Even less fundamentalist believers take the Bible as a given. If it is not the literal word of God, then it is a faithful interpretation of it. Divine revelation cannot be mediated by the socio-cultural and political interests of exegetical interpreters and translators.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The Old Testament’s original Hebrew was translated into Koine Greek, Syriac, and Aramaic, revised and reworked by Jewish and Christian scholars and theologians.
Origen, one of the most influential Early Church fathers took it upon himself to revise the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures to resolve the inconsistencies, conflicts, and dispute that occurred over the decades. Since Christianity was in part at least dependent upon Jewish history and tradition, than a correct translation of the original texts was essential.
Both the Old and New Testaments were not written by easily-identified individuals with long histories of verifiable scholarship. On the contrary, the Septuagint was supposedly written by seventy scholars who of course disagreed on the correct transliteration of the Hebrew.
The New Testament Gospels were not written by an actual Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but by supposed close followers of Jesus who recorded his words to the best of their ability. Scholarship over the centuries has focused on the consistencies and inconsistencies of the Gospels to try to conclude concurrence about the basic messages of the Savior.
Scholars today have access to the hundreds of original parchments – written records of the oral tradition of early Christianity which were used in the final versions of the New Testament. Some fragments are consistent in their exposition of the Gospels, others are not.
It is hard enough to come to a consensus as to the Greek meaning of particular verses. It is another thing altogether to agree on how to translate them into English.
For example, various English versions of the New Testament have translated the Greek version of John 14:2 as follows:
King James Version
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
Darby Bible Translation
In my Father's house there are many abodes; were it not so, I had told you: for I go to prepare you a place.
World English Bible
In my Father's house are many homes. If it weren't so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you.
NLT TranslationEach version is significantly different. Abodes are not the same as rooms, mansions, or places; and the idea that there is simply plenty of room in the Father’s house is far-fetched and impossibly accommodating.
There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
This difference of opinion occurs elsewhere in John. The word ‘gift’ is used in a number of places, but some versions translate the Greek as ‘generosity’. A careful analysis of the text of John and the entire New Testament Greek indicates that the word ‘gift’ is only used in a spiritual or religious sense. Generosity has nothing to do with it. The writer of John was speaking exclusively about Jesus’s spiritual bestowal and nothing to do with his message of Christian sharing, expressed by an entirely different Greek word.
If there is one thing that we can conclude, there is no such thing as THE Bible. If the Bible is the supposed word of God, which word are we talking about?
Non-scholarly lay readers of the Bible may say, ‘phooey’, nonsense, post-modernist, secular attempts to discredit divine revelation; and in some sense, they have a point. Any text that is parsed to its bare bones, deconstructed and analyzed until it is dry, spare, and academic will have lost its true meaning, its spiritual juice and its inspiration.
Every difficult metaphor requires explication. When Jesus talked of himself as ‘living water’ in John 4, was he simply using a convenient allusion to the water-scarce environment of Palestine? Or was he referring to something far more existential? The emphasis should be on ‘living’ rather than ‘water’. The concept of a permanent, all-present, extras-temporal, ‘living’ Christ is far more salient than that of a redeemer who slakes thirst.
There is no way to avoid interpretation, but much interpretation is based on predilection and predetermined conviction. The Jesus that one interpreter or exegete sees will always be different from the vision of another unless the analyst strictly considers the text itself. Restriction to such linguistic analysis - studying the words written by John about Jesus Christ and where and how they appear elsewhere in the Gospel or the New Testament - can clarify meaning without confounding socio-political perspectives.
For those who have a particular ax to grind, the deconstruction of Biblical texts is serious work. In other words the issue is far more than an academic conclusion about the real meaning of ‘gift’ or ‘rooms’ but how the Bible’s translation and interpretation can affect life itself.
Academics call this hermeneutics or existential criticism – interpreting the Bible with relevance to current concerns. A black, Southern woman may claim the right to focus on the patriarchal system of 1st century Palestine and to interpret the Gospels accordingly; or the right to reject the King James version of the Bible because it was written at the time of, if not in the defense of slavery and male authoritarianism. She may also claim the right to ignore most of the Old Testament stories of patriarchy, incest, concubinage, and female slavery.
