Raiders of the Lost Art of Interpretation

Raiders of the Lost Art of Interpretation July 10, 2019


Christians take biblical interpretation quite seriously and rightly so. Unlike the interpretation of other texts, the interpretation of the Bible is a high stakes game. This is because we believe that the Bible is God’s revealed word to humanity. If we interpret God’s word wrong, we misunderstand God’s instruction and compromise our attempts to live according to those instructions, sometimes to disastrous results.

However, not everyone uses the best principles of interpretation. There are many well- meaning Christians who nevertheless misinterpret God’s word, sometimes grossly so. How does this happen? Why do people misunderstand the story of the Bible?

In today’s blog, I’m going to illustrate how interpretation can go wrong by using the example of one of my favorite movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then I’ll explain how this can inform our interpretation of the Bible.

If you’ve never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, stop now, watch the movie, and then read the rest of my blog. You won’t regret it.

Amy Ruins Raiders

In an episode of the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, the character Amy devastates the guys by pointing out what she thinks is a plot problem in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She argues that Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the movie. Had he not been involved, the Nazis would have still found the Ark of the Covenant, taken it to the island, and been killed. Upon reflection, the guys cannot refute her argument and their beloved movie is ruined.

In Amy’s interpretation, the point of the movie is the recovery and possession of the Ark of the Covenant. Her assumption about the central plot point is the guiding force of her interpretation. Based on this her interpretation and conclusion make sense. It follows a logical progression. But is Amy correct about the central plot point? I don’t think she is. Amy did not pay careful attention to the text, in this case the movie. As a result, she missed the central point of the plot. This, in turn, led her to an erroneous interpretation and a false conclusion. How often have Christians and non-Christians alike done the same thing with the Bible?

Amy Needs to Pay Attention

There are a number of ways one can identify the central theme of a text (including TV shows and movies). One way is through repetition of words or phrases (or even visual motifs). In the case of “Raiders,” there is a line that is repeated twice in the movie. On two occasions, the antagonist Belloq says to Indy, “There is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away.” Since this line is repeated, I take this as a clue to the central plot point of the movie.

The casual watcher will no doubt affirm Belloq’s words. As evidence, he or she will argue that each time Belloq says the line, he has done just that. He has taken away something that Indy possessed. The first time is at the beginning of the movie when he takes the idol from Indy. The second time is when he takes the Ark. Using this evidence, such a person my feel confident in his or her interpretation. I’m sure Amy would agree.

However, there is a further piece of evidence that needs to be considered. I’ll first pose this question, “Are the idol and the Ark the only things Indy possessed that Belloq tried to take away?”

I’ll wait a moment while you think about it.

Amy Forgot Marion

There was one other thing Belloq tried to possess, Marion Ravenwood. Again, repetition is key to interpretation. First, while in the desert, Belloq famously tried and failed to seduce Marion. Second, he clearly tried and failed again while they were both in the submarine (this is apparent by the look they exchange when disembarking from the sub).

Indy himself begins to realize what he really wants at this point. When he threatens to destroy the Ark, he tells Belloq and the Nazis that all he really wants is Marion. He’ll spare the Ark if they give her to him.

At the end of the movie, we observe our final piece of confirming evidence. Reflecting on the government’s seizure of the Ark, Indy’s last line is, “They don’t know what they’ve got in there.” Marion responds by saying, “I know what I’ve got here.” She then takes Indy’s arm and they walk away.

Amy Get’s it Wrong

The Ark of the Covenant was not the central plot point of the movie. Rather, it was the competition between Indy and Belloq. The idol and the Ark were Macguffins around which this competition could be expressed. However, the writers used them as a feint.

The real object of the competition was Marion. She gave her heart to Indy. It belonged to him. Belloq tried twice to possess it and failed. In the end, Belloq’s boast was disproved. Indy won. The hero was victorious.

Amy Get’s Schooled

Like Amy did with “Raiders,” many readers get the Bible wrong because they don’t pay attention to key points in the story. For most, they don’t read the entire story. Instead, they just read certain highlights. For others, they bring their own assumptions to the story, instead of allowing the story to speak for itself.

Repeated words, phrases, and motifs are found in the books of the Bible. Matthew repeatedly uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” He is also the only NT writer to use this term. John repeatedly uses the term “signs” in his Gospel. He also repeatedly records that the Jews “grumbled” about Jesus and his teaching. In Luke-Acts, we see the repetition of similar stories from the lives of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Many of these stories also bear a strong similarity to stories in the Old Testament. These patterns of repetition provide us with a starting point for interpreting these writings.

There’s not much at stake in our interpretation of “Raiders.” Conversely, there is much at stake in our interpretation of the Bible. The Bible is God’s word not ours. He will hold us accountable if we mishandle it and misrepresent its message. We must strive to be workers who do not need to be ashamed, who correctly explain the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15).

Yes, it takes time and hard work to correctly understand and apply God’s word. Casual reading can and often does result in sloppy interpretation (are you listening, Amy?). Let’s commit to doing the hard work. In so doing, we will honor God and become the people he wants us to be.

About Ron Peters
Ron Peters is Professor of New Testament at Great Lakes Christian College. He has numerous publications in the fields of biblical studies and Greek language and linguistics. He is cohost of the After Class podcast. You can read more about the author here.

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