Three major categories of interpretation of the Bible: premodern, modern, postmodern
Premodern and modern interpretation of the Bible
||The Bible means more than / other than it appears to mean. There are hidden meanings.
||The original authors intended to communicate as clearly as possible to the original audience.
If the meanings are obscure to us it is because we don’t have a time machine.
|The stories are perfectly consistent
||The details of the stories and laws do not contradict each other.
If there appears to be a contradiction, see rule 1.
There must be a hidden meaning or distinction.
||It is natural and expected for the many authors and editors of the Bible to have different understandings of facts and theological principles.
If there is a contradiction it indicates multiplicity of authorship.
|The canon is a perfect whole
||Any part of the Bible may be used to interpret any other part of the Bible.
Like the movies in the Star Wars saga, the books of the Bible belong to one coherent series and may be mutually illuminating.
||Until proven otherwise, the authors of different books of the Bible did not presume or even agree with other authors now in the Bible.
Much as Avatar and the Smurfs are only superficially united by the common element of blue people running around in the forest,
the books of the Bible may be only loosely linked by Israelite history.
|The characters are morally perfect
||God and the heroes of the Bible never made any mistakes.
If they appear to have made mistakes, see rule 1.
||The Israelite authors did not expect God to follow later theological principles such as omniscience.
They did not mind portraying their heroes as flawed.
|The message is perfectly consistent with my religion
||The Bible teaches my religion and my religion follows the Bible.
||The beliefs and practices of any religion developed over time.
Since much time separates the ancient authors from religions today, substantial differences are expected.
The interpreter should overcome the tendency to project later theological or religious developments onto earlier texts.
||The Bible is relevant to me.
It is about me and my times.
It is written as instruction for me and my community.
||The Bible is relevant to the original author and audience.
It is about them and their times.
If it does mean anything to you then you should overcome that bias to discover its original meaning.
||The Bible is ultimately from God and authored by God.
One might think this is the earliest and most fundamental assumption that leads to the other three,
but historically it is the last to be asserted.
||The Bible as we have it was composed and transmitted by humans
in human language, with human literary and rhetorical devices, and other cultural assumptions.
The “four assumptions” of cryptic, relevant, perfect, and divine are taken from James L. Kugel,
especially The Bible as It Was.
The different implications of “perfect” are here expanded.
The contrasts that Kugel draws between premodern and modern interpretation assume a time when there was a Bible of some kind to be interpreted.
Similar methods of interpretation occur within the Bible itself, particularly later passages and books interpreting earlier passages and books.
This can be called intertextuality or inner-biblical interpretation.
For more on this see Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.
Modern and postmodern interpretation
||Meaning is generated by the author and stored in the text for the reader to recover.
||Meaning is generated by the reader’s engagement with the text.
(readerly interpretation, reader-response)
||For any one text (single author and historical context) there is only one meaning.
When there are different meanings in the text that indicates different authors and editors.
||There are many readers so there are many meanings.
|Context of the interpreter
||The interpreter must be objective and prohibit any influence from the interpreter’s own
life, times, and beliefs.
||It is impossible to be objective so the interpreter should embrace her subjectivity.
Our experiences as individuals and members of groups influence our interpretation and that is good.
||Gender, class, ethnicity, faith, and experience of the interpreter are irrelevant to recovering the ancient authorial intent.
Biblical scholarship should not reflect any of these corrupting influences.
||Different perspectives on the Bible from other groups enrich our understanding of the meanings of the Bible by showing us what we could not have seen ourselves.
Even by their own standards of focusing on the authorial intent, homogeneity in bibilcal scholarship (privileged white males)
has missed major themes that were easily apparent to others.