The Nature of Scripture and Revelation

How should scripture be interpreted? Is it all infallible and absolutely true? Is it all literal, or is it all metaphorical? Or is it somewhere in between?

My personal feeling is that scripture is a little bit of all that, but I'm trying to iron it all out, so any input you have is very very welcome.

There's a radio station in the Bay Area (where I live) that has an adverstisement for their home Bible study course, and they say bluntly that scripture should interpret scripture.

I can hang with that. But then they go on to say that, accordingly, we don't need to consider the initial intentions, meanings, cultures, or circumstances surrounding the Bible. Something there sounds a little fishy to me. I don't see the Bible making that claim for itself--though in II Timothy, Paul says that all scripture is indeed profitable for many things. Why, if the Bible is infallible, would we need to make the ADDITIONAL claim ON BEHALF of the Bible that it is indeed infallible--would an infallible book not make that claim for itself?

So how should we, as followers of Jesus, approach scripture? Sometimes, I think I see Jesus revering the scriptures he had, the Law of Moses--like during his wilderness temptations. Other times, though, it seems like he dismisses the Mosaic Law--particularly those scriptures regarding the Sabbath, the purity scriptures, and the scripture on divorce. Lots of people I know like to say that because Jesus was God he could do whatever he wanted in regard to the Word--but if God never changes, why did He change his eternal Word?

And, if we must then conclude that the law is just a temporary expression of an eternal Word, and then apply it to the New Testament canon, we have something of a loose standard for interpreting scripture. So, uh, that's where I'm at--how SHOULD we approach interpreting the Bible?

talmid's picture

Hello again JStaller

Hello again JStaller,

Sorry I haven't been around for a bit. Hope you are doing well. I wanted to try to catch up with our previous exchange. In your earlier post you wrote:

I could buy that, Jesus doing that detailing of the law down there in the dirt. But the thing is, it wasn't the false setup or inconsistent legal procedures that turned off the accusers. It was the words of Jesus. "They which heard it" does not indicate (it seems) a reading of words in the sand. It seems that they are responding to Jesus statement, "He who is without sin." It looks like the legal requirements for stoning were indeed met, because their were not just one or two satisfactory witnesses, but an entire multitude.

Well my friend, as you probably already know about me, context is everything. It is because of this that I have had to correct my own understanding too many time to recount. And that is the point that I wish to make here. Torah wasn't just the bible to them. It was their national constitution. It was their system of laws and jurisprudence. It was their most compelling literary work. It was their history. It was their poetry. It was the textbook from which all children learned. It was also what the "sages" made up their many "traditions" around. And this was the source of much conflict between them and their Messiah.

So it should come as no surprise that Torah would be the first thing that Jesus went to in order to establish the context of the situation and the law on the subject. He often dispelled the validity of their traditions in this manner. And it was after establishing the context, that He said what He said. So yes, they were responding to what He said, but most likely, in the context of what was written.

As far as the legal requirements being met, that isn't what I see recorded. It says that the Pharisees stated that she was caught in the act. It did not say that the crowd was witnessing against her. Where did the crowd come from? Was it made up of witnesses to the event? Were they all Priests, Levites and Herodians? Did the rest of the crowd gather at the commotion made by them? And where was the man? If the adulterous woman was caught in the act, then he was too. Did they just let him go? Or was there another reason that he wasn't there? The Pharisees could just as easily taken some woman with a reputation (deserved or otherwise) and accused her for all we know. By the account in scripture, we don't know. All we know is that their intentions were dishonest and that the were looking to trap Jesus into transgressing the law.

But you could argue that Jesus, with his doodling in the dirt, was establishing their personal lack of credibility. But isn't that conjecture?

Of course it is conjecture. But if you know the order and proceedings in a particular judge's court and the case and evidence presented, you can make an fairly accurate educated guess as to the proceedings and the outcome - without being present. Knowing the way a culture thinks, acts and reacts does more than just color our perspective. It gives us a real frame of reference.

The real problem with this entire account, though, is pinning down exactly where it belongs and why. In some older manuscripts, this account is missing. In others, this account appears in the margins of Luke, as though the copysists were sort of nervous about or unsure of how to include this account without undermining the overall message of the gospel; "live righteously or be separated from God" might be less convincing when the adultrous woman is let so blanketly off the hook.

You raise some valid points. Even so, it has been revealed that the purpose of the law was to reveal sin, not to destroy man. It is only by a "technicality" that you and I can be judged sinless. His substitution as a sacrifice. I don't have to look over my shoulder very far to see what Adonai says that He cannot - my sin. So the gospel, the story of the adulterous woman and our situation with sin are completely compatible. At least that is my take on things.

