Don’t Interpret the Bible, Just Read It

Don’t Interpret the Bible, Just Read It August 6, 2018

You have probably all heard fundamentalists such as young-earth creationists insist that they don’t interpret the Bible, they just read it, and others should do likewise? Sometimes it is explicit and generally stated in more or less the way I just did. In others it is implicit: don’t see if a day can be interpreted in some manner other than as a literal 24-hour, just take the text at face valuem day means day, what everyone means by day.

But have you ever noticed how selectively they apply this rule? When I mention the death of Judas in this context, I am not headed in the direction of the story about the person who read “Judas went and hanged himself” and then flipping to another random verse read “go and do thou likewise.”

No, the death of Judas is of interest in this context because the versions of what happened to him in Matthew and Acts contradict one another. Hopefully you are aware of at least the broad issue about this: Does Judas hang himself or does he fall headlong and have his innards become his outards?

But if you really want to see the contradiction, keep your eye on the money. Does Judas buy a field with it, or does he throw it in the temple and then the priests buy a field with it?

I heard someone insist in response to having this pointed out to them that, since the priests bought the field with Judas’ money, technically one could say that he bought it.

But that isn’t what the text actully says. Don’t interpret it, just read it.

Perhaps they bought it in his name?

That isn’t what the text says. Don’t interpret it, just read it.

And for those who try to harmonize the two accounts of his death by saying that he tried to hang himself but the rope or tree branch snapped, that too is not something that the text says.

And just how do you fall headlong when trying to hang yourself? Maybe he hung himself from a tree on the edge of a cliff, and fell in a way that involved spinning around in midair?

That isn’t what the text says. Don’t interpret it, just read it.

That phrase should not be used by anyone. There is no reading without interpreting, because there is no reading without thinking and comprehending meaning, or at least trying to understand.

My point here is not to use the phrase better or more appropriately than fundamentalists do, but to point out the inconsistency. They encourage you, even require you, to accept the text at face value when it says what they think it should, when they like what it says, when it says what they want to hear.

But as soon as it mentions a dome over the earth, you will get a long discussion. And as soon as it fails to match up with external sources of historical knowledge or internally with other texts, you will get a long explanation.

And so my main point is to recommend pointing this out to anyone who says they don’t interpret the text, they just read it, or recommends that you approach the text that way. I think the most helpful response will be to help them discover the limit to their own willingness to follow their stated principle.

All it should take to get them to see the falsity of their claim is one discrepancy, or one text that says something fundamentalists think the Bible shouldn’t say.

Of related interest see Bart Ehrman’s account of his first encounter with scholarship that engages with these sorts of matters.

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  • John MacDonald

    I wonder if we might say, from a New Testament minimalism perspective, that it is unclear whether the story about Judas betraying Jesus was historical or not? It may be an example of Markan irony that a well known apocalyptic prophet like Jesus, who did such things as draw large crowds and have a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, needed one of his own to betray him to let the authorities know who he was (as though he was an unknown nobody).

    Some think the essence of the Judas story may in fact be an example of Mark having Judas fulfill scripture (fill full of meaning). Miller and Miller suggest that with Judas’ betraying kiss (14:44-45), Mark might have in mind an allusion to 2 Samuel 20:7-10, where Joab, backed up by armed men, greets Amasa as a brother, kisses him, then stabs him. Also, Helms suggests this allusion is carried forward when Luke apparently has modeled his version of Judas’ miserable death upon that of Amasa. 2 Samuel 20:10 LXX tells us that Amasa’s “bowels poured out (execuqh) upon the ground,” precisely as Luke tells us (Acts 1:18) that when Judas died, “he burst open, so that his entrails poured out (execuqh).”

    I think Paul’s writing may speak against the historicity of the Judas betrayal pericopes in the gospels because Paul seems to imply the twelve were still intact after Jesus died (see 1 Corinthians 15:5).

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Just purely on that last point, Acts 1 does say they rather quickly chose a new Twelfth, and in a rather mundane way at that, although one of the qualifications is that he had to be a witness to the resurrection. What specifically that qualification meant is up for discussion of course.

      • John MacDonald

        Hey Phil. Ehrman has some interesting thoughts on the issue you raised. Ehrman comments that:

        [T]here is no point in objecting that there was an election to replace Judas with Matthias to keep the number at twelve, so that there always *were* twelve. That election happened in Acts only after Jesus’ resurrection appearances – in fact, after his ascension — and we are now asking whether there were eleven or twelve members in the group at the time of those appearances.

        So that’s one option. Another one, that I tend to prefer on most days, is that Paul talks about the appearance of Jesus to the twelve because he knows nothing about the tradition that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and then died soon after.

