Interpreting the Bible: Straightforward or Sophisticated?

Bible, interpretation

I recently debated (cordially) with a friend about the words of Jesus to Thomas in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 29 — “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” My friend interpreted this to be an encouragement toward “blind faith,” while I took Jesus to be saying that those who believe based on the adequate evidence of testimony are even more “blessed” than those who see Jesus in the flesh. My friend takes his interpretation to be the straightforward, common sense view, and he sees my interpretation as strained.

When I make a complex argument for my view on this (or other passages), he contends that we shouldn’t need a PhD to understand this stuff–it was written by, and to, simple, every day people without years of graduate education. I can’t disagree with him on that point. But, at the same time, I believe we make mistakes in interpretation easily due to certain kinds of ignorance. What I want to do in this post is not debate this passage in particular, but rather to argue that the Bible is both simple and complex, both easy and hard, at the same time.

Ask Someone Who Knows

Eugene Peterson, BibleEugene Peterson, who recently passed away, wrote some of my favorite books and my favorite translation of the Bible (The Message). I trust him as an “expert witness” in this area. I trust Peterson for a few reasons. (1) He was a good man, by all accounts, (2) he translated the ENTIRE Bible from the original languages, and (3) he presents an honest and balanced approach to our question.

The Bible As Straight Talk

Peterson argues, in his book, Eat This Book (Eerdmans, 2006), that the Bible was written in ordinary language for ordinary people. This conviction drove his translation work. “I identified with the first writers and readers/listeners of Scripture, whose first concern had to do with living in the company of the Trinity while walking down the muddy roads of Galilee and Judea and navigating through the sexual chaos of Corinth.” (p.165) “[It] occurred to me that the first people who heard or read the Bible didn’t need a dictionary of a concordance. . . All these books came out of the common life and common knowledge of the people, many, maybe most, of them illiterate. Not unintelligent, mind you, but not schooled.” (p. 166)

Peterson agreed with the Reformers on the “perspicuity” of the Bible–“the conviction that the Bible is basically readable as it is. It is not a body of secret lore accessible only to an academic elite. It is written plainly for plain men and women. “(p. 167) This motivated him to work hard to capture the original ideas and intentions of the biblical authors and to translate them into contemporary language and idioms that the ordinary person can understand today.

Daily Bread

bread, Bible

Here’s an example of the tendency to overdo interpretation. For centuries, scholars assumed that the phrase “daily bread” (arton epiousion) in the Lord’s Prayer must have been a reference to some spiritual sustenance, rather than actual, humdrum bread. Part of the argument was that the term epiousion (daily) was not found in any other ancient Greek writings, and must therefore be a special “spiritual” word, obscured from pedestrian readers.

This, of course, all turned out to be rubbish. In 1925, an archaeological dig at Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) unearthed, in an ancient scrapheap, an ordinary housekeeping book. It contained a shopping list for chickpeas, straw, and . . . wait for it . . .  epiousion. It turned out that Jesus’ prayer referred to good old, fresh-baked bread. (pp. 147-150) Sometimes the simplest view is the correct one.

The Bible As Complex Literature

So how can I still maintain that the Bible contains complexities that require expert guides? One reason is what I call the “time travel” problem. Let me illustrate. In Back To the Future, Marty McFly experiences this problem while trying to order a soda at the local hang out.

Marty, who time traveled from 1985 to 1955, asks for perfectly ordinary soft drinks like ‘Tab’ and ‘Pepsi-Free.’ So why doesn’t the bar keep doesn’t understand?  Marty’s not using “mysterious,” confusing words, and yet, no one is 1955 would know what they mean. In fact, some readers in 2018 feel equally flummoxed by the terms. When we read an ancient text from another culture, we experience the same difficulties, but amplified even more. Instead of 1950’s America, we’re reading about 1st century Palestine, or 20th century BCE Egypt.

Peterson discusses these temporal/cultural complexities of exegesis and translation in an essay entitled, Eat This Book: The Holy Community at Table with the Holy Scripture.

The scriptural text is complex and demanding. The primary witnesses to God’s revelation are the Old and New Testaments: Torah and Prophets and Writings from the Old Testament; Gospels, Letters, and Apocalypse in the New. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, languages that have, as all languages do, their own peculiar way of inflecting nouns, conjugating verbs, inserting prepositions in odd places, and arranging words in a sentence. Written on parchment and papyri. Written with pen and ink. Written in Palestine and Egypt and Syria and Greece and Italy. . .

. . . Each book has its own way about it, and generally a careful reader begins to learn how to read a book by slowly and carefully poking around in it for a very long time until a way is found. A careful reader (an exegete!) will proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it. For it soon becomes obvious that our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyperspiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncracies of local history and peasant dialect expunged. There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be recovered. (pp. 2-3)

International Time Travel

Peterson understands that we, as readers, are international time travelers. And as such, we face all the problems that international travelers face, multiplied by 1,000. The original text makes simple sense to an ordinary person in the ancient world, but can confound modern readers. This is why Peterson felt so passionate about his translation.

ancient, Parthenon, BibleWhen my wife and I travel to another country, we start preparing with Rick Steves. We want to learn as much as we can about the history, language, culture, and geography of our destination. We have enjoyed “walking tours” in places like Athens and Barcelona while listening to Rick Steves’ narration piped through our ear buds. The places simply come alive for us, and we miss out on this without a knowledgeable chaperon. Peterson does the same with the Bible in his teaching and translation, informing and even correcting our experience of the raw text.

I think people sometimes resist this viewpoint–that the Bible often requires additional insight and effort to understand–for at least two reasons. First, they like the idea that reading the Bible is an effortless process, requiring very little intellectual work. They passively assume the Spirit will reveal everything to them. Second, skeptics want to flatten out all the genre distinctions and hermeneutical nuances in order to generate more problems and inconsistencies. This sort of fundamentalism helps make the atheist’s case.


study, BibleSo is the Bible straightforward and easy to understand? To the original audience, absolutely. But because we are international time travelers, we often need guides to help us understand what we are seeing. Additionally, interpreting any work of literature has challenges, and the Bible has these more mundane issues as well–verb tenses, vocabulary, context, literary devices, etc. None of these are insurmountable obstacles to understanding for regular folks, but they often require some work and a guide. The “first impression” of a passage isn’t always accurate (or complete), any more than my first impressions of the Parthenon were.

The take away here, for me, is that we ought to hold these two truths in tension as we read the Bible. We come to the text both adequate and inadequate at the same time. This should stir up humility and motivate us to put in our “due diligence” in understanding what is said. But it should also guard us against both discouragement and elitism.