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Reading Biblically

Ancient writings, including the Bible, are very tightly and precisely written. Every word has its place.

An excerpt from James B. Jordan’s influential book, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World.


Modern literature is not written the same way as ancient literature, and this presents a problem for Bible students. George Mendenhall has written,

Ancient thought is associational, not “scientific,” and therefore tends to create the maximum of relationships between experience, language, and art, not the minimum which is so characteristic of modern over-specialization. 1George E. Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1973), p. 39.

Before the modern era, and before Gutenberg, there were few books. The few men who wrote books wrote them very carefully. As a result, ancient writings, including the Bible, are very tightly and precisely written. Every word has its place.

This fact is generally ignored by “liberal” scholarship, which usually assumes that any part of the Bible is a sloppy conflation of several sources. This viewpoint grew up to explain apparent contradictions and paradoxes in the text. 2The recent trend in “liberal” scholarship is to grant a bit more intelligence to the “final redactor.” Of course, Divine authorship continues to be denied. A proper reading of any ancient text, including the Bible, would take the apparent contradictions as stimuli for deeper reflection. For example, in 1 Samuel 14:18, the High Priest’s ephod is called the Ark of the Covenant. According to 1 Samuel 7:2, however, the Ark could not have been present on this occasion. Liberal commentators assume that we have here two sources, and whoever put 1 Samuel together was so stupid that he did not even bother to make his book internally consistent. Other commentators (conservatives) explain the “error” in 14:18 by saying that there has been a textual corruption in transmission, and “Ark” should be changed to “ephod.” Deeper reflection, however, shows that the Ark and ephod correspond one to another, and there are important theological reasons why the ephod is here called the Ark. The Ark was present with the people in the form of the ephod. 3For a full discussion, see Jordan, “Saul: A Study in Original Sin,” The Geneva Papers 2:11 (July, 1988; Tyler, Texas: Geneva Ministries).

Ancient and medieval literature abounds in numerical symbolism, large parallel structures, intricate chiastic devices, astral allusions, sweeping metaphors, topological parallels, and symbolism in general. Modern literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, is almost always written in a straight line. You don’t have to go back and forth in such books to unpack allusions or get “hidden” messages. In other words, you don’t have to study such books in a literary fashion. You just read them and get the message. Ancient and medieval literature, however, must be studied.

Modern American Christians have trouble understanding the Bible for other reasons as well. Not only are we unaccustomed to reading ancient literature, we are also unfamiliar with visual symbolism. The symbols of the Scripture are foreign to us in a way that they were not foreign to previous generations. When the Psalms were at the center of the Church’s worship, Biblical symbolism was much better understood because the Psalter abounds in it. As Campbell has written, “The key to the figurative and symbolic language of Holy Writ is the Book of Psalms,” 4Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, [1954] 1983), p. 60. Also see Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, trans. Timothy J. Hallett (New York: Seabury Press, 1978). Also, the traditional liturgies of the Church, being thoroughly grounded in Scripture, communicated Biblical symbolism. God’s people were also familiar with such imagery from the architecture and decor of their churches. All this has disappeared from the modern American church, and the result is that it is much harder for us to read the Bible accurately.

Happily, this situation is rapidly changing. We are seeing a rebirth of careful exegesis, a new appreciation for the Biblical philosophy of metaphor and typology, a new recognition of Biblical symbolism, a new desire to take the literary structures of the Bible seriously.

It is, of course, possible to jump enthusiastically into the Bible and find all kinds of symbols and allusions that sober study would discount. We moderns lack the kinds of instincts needed to be able to pick up on such things without effort. We have to read and study the Bible, immersing ourselves in its worldview, and then we will be able to discern valid symbols and allusions. Even so, it is doubtful if any twentieth-century expositor can do a perfect job of this; there will always be room for debate and discussion over particular passages. We can, though, set out some canons, or rules, for proper Biblical interpretation.

References   [ + ]

1. George E. Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1973), p. 39.
2. The recent trend in “liberal” scholarship is to grant a bit more intelligence to the “final redactor.” Of course, Divine authorship continues to be denied.
3. For a full discussion, see Jordan, “Saul: A Study in Original Sin,” The Geneva Papers 2:11 (July, 1988; Tyler, Texas: Geneva Ministries).
4. Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, [1954] 1983), p. 60. Also see Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, trans. Timothy J. Hallett (New York: Seabury Press, 1978). Also, the traditional liturgies of the Church, being thoroughly grounded in Scripture, communicated Biblical symbolism.

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