Much of our Biblical Studies course focuses on the art of biblical interpretation. We do this by analysing our biblical texts via three key lenses: the world-behind-the-text, the world-of-the-text, and the world-in-front-of-the-text. This builds a solid foundation upon which we can perform exegetical work. We shall touch on the importance of exegesis (interpreting a text) as well as very briefly on the three lenses just mentioned.
Why is interpretation necessary? Why is it important?
The obvious case is that the Bible, independent of the book we focus on, is an act of communication between an author (the sender) and an audience (the receivers). There is intentionality behind our biblical texts, for example, the author might be trying to get his audience to change their behaviour concerning certain circumstances. In other words, our authors have goals and reasons for why they are writing in the first place.
However, we must remember that the Bible was not written with us 21st century westerners in mind. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he was not thinking about us. This suggests that we need to interpret his message so that we can understand it for ourselves as well as understand his motives for writing. What we soon realize that there is an otherness about the Bible, it is very much a product of its time (within 1st century Judaism under Roman rule or Old Testament Judaism within the Ancient Near Eastern context, for example). Therefore, the Bible is a distant product as it reflects a worldview very different from our own. This is important as for us to understand the text we need to understand the world in which it was written. When we study the epistles of Paul, for example, we are given access to his world. This does not mean that we ought to approach his account as if it were an unbiased, totally objective piece. Clearly not. This doesn’t mean that our biblical authors are untruthful, or deliberately deceitful, it simply means that they are not entirely partial.
A further reason for interpretation is that the Bible demands it. Without interpreting it, as Christians, historians or anyone for that matter, it has no meaning. This is because we haven’t allowed for it to communicate to us. Thus, when we interpret it it has value for us. And as suggested the method of interpretation is important if we are to exercise fidelity with our texts.
For example, we need to understand the Background (Stage 1: The World Behind the Text) such as the social systems, conventions and cultures of the author’s day. We need to understand their world in order to access the author’s audience. We are required to probe around the author’s situation for it to inform us of his purpose and motives. To ignore these elements would lead to a gross misinterpretation of our biblical texts and an erroneous exegesis. Stage 2 (The World of the Text) invites us to, in detail, analyse the actual texts themselves (the textual unity). We read through the text carefully and slowly. For example, where, or how many times, does the author repeat certain words to create effect? Does repeated word usage tell us something about the passage (commonly referred to as a “pericope” in scholarly circles) under review? What about the author’s tone? Are the chapters surrounding the pericope related in themes? What is the kind of response to be expected from the audience to whom the text is intended? This stage is unsurprisingly very laborious as evidenced by interacting with professional scholarship. Stage 3 (The Meaning in Front of the Text) is how we are to apply our biblical texts to us within our contemporary context. For Christians how does it relate to them today? How does it inform and shape them? However, there is a caution to be had here. Since, as already noted, the Bible is distant it reflects cultural norms and expectations not intended for us today. This is tricky but it invites grappling with richness of the text itself.