Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 5 Literary Genres

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Eminem is a rap artist. He has released several albums and has a reputation for writing songs with a heavy biographical emphasis. If you follow his albums, you will encounter a guy who demonstrates a clear shift from wild and bad to a struggling individual to recovering drug addict. He has made a career out of putting his marriage and family out in the public eye. If I were to pick up his albums and go through them one at a time, I could establish a progression of sorts. Does that make it a biography? Sort of, because there are autobiographical elements to the albums he has released. However, these are rap albums, not hardcover books. They are meant to be autobiographical, but their genre is poetry. If I read his lyrics, I do not have a full understanding of his life as I would with a larger book. The genre of the material we are reading is significant to our understanding of the material we are encountering. Poetry is not narrative. Prophecy is not prose. Gospel is not wisdom literature. In learning to understand scripture, it is important to take into account the genre of literature you are reading.

How is the genre helpful in discerning the message of scripture? Well, my illustrative example aside, let’s look at apocalyptic prophecy in the scriptures. If you have paid any attention to Christianity over the last 30 years, you will undoubtedly have encountered a rash of stories about the end times. There are whole movements devoted to deciphering the words of Revelation and setting them against current events. But, is this a valid way to interpret the text based on the genre? There are several characteristics of apocalyptic literature that should affect the interpretation of the genre. For example, Jewish apocalyptic literature frequently made references to the current events of the day. For example, Revelation was written during a period of heavy persecution for the church. Much of the imagery clearly references those things. The city on 7 hills is an obvious reference to the city of Rome, which was a city built on seven hills. Modern prophecy interpreters have tried to associate this reference to the Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Rome. While it may be the case that there is a double reference here, a more reasonable reading of the reference is to understand it as talking about Rome and the emperor.

Another example of genre is the narrative account to Ruth. Ruth is the narrative account of Ruth, who is a widow and is not properly treated by her husband’s family. This results in her living in destitution. Boaz, a foreigner, ultimately marries her. There is a tendency to read the book of Ruth and interpret it as an allegory of Christ. There is, at times, a tendency to want to allegorize (make it into symbols) everything in the scriptures to make them about Jesus. This is not the strongest reading of the text because this story is a narrative account. To interpret it entirely apart from the historic and narrative account isn’t right for the genre.

The following are a brief list of the various Biblical literary genres:

Prophecy: Prophecy needs to be read and understood in the context of the historical setting. Isaiah, for example, is the prophetic interaction between God and His people during the time of the Assyrian conquests. God speaks to specific nations and situations. In addition, He speaks of his larger redemptive plan through the suffering servant. These prophecies are best used in an attempt to understand the work of God through the scope of Israel’s history. It is not unusual to see folks take up this book and attempt to apply it to modern world affairs. However, this isn’t a legitimate reading of prophecy. Reading and interpreting prophecy requires a history book and a lot of time. Or, you could just use a reputable commentary.

Narrative: Narrative is best read and understood as history. There is a tendency to read narrative and try to allegorize it and apply it to our situations. We see this often with the story of God’s people crossing into the Promised Land. This is a narrative. It is not the story of your church growing or moving into a new building. It’s also not the story of moving into our best life now. It’s the story of God fulfilling the promise made to Abraham. When reading this account, we do better to look for parallels in the story of Christ, like the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, which parallels the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Narrative is best read with an eye on the larger story of Israel and God’s interaction with His people.

Poetry: Poetry is poetry. It can bring to the table elements of prophecy, as most prophecy is written in poetic form. Interpreting poetry requires that you consider the poetic form and the author’s intent. Poetic forms are well documented. I will not be delving more deeply into the poetic forms in this setting. There is plenty of documentation on this matter to be found.

Epistle: The epistle is a genre of letter. When interpreting epistles, it’ts important to understand the context (see previous articles) and to interpret the epistle based on the fact that the letter was written by an author to a specific audience. It needs to be read based on this.

Gospel: Gospel is an unusual genre of literature. It is a biography of sorts, but it is more than a simple biography. The Gospel account sets out to tell the biographical account of Jesus’ life while making a larger point about Jesus’ work and mission. Each Gospel account has a specific message in mind. The details of Jesus’ life are chosen in order to support that message. It is often asked: “Why don’t the Gospel accounts include narrative about Jesus’ childhood? The reason is that the information doesn’t support the larger message. This is part of the reason that a Gospel account is not a biography in the purest sense.

