We cannot help interpreting, but we often forget that that’s what we’re doing and we think that we’re just reading. The first step to reading better is to realise that how we read matters. To help you think about what you do when you read, here is a list of (some of) the different forms that biblical interpretation might take:
- Editions of the Bible. We have lots of old copies of the biblical texts but they, er, don’t always agree. Sometimes, I’m afraid to say, they contradict each other. So, even before we start translating, we have to decide what text we will translate. Editions of the Bible such as the Nestlé-Aland edition of the New Testament or the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia version of the Old Testament gather together all the available manuscripts and make decisions about which ones are most likely to be the originals. That is, they interpret.
- Translations. When you translate, you make decisions about what you think the text really means. Did Ruth cover Boaz’ feet or his ‘feet’? You have to interpret the text in order to translate it.
- Paraphrases. When people produce paraphrases of the Bible – the Message, the Geordie Bible, children’s Bibles etc. - they again have to make interpretive decisions. Which elements of the story are really important? Which bits can be left out? Do we have to include the story about Noah’s daughters getting him drunk and sleeping with him in My First Bible Stories?
- Commentaries. Pretty obvious, no?
- Exegesis. Exegesis is detailed line-by-line commentary on a biblical text. You can get whole books of exegesis, but little bits often pop up in sermons, commentaries, works of theology, and all sorts of other places.
- Homilies and sermons. Sermons, you may be surprised to hear, aren’t always pure biblical interpretation, though how much biblical interpretation you’re in for probably depends what sort of church you go to.
- Critical and theological studies.
- Transpositions into other texts. Lots of ‘versions’ of biblical texts exist, both verbal and non-verbal: poetry, prose, plays , films, sculpture, paintings, dance. All of these interpret the text on which they’re based. Tennyson’s Journey of the Magi tells the story of the three kings from the perspective of a king; Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent retells the rape of Dinah in the style of Mills and Boon; Jesus of Montréal imagines Jesus in 20th century Canada; Handel’s Messiah, Michelangelo’s David: enough now?
- The canons of Scripture themselves. Perhaps the most fundamental decision of biblical interpretation is ‘What counts as the Bible?’ Which texts are authoritative enough to get in there in the first place? These fundamental decisions were made by people, by the church, and they were interpretive decisions. The order of books is also important – texts look different depending on which texts you read them alongside, and different orderings give priority to different texts.