For whatever reason, though, the account is now included in John. And I think (personally) that this is where it belongs, because it matches the structure and method of that particular Gospel--a specific sign or miracle leading to a lengthy discussion that reveals futher the character of Jesus. That's the structure throughout the gospel of John.

This particular act or sign (his forgiveness of the woman's particular sin) leads to a lengthy discussion about what exactly is a proper witness, what exactly the law really DOES require, and about being set free from the power and penalty of sin under the law through the authority of Jesus.

I have always understood that this is the crux of our situation with the Lord. The accuser of the brethren seeks to do the same thing that the pharisees and the crowd did with the woman. And the Lord seeks to do the same thing for us that He did for the woman. The Law matters. But it is not so much a matter of what the Law requires, but what we will allow the Lord do within the Law on our behalf. After all, we are all just as guilty as any adulterous woman.

If we were supposed to approach this passage from the legal rabbinical persepctive, I don't think Jesus would go on to lay out basic facts about the law, fulfill the requirements, and then go on to undermine them. This passage, like the Gospel of John, seems aimed at Gentiles who are at best barely familiar with the rabbinical traditions, and this particular passage seems aimed at establishing Jesus' right or authority to work outside of or above the law--as he did (for example) by supporting water baptism for the remission of sin.

See this is where I see things a little differently. Jesus does not seek to undermine the Law. He seeks to fulfill it to the letter. And being the Giver of the Law, Who better then to be the perfect Arbitrator of the Law? What you and I might regard a technicalities, He has seen fit to fulfill to the letter. The Law was not established to condemn man so much as to provide a way for man to come back into fellowship with God. He would that all be saved, remember? I think that you see the law and grace in opposition. I see the law as a form of grace. For it is by the very provisions of the law that we are saved from the judgment of the law. And it is by the fulfillment of the law that the intentions of the evil one toward us are frustrated.

To switch gears for a minute, I should acknowledge that I think of Jesus as an observant Jew, but probably not one we would call an orthodox Jew by any means. This opinion is malleable, not one I'm dead set on as of yet, and I think that if anyone could argue for the orthodox perspective, it would probably be someone like you, Talmid. For example, in my readings, I've never heard that explanation, that Jesus was establishing any kind of unfitness in the witnesses. It sounds like a pretty credible explanation.

Thank you for your kind words. To call Jesus orthodox by todays definition would indeed be an injustice. But I suppose that the term orthodox is more malleable than Jesus was with the law. Ortho meaning right and Doxa meaning knowledge in Greek. Everyone thinks they have a lock on the right knowledge concerning God. By this definition though, Jesus is by far the most "orthodox" of all.

Previously, I'd settled for approaching it from the same kind of symbolism we find when Jesus spat in the dirt and made clay, which he then used to heal a blind man (also in John, right? John as an author uses symbolism very well and very frequently). Jesus sort of went back to the "source material" of mankind--the dirt--and fixed the problem. Perhaps, I've conjectured for awhile now, we're supposed to pick up on this imagery here again; as he releases the woman from the penalty of her sin, he returns to that source material.

But the judicial approach you recommend seems also to fit with what follows in the discourse between Jesus and the Pharisees. I'll give it some more thought.

I am please that you are open minded about the subject. Just don't make the same mistake that I do. When I learn something new, I sometimes forget that there are often more than one right answer. Don't accept my responses on face value. Go search out some context. Besides, it's fun...

Where could I look to find out more regarding the rabbinical traditions, especially during that first century A.D.?

Unfortunately most records like what you seek were lost to the destruction of the the times. There is some good material that is being written on what is coming out of Qumran. Unfortunately, there is an equally large quantity that is rubbish. Still there is much to glean from the translated texts if you are not fluent in the language and culture.

May I suggest that you start with Josephus and Alfred Edersheim for historical context? Remembering of course that they both had obvious biases for which an accounting should be made. Josephus was justifying his race and culture to the Romans as a Roman citizen. Edersheim was the product of a Hellenized Jewish background turned Anglican bible scholar. Both could include more references in their work.

I would stay away from Talmud and other Rabbinical commentaries if you are not familiar with their true history. They are so anti-Jesus biased and revisionist in nature as to be confusing and untrustworthy sources to the uninitiated.

I hope that this blesses you and helps you in your quest. I'll write more when I can.

In His Love,