Wisdom literature: Wisdom literature as a genre includes the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature sets out to depict principles of life through specific forms. These can almost be seen as poetic forms. It’s important to understand that wisdom literature is comprised of observations, not hard and fast rules for the universe. So, when we read that the dishonest don’t prosper in a wisdom saying, we cannot say that this means that the dishonest never prosper. In fact, the dishonest sometimes do quite well. Rather, this is an indication that to be dishonest can bring downfall.

Law: Law is exactly that: law. It needs to be read as such and understood as part of the larger covenant agreements in which it takes place. The Ten Commandments are an example of this. The commandments are stipulations related to the Mosaic covenant. They are sort of like part of a treaty. In fact, they are written in an ancient treaty literary form. So, when we read the commandments they reflect God’s treaty agreement with Israel. Further, laws relate to different settings. Some laws are civil, some relate to temple worship, etc. They must be read according to these contexts.

Lists: Lists, like genealogies or lists of items, serve a specific purpose beyond boring the socks off the reader. They act as a concrete demonstration of proof as to what happened in a specific setting. They tie specific events to real people and places. In addition, they demonstrate God’s working through the covenants. We see God working with the Israelites in different settings through the genealogies. One prime example of this is the line from David to Jesus. This is vital for understanding Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant set forth in 2 Samuel.

This list of genres of scripture is by no means exhaustive. It reflects the larger areas of literature. A good commentary or Study Bible ought to offer a more detailed accounting of the genre of literature in any given section.

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Weekly App Review: Reformation Study Bible

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The Reformation Study Bible App is an English Standard Version study Bible edited by R. C. Sproul. The app itself is very stable and easy to use. The Bible texts are easy to navigate and the features are simple to use. The app allows the user to reference over 20,000 study notes, which are generally insightful, intelligent and useful in a pinch. The app allows the user to search the text, take notes, and highlight passages. This app is pretty useful for simple and cursory study of texts.

The app also offers a handful of downloadable resources like a Strong’s Analytical Concordance, a Mathew Henry’s Concise Commentary, a Bible Dictionary and Sproul’s devotional collection. The user can also download several additional translations. This app is feature heavy and the features are generally useful, though some of them, like the Mathew Henry Commentary or the Strong’s KJV concordance, are not. These two resources are ok, but are not the best of the best available.

The most important thing I can say about this app is that it is stable, fast and useful. The in-text notes are easy to pull up and typically give a good information when its needed. As a teacher, I use this app daily. It has replaced my Chain Reference Study Bible entirely.

I have occasionally found the search feature frustrating simply because it tends to be very unforgiving to variations in words. This is a particular detriment for a guy who had never used the ESV translation before now. Occasionally, the app gets hung up in the text preventing the user from accessing the features. This is generally fixed by simply restarting the app.

The Reformation Study Bible’s main weakness is the lack of depth of resources, but this is certainly excusable considering that it is essentially a Study Bible. For deeper study, I use the Logos Bible App. The Reformed Study Bible is faster and tends to be easier to use in relation to handling the scriptures directly. This is particularly the case when offline, which is no issue for the Reformation Study Bible App, but the Achilles heel of the Logos app.

Another weakness is with the fact that you cannot copy and paste text from the scripture you’re referencing. While not a fatal flaw, this feature would definitely be a useful addition to this app.

The Reformation Study Bible works well on both the iPad and iPhone. It’s a little easier to use on the iPad because of the larger screen. For $9.99, it is certainly one of the more pricey options for Bible apps, but I would argue that it is worth the price, particularly considering that most study Bibles will run you $30 plus.

Repost: 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques

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Up front I will acknowledge that this is a copy and past article I grabbed from the Fightingforthefaith.com website. Fighting for the FAith/Pirate Christian Radio is a podcast that takes the time to compare what people are saying in the name of God to the word of God. Its an excellent podcast, though I suggest that you come at with some pretty thick skin because it tends to be pretty forthright and unapologetic in its pursuit of proclaiming Biblical purity. I have been challenged significantly by this podcast.

