The most important axiom to keep in mind when doing Bible study is this: One tends to only see what one is expecting to see. Translation and interpretation is about learning to see what is actually there in spite of one’s expectations.
Consider this famous optical illusion:
One will tend to see either a young woman or an old woman until the image is explained. Once it is explained then one laughs at how easy it was to miss the dual image. It can be all too easy to believe one knows exactly what one sees and move on. It took me years to unlearn many “obvious” interpretations. I had to set the Bible down for a while – really a few years – before I was able to come back to it with fresh eyes. I recognize this process also flies in the face of what Christian culture tells me.
“Biblical translation is more like an art rather than a mechanical process.”
Translations play a part as well. We tend to study translations of original (or near original) texts. Translations can be quite bad, and good translations can still mislead. Anyone who has spent time with languages other than their native tongue know this. Think of the instructions below translated from Chinese into English. It is important to have some idea of where one is going.
Even if the translation is fine, or one is studying in the original language anyway, it can still be tricky. Consider to following statement:
“You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.”
What does this mean? What should the one managing the nuclear reactor do? Might it be important to get the interpretation correct? But how is one to know? In biblical studies that is a huge question. Many sentences in Greek are not much different than the above quote. Translators often remove such ambiguity because the translators made a decision based on their pre-understanding. That does not mean they were correct. And pastors and Bible teachers who thrive on the performance rather than substance shortchange their congregations by missing such interpretive conundrums, teaching with a practiced conviction that their understanding is without substantial challenge.
For many Christians, doing Bible study is more about letting the spirit of God teach them directly through the words. This is often just a religiously encourage method of disguising one’s intuition as the voice of God. Regardless, imagining that you “get it” is not the same thing as actually getting it. Intuition is rational and takes years of hard work to develop. Having an “intuitive flash” does not mean one has got it right, but that flash is often part of the process of our search for understanding. Tacit knowledge is critical. Regardless, in our pursuit of understanding we need to have humility. And we must remember: One tends to only see what one is expecting to see.
Context is huge for meaning. So is the intent of the author. For example: JFK’s famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner” can mean both “I’m a Berlin-person,” or “I’m a jelly donut,” though I believe most German people instantly knew he meant “Berlin-person.” The socio-historical (not to mention geographical) context meant a lot in understanding JFK’s intent. We often have to make a case for intent, but an author’s intent is frequently difficult to discern. It is important to keep in mind that authorial intent has more to do with making a case for what the text means from the test itself rather than trying to read the author’s mind, which we cannot do. It is also an art and not a mechanical process.
These thoughts are very simple I know. But I think there is something basic and profound in them as well. What is unfortunate, however, is that so much of Bible teaching that I hear reminds me of the Benny Hill skit when a character says, “Look, what’s that in the road? A head?” and the director says “Cut! It’s suppose to be ‘What’s that in the road ahead?'”
Postscript: I recognize that in this day of pomo-evangelical, deconstructive theology my thoughts above are possibly simplistic. But I am convinced that the average Christian cares little for the more intellectual debates and just wants to live as a good Christian (or at least look like one). I believe the general outline I have given is radical enough that if followed would shake up much of popular Christianity as it stands.