Be Fair When Interpreting the Bible
Twenty-first-century Americans think very little about how contradictory our communication sounds to those unfamiliar with modern American English. Driving on parkways and parking on driveways seems very illogical given the definitions of parking and driving. Receiving shipment from trucks and cargo from ships sounds equally bizarre, though not to Americans. We have feet that smell and noses that run. We eat hamburgers made of beef and hotdogs made of pigs. What’s more, we drive on interstate highways that never cross into other states (e.g., Hawaii’s interstate H1), and we are programmed to read speed “limit” signs as speed “minimum” signs.
One of the most awkward questions Americans ask is, “You didn’t do that, did you?” How are we supposed to answer such a question? We generally say “No,” but mean “Yes,” and if we mean “No,” we say “Yes.” Recently I asked my two young sons a similar question. One said “No” and the other said “Yes,” but they meant the same thing. They simply were confused as to how to answer such a question. When one pauses to consider the many figures of speech Americans use in communication, he is overwhelmed with the number of paradoxes we regularly invoke.
It is essential for students of the Bible to recognize that the inspired writers also used many figures of speech. If we fail to identify these idioms, we may ignorantly draw the same conclusion that so many Bible critics have drawn—that the Bible writers made mistakes. In actuality, the “mistakes” are on the interpreter’s part, not God’s or His penmen’s. When skeptics allege that Jesus lied when He stated He would rise from the grave “after three days” (Mark 8:31), because on other occasions He indicated that He would rise “the third day” (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; cf. Acts 10:40), they fail to recognize a common figure of speech in ancient times. “After three days” and “on the third day” frequently meant the same thing (cf. 2 Chronicles 10:5,12; Genesis 42:17-18; Esther 4:16-5:1; see Lyons, 2004). Even Jesus’ first-century enemies used these expressions synonymously (Matthew 27:63-64).
One critic of Christ has condemned Jesus for calling His mother “woman” in John 2:4 (see McKinsey, 1995, p. 134). Allegedly, the Son of God would not use such an impersonal noun in such a disrespectful way. In truth, however, though this expression may sound rude in the 21st century, 2,000 years ago it was used in a most respectful manner (cf. Matthew 15:28; John 19:26; 20:15).
If Bible critics would pause to think of the plethora of figures of speech we use everyday (which to some sound perplexing at best, and contradictory at worst), likely far fewer alleged discrepancies would be leveled against the Bible. A fair approach to Scripture is one that takes into account its many figures of speech, rather than simply assuming the worst of its writers.
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Three Days and Three Nights,” Apologetics Press, [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/570.
McKinsey, C. Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).