That having been said, the text I borrowed is from a PDF linked on their home page right now called: The 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques of the Cults. Its worth knowing because it serves as a tremendous lens through which you can look at the scriptural citations used by anyone claiming to speak with Biblical authority on their side:

In light of the fact that far too many pastors are mangling and twisting God’s word in the exact same ways that the cults do, in order to protect yourself and your loved ones it is a good idea for you to acquaint yourself with James Sire’s book, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible. Here is a summary of Sire’s work.

1. INACCURATE QUOTATION: A biblical text is referred to but is either not quoted in the way the text appears in any standard translation or is wrongly attributed. Example: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi says, “Christ said, ‘Be still and know that I am God.'” Whereas this text is found ONLY in Psalms.

2. TWISTED TRANSLATION: The biblical text is retranslated, not in accordance with sound Greek scholarship, to fit a preconceived teaching of a cult. Example: the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate John 1:1 as “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the word was a god.”

3. BIBLICAL HOOK: A text of Scripture is quoted primarily as a device to grasp the attention of readers or listeners and then followed by a teaching which is so nonbiblical that it would appear far more dubious to most people had it not been preceded by a reference to Scripture. Example: Mormon missionaries quote James 1:5 which promises God’s wisdom to those who ask him and, then, follow this by explaining that when Joseph Smith did this he was given a revelation from which he concluded that God the Father has a body.

4. IGNORING THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT: A text of Scripture is quoted but removed from the surrounding verses which form the immediate framework for its meaning. Example: Alan Watts quotes the first half of John 5:39 (“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life”), claiming that Jesus was challenging His listeners’ over emphasis of the Old Testament, but the remainder of the immediate context reads, “and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (verses 39-40), which shows that Jesus was upholding the value of the Old Testament as a testimony to Himself.

5. COLLAPSING CONTEXTS: Two or more verses which have little or nothing to do with each other are put together as if one were a commentary of the other(s). Example: The

Mormons associate Jeremiah 1:5 with John 1:2,14 and thus imply that both verses talk about the premortal existence of all human beings; Jeremiah 1:5, however, speaks of God’s foreknowledge of Jeremiah (Not his premortal existence) and JOhn 1:2 refers to the pre- existence of God the Son and not to human beings in general.

6. OVERSPECIFICATION: A more detailed or specific conclusion than is legitimate is drawn from a biblical text. Example: The Mormon missionary manual quotes the parable of the virgins from Matthew 25:1-13 to document the concept that “mortality is a probationary period during which we prepare to meet God.” But the parable of the virgins could, and most probably does, mean something far less specific, for example, that human beings should be prepared at any time to meet God or to witness the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

7. WORD PLAY: A word or phrase from a biblical translation is examined and interpreted as if the revelation had been given in that language. Example: mary Bake Eddy says the

name Adam consist of two syllables, A DAM, which means an obstruction, in which case, Adam signifies “the obstacle which the serpent, sin, would impose between man and his Creator.”

8. THE FIGURATIVE FALLACY: Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2)mistaking figurative language for literal language. Example of (1): Mary Baker

Eddy interprets EVENING as “mistiness of mortal thought; weariness of mortal mind; obscured views; peace and rest.” Example of (2): The Mormon theologian james Talmage interprets the prophesy that “thou shalt be brought down and speak out of the ground” to mean that God’s Word would come to people from the Book of Mormon which was taken out of the ground at the hill of Cumorah.

9. SPECULATIVE READINGS OF PREDICTIVE PROPHESY: A predictive prophesy is too readily explained by the occurance of specific events, despite the fact that equally

committed biblical scholars consider the interpretation highly dubious. Example: The stick of Judah and the Stick of Joseph in Ezekiel 37:15- 23 are interpreted by the Mormons to mean the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

10. SAYING BUT NOT CITING: A writer says that the Bible says such and such but does not cite the specific text (which often indicates that there may be no such text at all).

Example: A common phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is not found in the Bible.

