The authority of the Bible

and how to interpret it

Many biblical texts are difficult to explain as holy scripture. At the time of Christ Jews and pagans were familiar with the problem. In addition Jews needed to defend their scriptures against criticism by pagans. The main issues are still with us.

Irrelevant or harmful texts. Of the many hundreds of commands in the Bible, a large number were simply ignored then and are still ignored today. Thus Leviticus 19:26-28 strings together commands which seem to us not only unimportant, but unrelated to each other:

You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practise augury or witchcraft. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you (Leviticus 19:26-28).

Leviticus 25:3-4 stipulates that all fields and vineyards are to be left untended throughout every seventh year. It is possible to argue that it was God’s command to ancient Israelites but not to us; but in that case we need criteria for distinguishing the commands which still apply to us from those which do not.

Laws which have lost their purpose. For example, Leviticus 19:9-10 forbids farmers to reap to the edges of their fields so that they leave some of the harvest for the poor and foreigners. Applying the law in our modern urban society would not achieve this aim. If we insist on the commands as obligatory because they have been given by God, and not because we consider them good laws, it seems that we should continue the practice regardless of consequences. On the other hand if we give priority to the intention, and use the biblical text as an argument for modern welfare state provision, we are making greater use of our own judgements and whether they have biblical justification becomes unclear.

Universal norms. Many commands are so common that hardly anyone would disagree with them. Thus one of the Ten Commandments forbids stealing (Exodus 20:15). Jews and Christians may claim that, by obeying them, they are conforming to Scripture. Unbelievers reply that they also obey these commands, but without needing instruction from the Bible. Do Jews and Christians, they sometimes ask, need extra help to be moral?

Immoral commands. Many commands strike modern Christians as immoral. In 1 Samuel 15:9-10, for example, God condemns king Saul for not killing all his defeated enemies. Other examples are the many regulations governing slavery. When Christians find biblical texts morally repulsive, it means that as we read the Bible we bring to it moral values which we hold independently of what the Bible commands, and use them to pass judgement on biblical texts. This raises the question of how we legitimize these external moral values. If they are, ultimately, derived from – or consistent with – biblical values, we need some account of how they relate to these difficult texts.

Development and contradiction. Some biblical texts reveal development in moral thinking, or even contradict each other. The most significant case for Christians is Paul’s insistence, noted above, that Christians are freed from the laws laid down elsewhere in Scripture. If Christians no longer needed to obey them, the question was raised as to why they should read them, either privately or in public worship, and still include them in their scriptures.

Pagans faced the same problems with their own scriptures. By the time of Christ Greeks had long resolved them by interpreting their texts allegorically: their truth, they said, lay not in their surface literal meanings but in their deeper spiritual meanings. Jews and Christians borrowed this pagan solution and allegorized biblical texts. This was especially useful for dealing with obsolete laws which they no longer expected to obey but still regarded as Scripture. An example is Deuteronomy 25:4: ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’. Paul responds:

Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop (1 Corinthians 9:9-10).

Paul’s predicament was typical. If he interpreted the text literally it had nothing to say to urban Christians of his own day. If it was to be understood as relevant to his own place and time it needed to be given an alternative meaning. In the fourth century Eusebius even argued that, if we are not to allegorize the trivial details in the Bible, the only alternative would be to fall back on ‘incongruous and incoherent fairy-tales’. Later Gregory the Great described biblical texts as having four meanings: the literal or historical, the allegorical or spiritual, the moral and the prophetic.

From the third century onwards biblical commentaries became popular and often attempted to extract a Christian meaning from every phrase. Origen justified this procedure by arguing that the scriptures were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – the real author – and always contained a deeper meaning than what appeared on the surface. Few would attempt to justify this style of interpretation today. Nevertheless it did solve the problem which faced anyone who took the bible at face value. Augustine, for example, was repelled from Christianity by its poor style and obscurity and the unedifying stories of the patriarchs, hardly what anyone would expect from a supreme God, but was converted by Ambrose who explained how to understand them allegorically. After his conversion he could teach that Scripture’s obscurities were part of God’s plan to discipline the rebellious human mind.

The main problem with allegory is that it allows virtually any meaning to be drawn out of any text; antiquity never established principles for regulating it. The early Christians did not interpret at random, though; in practice they sought to reconcile biblical texts with what they already believed and with each other. They often quoted the Old Testament, drawing out of it references to Christ which could not have been part of the authors’ intentions, but they believed that the true author, God, had intended them to refer to Christ. As Barton puts it, ‘Since it enshrined the truth, it had to be read as saying what one already believed the truth to be.’

Another change which took place from around the third century was that Christian allegory lost interest in history and instead concentrated on general observations about morality, psychology and philosophy. One result was that the moral teachings which continued to be upheld were treated as universally and eternally binding. What they meant in context was lost.

The combined effect of these changes in biblical interpretation was that Christians sought, and found, meanings which were very different from what their predecessors had found, let alone what the authors had intended. They took it that the true meaning of each text was allegorical rather than literal; that the Old Testament as well as the New was speaking about Christ; that the true meanings of all biblical texts must be consistent with each other and with received Christian doctrine; and that the true meanings related not to historical circumstance but to eternal and universal truths. They justified these beliefs by claiming that the true author of Scripture was the Holy Spirit. As the process developed it became harder to recognize the human wisdom in biblical texts, and Christians were tempted to interpret each one as though they themselves were being directly addressed in it by God.

The text of the bible itself does not justify any of these claims. They were imposed on the Bible because they were the best solutions available to the problems Christianity faced in its first few centuries. Yet despite their artificiality and the lack of biblical support for them the early Christians were convinced that these were the methods for understanding what the Bible was really saying. Today, few Christians are as committed to allegory, or as uncommitted to the Bible’s historical statements; but many still believe that the true author is the Holy Spirit, that the Old Testament spoke about Christ, that the Bible is a consistent unity with no disagreements, and that its doctrines and ethical commands are universally and eternally true.

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