In the same vein a Marxist may understandably criticize both Testaments view of society – unequal, disproportionate, elitist, and exploitative. A post-modernist can rightfully disavow any legitimacy of any Bible chapters, choosing to focus only on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity.
Yet all miss the point. In attempting to deconstruct the Bible, and parse it into its different socio-cultural, ethnic, racial, and sexual categories, post-modern critics have indeed chosen to ignore its central messages – the preemptive power of the Old Testament God and his retributive justice; and the redeeming authority of his Son, Jesus Christ - and focus more on the substance of their own theses.
Deconstructionists have been equally dismissive of modern literature. They have ignored the centrality of sexual dynamics in D.H.Lawrence, choosing to focus on patriarchy, feminism denied, and male will and authority. Lawrence was never a misogynist or male supremacist. His characters, such as Ursula and Gudrun in Women in Love are mature, evolved, women in conflict over their femininity and male relationships which had nothing to do with their place in early 20th century English society.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was less about feminist struggles of the late Nineteenth Century Europe than it was about the psycho-dynamics of an imbalanced and totally unequal marriage. His Hedda Gabler had less to do with the oppressive mores of late Victorian Scandinavia than it did with Nietzschean will and sexual dominance.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was an Originalist – a judicial scholar who insisted on a strict interpretation of the Constitution. No personal, subjective judgments were allowed on his court. What did the Constitution say? he asked. It can’t be that hard.
Texts, whether the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the Koine Greek New Testament, or the many modern translations of them, are always subject to interpretation; but the responsibility of scholars, lay intellectuals, and the common man is to refuse to budge from original intent. It is clear what Jesus Christ meant, and despite the difference of reporting between and among the Synoptic Gospels and John, there is no substantial difference of opinion.
Jesus was sent by the Father on a mission of redemption and salvation and to spread its good news. No matter how one may focus on the socio-political-cultural differences among the Samaritan woman, the invitees at the wedding of Cana, doubting disciples, Romans, or Jewish Pharisees, the message is clear, distinct, and uniform.
Women in Love is about sexual dynamics apart from class and gender. The Rainbow is about marital dynamics and the eventual settling out of powerful sexual attractions and drives. Heart of Darkness is about the primitivism of human nature and the struggle for morality and a measure of rectitude. Othello has little to do with race, gender, and social status. It concerns the very nature of sexuality – Desdemona’s adolescent feminine desires, Othello’s lack of sexual confidence, and Iago’s sexual jealousy – and little to do with race or class.
Essentiality - the reason why writers, poets, playwrights, and evangelists put pen to paper and centrality - the core messages, lessons, exhortations of the Bible - are why we read it. Although it is quite understandable why Biblical scholars, literary critics, and social observers continually get lost in the exegetical weeds, and take wrong byways into secular domains, it is important to realize how such academic work can obfuscate rather than clarify the central issues of the Gospels.
The points of John, Luke, The Heart of Darkness, Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler, 1 Kings, and The Rainbow are eminently clear. While social, economic, linguistic, historical, and cultural analysis of any literary work can can help to expose the author's real purpose own words, excessive if not obsessive interest in context can deflect the reader from both essentiality and centrality.
Ultimately it is up to the reader to select the best, most literal and faithful translation of a given work, and to read the words as written. The true value of scholarship is to use in translation those words which are the most faithful to the original Greek and therefore get as close as possible to the original intent of the author. Beyond that, commentaries using particular social, economic,and cultural lenses to consider the Bible are more often than not undertaken to use it to justify their own convictions rather than to elucidate Biblical text.
There will always be interpreters of the Bible. That is what goes on every Sunday. Point of view can never be absent from Biblical interpretation. Those whose mission it is suggest what the words themselves mean based on a careful analytical analysis of the text, are the most faithful to the source and therefore the most helpful.
Such Biblical exegesis and profession is not unlike secular originalism. The late Justice Scalia insisted on a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution. It was not up to the Court, he said, to look at the document through a contemporary lens, especially those ground with a particular socio-political point of view. The principles of the document are there for everyone to see, and they have not changed since 1789. They are still fundamental, universal, and sound.
Centrality, Scalia knew, was at the heart of his work; and so it should be for the Biblical scholar and lay interpreter. The principles of both Jesus' message and those of the Founding Fathers are not hard to find.