11. SELECTIVE CITING: To substantiate a given argument, only a limited number of text is quoted: the total teaching of Scripture on that subject would lead to a conclusion different

from that of the writer. Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses critique the traditional Christian notion of the Trinity without considering the full text which scholars use to substantiate the concept.

12. INADEQUATE EVIDENCE: A hasty generalization is drawn from too little evidence. Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that blood transfusion is nonbiblical, but the

biblical data that they cite fails either to speak directly to the issue or to adequately substantiate their teaching.

13. CONFUSED DEFINITION: A biblical term is misunderstood in such a way that an essential biblical doctrine is distorted or rejected. Example: one of Edgar Cayce’s followers confuses the eastern doctrine of reincarnation with the biblical doctrine of being born again.

14. IGNORING ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS: A specific interpretation given to a biblical text or set of text which could well be, and often have been, interpreted in quite a different fashion, but these alternatives are not considered. Example: Erich von Daniken asks why in Genesis 1:26 God speaks in the plural (“us”), suggesting that this is an oblique reference to God’s being one of many astronauts and failing to consider alternative explanations that either God was speaking as “Heaven’s king accompanied by His heavenly host” or that the plural prefigures the doctrine of the Trinity expressed more explicitly in the New Testament.

15. THE OBVIOUS FALLACY: Words like OBVIOUSLY, UNDOUBTEDLY, CERTAINLY, ALL REASONABLE PEOPLE HOLD THAT and so forth are substituted

for logical reasons. Example: Erich von daniken says, “Undoubtedly the Ark [of the Covenent] was electrically charged!”

16. VIRTUE BY ASSOCIATION: Either (1) a cult writer a ssociates his or her teaching with those of figures accepted as authoritative by traditional Christians; (2) cult writings are likened to the Bible; or (3) cult literature imitates the form of the Bible writing such that it sounds like the Bible. Example of (1): Rick Chapman list 21 gurus, including Jesus Christ, St. Francis and St. Theresa, that “you can’t go wrong with.” Example of (2): Juan Mascaro in his introduction to the Upanishads cites the New Testament, the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms, from which he quotes passages supposedly paralleling the Upanishads. Example of (3): The Mormon DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS interweaves phrases from the Gospel of John and maintains a superficial similarity to the Gospel such that it seems to be like the Bible.

17. ESOTERIC INTERPRETATION: Under the assumption that the Bible contains hidden, esoteric, meaning which is open only to those who are initiated into its secrets, the

interpreter declares the significance of biblical passages without giving much, if any, explanation for his or her interpretation. Example: Mary Baker Eddy gives the meaning of the first phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father which art in heaven,” as “Our Father- Mother God, all harmonious.”

18. SUPPLEMENTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: New revelation from post biblical prophets either replaces or is added to the Bible as authority. Example: The Mormons supplement the Bible with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

19. REJECTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: Either the Bible as a whole or texts from the Bible are examined and rejected because they do not square with other authorities – such as

reason or revelation = do not appear to agree with them. Example:Archie Matson holds that the Bible contains contradictions and that Jesus himself rejected the authority of the Old Testament when he contrasted His own views with it on the Sermon on the Mount.

20. WORLD-VIEW CONFUSION: Scriptural statements, stories, commands or symbols which have a particular meaning or set of meanings when taken within the intellectual and broadly cultural framework of the Bible itself are lifted out of that context, placed within the frame of reference of another system and thus given a meaning that markedly differs from their intended meaning. Example: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi interprets “Be still, and know that I am God” as meaning that each person should meditate and come to the realization that he is essentially Godhood itself.

Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 4 Using Translations

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My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

 Song of Solomon 5:4 KJV

Song of Solomon is the greatest love poem ever written. There is a story that young men were not allowed to read it until they reached the age of 30. If you read it, you will find line after line of flowing poetry. You might even choose the King James Version because it is more poetic. If you did, at some point in time you will encounter this verse. Chapter 5 verse 4. What the heck are you supposed to make of this one? I’ve been married a long time and I have never associated bowel movements with romance. A brief consideration of an alternate translation ought to clear up any weird misconceptions:

My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.

Song of Solomon 5:4 NIV

A bit of a difference there. This passage is a very silly way of demonstrating our next rule for understanding the scriptures: Use several translations.

