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There Is No Such Thing as a Plain Reading of the Bible

Monday 27 July 2020, by siawi3


There Is No Such Thing as a Plain Reading of the Bible

March 25, 2019

by Matthew Distefano

Last week, I published an article for the new NRSV website entitled “Reading the Bible Through the Lens of the Forgiving Victim.” And while I was happy to do so—it’s not often folks like me get to write for historically conservative outfits like Zondervan—I knew that once they shared it on social media, you-know-what was going to hit the fan.

And it did. It certainly did.

Besides all the troll-status comments—and there were many—one reply that really stuck out to me went a little something like this:

“There is no ‘interpret the Bible,’ there is only the plain reading of the text by honest men who have a good conscience towards God. The motive for anything else is ALWAYS cowardice.”

Now, besides the blatant ad hominem, namely that anyone who “interprets” the Bible is really just a coward, there is even a bigger problem with a statement like this. And it becomes even more problematic when you realize that a large portion of Christianity actually believes it.

The problem, of course, is that this statement and ones like it are meaningless. Why? Because there is no such thing as a “plain reading of the text.”

First off, no one approaches the Bible tabula rasa, that is, with a blank slate. Everyone, including myself of course, approaches the text with presuppositions. Everyone reads the text through the lens of their own culture, theology, philosophy, and phenomenological experiences. And while we can do our best to transport ourselves into the various cultures the Bible comes from—the Bronze Age, Second Temple Judaism, and so on—we can never fully grasp what it would have been like to actually live in these time periods.

What’s more, everyone I know is reading their Bibles in English. Why is this important? News flash: English isn’t a language spoken by any of the characters or writers of the Bible, nor any of the earliest Christian theologians. Torah was written in Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Paul wrote in Koine Greek. Augustine’s Greek sucked so he wrote in Latin. English wasn’t on the scene until 1066, and even that variety looks nothing like it does today (if you don’t believe me, just try reading Beowulf in its original form).

Let me offer an example of what I mean.

Take the doctrine of hell, for instance. In a handful of places throughout the Gospels, the term “hell” is used. Jesus warns people that they will end up in “hell” if they don’t change their ways. But what did he really mean? Well, that is where we would have to do our best to transport ourselves back into the first century and attempt to discern his words through the eyes of a Second Temple Jew.

With this as our lens, upon hearing the term “hell,” we would automatically know that Jesus is, first and foremost, talking about a literal valley just to the south of Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because Jesus used the Aramaic term that translates to “Gehenna,” which, in Hebrew, best translates to “the valley of Hinnom.” This is the place where, in 586 BCE, the Babylonians burned the bodies of the dead Jews after they sacked the city of Jerusalem. And it is also the place where, only a few decades after the death of Jesus, the Romans would do the same thing.

At the same time, however, some Jews indeed believed that Gehenna represented a place of punishment in the afterlife for those who turned their backs on God and lived wicked lives. So, it theoretically could be the context from which Jesus was speaking to. Will we ever know for sure? I don’t know. I have my ideas and loose conclusions, but that isn’t really the point of this piece. The point is that we can not read things “plainly” for the sole reason that the meaning we draw from texts is never plain. There are always layers of meaning, especially when it comes to Jesus. I mean, not for nothing, but that dude spoke in complex parables and used a healthy dose of rhetoric in his teachings, so to my mind, to reduce him down to “plain readings” is an offense to the way in which he operated.

Furthermore, having a “plain reading” is an offense to Judaism in general. How so? That’s not how the Jews rolled. Sure, some of the more fundamentalist types wanted to use Torah to “plainly” argue for their own personal theologies—as well as inflict all sorts of punishments on so-called sinners (see John 8:1–11)—but Judaism is nothing if it is not an ongoing dialogue about God, the nature of God, and how we can relate to God in the present. This is fairly clear if you read the Hebrew Scriptures.

Don’t believe me? Read the book of Job. We all know the story. Job is initially blessed by God for being a totally righteous dude, one of the best around. But then in a cruel twist of fate, his life completely goes down the crapper and he is faced with strife, disease, and the deaths of his loved ones. His so-called friends then show up and, given their theological assumption that God always punishes the wicked (I mean, Deuteronomy 28 is fairly clear), spend the next 36 chapters asking him what the hell he did to deserve this. Job’s response: Nothing. “Nothing? Bullshit!” say the friends. “Yeah, nothing.” Over and over, this goes on. And then, in chapter 42, the clincher. God shows up to set the record straight. But he doesn’t quote Deuteronomy 28—you know, all those passages about how those who are righteous are blessed with riches and abundance while those who are wicked are sent dust and malady. No! He turns to one of the friends and says: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

This must have confounded the friends. After all, they were only doing what’s right according to a “plain reading of the text.” They were only going by what was plainly written in places like Deuteronomy 28. But they were wrong. And Job was right. God isn’t the blessing and cursing God like was plainly understood. It was much more complicated and nuanced than that.

And that is the point. What the Bible teaches us is that our experiences in life matter when it comes to how we read the text. The text is important, sure. But our experiences are always the subjective lens through which we view the text. Job knew this. And Job was right.

Of course, this only problematizes things. What we must remember, however, is that that is okay. In fact, it’s healthy. It’s healthy to live in the tension of the mystery. Not only does it help us grow, but it compels us to read texts like the Bible in community. It compels us to wrestle with the text, with one another, even with God.

So, let us not be cowards and hide behind the supposed “plain reading of the text.” Let us take a step out from that nonsense, like Job, and put our foot down when we know something’s not quite right. Let us hear the voice of God today, and ask “How can I draw meaning from the Bible in a world that looks nothing like it does when it was written?” Let us be a little more like Job and a little less like his friends.


Matthew J. Distefano is the author of 4 books, as well as a co-host of the wildly popular Heretic Happy Hour podcast. He lives in Chico, California.