A Very Bad Way to Understand Texts or An Error I Made So You Do Not Have to Do So

A Very Bad Way to Understand Texts or An Error I Made So You Do Not Have to Do So October 28, 2018

Plato wrote a great many books and we are blessed with all of them. You can read his ideas about justice in Republic, piety in Euthyphro, or the natural world in Timaeus. Plato wrote carefully and most of his dialogs are masterpieces of Greek prose. The Menexenus proves Plato could parody bad writing when he wanted to do so. By the living jingo, there is some bad speech making in that dialog!

As a youngling assigned to write an undergraduate paper on Plato, I noted  a contradiction between his use of a term in one dialog with his use in another. “Ha!,” I cried for there is no easier undergraduate paper to write than the critique.

On Reading Plato 

I should have paused and wondered: “Why have I spotted this error so easily? What do the experts say?” Better I should have realized three basic facts:

  1. Plato did not write in English. I was reading him in translation and two different translators had worked on the two dialogs.
  2. Each Platonic dialog is a whole. Plato does not appear as a character in his own dialogs so attributing anyone’s views to Plato himself is complicated.
  3. Each dialog might develop a specialized use of a particular term. Plato’s character Timaeus uses “soul” differently (as a term) in one dialog!

All that was pretty basic and my professor helped me see the errors I was making. In addition, I was failing to treat the author (Plat0) charitably. I was reading for errors, not meaning. Instead of beginning sympathetic, my goal to write a paper was causing me to read with hostility.

On Reading the Bible

Oddly, one sees the same problems in reading books in bad Christian apologetics and much Internet atheism.* The worst cases I see are the “contradiction mongers” who create lists of Biblical contradictions. Some of these are real puzzles for thoughtful Christians, but many are versions of my undergraduate errors in reasoning. Recall these three indisputable facts about the collection of texts that make up the Christian Bible:

  1. The Bible was not written in English, none of it. Most was written in Hebrew and Greek. The Hebrew portions were written over hundreds of years, so the language developed over time. If the critic is reading an English translation (and this kind of critics always is), then even in the same Bible, different translators (or committees of translators) may have worked on each book.
  2. Each Biblical book is a whole and first must be understood for the message it is conveying before a “harmony” or contradiction can be found. God rarely appears as a character in any book or speaks directly. The message of the author or characters in the book must be understood in context.
  3. Each book may develop a specialized use of a particular term that will be translated to the same (or similar) English word.

Imagine finding a “contradiction” between the message of a wisdom book that reflects on life such as Ecclesiastes and a letter written by a rabbi in Greek centuries later based solely on the same terms or words occurring in an English translation

Pause and consider: the Hebrew word translated “justice” is not the Greek word translated “justice” and while each must overlap in meaning enough to justify (!) using the same English word as a translation, the English term justice has (itself) many meanings. 

Here are two English sentences:

  • The teacher was just in listening to both Punch and Judy on the playground.
  • The teacher was just in punishing Punch and not Judy without considering his fatuous claims.

The English term “just” can mean merely “fair” and being fair to Punch may require hearing even his silly argument for his bad behavior. “Just” can mean something more rigorous where the teacher is not merely fair, but enforces a moral sense of justice on the playground. Justice can include a notion of fairness in our English usage or can deny that fairness is part of doing justice!

How much more complicated is it when we find this English term used by a skilled translator from Greek! Greek “justice” has a wide range of meanings as well. You can see how our contradiction finder must use special care in the translation of one language to another in one book. Now imagine the scholarship required to compare a Hebrew term (that may be close to one English use of “just”) with a Greek term (that may be close to one English use of “just”)!

The unjust reader just quotes two verses that seem to contradict and feels justified in his injustice.

This is tolerable in a kid coming to ancient literature for the first time, but inexcusable in a grown up believing he is making a serious argument. Think about tensions in the worldview of the author of Ecclesiastes and the author of Romans:

  1. The author of Ecclesiastes could be making the point that from one point of view, life is useless. We live and then we die. Nothing is worthwhile. Like some of the writers in the Psalms, he or she may be expressing emotions and not trying to resolve them.**
  2. The writer of a letter like Romans is speaking to a specific group of Romans, a very practical people with a legal turn of mind, about issues they are facing as a persecuted minority.

That the two books are in creative tension is not only not surprising, but expected.

Charity allows me to read a diversity of books and learn from all of them. Authors from Bertrand Russell to TS Eliot to Langston Hughes to Dorothy Sayers can teach me goodness, truth, and beauty.

The bad reader misses all the joy of good reading! Thank God I no longer read for problems, but instead read looking for the best the writer has said.

Such larks!


*I greatly appreciate the excellent education and mentoring I received from serious thinkers who were atheists. By Internet atheists, I refer to people who adopt an “any stick to beat a dog” approach to dialog. Bad apologetics does the same thing.

**I am not suggesting this is The Way to understand this complex book, just that a wooden reading that equates a book like Ecclesiastes to a totally different type of literature (an epistle) in a different language in a different time is . . . Stupid.

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