A thought about reading the bible: how do you get to the meaning?

Have you ever thought about the different factors at play when you trying to understand the bible? It’s actually quite interesting. Perhaps you are reading a passage from John chapter 4. Here is Jesus, talking to a woman at a well, but what does it all mean? There are many different approaches people might take in answering this question (please forgive the boring colorless diagrams, one learns to love them I promise).

Reading 1Most people would agree (I hope) that John 4 is describing an event, and that the event has some amount of meaning (see above). A simple approach would be to assume that the meaning is somehow obvious and that we can just understand it at face value (Jesus was thirsty and saw an opportunity to combine a drink with a tutorial on conversational evangelism -duh). This is naïve, of course, because the full meaning of the event is dependent upon the historical and cultural context. For instance, if we don’t know eastern culture, will we appreciate the significance of a man speaking to a woman, or a rabbi speaking to a sinner? If we don’t know Israel’s history, will we feel the shock of a Jew speaking to a Samaritan, or the Messiah ministering outside the nation? Clearly not. So once we have obtained our Masters degree in ancient history, our process of interpretation might look something like this.

Reading 2This is better, but there are still other more subtle barriers to understanding. Firstly, we cannot assume that we have direct access to the event.

We might imagine ourselves standing there, observing this strange, dusty conversation, but we inevitably fill in the gaps: missing details, body language, tone of voice, nearby sheep bleating or camels staring awkwardly into the distance. But can we really go back and know exactly what happened that day at the well? Well…pun intended…no! This is a story, of course, and stories are not comprehensive, unbiased history. Stories are told BY people TO people. In other words, when we read John 4 we are gaining LIMITED access to the event through an author (hang on to your hats).

Reading 3 Now the grey cat really gets amongst the black and white pigeons. John remembers at least some of the event (we don’t know how, it seems he wasn’t even there at the time), and our hope is that 1) his sources were good (let’s hope it was Jesus and not the woman!) 2) his memory is working well (note that this is a 70+ year old grandpa writing about an event from his teens/twenties) and 3) that he didn’t misunderstand anything (he does mention that they were tired and hungry at the time, which sure puts my perceptions out of tune). We can’t ignore this; we are no longer standing at Jacob’s well as we read, we are stranded somewhere in John’s mind decades later.

Of course, we can’t assume that we have direct access to John’s mind. We are in fact looking in at a small expression of John’s mind. He has communicated (only part of!) this memory to a specific audience and he has edited and emphasized certain aspects of the memory to achieve his purpose. Unfortunately, he wasn’t even intending to write this story to us, we are secretly listening in on this conversation (a bit freaky isn’t it?). So because we do not know the needs and worldview of his audience at the time, we cannot fully understand all the nuances of why John chose to retell the story in this way. Even if we don’t know the audience, it would help to know the author. John had a certain type of personality, and a specific set of Old Testament ideas from the Jewish worldview that were reworked around the Messiah and the Spirit. He used certain words and metaphors (such as the likeness of water to the Spirit) in distinctive ways that others perhaps wouldn’t. For example, Paul and Peter may have experienced and described the event of the woman at the well quite differently (let your imagination go on that one, it’s quite amusing). All of this affects the way John makes meaning. So we need to understand John’s thinking, but alas we have no direct access to him at all! We cannot even send John an email asking for clarification on what he means by “worshiping in spirit and truth” (wouldn’t that be neat?). It would be great to have a drink together and take in his body language or tone when reciting the words of Jesus. So while the only access we have to the meaning of the event is through the authors’ perception and intention, this is only VAGUELY available through the text (the black and white pigeons are dying fast).

Reading 4The passage in John 4 also has a specific logical and grammatical structure that we need to consider. It conveys meaning through words, relating together in phrases, relating together in sentences, relating together in paragraphs which make up passages. As a side note, John is often making puns in his Gospel (did you know that? John must have been a witty guy). So how do literary devices like puns contribute to meaning? The narrative flow of the text is also important. What is the main point of this event for John? Should we focus on the conversation with the woman, or is that just the introduction to the story mainly about the conversion of a whole Samaritan town? And how does this hard-to-nail-down main point fit in meaningfully between John 3 and John 5? I mean, John 4 is only a small story in a bigger story. Not only that, but big stories differ in genre. David and Isaiah wrote poetry, Solomon wrote proverbs, Samuel wrote prose. Genre identification is a key element of reading comprehension. There were many genres of literature in the first century AD. Just as Paul followed the letter-writing conventions and debating styles of the times, so John wrote his gospel in a specific genre with a specific tradition. What exactly was this tradition, and how did this affect his approach to making meaning in the story? For example, it was common practice in those days for authors to construct long and complex conversations between characters, which readers took as reflecting the intention of the characters even if they didn’t say those exact words. Did John feel free to do the same for Jesus in John 4? Moving swiftly along…

Unfortunately, even John’s original rendition of the event is inaccessible. It has gone through its own (often non-objective) copying and translating process, over two thousand years, perhaps even with a few years of oral tradition thrown in. But even with our trusty literal bible translations at hand, how do we actually access the event through the author through the text? How do we know what the text is saying? How do we get meaning out of John 4? The answer is: through the reader (no more pigeons in sight, only a big fat grey cat).

Reading 5As with writers, there is no such thing as an objective reader. The reader accesses the text through their own grid of vocabulary and worldview. We run along our own lines of logic, sometimes driven by a desire to find (or not to find) certain meanings while we read. We see what we want to see in John 4 quite often. We see what we have been taught to see. We are riddled with intellectual and emotional weakness. There is the frightening possibility that the text is in fact not a window through which we can observe the event, but rather a mirror in which see our own reflection.

What do you think? How do you make meaning out of a passage like John 4? Which blocks of the diagram influence the interpretation for you more than others? And for me, the million dollar question:

How does the presence of the Holy Spirit in every block of the diagram affect your experience of getting meaning from the bible?

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One thought on “A thought about reading the bible: how do you get to the meaning?

  1. Excellent post, John,

    You make some very good points. Pawson was the one who drove home to me the principles that

    (a) The Bible is actually a library of 66 books. The books should be read in their own right, preferably cover to cover in one or two sittings. New Testament books were actually written to read out aloud.
    (b) When you read a book in it’s own right, it is important to have an idea of who the target audience was, and why the author was writing.

    Once I grasped those two principles, I “leveled up” as Bible reader.

    You add even more, though.

    I watched an interesting video about how the Bible got changed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0zWbL8Uqfw) that also made me realise that the “text” that I was relying on to light the path of my life, might have been subject to the manipulation of men with agendas of their own…

    Anyway, I don’t really have the time to post more now, but that was a good read – thanks!

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