This is necessary because the Bible has been translated from languages that are noticeably different than English and originated in a very different era and culture. Translations typically reflect the best demonstration of the meaning possible. However, some concepts are difficult to portray, so using multiple translations frees us from being subject to one version’s translational decisions. To understand this, it is necessary to understand how translation happens. Most of the modern translations we use are done by teams of scholars working in committee with the manuscripts. For each portion of the scripture, roughly 5000 individual manuscripts exist. When a translation is done the scholars evaluate the manuscripts and consider how to best translate the text. There is a spectrum of translating styles that come into play here, which we will deal with momentarily. These scholars work for years doing a version of the Bible. So, when we choose a translation, we are relying on the expertise and work hours of a team of scholars (sometimes quite a few). The advantage of working with multiple translations is that we then use the collected expertise of every scholar involved.

Greek is an inflected language. What that means is that the context in which a word appears alters it’s meaning. I read an excellent example of this recently on another blog that dealt with Judas’ betrayal of Christ. The word that the scripture uses is “handed over” and is usually associated with malicious intent. This, along with the fact that the “handing over” was in exchange for 30 pieces of silver has caused many translators to say “betrayed” instead of “handed over”. This is a judgment call by the translator and is not an unusual thing. Most words have several meanings and shades of meanings based on context and situation. This prompts translators to make interpretive decisions. In addition, certain words like the Greek word “kai” can literally mean dozens of things. Kai is a generic conjunction whose meaning is totally based on the argument in which it is presented. This is another one that requires an interpretive decision. The oddest example of interpretive decisions shows up a lot in Paul’s letters. Greek sentences are often composed of multiple clauses that modify a main point. Sometimes those clauses can be very numerous. Paul occasionally wrote sentences that will go on for pages. The translator must essentially break up the sentence because it would not make sense in English. These are just a few of the challenges involved in translating. The impact of these decisions is diminished the more translations a reader references.

Using multiple translations is necessary when trying to understand a particularly challenging passage of scripture or when studying. This is less necessary when you are casually reading the Bible. When you choose the translation you will use, it is necessary to understand the various translating styles. There are three styles that represent a spectrum of approaches. They are:

Static equivalent: A static equivalent translation is word for word, pr as close to it as possible. The most word for word translation available is the New American Standard Version, which courteously makes note of alterations for the reader by putting additions or alterations in italics. The King James Version is also fairly word for word, though the translation can be a tad wooden at times.  The New Revised Standard Version is mostly word for word, but is controversial for making interpretive decisions that are based on how a modern audience may receive the passage, like gender neutrality (getting rid of gender specific words like brothers). The NRSV also tends to have a more liberal theological leaning.

Dynamic equivalent: Dynamic equivalent translations are the word for word balanced with translating the meaning as best possible. So, the word for word is important, but some paraphrasing or rewording is necessary to reflect the original message of the author.  The trick with this type of translation is that there are more interpretive decisions involved, which means that the translator is doing some interpretation for you. This is a bit of an advantage for the lay person, but a detriment of sorts for scholars. These translations tend to be easier to read and are the direction most non-scholars go when choosing a study Bible. The New International Version is the most common dynamic equivalent translation.  Others include: The Holman Christian Standard Bible, The New English Translation and the New American Bible.

Free/paraphrase/commentary: These Bibles tend to lean in the direction of paraphrase with the least amount of emphasis placed on the word for word aspect of translation. The goal is to get the message of the passage across. The most popular versions in this category are: The Message, The New Living Bible, God’s Word Translation and the Contemporary English Version. These translations are the most subject to the interpretation of the translator and leave the least amount of judgment up to the reader. There is clearly a spectrum within these books. The Message, for example, is a very loose translation with a great deal of influence from the translator. The Contemporary English version is much less so. These Bibles are best suited for casual reading.

It is important to note that each of these categories is a spectrum of its own and none of the translations falls strictly in the middle ground.

When interpreting a passage, it is important to select translations from across the spectrum. The reader will benefit from each of the styles of translation because each offers some benefits to the reader as far as word usage. It is important to compare the word usage and recognize that the consensus will generally indicate the stronger understanding. It is also important to recognize that the variations reflect shades of meaning in the passage.

