In my last post, I started a multi-part series about biblical interpretation with an article on inerrancy. One of the problems with inerrancy is that it engenders a literal reading of the Bible. This is a problem because you shouldn’t look at an ancient document with modern eyes. Especially one that’s from a culture utterly foreign to your own. Nor should you interpret that document without taking into consideration the historical context of the time it was written. Let’s look at these points individually.
First, reading an ancient document through a modern perspective. There are multiple issues with this. First of all, the Bible was written down over a long span of years, beginning as early as the 7th century BCE with the last books written as late as the second or even third centuries CE. So, editorial consistency is a problem. Then, there’s the fact that much of what happened in the Old Testament occurred prior to the advent of a written form of Hebrew. That means a lot of it is oral history which is not exactly reliable. Remember the old gossip game you played as a kid where a phrase was passed around the circle and was completely different by the time it got back to the speaker? That’s the trouble with oral history. Finally, there’s the problem with translating ancient languages. No one speaks them anymore and many of the idiosyncracies and nuances are lost. And, ancient Hebrew didn’t have any vowels, so interpreters have to infer and deduce based on content and context. I’ll bet that’s fun.
Now, let’s get into culture. The Bible was written for a culture that was vastly different from our own. Most people were subsistence farmers and dirt poor. Life was hard and short and social mobility was non-existent. Jews of the era also didn’t believe in an afterlife. In fact, the Torah focuses on Olam Ha Ze (translated “this world”) and says nothing about a life after death. Combined with the grinding poverty and oppression they experienced, this would mean that pie in the sky promises about heaven wouldn’t mean much to them. Immediate relief of their situation would be a different story.
Finally, historical context. You must understand that the Bible was written for and by an occupied people. Most of the Old Testament was written during the Babylonian exile and all the New Testament was recorded during the Roman occupation of Palestine. Living in a country that’s never lost a war on our own soil, much less been occupied by a foreign power, Americans can’t begin to grasp what these people went through. Reading something written for and by an oppressed people from a position of power and prestige is a recipe for disaster.
You can see how an inerrant and literal reading of the Bible is problematic. In the third and final post of this series, I’ll talk about different ways to understand this diverse and complex compilation of books and letters.