Challenges are inevitable when attempting to read a collection of writings spanning such a large period of time and cultural contexts. In many respects, reading the Bible is like listening to half of a phone conversation or reading a 100-year-old letter buried in a box of family souvenirs.
There have been good and bad attempts at understanding the Bible’s place in our lives. The awful Jonestown cult is a good example of interpretation gone wrong. Ditto the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. There’s no end to the craziness.
Nor are debates about interpretation limited to Christianity. Muslims are experiencing it with the rise of fundamentalism across the Islamic world. The same with the Jews during the time of Christ as reflected in the arguments between the Pharisee and Sadducee sects. In the U.S. we have a whole branch of government, the Judicial branch, which settles arguments about the meaning of laws.
As long as humans are involved, there will be no end to the debates. However, there are disciplines that aid the process and inch us closer to more sensible interpretations. 1) The first is to consider the context in which a document was written. Knowing what was happening at the time of the writing of the document is crucial for interpretation.
2) The second discipline is to attempt to determine what the author meant. This discipline is connected to context in direct ways. A context provides the subject matter being address by the author. Once context is established, it is easier to ask what the author intended to say about it.
The New Testament is filled with good examples of the importance of this. Why, for example, did the apostle Paul tell women to “keep silent in the churches”? Was it because he was a male chauvinist pig, or was there a larger issue at stake?
3) The third discipline is to ask what prejudices the interpreter may have that cloud his/her interpretation. A man, for example, who thinks women are second class citizens, will mistakenly read Paul as a fellow chauvinist. Honest reading requires a third ear which listens for undiscovered truths and admits their truthfulness. This sort of reading requires courage and curiosity.
Interpreting texts is something we all have to do every day. We interpret letters to the editor in the local newspaper. We interpret the meaning of traffic signs, especially when driving in a foreign country. We interpret books, magazines, letters from loved ones, and internet documents. Most of the time, correct understanding occurs.
However, there are those times when personal prejudice or ignorance about the intent of the author causes severe misinterpretations. The results can be disastrous. The mass-suicide of 909 people in the Jonestown cult in Guyana, is a really extreme, but good, example of what can happen when people attempt to read anything without sound guidelines.