There is one thing that folks sometimes do with comparing translations that is a technical foul. It is not a good practice to shop translations in search of the meaning you want. This is because the passage means what it means, not what you want it to mean. When you shop the versions of the Bible you try to find the message you want the passage to mean. This also works as a red flag when reading or listening to teachings. When a pastor jumps from version to version, it’s a sign of possible shopping.

Below I have included a spectrum I borrowed from the apologeticsindex.org website.

Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 3 Cultural, historical and geographical context

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Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
Matthew 21:12-13

It’s easy to read is text and find yourself thinking “Jesus! What are you doing!?!” One of the most common questions I hear in association with this verse is: How on earth could he become so angry over the marketplace in the temple?

Well, answering this question requires that we understand a little something about the historic and cultural context. For Jewish people, the temple was an incredibly important thing. The priesthood was way up there, too. These were parts of their religion that were heavily associated with God. Every member of the priesthood was supposed to be from the line of Aaron, Moses’ brother, and from the family of Zadok. Zadok was a family that God blessed with the priesthood later because they opposed the pagan religions during Isaiah’s ministry. In the several hundred years previous to this story, this had ceased to be the case. The system had become corrupt. The high priesthood eventually became a position that was for sale. Over time, the Sadducees began to dominate the high priesthood because they were quite wealthy. They, in turn, allowed the courts of the temple to be used for commerce. The Mishnah (Jewish commentary on rabbinical debates in the ancient world) indicates that the folks running the market were from the family of the high priest. So, the high priest is a corrupt jerk who bribes the king to get his job. He then allows his family to run the special market in the courts. Sound kosher? It probably shouldn’t. It gets worse though. The high priests decided that the only money that could be could be used in the temple was a special temple currency, which you had to get from them at a modest exchange rate. So, they were skimming off the top of the offerings. This was a corrupt system and pretty much everyone knew it. What made it worse is that it was happening in the temple. The most holy place in the world. Christ became enraged and took action. He was passionate about God’s house.

Does the text take on different meaning for you now? Is it clearer? The next rule of Biblical interpretation is to pay attention to the historical and cultural context. This one requires a little work. Lots of what makes this happen is reading and studying. However, it’s quite do-able and many of the best books that fill in these sorts of blanks are available online for free. A little bit of research goes a long way toward understanding the meaning of a passage based on the context. Often times, a reader can turn to a good commentary to obtain information on the matter. The information is out there and ever more accessible with the Internet.

This is particularly important because it is very easy to force a 21st century value system onto a text. This is often seen in responses to the Bible that refer to it as evil, based on interpreting rules and events by our worldview rather than considering the ancient context. One obvious example is the tendency to look at the accounts of the year of jubilee and criticize the people for having slaves. The Jubilee regulations indicate that in the year of the jubilee all slaves were to freed and all debts washed away. This happened in Israel, but nowhere else in the ancient world. Other nations didn’t free their slaves. The Jews did. It’s easy to criticize and miss the fact that everyone had slaves in the ancient world. What makes the scriptures pretty unique is that they present a fairly progressive perspective. This is easily missed when considering them out of their cultural context.

Geographic understanding also helps with properly interpreting the scriptures, which is why Bibles come with the book of maps. Knowing the place things took place makes certain elements of the text more vivid. For example, the story of the good Samaritan involves a man being robbed and left for dead on the road. A priest and a scribe pass him while moving from Jerusalem to Jericho. They crossed to the other side of the road to avoid the man. Here we have a geographical joke built into the text. Both are mountain towns. This would have been a mountain road. These roads were not superhighways wide enough to give a big berth. Rather they were fairly narrow and so crossing to the other side was not a huge step. In fact, in some spots it may have been step.

So, where do we learn this stuff? Well, a good study Bible will cover most of these bases. After that, we have a glut of resources at our disposal if we merely spend some time to ask the right questions to get us going in the right direction. Here are a few decent sites for research and reading to check cultural, historical and geographical context:

biblestudytools.com also available as an AppStore app.
biblegateway.com
ccel.com this one is a little more advanced and much tougher to use
For iPad, iPhone and android users the logos app is really good, but better if you have a logos package purchased.
For a good cultural overview of the New Testament era I would recommend the New Testament Milieu by A. B. Du Toit. It offers an overview of the history building up to the coming of Christ and the social setting. Reading this one will give you most of the contextual information you will ever need.
Alfred Edersheim wrote several excellent books on the New Testament setting. I use his book on the temple and the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.