        How could Paul not know *that*? Hey, I know that, and I wasn’t even alive at the time! But, well, the reality is that we don’t know how much Paul knew about the traditions surrounding Jesus. If he knew a lot, he certainly doesn’t *indicate* that he knew a lot. As most readers of the blog know (from previous posts) Paul doesn’t say a lot about things that happened to Jesus, even about what happened leading up to his death.

        Ah, but doesn’t Paul indicate that Jesus had his last supper “on the night in which he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:22), so doesn’t that indicate that he knows about the tradition of Judas? Good point. But, well, it’s actually a bit complicated. Here’s the deal.

        When Paul says that Jesus had the Last Supper, it was on the night in which he was “handed over.” The Greek word Paul uses is PARADIDOMI. That word doesn’t mean “betrayed.” It means “handed over.” The word for “betray” in Greek is PRODIDOMI. The two words are obviously related, but they are not the same. Paul uses PARADIDOMI (“handed over”) on other occasions. When he uses it with respect to Jesus, he uses it to talk about how God “handed Jesus over” to his death (see Romans 8:32). And so when Paul says that Jesus had his last supper on the night that he was handed over, that is probably what he means – it was the night that God handed Jesus over to his fate. Result: Paul gives no indication that he knows of the betrayal of Judas.

        But how could a well-traveled, knowledgeable Christian (one who actually knew the disciple Peter!) not know about the betrayal? My view is that it is at least possible. Consider this. One of our later Gospels, the Gospel of Peter, which certainly knew the traditions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (maybe even had used these Gospels as sources for his own stories) also tells of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, but appears to know nothing of Judas’s death.

        The Gospel of Peter dates to the early second century. The fragment we have of it (discovered in 1886) tells of Jesus’ trial, execution, and resurrection. After Jesus is raised, but before the disciples have seen him, we find these intriguing lines:

        (59) But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, wept and grieved; and each one returned to his home, grieving for what had happened. (60) But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, took our nets and went off to the sea. (61) And with us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord….

        The fragment breaks off at just this point (rather unfortunately!). But it’s enough to tell us what we need to know. Clearly what is going to happen next is that Jesus is going to make a resurrection appearance to his disciples. But note, here – as in Paul – there are *twelve* disciples (not eleven).

        It appears that that there were competing traditions in the earliest Christian church. In some circles it was thought that Jesus’ own disciple Judas betrayed him and then died (either by his own hand, as in Matthew, or by a divine act, as possibly suggested in Acts 1). In other circles there was no knowledge of Judas’s betrayal and death (the Gospel of Peter). Paul was maybe in one of those circles.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Yep, that’s an interesting possibility. Another possibility is that “the Twelve” is a label for that special group and is still a useful designator for that group even if an exigency temporarily disrupts the number. Gail Simone wrote a series of comics called “The Secret Six,” which starts joking at the end about the fact that there are rarely six members of the Secret Six.

          Anyway, just to point out that we don’t have to do any gymnastics to understand Paul’s comment without positing a still alive Judas. Although Judas still being alive is also possible. The GPeter fragment seems to indicate that, although not necessarily. And then there’s the issue of whether or not GPeter should have -primacy- just because it’s -different-.

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, Ehrman agrees your scenario is the one most scholars choose. He writes:

            I think there are two major options. One – I think this is the one most scholars take – is that when Paul says “the Twelve” he is using it as a technical term to refer to “the group of Jesus’ chosen disciples.” This group was simply called “the twelve.” And even if someone was missing, the group as a whole was just called “the twelve.”

            That may seem implausible at first glance, but actually we do the same thing ourselves. Let’s talk college football (or basketball: take your pick). Most college teams are organized into leagues. My North Carolina team is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. One of the strongest football leagues on the planet is the Big Ten. And how many teams are in the Big Ten? Right. Fourteen. Why then do we call it the Big Ten? Because that’s its name, since originally it had ten teams.

            The idea is that something like that is going on with “the Twelve.” There were originally twelve, but they were still called “the Twelve” even after there were only eleven. (Note: there is no point in objecting that there was an election to replace Judas with Matthias to keep the number at twelve, so that there always *were* twelve. That election happened in Acts only after Jesus’ resurrection appearances – in fact, after his ascension — and we are now asking whether there were eleven or twelve members in the group at the time of those appearances).

            Ehrman just prefers the option that Paul was unfamiliar with the “Judas betrayal/death” tradition.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    This is one of the areas that sometimes crops up with certain subsets of newer atheists. I have had very intelligent people of that ilk tell me things like, “Interpreting the Bible makes it useless to everyone” or “That’s what the text says on a plain reading” or “We have to deal with the Bible as it’s read, not as people interpret it.” This is typically coincidental with pointing out horrible verses or contradictory verses or verses that appear downright silly when read from the standpoint of the 21st century.

