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Bible interpretation

Method 2 of 4: Interpreting the
Bible as an historical document.

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Interpreting the Bible as a historical document:

Christians who use this approach to biblical interpretation view the Bible as having been written by very human, fallible authors. The writers were motivated by a desire to promote their own religious, spiritual, and political beliefs and/or those of their faith group. The Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) thus reflect the evolution of religious and cultural thought over about a ten century time span.

Some beliefs which are common to those using this interpretive technique include:

bulletThe authors of the Bible were very human and often made mistakes in their writing.
bulletBiblical writers attempted to explain their beliefs about God and his will for humanity. Being fallible, they sometimes wrote material that was contrary to the will of God.
bulletParts of the Hebrew Scriptures represent the beliefs of Hebrews during the Bronze Age (circa 2000 to 1200 BCE). This was a pre-scientific age whose rules of behavior are from a pre-scientific age and not particularly applicable to 21st century culture.
bulletSome parts of the Bible should be ignored and are not suitable as a guide to modern living. Typical examples are: laws regulating slavery, restricting the roles of women, ordering genocide, torturing prisoners, allowing the rape of female prisoners of war, requiring the murder of religious and sexual minorities, requiring the burning of some prostitutes alive, and many other activities considered profoundly immoral by today's ethical standards
bulletThe authors were limited by the tribal nature of their culture, their theocratic or dictatorial political structure, their lack of scientific knowledge, etc. Human rights were not highly valued in biblical times. With few exceptions, women experienced a very low status in the culture, and were often treated as property.
bulletMany passages from the Hebrew Scriptures treated women as property and inferior to men
bulletSome forged passages have been added by unknown authors since the original texts were written.
bulletNumerous accidental and intentional errors have occurred in copying the scriptures
bulletEntire books in the Bible have been written many decades or even centuries after the apparent author died. This particularly true of some of the epistles. Four of them -- 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus -- all state that they were written by Paul. However, they were actually composed 35 to 85 years after Paul's death.
bulletOther books were attributed to mythical characters. The hero Daniel, who was supposed to have been born circa 620 BCE, is probably a mythical character. The book of Daniel was actually written circa 164 BCE by an anonymous author, almost half a millennium after Daniel was supposed to have lived.
bulletThe Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses circa 1450 BCE. It was written by four anonymous authors or groups of authors generally referred to as J, E, P and D. over about a three century interval starting in the late 10th century BCE. The writings were later redacted by a group of unknown persons called "R."
bulletThe Bible contains much material copied from neighboring Pagan cultures and pre-Abrahamic beliefs. Three examples are the pair of creation stories, the flood of Noah, and the tower of Babel.

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bulletSome biblical passages are religious propaganda, and not historically reliable. The gospels' text which blamed all of "the Jews" for the execution of Jesus is one example. Those passages in the Bible are much more closely linked to conflicts between Jews and Christians some 40 to 70 years after Jesus' death, than to real historical events at the time of Jesus' ministry.
bulletJesus actually said only a very few of the words attributed to him in the Gospels. That is because Jesus spoke in Aramaic, while the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were written in Greek. The KJV and NIV versions of the Bible are thus translations from Greek into English of words which were earlier translated from Aramaic into Greek.
bulletVery few of the words or acts by Jesus in the Gospel of John refer to real events.
bulletThe early Christian church was divided into many differing traditions: (e.g. Jewish, Pauline, and Gnostic Christianity). The books of the Bible were chosen in the fourth century CE from among about 50 gospels, hundreds of epistles, many infancy stories, many books of revelation etc. They were mainly selected on the basis of their conformity with orthodox Christian beliefs as they existed at the time. Another consideration was whether the book was written by an Apostle or by someone closely associated with an Apostle. The church leaders who selected books for the official canon were often mistaken in their understanding of the actual authorship. Non-conforming books were suppressed, and sometimes lost forever. Yet they contained much valuable material about the primitive Christian movement and were widely accepted by the early Christians. Some of the books purportedly written by Paul were written by unknown authors many decades after Paul's death.
bulletIt is helpful to study the books of the Christian Scriptures in chronological order. One can detect how particular beliefs -- e.g. the virgin birth -- apparently developed through time. Paul and the author of Mark apparently had no knowledge of the virgin birth. The author of Luke and Matthew wrote about the virgin birth as it was believed at the time. The author(s) of John were apparently aware of the belief but rejected it.
bulletModern versions of the Bible are reasonably accurate translations of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but still reflect the prejudices of the translators, and the belief systems of the religious institutions which sponsored them. Older translations, like the KJV, are less reliable because their translators had less complete knowledge of Hebrew, and had access to fewer ancient manuscripts.
bulletRecent findings of the physical, social and medical sciences have shown that some parts of the Bible cannot be considered accurate. (e.g. the creation stories, mental and physical illness caused by demon possession, concepts of the structure of the universe, creation of rainbows, origin of various languages, etc).

References used:

  1. Richard Muller, "Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology," Baker, (1985). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. From the "Decrees of Council of Trent," Session IV, and "Dens Theo.," Tom. 2., N. 80 and 81.
  3. J.S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", Harper Collins (1994), Page 8-9. Read reviews or order this book
  4. Ibid., Page 11.
  5. Alan Dundes, "Holy writ as oral lit. The Bible as folklore," Rowman & Littlefield, (1999). Read reviews or order this book.
  6. Ibid, Page 2.
  7. Scot McKnight, "The Hermeneutics Quiz: Your biblical blind spots and what you tend not to see," Leadership Journal, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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