Proving that John wrote the Gospel of John

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Identifying and defending the authorship of the Gospel of John is important from the standpoint of defending the faith because John is a fairly early source of first hand information about the life of Jesus. Particularly in light of John’s close relationship with Christ. John is a powerful tool in responding to critics. If a Christian is to defend the author of the gospel, he/she needs to know what support exists for John’s authorship, as many unbelievers challenge apostolic authorship. In the case of John this is generally based on skepticism and no facts.

Though probably written last, the gospel was still likely written before 80 AD. I argue this position because of the treatment of the Temple in the text. The temple was likely still standing or recently destroyed when the book was written based on two factors.

  1. The gospel seems to treat the temple as a structure that still stood and doesn’t mention its having been destroyed. In addition, it demonstrates intimate knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, which suggests that the author had been there recently or lived there for some time. This would require a pre-70 AD authorship.
  2.  There are those that argue that Jesus is juxtaposed to the temple in such a way as to hint that the author may be suggesting to Jewish readers that Jesus is the replacement for the recently destroyed temple. This would require that the temple be gone, which would place the date after 70. However, if John is referring to the temple, he does so without words. This gentle discussion of the matter lends to a relatively close date to the destruction of the temple, which would require increased delicacy. However, enough time would have had to pass for word to get around. This points to 80 AD as late date for authorship.

John is also important because it is generally accepted that it was written in aramaic, which was probably Jesus’ native language. The fact that it was written in aramaic closely associates the book with Israel and bolsters the case for its accuracy as an eye witness account.

Determining the authorship of John’s Gospel requires consideration of both internal and external evidence.

Internally, we see that the narrator identifies himself as an apostle. In both 1:14 and 2:11 John identifies himself amongst the disciples by using the pronoun “we.” This suggests that the author was one of the disciples present. 21:20 indicates that “the disciple who Jesus loved” is the author as well, because he refers to the anonymous disciple and then indicates that he is the writer of the book in verse 24.

The last supper offers further evidence for the elimination of several names from the list of candidates. The disciple identifies himself as present and reclining on Christ’s breast during the meal. He also mentions: Peter, Philip, Thomas, Judas Iscariot and Judas the son of James. These men could not be the author because he would scarcely have mentioned them by name and himself anonymously. In addition, we can eliminate several additional names through the account of the 7 disciples fishing in 21:2. This includes: Simon Peter, Thomas and Nathanial. In addition, 21:2 mentions the sons of Zebedee and two other disciples, which are acceptable candidates because of their lack of specific naming. James the son of Zebedee cannot be a potential candidate because of his early martyrdom (42 AD).

The remaining disciples are: Matthew, Simon the Zealot, James son of Alphaeus and John son of Zebedee. Matthew is unlikely because he is credited with writing another gospel. Simon the Zealot and James son of Alphaeus are both obscure figures and have never been suggested as authors. This leaves John the son of Zebedee.

John is a strong candidate because of his close proximity to Peter in several accounts in the synoptic gospels, which coincides with the frequent close proximity of Peter to the Disciple that Jesus loved. Ultimately, John the son of Zebedee is the only disciple that has such close proximity to Peter (other than James who is not appropriate because of his early death).

Interestingly, John’s gospel is silent on the inner circle of Christ’s followers. This supports Johannine authorship because of the anonymous nature of the text. John could scarcely have mentioned it without tipping his hand as to his identity. In addition, it accounts for the author’s prominent role within the text of John.

It is important to note that John’s familiarity with Jesus and its anonymity offering interesting hints as to authorship. If the book was not written by John, then the author would likely have not hidden his identity only to leave enough clues in the text for the reader to figure out that John was the author. If the author was to forge a text in John’s name, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to use John’s name. The purpose of usurping an apostle’s name is notoriety. This is defeated in hiding the identity of the author.

