The Bible Can Be Hard to Interpret


Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I have oft argued that much of what allows a religious text to stand the test of different eras is its ambiguity, and the Bible is the clearest example of this that I am aware. It’s meaning and interpretation are continually shaped by people’s needs and desires as much as it shapes those same needs and desires.Report

    • Avatar nevermoor says:


      I actually disagree with this, though. The Bible couldn’t be clearer about a lot of things that we simply refuse to do now (female subservience, the numerous restrictions in the Old Testament, slavery, etc.) but because it is entrenched we simply “interpret” those unambiguous passages to fit our needs while pretending we are biblical literalists.

      I mean, could the Bible be any clearer on the role it assigns women than Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:21-24, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and Titus 2:4-9?

      (important disclaimer: I’m not saying people should behave that way. I don’t, and they shouldn’t. I’m pushing back on the idea that the Bible survives by being ambiguous.)Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        There is ample ambiguity to be found. All those Old Testament restrictions are the low-hanging fruit, seeing as how Paul drones on endlessly about their no longer applying, and what with Peter’s vision prior to his meet-up with Cornelius. Yet at the same time most (though not all) people agree that this wasn’t meant as carte blanche for going on killing and fornicating spree. Ambiguity abounds.Report

        • Avatar nevermoor says:

          I’m sorry, which of my citations there are to Old Testament passages?

          I understand the point about Old Testament requirements being countermanded, but there’s plenty of clarity in the New Testament too (and clarity that was meant to be read literally at the time!). We just abstract away BECAUSE we like the book, rather than liking the book BECAUSE it is abstract.Report

          • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

            I’m sorry, which of my citations there are to Old Testament passages?

            “…the numerous restrictions in the Old Testament…”Report

            • Avatar nevermoor says:

              I mean, could the Bible be any clearer on the role it assigns women than Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:21-24, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and Titus 2:4-9?

              But if you don’t want to engage with that, it’s certainly your prerogative. And, of course, the Old Testament took hold with those other clearly-defined rules in place, not ambiguous ones.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

                Are you seriously complaining that I picked a different part of your list to comment on than you think I ought to have?Report

              • Avatar nevermoor says:

                I’m noting that I said, the bible is very clear in a lot of places to which you responded “one of those places is low hanging fruit” and stopped there. Which is your prerogative, of course.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

                You made a list of claims. I picked one. Why that one? Because it was trivially easy. If you are unhappy about this, make a better list. Or don’t. Your prerogative, of course.Report

            • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

              If you want to stick to the role of women, yes, there are the standard proof texts. There also are the numerous examples of women taking prominent roles. The announcement of the resurrection is a classic example. If you read some of the less quotable bits of Paul’s letters it comes through that women were doing more than baking cookies for the menfolk–even apart from the Junia(s) travesty.Report

              • Avatar nevermoor says:

                I’m not sure how that’s inconsistent with the clear, oft-repeated mandate that wives are inferior to husbands.

                I totally get how it provides some pretext for modern (and right!) attitudes about gender equality but which of those examples has a wife defying her husband?

                I’m not (just) being pedantic here. I think @tod-kelly makes an interesting historical argument but that in fact precisely the reverse is true. I think what’s remarkable is that once something becomes entrenched in a large enough number of people’s lives, those people are able to convince themselves that it supports their desires no matter how clearly contrary those desires are.Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          this wasn’t meant as carte blanche for going on killing and fornicating spree

          [frowns, pulls out Day Planner and red pen]Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    So much for sola scriptura. It should be scarce wonder to the contemplative theist that skeptics sometimes aver that theologians can render the Bible into a mandate to do whatever it was that they wanted to do anyway. (Either with or without the Aquinan averrance that reason, as a gift from God, is the equivalent of scripture itself.)

    Also, does scripture offer guidance on distinguishing a “tyrant” from a “unpleasant-to-Christians but still fundamentally fair ruler”?Report

  3. Avatar Lurker says:

    “if objective truth can be found outside the four corners of the Bible”

    What a crazy hypothetical. We all know only the Bible makes true statements.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Yeah, Kim Davis is a total hypocrite, fleeing from the police and hiding to try and avoid going to jail. The worst part is how she locked the office doors and shredded all the marriage license forms to stop them being issued.

    Oh wait, none of that happened. In fact, she calmly and reasonably went to jail for as long as they said she had to, and when she went back to work she didn’t interfere with what was going on.Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Less flippantly: It is utter foolishness to cite anything from Paul’s letters without understanding the historical context. Paul’s writings against homosexuality, for example, in a modern context, would be Tumblr posts about Rape Culture.Report

  6. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    But he knocks down a straw man. Even the thinkers who have the most fundamentalist approach on Romans 13 (Drs. John MacArthur and Gregg Frazer) don’t claim this.

    Yabbut… Most of the discussion out in the wild is not between “thinkers.” Lots of people proof text from the Bible to bolster whatever it is that they wanted to do anyway. And the people who want to do something else dredge up proof texts of their own. Mutual denunciation follows, and a good time is had by all. People with anything like a plausible claim to being a thinker play the game differently, but they are in the minority.Report