    Just to point out that I think there’s a fairly widespread naivety about text, meaning, and hermeneutics in general. It just so happens we run into it a lot with fundamentalists and their Bibles, but it’s not at all unique to them – even pertaining to discussions about the Bible with non-fundamentalists.

  • Al Cruise

    “the limit to their own willingness to follow their stated principle.” A much bigger limit is their willingness to actually live their day to day lives in accordance to “just read it”. That’s where their ability to cherry pick versus to line up with their views on politics, race relations, immigrants, women’s rights, the poor , etc. and ignore those versus that don’t , is a skill they have developed to a level of cult-like thinking.

  • Scooter

    Muslim apologists attack the veracity of the Bible by attempting to point out supposed contradictions as you are doing; however proper exegesis resolves every so-called contradiction. For example this apparent contradiction of what Judas did with the blood money for betraying the Lord Jesus. So did Judas buy a field in Acts 1:18 or was it tossed to the Pharisees to buy a field in Matthew 27:5? This is resolved when you read Matthew 27:1-10. It’s a common literary practice to summarize words that have already been written. In Matthew 27:1-10 we see in detail the events about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. It seems logical to think that Luke is making a very brief comment of something that people at that time already knew about. Note that in Acts 1:19 Luke writes, “And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem…” This is something we do all the time in our conversations with others. Also it is more than probable that the Gospel record was already being circulated among the believers at the time of Luke’s writing. Luke, therefore, was not required to go into detail about the facts of Judas’ death.

    • The fact that you think the money was tossed to “the Pharisees” suggests to me that either you aren’t paying attention to the details of the text or don’t know enough about the historical context to even distinguish between groups that Jesus interacted with. But that is besides the point. Did Judas buy the field, and die there so that it was called the field of blood? Or did the priests buy a field with the money so that they could bury foreigners who died while visiting the city, so that it was called the field of blood?

      • John MacDonald

        To quote Oprah, I just had an “aha moment.” If Ehrman is right, we may not have an attestation to Judas in Paul. However, Judas is attested to in Mark, and, importantly, we have a shared tradition independent of Mark in Acts and Matthew of the “Field of Blood” (even though Luke and Matthew disagree where this name comes from). Surely there must have been a short reference to “Field of Blood” in Q. So, even if the reference to Judas in John ultimately goes back to embellishing Mark, we do have independent attestations to Judas, one from Mark and one which Mark was not aware of but was shared by Matthew and Acts (Q). These independent attestations seems to add significant weight to the idea that Judas was attached to the historical Jesus, and hence argues against mythicism.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      I agree with you that a very large number of things people think of as “contradictions” in the Bible come down to things like potential misunderstandings of genre or ancient historiography, but surely “proper exegesis resolves every so-called contradiction” is a bit of an overstatement.

      For example, Matthew and Mark have the centurion at the foot of the cross saying, “Surely, this man was the son of God,” while Luke has him saying, “Surely, this was a righteous man.” So, assuming there was an actual centurion who said an actual thing along these lines, our options are:

      1) Two centurions said two, different things at the foot of the cross, and two gospels record one centurion and the other records the other.
      2) One centurion said both things, and two gospels recorded one of the things he said and the other gospel recorded the other thing he said.
      3) One centurion said one thing, and two gospels report it one way and the other gospel reports it the other way.

      I think option 3 is the most probable among those options, but even if you were to argue #1 or #2, how would you argue those with exegesis? What meaning in the specific texts yields the answer? It seems like you’d have to resolve it by appealing to an extrabiblical assumption.

      • Scooter

        Interesting Phil-looking again at the Matthew version I see that along with the centurion a large crowd of soldiers was gathered around keeping watch over Jesus and “they” said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” So I’m thinking that we could add another possibility to the 3 you’ve mentioned-that several comments would have been expressed in the crowd which would account for 2 different recorded exclamations.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          I was trying to keep the scope narrow, but unfortunately, extending the scope just complicates the situation:

          1 – Matthew: A centurion and guards with him seeing the earthquake and saying in terror, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
          2 – Mark: A centurion himself witnessing Jesus’ passing and saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
          3 – Luke: A centurion himself witnessing Jesus’ passing and praising God, saying, “Truly this was a righteous man.”

          So, if the resolution of these texts is exegesis, what about the texts themselves tell you which one happened?

      • The Mouse Avenger

        I agree with you that a very large number of things people think of as “contradictions” in the Bible come down to things like potential misunderstandings of genre or ancient historiography…

        YES!!! 😀 Thank you! ^_^ Finally, someone who understands!

        …but surely “proper exegesis resolves every so-called contradiction” is a bit of an overstatement.

        But it certainly helps to clear up a lot of them, does it not? 🙂

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          It absolutely does.

