You may have heard someone make this claim, “I can make the Bible say anything I want!” “That interpretation is good for you, but it doesn’t work for me.” “No one can really know what the Bible’s authors’ intended.” Our postmodern world seeks to question everything, believe nothing, and live in uncertainty.
How do we respond?
We cannot make the Bible mean anything we want if we consider a few truths. First, the Bible can only mean what the original author under the guidance of the Holy Spirit intended it to mean. Secondly, the author had a specific audience in a specific place in mind. Thirdly, author’s write with purpose or intentionality. The author employed certain kinds of literature, writing styles, and employed specific kinds of literary forms.
To illustrate why context is important, consider the word ‘ball.’ What does it mean to say, “it was a ball?” Could it be that the context in which this statement is made will determine its intended meaning? If an baseball umpire says, “It’s a ball,” does that imply one meaning? Or if someone says, “We went to a formal dance last night, “It was a ball,” have another meaning? Or even if another person exclaims, “We went to a party yesterday, “and it was a ball.”
How do you know what each statement means? Context! Context casts light upon the intended meaning. So, we want to be able to assess the intended meaning of the text, then we must investigate a few key contexts with detail.
The next several weeks we will begin to explore ways to avoid “Making the Bible Say Anything We Want.”
To Keep from Making the Text Say Anything We Want –
STEP ONE – To Keep from Making the Text Say Anything We Want – We need to research the author’s background by exploring several key areas, such as,
- Worldview: values, mindset, or outlook of the writer, recipients or others mentioned.
- Societal structures: marriage and family patterns, roles of men and women, or racial status.
- Physical features: climate, weather, structures, implements, or ease and means of transportation.
- Economic structures: means of making a living, issues of wealth and poverty, slavery, or economic mobility.
- Political climate: structures, or loyalties, including actual personnel
- Behavior patterns: dress or customs.
- Religious practices: power centers, convictions, rituals, or affiliations.
STEP TWO – To Keep from Making the Text Say Anything We Want – As much as possible – reconstruct the historical setting and cultural features of the text.
- Explore the situation of the author with a direct focus on why the author wrote the passage.
- Discover the situation of the people involved in the event(s) recorded in the passage that helps to explain why the author penned his material to them.
- Study the relationship between the author and the recipients of the book or involved in the passage.
- Investigate the cultural or historical features recorded in the passage.
STEP THREE – To Keep from Making the Text Say Anything We Want -we need to know what tools to discover and utilize.
Some suggestions would be:
A. The Bible Itself – there are many historical-cultural hints directly in the text. There may be other books that the author wrote to provide additional context. Or perhaps the audience is the same and this provides more evidence to explore.
B. Specialized Materials – today a plethora of materials are available to assist the interpreter with this context of the author.
Here are a few materials to consider:
Matthew, V. H. Manners and Customs in the Bible: Revised Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 1991.
This presents a reliable overview of daily life for both the Old and New Testaments.
Thompson, J. A. A Handbook of Life in Bible Times. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 186.
Seek this book for another handy overview of life in both testaments.
Blaiklock. E. M. and Harrison, R. K. eds. The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
A dated work written by conservative scholars and organized by subject. This allows the laymen the experience the archaeological discoveries shedding light on the text.
Wiseman, D. Peoples of the Old Testament Times, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
This work offers insights in the nations surrounding Israel.
King, P. J. and Stager, L. E. Life in Biblical Israel. Library of Ancient Israel, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Some claim this is the best color photographs and pictures to illustrate how life was lived in ancient times.
Pritchard, J. B. ed., The Ancient Near East in Pictures, 2d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
This presents photographs along with explanations of life in the ancient Near East and gives an excellent view into the ancient world of the Bible.
Aharoni, Y. The Land of the Bible. Rev ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979.
A well known Israeli archaeologist presents extensive information on the geography of ancient Israel.
Sasson, J. M. ed. Civilization of the Ancient Near East, 4 vols. New York: Scribner, 1995.
Considered as the standard, in-depth book on the major cultural groups of the ancent world.
Esler, P. F. The First Christians in their Social World. London/New York: Routledge, 1994.
A very readable introduction to the sociological background of the New Testament.
Malina, B. J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. 3d rev and expanded ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox. 2001.
Extremely insightful, this book provides windows into understanding certain values, practices, and perspectives of people in the first century world.
Meeks. W. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
This was a ground-breaking work using the sociological approach to understand the biblical world of Paul with its associations and institutions.
Many others could be mentioned, but these will give the reader a place to begin exploring this fascinating world of the Bible. A helpful resource which I used for this blog is William Klein’s An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.
Respond to this question, please:
What other statements do you hear people make related to the idea that I can make the Bible say anything I want it to mean? Or have you discovered other books / resources to help with the context of a passage?
Please feel free to leave a reply below: