Do You Need a PhD to Understand the Bible?

Do you need a PhD to understand the Bible?

Short answer: yes.

But a longer answer is called for. And the longer answer includes the fact that you need more than one PhD to understand the Bible.

When I say you need a PhD, I don’t necessarily mean that you yourself need to earn a PhD, much less several. But you will need multiple people with PhDs involved in the process. You will not understand the entire Bible without people who have expertise in Hebrew and expertise in Greek. Not just a smattering, not just a copy of Strong’s concordance or an interlinear. In order to get from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text to an understanding in English, you need linguists, experienced translators, and also scholars of history who can clarify cultural and historical references, all involved in the process.

When these individuals have done their job well, you can pick up an English translation, read it, and it will not seem hard to understand at all. Indeed, it may be so deceptively easy that you manage to ignore the hard work that went into producing the text you hold in your hands.

That is why anti-intellectuals like Ken Ham frustrate me. He recently wrote in a blog post, after quoting Bob Cargill’s words in a recent article:

Now, there’s certainly a place for Bible scholars with an understanding of the language, history, and culture surrounding Scripture, but that doesn’t negate the authority and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture.

The Bible actually does speak plainly on many issues. Psalm 19:7 tells us, “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” How can we expect to understand the message of salvation through Jesus Christ if we need a PhD to explain it to us? Sadly, these academics are doing nothing but subverting the authority of Scripture and lifting man’s word up over it. It is ironic that three scholars in their fields who have completely misunderstood what the Bible says about marriage are willing to claim that, without them, people will not be able to make informed decisions about Scripture.

This illustrates the irony of the situation. Ham has access to that statement in the psalm in his own language, and thus can quote it, because of the work of scholars. Yet he quotes it in order to denigrate scholarship! He seems not to have understood what these words mean:

עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה, מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי

He quoted an English translation of them, removed from their context, and shows himself unconcerned about what the text means. He adds them to his own blog post in order to make it seem to the gullible as though his own words are in fact the divinely-inspired teaching of the Bible.

Taken just on their own, or even in the context of that single verse, the words Ham quoted might seem to be about the clarity of Scripture. Reading a few verses in either direction, and one realizes that the focus is rather on divine speech, probably including but certainly not limited to laws found today in the Bible ( a compilation which did not exist in its present form when the psalms were still being written), which the wise will follow and allow to inform their way of life.

But if one reads the whole Psalm, one sees that in fact it starts out focused the order of creation – much of it couched in language that ancient people might well have taken fairly literally, but most of us today, including Ken Ham, do not and cannot. Read the whole psalm, preferably in more than one translation, as that is one of the best ways that someone without an expert knowledge in Hebrew can get a sense of the range of meaning of words in the text, and of the text as a whole. It emphasizes that the created order testifies truthfully to the Creator, and focuses significant attention on the movement of the sun across the sky, described in a manner that so closely resembles other ancient texts, that some scholars conclude that a Canaanite hymn to the sun god has been incorporated into this psalm.

It seems to me that there are two main ways to understand the portion of Psalm 19 which Ham quoted in context. One is that it is relating the divine precepts that order the cosmos to a set of written laws such as those found in the Torah. But alternatively, it may be a wisdom psalm and have in view those moral principles that can be deduced simply by observing the way the world works and reasoning.

Since my primary area of expertise is New Testament, I won’t try to figure this out myself. I’ll read what scholars whose expertise is in the Psalms have written, or perhaps ask the scholars I know what they think. Asking for assistance, and humbly acknowledging one’s dependence on others, is in keeping with the Bible’s teaching – Ken Ham’s persistent arrogant assertions that he needs no assistance from anyone to understand the Bible notwithstanding. Indeed, the irony of Ham’s stance is compounded when one considers the Bible’s emphasis on accepting correction and listening to the wise and learned, and contrasts it with what Ham tries to get his followers to believe the Bible is and teaches.

Through his driving of a wedge between the evidence from creation and belief in God, and through his selective and deceptive quotations of Scripture, Ham shows that he has no respects for the precepts and testimony of Yahweh mentioned in the psalm. If he did, he would repent of the deceit and arrogance that characterize his entire organization. While scientists who are religious believers agree with Psalm 19:1 that the created order declares the glory of God, and does so truthfully, Ham and Answers in Genesis say that you have to deny the conclusions that the evidence from creation points to, in order to believe in God correctly.

Let’s return to where we began. You need scholars in order for you to have the Bible in your own language; and even once it is translated, you need them to help you understand the Bible. You also need to understand how scholarship works, so that you can understand why scholars sometimes disagree, and so that you can avoid being duped by charlatans who will both claim not to need scholars, and yet when it suits them, will claim (typically falsely) that scholars’ conclusions support their claims.

But I am convinced that you don’t need a PhD to tell right from wrong, and to see what a false teacher like Ken Ham is up to. The Bible’s Wisdom tradition teaches that close observation and reasoning should be enough.

On this topic, see further my earlier post, “Challenge to Anti-Intellectual Christians.”

  • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    I started trying to read the Bible in its entirety (rather than the snippets I’d heard quoted here and there, or read paraphrased in children’s bibles) relatively recently, and I’ve been struck with how inaccessible the text is.

    There’s the language barrier, of course. Without knowing Hebrew (I’m still only on Numbers), I really don’t have a way to judge for myself the relative merits of the various translations available. I’ve had to just pick a “camp” (I ended up with the RSV) and run with it, but I do still consult with other translations, and there have been passages where simple word choices can make a fairly profound difference in what I take away from the text. And that’s an important issue that I think believers need to acknowledge and address.

    But then there’s a cultural barrier as well. I’m struck again and again by how alien the ancient Israel context is for me. Things are left unsaid, reader knowledge assumed, etc, and I keep feeling like I’m left with only half the story.

    The arrogance of anti-intellectuals like Ken Ham is absolutely astounding, and more than a little frightening.

    • Hilary

      Can I recommend a translation? Try The Torah: A Modern Commentary.
      http://www.amazon.com/The-Torah-Commentary-Revised-Edition/product-reviews/0807408832/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

      It’s the copy I use at my Temple. It has the Hebrew side by side with the English, and tons of notes, background information, traditional commentaries by 2,000 years of Jewish scholars, and comparisions to other religions, including Christianity, Islam, and some references to Canaanite/other ANE cultures. I’ll caution you ahead of time, it opens right to left following the direction Hebrew is written, and it can be tricky following along in English when the pages are numbered “backwards” but you do get used to it.
      If there is something really interesting or weird beyond comprehension, try googleing that Torah portion and see what you get from different Jewish websites. Chabad will have a very traditional interpretation, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ.org) will have a range of personal, textual, modern and traditional interpretations. We’ve only been arguing about every word and letter for a couple thousand years, even if you don’t agree with over half of the Torah or our commentary, it still might be interesting to learn.
      Good luck!
      Hilary

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I think one of the silliest things Christians say is, “The Bible clearly says…” When I see that, I immediately become more alert in reading what follows, and what follows is usually something that is not clear at all.

    Coming from a poor background, a BA in Biblical Studies, with two years of Greek, and a couple seminary courses were all I could afford, so I am not a scholar. But I read the scholars; I could not do without them.

  • Tony Springer

    As a history professor, I try to get student’s to understand, that at best, we know history on a tertiary level. We have to stand on the shoulders of those who study the primary sources in all that ways that James has explained. Then even our history survey textbooks are tertiary, as the author, though a scholar, does not have the expertise to specialize in everything. I use Bible commentaries in the hands of a preacher and even the news in the voice of a news reporter as an example of primary -> secondary -> tertiary understanding.

  • Bob MacDonald

    Do you need a PhD or a dozen PhD’s? Is there no one who will argue against this rhetoric? I think it is more likely that we need a community, but we have also seen how narrow community can be and how community leads us to justify and enforce parochial bias and confession based on limited readings. I am sure someone with a PhD in history or sociology could add some more labels to the problems imposed by community as tribalism.

    What we need to do is to work at ‘understanding’ and even then we will have only limited achievement. Our knowledge is partial, as it were. And it must remain partial – incomplete. When the complete is come, it will not be a text, or a tradition, or even one’s own reason and it will not be even those three in combination (Hooker’s three-legged stool stated in the wrong order).

    What will the complete be? An apparently random, even futile,walk through the vagaries of a temporal flow mediated through a fractious community by irrational impulse by those who cannot help but misread the holy – until we come to — who knows and who could tell me? What is this humanity! But within this turmoil, we have some interesting, shall I say ‘canonical’, examples of what to avoid and what to seek. This is the ‘edut Adonai’ of Psalm 19.

    PhD? work it out – with fear and trembling. If you seek knowledge from a guru, make sure it is one who knows the limitations of such work and study – for you will find the knowledge from the testimony of this person, not necessarily from the sound-bites of the same. But completeness? Definitely desirable, but as one poet put it – “who can say on what errand the insolent emu walks between morning and night on the edge of the plain?”

    • http://www.jevlir.com/ Henry E. Neufeld

      Even for my incomplete knowledge (and I agree with the need for community, spiritual AND scholarly), I stand on the backs of giants, many of whom had PhDs. Others didn’t, but had done similar study.

      I’m delighted to acknowledge that I don’t have a PhD, yet I have many PhDs who have published their work so that I can make use of it. And yes, evaluate it as well.

    • Pseudonym

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. The question in the headline has at least two words which have multiple meanings. One is “understand” (there are, after all, different levels of understanding), but the other is “you”. “You” could be singular, or it could be plural.

      I don’t need a PhD, because we have lots of them between us.

  • http://keithwalters.org/ Keith Walters

    I completely agree with his argument. We need scholars; and I would argue that more importantly we need more scholars to translate the scriptures for peoples who have not heard. However, he chooses a profoundly dangerous way to make a point. He takes one sentence from the Ken Ham article completely out of context and portrays it as being anti-scholarship when Ham is arguing against a particular kind of scholarship. This is dangerous because now you have told every follower of Christ with out a PhD that they can no longer claim that scripture speaks clearly about anything because they are not cultural, historical, and linguistic experts.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I am not sure how you can completely agree with my argument and also think that it is idiotic and dangerous. I think that the very many wacky and disturbing interpretations of the Bible that people have come up with show the danger of what is in itself a distorted version of a Reformation principle. The idea that the Bible is intelligible without commentary or assistance is not the point the Reformers were making, as indicated not only by some of their statements on this topic, but also the amount of effort they put into providing commentaries on the text!

      • http://keithwalters.org/ Keith Walters

        “the amount of effort they put into providing commentaries on the text” agreed. My point is that once those PhDs have done their work translating the text into English, or any other language for that matter, that you can read and understand the text. Yes, it take study and effort. And I think the church has moved too far from the priesthood of believers to a priesthood of believer where the individual reads the text in isolation from community both currently and the historical community to whic they now belong. We need a greater emphasis upon II Timothy 2:2 where these scholars are passing down their knowledge to others and so on. My problem with your article is that it would appear to argue that your average church member cannot know the meaning of any text. Despite the work of these PhDs in translation and their pastor/elders work in proclamation it seems as if you are arguing that the meaning of the text is not clear to your average church member and that the only things they can certainly know of Scripture is what a PhD tells them.

        Thanks for the reply!

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          If you remove all the people with PhDs from the process, what would the ordinary person in the pew be able to know? They would not even have the King James Version, much less any more recent translation. They would not have linguistic tools such as lexicons, or critical editions of the texts in the original languages, to try to make sense of them themselves. They wouldn’t have libraries in which to consult the original manuscripts. Where would the average church member be, in terms of knowledge of the Bible, if you remove scholars from the process?

          • http://keithwalters.org/ Keith Walters

            James,
            Did you even read my comment? I agreed we need translators, linguists, and scholars. I agree with you on that. My concern is that once these individuals provide us with a translation you appear to be arguing that the church cannot trust that text to be clear. Rather they must only repeat what the scholars say about the text.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              You believe that a text written in another language, time, cultural and historical context will be consistently self-explanatory to people reading it in a very different time and context merely because it is translated into their language? Even across language and cultural divides in our own time, misunderstanding occur.

              • beau_quilter

                I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard preachers read a passage of scripture in a sermon or class, then say something like, “notice that Jesus says ‘is’ not ‘was’” as though it were a fine point of exegesis! They have no idea what the ancient grammar really indicates.

                • LorenHaas

                  Oh, this one drives me crazy as well. Different translations cannot always agree on this, so how can you base a sermon on it? Besides, being as Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and his words presumably were transmitted orally for decades before hey were written down in Greek by someone who never met Jesus…..

                  • beau_quilter

                    … and that’s assuming he actually said all of the things that are attributed to him …

    • newenglandsun

      Reading the Bible without investigation of the different literary elements as well as context that the Bible was written around leads to different contradictions within the Bible as well as young earth creationism and several different bullshit (excuse me for saying that here) ideologies.

      Given, there are people who hold PhD’s who also adhere to very whacky philosophies as well so I am inclined to say that a PhD isn’t entirely what is going to help you. For instance, John Piper and Wayne Grudem both hold PhD’s. Ever heard of CBMW? How about sexism? And let’s not forget that Hugh Ross also holds a PhD as well.

      In other words, McGrath’s point here is that one does need some sort of historical and contextual education before trying so hard to understand the Bible.

      • http://keithwalters.org/ Keith Walters

        The CBMW is a fantastic example of a culturally, textually,
        and historically informed reading of Scripture.
        So thankful for their hard work in preserving the teaching of Scripture
        no matter how controversial it may be.

        • newenglandsun

          “The CBMW is a fantastic example of a culturally, textually,and historically informed reading of Scripture.”
          No it’s not.

          • Bob MacDonald

            Yes – this proves the point that such information can be wrong. Apartheid was supported from the Bible, so was slavery. If the light that is in you is darkness… (the out of context textual grasshopper can now appeal to Scripture to save itself: כּחַשֲׁיֵכָה כּאָוֹרָה – as darkness, as light, Psalm 139:12.) And it would be right for once, God can search out the darkness the spritely grasshopper engulfs itself with.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I think that a key issue is that CBMW and related movements treat cultural assumptions which were simply part of the milieu of the Biblical authors and thus their assumptions as normative, in a manner that cannot be followed through consistently. There is, as Bultmann famously emphasized, no way that one by an act of faith or will in the present day can suddenly have a first-century Eastern Mediterranean worldview. It should also be pointed out that the attempt to approach cultural assumptions as normative has led the church down paths that it is now ashamed of, perhaps most infamously in supporting slavery.

            • newenglandsun

              Precisely the point I was making with the CBMW.

            • http://keithwalters.org/ Keith Walters

              Doesn’t that leave us with a pretty pathetic God who is incapable of preventing the writers from filling His word with their cultural bias? If we let God be God then I think He is perfectly capable of communicating His intent for manhood, womanhood, and whatever other institution you can think of.

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                Isn’t it a pretty pathetic God, one might ask, who cannot keep scribes from introducing errors into manuscripts, thus necessitating textual criticism with all its deduction and uncertainty?

                Why talk about this in terms of what someone thinks makes for a pathetic God, in abstraction from the evidence from the Bible as it actually is? Doing so seems to me to simply be an attempt to deduce a priori what one thinks the Bible must be, and then impose it upon the Bible. That approach undermines the authority of the text, and makes God look bad, so why do it?

                • Name

                  I agree with Keith. Textual criticism doesn’t hinder divine communication. Anything could be explained away in Scripture as a cultural relic

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    I am not sure I understand your comment, but you may have missed my point. The point is not at textual criticism is religiously objectionable. The point is that one can start with an a priori view of what is or is not appropriate divine behavior, and then insist that either the Bible or the manuscript evidence somehow fit, with problematic results.

              • newenglandsun

                Or maybe god didn’t write the Bible :o

  • http://godofevolution.com/ Tyler Francke

    Great article, James. Thanks. I’m no follower of Ken Ham, but this was still a great reminder for me to appreciate what I so often take for granted when I read the Bible in my ENGLISH Standard Version translation of it.

  • Mike

    “You need scholars in order for you to have the Bible in your own language.” Agreed.

    “…and even once it is translated, you need them to help you understand the Bible. You also need to understand how scholarship works…” Not neccesarily.

    There are some people who, due to choice, intellectual disability, social status, or financial reasons will never go to college. Now, some of these people might have a natural intellectual abiblity to be able to understand various scholarly works. I would venture to say that many would not. Also, If I read the statistic correctly, about 16% of people in the world (ages 15 and above) are illiterate (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS/countries?display=graph).

    I appreciate groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators who work diligently to make the Bible accesible to as many people as possible. I also appreciate the English translations such as the Good News Translation, Contemporary English Version, or the New Living Translation which makes the Bible accesible to a wider range of people, including children.

    I was fortunate enough to attend college, but many will not have that opportunity/luxury. I believe that an “unlearned” person’s interpretation of the Bible is no less valid than my own.

    • RedDoor

      Theology is really the only field where someone would say that. No one would say that a person who has spent a lot of time in a car is equally or more informed than a licensed mechanic. No one would say that a person who bought plants from the Home Depot is more informed than a professional gardener. Yet somehow, the interpretation of someone who has no training is just as good as the professionals in theology. I just don’t get it.

      That isn’t to say that their interpretation is necessarily wrong (or that a professional’s is necessarily correct) or that God can’t use them or speak to them (trust me, I’ve seen God move through some exegesis; I’ve been guilty of it myself!), but I think it is completely unfortunate to come to the conclusion that an “unlearned” interpretation of the Bible is equally valid.

      • Mike

        Please read my response to Johnathan S. below.

    • utopia27

      If you were Jewish, your rabbi would weep.

      • Mike

        Please read my response to Johnathan S (see below).

  • utopia27

    I see the argument that reading any (good) translation of the Bible with faith in one’s heart leads to a full understanding of God’s word and intent. I can’t help but believe that anyone forwarding that argument doesn’t speak a foreign language (with any fluency) and has never left their own parochial little burgh.

    There’s a truism that the more you learn, the more you understand how much you don’t know. This is particularly true in the context of cultural understanding and linguistics. If you don’t speak a foreign language with any fluency, you don’t have direct experience of the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis (“the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world”). Until you’ve grappled with the reality of that thought personally, you can’t really conceive of how much Aramaic, ancient Greek, and Latin form the message of the Bible. Similarly, if you’ve never ha a significant expatriate experience, actually living embedded in a different culture, it’s very difficult to imagine the degree to which people of the 1st century middle east were not just foreign, but _alien_.

    I agree with other posters on this topic (not sure if it’s this forum), but there is no way that a 21st century westerner can by act of faith or will develop an ability to think and intuit as a 1st century middle eastern would (or even the 3rd century authors of the New Testament). But there are people who dedicate their personal and professional lives to helping us bridge the gap. If you believe it is an act of faith to truly understand (in a deep sense) the messages of the Bible, then you are not diligently pursuing, in good faith, that act of faith if you do not avail yourself of the breadth of scholarship, learning, and perspective from the active community. In fact, to eschew such insight and support should probably be suspect as an act of overweening pride.

    • Jonathan S.

      This hits the nail on the head. When I studied Greek in seminary, I discovered exactly what you’re talking about. Then I married a bilingual woman …

      I think some folks in this discussion confuse the possibility of knowing God or hearing the truth of the gospel with the very different task of interpreting the Bible. Yes, (I believe) it’s possible for a person with limited mental functions to have a child-like love of God and relationship with God. According to Jesus, that’s great–we should all be so faithful. But such a person (one with limited mental capacity) will not be capable of interpreting much of the Bible. (They also shouldn’t be put in a role where they’re teaching others what the Bible means.) When it comes to the hard work of interpreting Scripture, all the faith in the world doesn’t guarantee anything. We might disagree on whether faith is necessary for a good interpretation; but even if it IS necessary, faith and good intentions aren’t sufficient here.

      • Mike

        According to this article in the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/19/percent-of-world-with-col_n_581807.html), 6.7% of the world’s population holds a college degree (in the U.S., about 30% of the people hold a bachelor’s or higher). 60% of the world’s population of Christians now reside in the global south (Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia).

        Keeping these statistics in mind, I would venture to say that many Christians around the world (probably most) would not have access to works by scholars (either not at all or not in their native tongue), or, if they do have access to scholarly works, they may not be able to understand them due to a lack of education. As people are leaving the Church in the West, Christianity is expanding rapidly in the gobal south. There are simply not enough Christian leaders, who have access or understanding of scholarly works, to go around.

        Are we saying that, when these Christians interpret the Bible, their interpretation is invalid? That would exclude many Christians including those who would even be considered leaders of their church community.

        Here’s a good read about the Christianity in the global south from 2006. It also mentions how the different experiences of those in the global north and south shape the way the Bible is read and interpreted (i.e. access to water, famine, political instability, etc.)

        http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/believing-in-the-global-south-17

        Again, I’m not opposed to Christian scholarship, I just think that we shouldn’t invalidate someone’s interpretation just because they didn’t consult with the “experts” in the field.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think you may have missed the point of the original article. I there were not scholars involved in the process, the Christians you refer to would not have the Bible in their language. There are certainly instances when non-scholars have shed important light on things – Kenneth Bailey’s students in Lebanon are a prime example. But even in such instances, surely a proposed interpretation that is possible for someone reading the text in a particular language and culture today, but would have been impossible in the original language and cultural context, needs to be recognized as such, does it not?

          • Mike

            “I(f) there were not scholars involved in the process, the Christians you refer to would not have the Bible in their language.” Ageed, abosolutely.

            “…and even once it is translated, you need them to help you understand the Bible.” This is where we disagree.

            I was also reacting, in my above post, to the statement made by utopia27 above:

            “If you believe it is an act of faith to truly understand (in a deep sense) the messages of the Bible, then you are not diligently pursuing, in good faith, that act of faith if you do not avail yourself of the breadth of scholarship, learning, and perspective from the active community. In fact, to eschew such insight and support should probably be suspect as an act of overweening pride.” The last statement complete ignores the fact that many Chrisitans (probably most) do not have access to or are not able to understand works by scholars.

            I think I may understand what you are saying in you statement below, but, just to clarify, could you give me an example of an interpretation that you are describing? (I am also unfamiliar with Kenneth Bailey and his students in Lebanon. Is there a link that describes what you are talking about?):
            “But even in such instances, surely a proposed interpretation that is possible for someone reading the text in a particular language and culture today, but would have been impossible in the original language and cultural context, needs to be recognized as such, does it not?”

            Thanks for responding!

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Here is an example from Kenneth Bailey that is well-known, available online, and written for a general audience: http://www.pres-outlook.com/advent3/3699.html

              I think perhaps it may be important to separate whether it is possible to believe in God through Jesus and be a Christian on the one hand (something that is clearly possible even where no Bible is present, much less understood), and understanding the Bible in a manner that is at least compatible with how its authors and earliest readers would have understood it.

              • Mike

                Thanks for the article. I agree that we need to call out those interpretations that are not consistent with cultural historical context of the original authors. I think of how materialistic we are in the west, and how that influences our interpretation of certain passages about “blessing” and the passages where Jesus says He will give us anything we ask in His name. But…I have a question for you about translating the Bible from the original text into other languages.

                How do you feel about changing words that weren’t in the original text of the original authors, but would possibly carry on the “meaning” of the text better than the original words to a particular culture? I know this is done to a certain extent in the English translations (especially the paraphrased Biblical translations). Here’s an example: Jesus talks about being the “bread” of life. In most Asian cultures, rice is the staple food. Should “bread” be replaced with “rice” in these translations?

