Hypothesis: The Bible has many interpretations.

I have heard this as a rebuttal many times. Often it’s a counterargument to some claim about the Bible. It acts as a quick dismissal to almost anything that requires action on the part of the speaker.

The text only says one literal thing

This hypothesis usually demonstrates the ignorance of the one using it. They see others using the Bible and coming to different beliefs and automatically assume that it is being interpreted differently. In order to discuss this issue properly, I’m going to have to provide an example from the Bible. I could have picked just about any section, but Matthew 1:18-25 seemed as good a chunk as any.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

At first glance, I can almost imagine the many interpretations crowd gearing up, and I’m hoping that Matt will chime in on this one because my vantage point is limited. From my perspective, I can see but one literal interpretation. This section is describing events that the Bible claims to have occurred. It describes how they occurred and even give us a little bit of explanation.

I can interpolate that to mean…

While the above example seems straightforward to me, there are clearly some figurative sections of the Bible. If that’s the case, do we need to consider that examples like the one above could be figurative? Absolutely!

In order to understand the text, we are going to have to interpolate at least a little. To interpolate is to alter a text by the insertion of new matter. Any one verse or section by itself is insufficient information to properly interpret the text. The first and foremost source of new information is the context. Context is literally king. The circumstances and facts that surround a particular section define that section. If I point at a girl who is sweating profusely and say she is hot, I probably mean one thing. In the case of the Bible, you must consider the author and recipient (if known), the locale, geography, and culture, and above all, the original language. After the immediate context, we continue with the whole context of the Bible, and then add to that all of our faculties – observation, research, and knowledge.

In the case of our example, we have a purely historical context. The author is a Jew writing to the Jews. The book is written in such a way to be memorized (by Jews). The tradition of the day was to be “married” in lieu of an engagement. This betrothal was as legal as marriage, but the couple did not consummate the marriage until later. Thus Joseph would have to divorce Mary even though they were not yet living together. Angel means messenger. Virgin means virgin. Marital relations means sex. It’s all pretty straightforward. Of course, what it claims is miraculous, but there is nothing to suggest anything figurative. There is no reason to make it say something that it doesn’t.

This is how I apply what it meant

Only after I think I know what the text says can I apply it. In other words, now that I’ve read the warning label on the hot coffee, I can choose what to do about it. This is what most people mean when they say the Bible has many interpretations. They really mean to say that the Bible has been applied so many different ways. And that is most certainly true.

In reality, much of the disagreement between Bible users is that they do not follow what it says. The Bible clearly condemns idolatry, but the Roman Catholic church encourages icon worship. The Bible never suggests that “deacons” should be anything more than servants, but Baptists put them in charge. I doubt the problem lies so much within the text as much as in faulty interpolation and ultimately faulty application.

Verdict: Undecided*

* I think this topic needs a lot more attention.