External evidence comes from the church father Irenaeus, who used the gospel in his refutation of the early gnostic heresies. Irenaeus claims to have learned from Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John. Irenaeus goes further and identifies John as the disciple who reclined on Christ during the last supper.

Church father Clement of Alexandria also identifies the apostle John as the author of the gospel as well. After the end of the second century church tradition is unanimous on the matter of authorship.

Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 2- The 3 Most Important Rules

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“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Matthew 18:20 NASB

20110822-100505.jpg Most Christians have heard this verse quoted at the beginning of worship on a Sunday morning or as they gather to pray. The meaning seems fairly straightforward. If we gather together, Jesus is with us. This isn’t a difficult verse to interpret properly. But, for the fun of it, let’s look at the larger passage in which it appears. Lets begin at verse 15. 5 verses should suffice to give us a sense of how this relates to worship.

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.” (Weird capitalization courtesy of the NASB. Its to indicate that this is a quote from the Old Testament)
Matthew 18:15-16

Hmmm. Not very worshipful. Perhaps the next verse will bring us to a place of worship.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
Matthew 18:17-18 NASB

Still not wanting to raise my hands and close my eyes. Well, it mentions the church. Maybe verse 19 will be about getting together for a holy hoe-down.

“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Matthew 18:19-20 NASB

Well, still nothing. Perhaps it’s the translation. Maybe the Message translation will fill in the blanks, or maybe not. The surrounding passages really make it sound like Jesus supports discipline in the church when it is corroborated with the appropriate number of witnesses. The problem with finding the sense of worship in verse 20 is that it really isn’t there. By itself, it seems like a great verse about worship. In context, it’s about church discipline. In fact, if we widen our look we find that the preceding bit is about how one sinner repenting results in more rejoicing than ninety-nine good guys that don’t need to repent. The following passage has Peter asking how often to forgive his brother. This passage is planted firmly in the sin and discipline area.

This brings us to the first 3 rules of Biblical interpretation. If you do nothing else with a passage, always use these rules and you will manage 99% of the time to interpret accurately. They are:

1. Context
2. Context
3. Context

I know you’re thinking that these three rules are awfully similar to each other. If you thought that, you’re right. The first three rules reflect the importance of considering a passage in its context. Of course, there are several different types of context. Here is the order of importance for considering context. (These vary, I promise.)

1. The immediate context. What do the preceding and following verses tell us about the particular passage? The more of the context you read, the better your understanding of the text will be. Sentences appear in texts because they are part of the point the author is making. This is particularly important in the New Testament because it came to us in Greek. Greek sentences can sometimes span pages (particular in Paul’s work). Every part of the sentence modifies the central statement. So, reading the context gives us a better picture.

2. The context of the book. All of the New Testament texts were written with particular intents. Understanding a book’s larger message gives us a clearer picture of what the author was up to. For example, in Romans, Paul, as an introduction of himself, is presenting a large portrait of his theology to a church he had never visited. His book deals with sin, the Jewish people and the promise, Christ’s redeeming work for us, etc. The book follows a clear logical path from beginning to end. Each of the points ties in to the previous one. Any passage in the book falls within the larger argument.

3. In the context of the scriptures as a whole. The Bible is a coherent unit that presents a particular message about God, Christ and salvation. Because of this, it is important to recognize that the passage in question stands as a part of the larger Biblical narrative. I read an article about how the book of Hebrews teaches that if we ever sin after salvation, we cannot be saved. There are passages in Hebrews that can be read out of context to the rest of the New Testament that may seem to suggest this. However, in the context of what the rest of the New Testament teaches about salvation, it seems like there may be something more to the story. (In that case, it probably refers to those who continue in their sin or a particular condition of the heart where folks won’t repent.)

Simply looking at any verse in the context it is presented gives us an easy guide as to how to understand it properly. The big problem here is that it does take a lot of work. It might involve reading a few more passages and considering the message. It’s easier to just look inside and to say “what do I think this means” or “what does this say to me?” or “how does this make me feel?” in order to pick a meaning for the passage. The work of properly discerning the meaning of a passage is far more difficult, but ultimately provides us with a clearer image of what the text is saying.

In the next installment, we will be looking at another aspect of context. It is also important. However, not as important as the first three rules.

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