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  That’s a good question. There is no definitive answer to the question – the translator simply has to choose between rendering the text as “bread” and leaving it to a footnote or commentary to explain about that, or rendering it as “rice” and explaining that this aims for dynamic equivalence rather than something else. Either way, without the scholars who translate, and without reading footnotes or commentary, the reader’s understanding is less as a result.

                  There have been even harder issues for translators. I know that the translators of the Bible into Telugu wrestled with the options available in that Indian context. Does one use a foreign term for “God”, the word Brahman which represents the ultimate reality but not a personal being, or Parameshwara demoting a personal god that is not ultimate? There is no clear answer, just hard choices, and the depressing fact that, whatever option translators choose, few readers will consult a commentary or other reference work to understand the difference between the meaning of the text in English or Telugu, and the meaning of the original language texts in their historical, cultural, and religious contexts.

                  • Mike

                    Wow. That would be a tough translation issue to say the least. I have really appreciated our conversation. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my posts.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Thank you for taking the time to comment and converse!

  • Duane D.

    I concur with James. You might have just as well argued that Ham might have just at well argued that you don’t need Bible teachers to understand the Bible, in which case Mr Ham himself would be unnecessary.
    However, I disagree with the examples you hold out as evidence of his ignorance. People of all levels of education in all fields simply disagree on every area of the Bible. What we learn is passed down apostolically, whatever that means (disagreement there too), is re-interpreted historically, culturally and socially, and finally (through, and in spite of all of the filters) the message is imparted to our hearts through the Holy Spirit. STILL we have fundamental disagreements from those even with multiple Phds on what is grace?, what are works? what is faith? the limited or unlimited reach of the atonement, and egalitarianism/complimentarianism was mentioned, etc, etc, etc. Yes, we need THds Phds, preachers, teachers, housewives, househusbands (lest anyone be offended), we need the whole body of Christ.
    But the best you can get from me is concurrence, because I believe your post is woefully over-reaching.

    • Mike

      Well said.

  • Tony Bellows

    One of the notable things about modern translations of the Bible, from at least the New English Bible onwards, is that the translators also come across from a whole range of denominations. That’s not to say they are biased in their translation, but any unconscious bias will be balanced out by this. That means that any translations, such as the Douai one – “do penance” instead of “repentance” won’t slip through.

    Incidentally, the passage at the end of John, where Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” and Peter replies “You know that I love you…” etc uses the same word love for two different Greek works – the verbs phileo and agapao. I’m sure that rendering both as love loses the nuances of the Greek. This may be significant; it may not. But the reader is not aware that two different verbs are being used. The problem lies in the fact that the two Greek verbs don’t have exact analogues in English.

  • James Dowden

    The link doesn’t work for me, but I presume the Abingdon Commentary will mention that Psalm 19 looks very much like it isn’t a unity — and this isn’t the only point where chapter breaks in the Psalms are dodgy; they look like they’ve been fiddled for numerological purposes — at the point where the subject suddenly changes, the meter of the Hebrew also changes. So interpreting 19.7(8) in terms of 19.1(2) may well be walking into mere juxtaposition. One might as well look at what 20.1(2) says.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I suspect that Ken Ham would respond to this suggestion the same way he responds to the suggestion that two distinct creation accounts have been brought together in Genesis 1-3. :-)

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    Even a child can understand it. It’s basic message.

    “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

  • Suzy Kopliku

    Just popping by from Rachel Held Evan’s ( intrigued by the title of your post :) I wanted to quickly add how many people, especially of the early and Eastern Rite churches, became saints with often, little to no Biblical knowledge. Sometimes, I wonder if we get too embroiled in texts and disputes about texts that we miss the point. Jesus said that the whole of the law and the prophets hang upon the commandment to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. It can take a lifetime to learn such a lesson. Understanding the nuances of different translations may or may not be conducive to that end.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for stopping by! That is indeed true! If we study the text, we have to make sure that we don’t miss that the text is pointing away from itself, and directing our attention to one who is greater and who is the point of its message.

