Historical Awareness and the Interpretation of the Bible

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Historical Awareness and the Interpretation of the Bible

Christianity holds the largest followers worldwide and holds its authority through what they claim as actual events in history. However, the study of the historicity of the Bible has made liberal critics question the authenticity and the validity of the events and teachings that are found in the Scriptures. Liberal critics claim that the Scripture is full of historical errors, human biases, religious prejudices and fictional stories.

Everything from the Virgin Birth to the resurrection of Christ, and from papacy to priesthood, are being rejected, based on the “historical critical” approach to Scripture. The interpretation of the Bible has therefore developed from its literal sense to a symbolic interpretation of its passages.

Interpretations of the Bible

The Bible is interpreted in different ways but could be categorized into two methods: the conservative and liberal interpretation. Conservatives hold the Bible as God’s divine words from which they interpret it by the letter unless the passage is clearly intended as an allegory, poetry or some other genre. Interpreting the Bible by the letter encompasses a strict interpretation of the passages—that is to say conservatives interpret the Bible literally.

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), a group of conservative Christians hold that “the literal sense is the… meaning which the writer expressed” and “deny the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.” On the other hand, liberal critics interpret the Bible symbolically or allegorically—that is they treat the Bible as a collection of fictional stories. They use the historical-grammatical approach to uncover the meaning of the text by taking into account cultural and historical background and the literary genre.

Problems Relating to the Literal Interpretation of the Bible

There is little doubt that the Bible has been interpreted in its literal sense before science has explored and discovered concepts that are in relation with some Biblical passages. The story of creation, as a basic example, could no longer be accepted in its literal sense, which would otherwise contradict with scientifically proven principles and generally accepted theories.

The knowledge that scientific discoveries and research has provided over the past millennium reveals that God could not have made the world as it is in seven earth days. Human logic and reason would dictate that there must be some other explanation why the Bible, as God’s inspired words, are written in such a manner. God, as the creator of all things and who has knowledge all things, could not have erred and must have intended something else in specifying that the world was created in seven days. Hence, it is not only evident but also necessary to say that literally interpreting at least some portions of the Bible are no longer sufficient.

Historical Criticism

Historical criticism is the art of analyzing the factuality of written documents and the supposed facts handed down. It makes use of written documents, unwritten evidence and tradition as the source of information. The historical critic must also be guided chiefly by an ardent love of truth and must be free of any prejudice—religious, national or domestic—that may otherwise affect the historian’s judgment.

The authenticity and integrity of a written document is investigated before it could be passed as a genuine source of evidence. Authenticity includes verifying whether or not it was from the author who claims it to be, whether such individual existed, and whether or not the document or individual belonged to the specific time of history in question.

Integrity, on the other hand, verifies whether or not the document is in the shape or form from which the author has produced it—that is, whether or not the document is complete, free of corruption and the complexities of translation. It is generally suffice to determine the approximate age of a document using the nature of the material, i.e. papyrus, parchment, cotton, etc., and the character of the writing.

It is often very rare that a document that is purported to be an original or an autograph leaves room for reasonable doubt when it passed a series of tests regarding its authenticity. However, it is also generally held that to translate a word correctly does not necessarily give its meaning in the context of the particular era to which the manuscript belongs.

The investigator must then be careful with interpreting the meaning of the document. The difficulty in analyzing Biblical documents is that they survive only in form of copies, or copies of copies. In these cases, manuscripts of similar content or subject are often compared to each other, sometimes revealing variations in the readings.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls while providing some of the oldest and the only known copies of Biblical documents have challenged the theories of the development of the modern Biblical text—specifically those of textual criticism. There are a few of the Biblical manuscripts in the Dead Sea Scrolls that differ with Masoretic texts, and most of them differ only slightly. The fact that Biblical documents have slightly changed over the course of at least three centuries provide confidence on the content of the modern Bible. However, the real question arises not in the actual content of the Bible but on the meaning of its content.

Another problem regarding authenticity and integrity of the Biblical manuscripts is the question regarding the knowledge of the author concerning his work: Does the author have proper, first-hand knowledge of the purported fact? Is he altogether sincere in his disposition concerning the purported fact? As an example, the integrity of the Gospels is raised as it has become apparent that the earliest writings of this type dates 65 years after Jesus’ resurrection.

Historicity of the Bible

There are basically two main schools of thought regarding the historicity of the Bible: the fundamentalists who believe that everything that is written in the Bible actually happened as it is stated; and the liberals who believe that the Bible had no historical value—that is, historical events purported in the Bible did not really happen.

There are two schools of thought on giving weight to the historical accounts presented in the Bible: Biblical maximalism assumes that Biblical narratives are accurate unless proven otherwise; and Biblical minimalism. Biblical maximalists tend to interpret the Bible literally. They view accounts specified in the Bible as a starting point for constructing history and correct and reinterpret it when archaeological evidences prove contradicts their viewpoint. On the other hand, Biblical minimalists start from archaeological findings and only consider Biblical accounts of value only when they are consistent with these findings.

In relation to Jesus, there are but few historical manuscripts that provide evidence that he is an actual historical figure. His name is briefly mentioned in the works of Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Suetonius, but aside from a brief mention and description of the early Christians, only the accounts specified in the New Testament gives a basis for the existence of a man named Jesus. The Gospels are the only sources of information about the life and works of Jesus and even those are criticized for its historical accuracy.

There exists what is known today as the Synoptic Problem which revealed the diversity in the Biblical texts. What catches the interest of critics, however, is not the differences in the versions of the accounts in the life of Jesus, but the striking similarity of the texts itself. Considering that the Gospels had been written during different times at different locations, questions such as whether the authors of the Synoptic Gospels were using a common source, perhaps written or from oral tradition, or not.

