. Often external references may help but be cautious where modern references want to place a text in a different historical context from what the text itself claims. E.g. Paul did not really write 1 Tim. it often comes from a presupposition that the text is unreliable as an historical document (in which case, why bother reading it at all).

  • It is usually a mistake to read any part of the Bible allegorically (where there is a moral lesson to the story). Don't read into parables too much. E.g. the parable of the Good Samaritan was famously interpreted by Augustine that the good Samaritan is Jesus, the robbers are the devil, we are the ones being robbed by the devil. This interpretation was arbitrary. There was nothing in the text to indicate this. Otherwise anyone could come up with any interpretation. In this particular case, you need to see why Jesus told this story in response to the lawyer (Lk 10:29).

    You can often tell when things are meant to link. It's like when you watch a movie and the characters do/say something that makes you think of something that was hinted at earlier. Use cross-references to help find these links. Sometimes it tells us explicitly E.g. For Lev 16 on temples, priests, sacrifices, see Heb 9. But it's not as simple as looking out the for same word being used.

  • Recognise that the Bible has an overarching story that spans the entire Bible, a bit like a TV series with individual episodes but with developments throughout the series. Don't expect that if you pick a small section in the middle that you can know what the whole thing is about. The Bible has a beginning and an end with plot development throughout. God set off a grand plan from the very beginning which finally found its climax and fulfilment in Jesus (Lk 24:13-27). You may need a book to help you see the forest from the trees. I recommend God's Big Picture or The Goldsworthy Trilogy as a starter.

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I'll answer the second part of your question first. Why does God's word need to be interpreted? All communication is interpreted. Think about a face to face conversation with a friend. When you are listening to them you are watching them for non-verbal cues, looking at their gestures, watching their eyes and facial expressions, and combining all this information with the actual words they are saying to interpret what they really mean to communicate with you. Also informing your understanding is your whole past relationship with this person and their previous communications with you. And this is all with someone you share a language, have the same contemporary culture references, and a genuine interest in hearing what they have to say with no ulterior intention to misunderstand them. Even in this context, misunderstandings can happen. Friends can take offence where it wasn't intended - all because of misinterpreting what was said.

As humans we can be misinterpreted even when we are communicating excellently and we can also flub our communication and make it hard for our hearers to understand. Bearing this in mind we could draw two conclusions about the difficult passages: they are miscommunicated, or our understanding of them is off - because we lack the context or other information. I hold to the second explanation. I would also posit that the Bible is not merely about communicating facts or history, but just like our interpersonal communication, it reveals God's character, personality, and intent to us. If we assume someone has a bad intent towards us, it colors how we listen to them. We are more likely to be offended or angered by them, regardless of their actual intent. The same applies to our friends. We tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when listening to them - and if we can interpret something they say in an offensive way or a benign way, we will usually pick the benign way.

Bearing all that in mind - no Christian you argue with will have a perfect understanding of the Bible - and perhaps they have not engaged the passages you want to argue about. If your question is how can you know without a shadow of a doubt what any particular piece of Scripture is about, then I cannot help. But the real answer to understanding the bits of the Bible that seem outlandish or egregious to you is to make an effort to understand the whole, which will usually put the other pieces in context. Many problem passages are resolved with a better understanding of the whole. Also as you learn about God's character and nature, you begin to form a better understanding of His communication. As a commenter above stated, you can pose the specific examples you are battling with as separate questions, and the community here will do their best to help you understand them.

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It is true that some parts of the Bible can be interpreted differently by different people. However, it must be noted that just because some things are not abundantly clear, this doesn't mean that nothing is abundantly clear.

There are many things, and perhaps even most things, that are really not open to interpretation, because the Scriptures are quite clear on them. Such things would include the following:

  • There is a God.
  • God is the Creator.
  • Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became a Man, died on the Cross and rose again from the dead.
  • Lying, stealing, adultery, murder, envy, jealousy, and pride are all sins.
  • All have sinned.
  • The wages of sin is death.
  • Salvation is found in no one else [besides Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given to men whereby we must be saved.

Things that do have some degree of uncertainty may include the following:

  • Is the gift of tongues something that ceased after the the time of the apostles or is it something that continues to this day?
  • Should baptism be by immersion or by sprinkling?
  • Should a tithe be given strictly to the local church or to any Christian ministry?

A key thing with interpretation is to seek to understand what the intent of the Scriptures is. Too often we try to use the Scriptures to justify our preconceived notions, and that is unfruitful. When we truly seek the meaning of the Scriptures, the variance in interpretations is certainly minimized. Study of the Scriptures should center on exegesis--not eisegesis (reading into the Scriptures).

There are certainly many who try to read into the Scriptures what they think it ought to teach. This accounts for the vast majority of disparate interpretations.

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No, I was actually thinking more along the lines of what God commands in Numbers 31, Exodus 34:11, Joshua 6:16-24, etc. which make some Christian apologists contort logic to say they are justifiable –  user729 Sep 27 '11 at 20:44
@Athiest: Then you should ask that question. –  Flimzy Sep 28 '11 at 9:30
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