  • Terry A. Douglas

    I agree we need the scholars. “Thank God” for them. They are essential in helping us to bridge the gaps between now and then. But I also believe that once we have a good translation in our mother tongue in hand, there is much that we can understand of God’s message to us using our God-given intellectual faculties and the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

  • Jordan Wilson

    I agree with your premise in regards to the interpretations, but when it comes to understanding what the author was trying to say, sometimes I think the scholars can over analyze something some guy wrote 2500 years ago.

  • Blake Duckworth

    [[Do You Need a PhD to Understand the Bible?]] Apparently you will need
    a lot more than that. There are 33,500 denominations total in Christianity, and each denomination claims they are the true church of the bible and that their interpretation of the bible is the correct one. i.e. we got it right while all the other 33,499 denominations got it wrong.

    But it goes even further than that, you could take 10 baptist pastors and put them in a room and question them all about certain scriptures and you would get 10 different interpretations.

    Pastor one: says “pre-trib rapture”
    Pastor two: well I know the rapture is mid-trib,
    Pastor three: wrong, I’ve studied the bible for 15 years and I know the bible like the back of my hand and the rapture is post trib !
    pastor four; apparently you don’t know the back of your hand then because the tribulation happened in the days of nero caesar you guys must not be reading your bible ?
    Pastor 5:You’re all wrong, don’t you know tribulation and the abominations of desolation was when antiochus epiphanes invaded the first temple and made the jews worship a statue of Zeus !

    Pastor 6: WRONG pastor, the abomination of desolation was under Titus when the second temple fell, then another would stand up and say No way guys the abomination of desolation is coming in the future it’s a rebuilt temple.

    pastor 7: I don’t believe that nonsense, the bible is very clear the abomination of desolation is when the antichrist who will be the American president sits in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem claiming to be God.

    Pastor 8: American president my foot, the Antichrist will be a member of the European Union

    Pastor 9: you’re all nuts, the antichrist will be a muslim !

    (palm slap)

    And that is just one small issue the end times, by the way what I typed is from watching various baptist preaching videos on youtube, those were the various beliefs I’ve heard preached from baptists, so it wasn’t like I made those interpretations up or anything.

    I myself have spent thousands of dollars building a biblical library and I’m just as confused as when I first started, all the commentaries have their own private interpretations. I don’t think the bible can be understood, the culture and customs of that time period is dead and gone. All we’re left with is a book that we open and pick and chose and cherry pick to make it say whatever we want it to say hince 33,500 denominations doing just that !

  • Blake Duckworth

    I don’t think the bible is hard to understand, the more you read it the more it makes sense. I’m doing my first read through, I came out of Oneness Pentecostalism, and almost everything I was taught by that denomination has turned out to be untrue. For example: they taught me the following

    1. grace and faith did not exist in the old testament
    2. grace and faith only existed after the cross, but grace and faith do not save us because we’re saved by our good deeds and water baptism.
    3. The trinity was invented by the Catholic church and the son did not exist till Mary had her baby, and God the father was the invisible spirit inside the sons body thus making him God

    Imagine my surprise to find out all of this was a lie, originally I thought all the baptists were liars and heading for hell. Imagine my surprise that the majority of what the baptist church teaches backs up with the bible. I’ve been watching a couple of baptists off of youtube Steven Anderson (non calvinist) and Jim Brown (Calvinist) and a lot of what they teach backs up with the bible. I of course blame myself for being taken in by the Oneness false doctrine, if I had bothered to actually study the bible the first time around I would not have been in a cult for 5 yrs. When my computer’s hard drive died and I had it in the shop being fixed and had nothing to do is when I started cracking open a bible for myself the first time out of boredom.

    As far as understanding the text one has to get their mind out of the 2014 American western set mind frame. Good bible commentaries help with the background, in fact people can easily go to websites for free background commentaries such as Matthew Henry, Calvins Commentaries,John Gills exposition of the bible etc.

    http://www.studylight.org/com/

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