If there exists an earlier source from which the authors of the Synoptic Gospels based their work, then why where the new Gospels written? Furthermore, if indeed the authors share a common source, why where there differences? Did the authors feel free to interpret and apply the Jesus tradition as they wrote?

Most theologians would answer that each Gospel writers have their own purpose and interpretations of Jesus from which the differences in similar accounts are attributed. Nevertheless, there is no one solution that offers sufficient enough explanation on the Synoptic Problem. While resolving this issue would not verify the existence of the historical Jesus, questions regarding the authority of the accounts, particularly that of Jesus and his teachings, will be eliminated.

Effects of Historical Criticism on the Interpretation of the Bible

Today, Christianity holds the largest followers worldwide. If Christianity derives its authority from actual historical events, then that claim must be investigated by the most austere standards of historical judgments.

The advent of scientific research, particularly that of historical criticism, has put the historicity, as well as the authority and interpretation of the Bible in serious question. Samuel George Brandon (1955) explained that “the historical character of Christianity, which was once proclaimed apologetically as the greatest argument for the validity of that faith, has gradually been found to be a source of great perplexity if not of weakness” (156).

Raymond Brown (1975) explained that “physical, historical and linguistic methods, known to us in only approximately the last one hundred years, has produced a scientifically critical study of the Bible, a study that has revolutionalized views held in the past about the authorship, origin and dating of the biblical books, about how they were composed, and what the authors meant… No longer did they (Catholic exegetes) hold that Moses was the substantial author of the Pentateuch, that the first chapters of Genesis were really historical…, that Matthew was the first Gospel written by an eyewitness… etc.”

Robert Sungenis held that “The historical critic will try to convince you that, since Scripture contains “historical errors, human biases, religious prejudices and fictional stories,” and since Scripture is only free from error when it deals with “matters of salvation,” then in non-salvific matters (e.g., women priests and homosexuality), the Bible is nothing more than an expression of the religious preferences and cultural biases active during the time of the biblical author’s writing. Since we in modern times have come of age, as it were, and know that such biases are unecumenical and judgmental, then it is high time we change our interpretation of Scripture. Historical criticism is just the needed tool to do the job.”

Resolving the Conflict

Previously, culture was understood to static and unchanging. However, historical data reveal culture to be more guided by human experience that creates changing values and meanings as predicted by the way of life. It must only be necessary therefore that faith is expressed and understood in terms of our particular setting. It is in contrast to the sola scriptura principle of conservative Protestants. They claim that faith is to be based on the Bible alone.

However, interpreting the Bible in relation to present events does not necessarily imply the interpreter to be a liberal critic. Progressive interpretation look upon the Bible as historically shaped and culturally conditioned. It analyzes the culture from which the authors lived, interpret what is stated in relation to the circumstances of the time it was written, and apply the meaning of the passage in relation to the present circumstances. After all, Lonergan held that “theology mediates between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of a religion in that matrix.”

While it is apparent that some passages in the Bible are clearly not intended to be interpreted in its literal sense, there is still the question whether some of the passages must be taken in its literal meaning or if any passage is to be taken in its literal sense at all. However, taking into consideration the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels which appear to be similar have different versions. Theologians justify these differences through specifying the intents of the authors. In this case, it is only plausible to dismiss the particular event as an accurate version in history.

Nevertheless, it does not necessarily imply that the event had not taken place at all. Lonergan (1971, 179) held that “experience is individual while the data for history lie in the experiences of many.” Furthermore, the same event is sometimes interpreted by different individual who have experienced that particular event depending on their perception. The fact that the event is related to us on different accounts, probably by different individuals, may prove that such an event may have occurred. Regardless of the factual historicity of the event specified in the Synoptic Gospels, the justifications made by theologians on the different accounts on Jesus’ life make it clear that the accounts are not to be interpreted in its literal sense.

Lonergan held that “the discoveries of the historian are expressed in narratives and descriptions that regard particular persons, places and times. They have no claim to universality: they could, of course, be relevant to the understanding of other persons, places and times; but whether in fact they are relevant, and just how relevant they are, can be settled only by a historical investigation of the other persons, places and times” (180).

Furthermore, Lonergan explained that “because they have no claim to universality, the discoveries of the historians are not verifiable in the fashion proper to the natural sciences; in history verification is parallel to the procedures by which interpretation is judged correct” (180).

On the other hand, faith has nothing to do with history. Regardless of whether Christian traditions gain its authority from its historicity or not, what matters is the belief that Christians hold. Faith is a product of the fulfillment that “brings a radical peace, the peace that the world cannot give” without which “opens the way to the trivialization of human life” (Lonergan, 1971, 105). That fulfillment, according to Lonergan (1971, 106), “is not the product of our knowledge or choice.”

There is therefore always room to interpret the Scriptures that is not entirely based on historical criticism. Relying on faith alone, the Scriptures should be interpreted basing on the experience of mystery to develop a type of consciousness that deliberates, makes judgments of value, decides, and acts responsibly and freely.

Works Cited

Brandon, Samuel George Frederick, “The historical element in primitive Christianity.” Numen vol. 2, no. 1, 156-167

Brown, Raymond E. Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1975

International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. “The Chicago statement on Biblical inerrancy.” 1978. The Spurgeon Archive. 17 March 2009 <http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm>

Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1971

Sungenis, Robert. “Fr. Raymond Brown and the demise of the Catholic Scripture Scholarship.” Catholic Apologetics International. 17 March 2009. <http://www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/articles/pastoral/fr-ray-brown1.htm>


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 26 September 2016

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