*Editor’s Note: The world of the Bible is quite different from our own. So, we need to come with questions, not a know-it-all attitude. I recently caught up with Dr. Orpheus J. Heyward, a minister, scholar, and teacher of Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) to get his thoughts on how we can bridge the gap between the world of the Bible and our own world. Other articles in this series deal with the dangers of misinterpretation, the importance of context, and the tools of interpretation we already use everyday.
Q: A lot of Bible readers seem to jump straight from reading a Bible verse to saying, okay, what does this mean in my life? So as people read them, what are some questions that they should ask before they get to, okay, what does this mean in my life?
When people read Scripture, one of the first questions they need to ask is, what is the context of this verse or set of verses? When I say context, I mean looking at the surrounding information (what comes before and after). But I also mean other kinds of context: What is the cultural context? What is the historical context? Context helps me to understand the situation of the text. Do I understand the reason the author is writing?
Another important question is, am I clear about the language that’s being used? Is he using an expression that isn’t common to my vernacular that maybe I need to look into? For instance, when you read the book of Psalms, David uses these very hyperbolic expressions, like God makes me “white as snow” or makes my “bones to rejoice.” Well, I’m pretty clear that bones don’t rejoice.
To determine what kind of language is being used, I need to ask the question, what is the type of literature I’m reading? Is this a letter? Is this prophetic? Is this historical narrative? Is this apocalyptic? Knowing the genre I’m reading can help me make sure that, as I read it, I’m not going to take the language out of context.
Q: Although we use interpretation every day, it sounds like we also need to be honest about the distance between us and the world of the Bible.
Yes, one of the things we need to be aware of is that there are certain gaps we need to close. As it relates to interpreting the Bible, there is a historical gap. In other words, there’s a time gap. They lived in a completely different time than ours.
There’s also a language gap. The Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. These are not languages that we are always readily familiar with. So we need to be mindful of that. When you translate from one language to another, there are some things that can be lost in translation that we need to be mindful of.
Another gap between us and the world of the Bible is the cultural gap. What does it mean to salute one another with a “holy kiss”? Is this some kind of malignant behavior I need to know about, or is this common to their culture? So, it’s important for us to recognize the cultural gaps that make us different.
By the way, these are gaps we don’t typically have to close in our day and time, because we’re basically familiar with the culture, the language, the historical situation we’re in. These are things that are familiar to us. Yet, in the Bible world, we will be unfamiliar and we need to make sure we’re closing those gaps.
Q: As I’ve gotten to hear you preach, you seem to not just tell people what a Bible passage means, but you also seem to teach them in such a way that they can adopt some of your practices in arriving at those conclusions. So, how are you able to preach in such a way that, each week, you’re helping teach people how to handle the Bible well on their own?
Yeah, when I’m preaching, I try to help people not only hear what the Bible teaches but also understand how you arrive at conclusion. It’s my unique way of trying to bring some level of academics to the pulpit without being overbearing. I do think that we’re living in a time and a generation that is inquisitive enough to want to know, not just what the Bible says, but how do we arrive at that conclusion? So, every week I preach, the congregation knows that I’m going to do the very best I can to put that passage in its context, help them understand the words of that text, and help them understand how we get to the conclusion, all in a way that’s not overbearing.
I think it’s important for preachers to consider that we live in the age of information where people now, while you’re preaching, can access a Bible app and just press a word and find out what the Greek text says. Even if they’ve never been to school for Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, they’ve become a technological scholar. And they want to be sure that what you’re feeding them is correct. So, you want to be sure that when you go to the pulpit, you go to the pulpit in a way that’s responsible.