          At the same time, I think it’s helpful to recognize that there can be differing accounts or voices in Scripture and that’s ok. We don’t have to -force- harmonizations of dubious likelihood, because not only does this often seem not very credible, but we also miss out on what those unique differences have to say to us. There’s a reason those differing accounts exist side by side – the “why” of those differences can be very important, but we can miss them if we find ourselves having to come up with elaborate explanations as to why the accounts aren’t different after all.

          Ultimately, I think it comes down to an unspoken assumption that, if the biblical writings are from God in some sense, then they can’t be saying contradictory things, and I’m not sure why that has to be the case. It may very well be that both have something important to communicate:

          Answer not a fool according to his folly,
          lest you be like him yourself.
          Answer a fool according to his folly,
          lest he be wise in his own eyes.

          – Proverbs 26:4-5 (ESV)

          In that passage, the author contradicts himself immediately, but it’s for a specific rhetorical purpose. We’re not supposed to come up with some complicated way of making those two verses agree with each other. They don’t. But their contradictory presence together gives us the meaning – sometimes you answer a fool according to their folly, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on the outcome you’re trying to avoid.

  • Nick G

    don’t see if a day can be interpreted in some manner other than as a
    literal 24-hour, just take the text at face value day means day, what
    everyone means by day.

    In my day, people always used words literally!

  • billwald
    Myth definition, a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural …

    There is a big difference between knowledge and faith. The status of the Bible will not be resolved in this life. The status of the Bible in the next life is a more interesting discussion.

    I find it useful to use Jesus’ statements as koan.

    Google says:
    Definition of koan. : a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.Jun 9, 2018

    For 20 years, I studied the Bible and thought I knew everything that was important to know. About every day for the next 20 years, I knew less than I did the day before. For the last 20 years, to my great relief, I have understood nothing about God and don’t trust people who claim to understand God. Now I can trust God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit . . . my Guardian Angel and I sleep well.

    • Very well said! I love “use Jesus’s statements as koan” i am going to write that down and keep it in mind!
      Also many of the things Jesus is written to have said have elements of “zen” in them (according to my “feel” of what zen is). Including “I and the father are one,” “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” or anything using the word “son” which was often used metaphorically(?), as in “sons of thunder,” “brood of vipers” (sons of snakes), “children of light,” — “Our father” yet Jesus is supposedly the “only” son, are we then “adopted,” how can a son BE the thing it is the son of, yet in their usage that is more what it means, that the son has the same characteristics of its father, as i am a “son of the suburbs,” not some genetic inheritance or transfer which would make a son only half the same as its father. Sorry just off the top of my head i lumped that all together. :p

    • I’m God – I can resolve the status of the Bible for you: it’s 90% shit but any time an agent of God tells an Abrahamic that they ignore them or murder them (it’s amazing how becoming an expert “theologian” makes it impossible for one to learn huh?) – so the human race has decided to poison itself into hell.

  • Tom

    Poetry – sweet poetry.
    “Don’t explain your author, read him right and he explains himself.” Mark Twain.

  • Most of the new testament can’t be read without interpretation, so this “don’t interpret the Bible, they just read it” is bad thinking.

    If you don’t believe me, read this where it says much of the New Testament is written in a way that MUST be interpreted.

    • On one level, any reading with comprehension involves interpretation. But beyond that, a text translated from another language, from a different time in history, and from a different cultural context, will require more interpretative effort than others might.

      • Well said. Way more. Humans do nothing without interpreting their environment. Even in the very act of seeing a tree our eyes nerves and brain interpret the light rays that hit them. (We can’t even see the ones that don’t hit our eyes, which is also relevant here!) Once we get to words which are just made up of symbols and have generally agreed upon meanings, it is surprising humans can really agree on anything.

  • Note: the Ehrman link you provided at the end didn’t work for me, i got a 404.
    Now i see why, it added the Ehrman link to the end of your base URL:

  • The Mouse Avenger

    And as soon as it fails to match up with external sources of historical knowledge or internally with other texts, you will get a long explanation.

    Excuse me, but how on Earth does the Bible not match up with external sources of historical knowledge? (I mean, aside from the whole “young earth” vs. “old earth” issue, whether Noah’s flood was actually more localized to the ‘world’ featured in the Bible (& not the whole entire globe), & that kind of thing.)

    And I beseech you, if you decide to answer, that you kindly refrain from trotting out the old “we haven’t found evidence of this or that” excuse. Absence of evidence =/= evidence of absence.

  • Steven Waling

    I saw on TV recently, a copy of the Talmud in which the various rabbinic interpretations of the Torah were arranged so that they were inside and outside of each other, in a kind of unsolvable puzzle. Seems to me that the bible is like that too – one story alongside another, inside another, outside another. Seems to me that the Jewish way of interpeting and even writing is paratactic not hypotactic. It’s not meant to reconcile according to some strict logical or chronological order. It’s open not closed. That’s why I have a real difficulty with any any attempt to say “the bible meams this and only this.”