What if a particular text could be interpreted several ways. That is having several possible meanings even though the author intended it to have a single interpretation? As an example it is possible that a text could be understood one way at the beginning and have this interpretation carry for a few hundred years.
|Authors||Early churchc.e. 150, 250|
Afterwards if those early interpretations were forgotten and new possible meanings of the text could be discovered and assumed to be the author’s intended meaning.
|Authors||Early churchc.e. 150, 250||Medieval|
And this could happen again;
|Authors||Early churchc.e. 150, 250||Medieval||Later|
|Original Authors||Early churchc.e. 150, 250||Medievalc.e. 500-1000||Later c.e. 1500-1900||Recentc.e. 1970|
The most notable element to consider in this table is there are many interpretations of the same scripture that have not existed in church memory for many hundreds of years. Take interpretations D1 and D2 for example. For around 1400 years no one was aware of these interpretations. Perhaps you could say, the newer interpretations (D1, D2, and E) are more likely to be novel creations of imaginative minds working at scripture.
It is critical to know the original historical context of the text, the first few interpretations of the text and associated issues it discusses.
The original meaning intended by the author has the authority, not subsequent interpretations no matter how popular.
The first interpretations of the early church
Suppose we had a look at what the early church thought about disputed texts and concepts. Concepts such as Paul’s understanding of the Gospel, Justification by faith and ‘works of law’. What would the early church say about these concepts soon after the apostles?
We know the early church fathers had close contact with the apostles. Some of these people I’m referring to are represented on the diagram below of who knows who.
I’ve now posted a couple series’ on the Early Church with a particular focus on the Gospel and Justification. I walk through a number of the early church Fathers including Clement of Rome (d. 101; he knew Paul personally), Justin Martyr (c.e. 100-165) and Ireneaus (c.e. 125-202). All of these people wrote within one hundred years of the apostles. These people were also exposed to the historical context. See the diagram below for what I mean by this;
The historical context I’m interested in is the exposure of these early Christian writers to;
- the apostles,
- the scriptures (the Old Testament and to varying degrees the apostles writings in the New Testament),
- the early christian community with its beliefs and teachings (100 years after the apostles), and
- first and second century Jews.
The diagram above shows that the early church’s exposure to Judaism dwindled quickly in the first two centuries. By the third century they were practically separate. Christianity had become a Gentile (non-Jewish) faith. In fact, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles became largely irrelevant. Because there weren’t many Jewish Christians left at all. Christian arguments defending their beliefs against Jews would no longer be needed and were thus forgotten.
Following the apostles we should expect the concept of Chinese whispers to take effect as time passes. Only the scriptures remained. The shared Jew-Gentile-Christian context and common knowledge of the first Christian communities was forgotten.
Where we have differences of opinion over possible and valid interpretations of scripture – especially considering interactions between early Christianity and Judaism. It makes sense to prefer the interpretations of the people immediately after the apostles than those much later.
Consider the drawing below;
If at this present time we had two competing interpretations on a well known and important topic which the scriptures refer to in many instances.
The first interpretation has been accepted by Christian communities ever since the apostles wrote the New Testament and still continues to this day. The second only has come into peoples awareness since the 1500’s.
People representing each interpretation argue from the scriptures (e.g. with different explanatory functions).
But there is no evidence that anyone in the church held the second interpretation right up to the 1500’s.
Do you think it is historically likely the second interpretation is correct? I don’t.
Hands down, the first interpretation held by the church is by far the most likely interpretation passed on by the apostles and first Christians. The second interpretation is more likely to be a creation of the later church who holds to biblical authority, but has forgotten their church history.
If a verse, passage or particular issue was consistently interpreted in one particular way by many from the early church onwards. If that same verse, passage or particular issue was interpreted differently by others much later, say over a thousand years. Then provided the interpretation of the earlier group fits context of the scriptural passage, it is entirely reasonable to overrule the later interpretation by the earlier one.
Scripture and the first interpretations of various topics should gain prominence over newer interpretations.
If on the other hand, the traditional church view does not fit what the scripture says, then we would be right questioning it and rejecting it. Scripture over tradition.
The main points of this brief series are;
- Keep reading your bible to grow a broader understanding of what it says.
- Don’t think that once you understand a particular way of understanding the bible (explanatory function) you understand the whole bible (the whole original set).
- Be patient with others who have a different way of looking at the bible than you.
- Always be prepared to upgrade your explanatory function to better fit what the bible says.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2014. All Rights Reserved.