A common belief pertaining to understanding Scripture is: when reading the Bible it is always best to take the plain, literal meaning of the text. But is it always that simple? Take, for example, the sentence, “I love this course.” What do those four words mean? Isn’t it simply a matter of taking the plain, literal meaning?
No. There’s more to it than that. If those words were uttered by one of my students at Heritage Seminary, then s/he would clearly be sharing their enthusiasm for my class. But if that sentence came from Chef Gordon Ramsay, he would probably be referring to some cuisine like Beef Wellington. If the words were spoken by Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, they would be talking about something else: a golf course. And what if a student said those words, but sarcastically? Then that statement would actually mean the opposite: I don’t like this course!
The plain, literal meaning of that simple four-word sentence can mean entirely different things, depending on who’s speaking and who they’re speaking to—in other words, depending upon their social-historical context. Ministers of God’s Word must study the social-historical background of the texts they preach and teach: they must “mind the gap” inherent in their texts.
Context: Minding the Gap
As modern readers of the Bible we find ourselves in an interpretative gap. Language creates a gap. Neither David nor Paul wrote their texts in English. The Scriptures were originally written in either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Translating between languages is no simple matter. Important nuances and shades of meaning often get lost in translation. Time adds to this interpretive gap. The most recent text of Scripture was written over 1900 years ago. The difficulty is that the meanings of words often change over time. For example, in 1611 the venerable King James Version translated the Hebrew text of Gen. 2:24 as: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. While the word “cleave” meant “unite” in the seventeenth century, four hundred years later the word “cleave” now has the exact opposite meaning (think: meat “cleaver”).
The fact that modern readers lack the shared history and cultural experiences assumed by the text further enlarges this interpretive gap. When we come to any biblical text, we know nothing of the people nor anything of their specific, historical situation—quite unlike its author. The shared experiences between the author and his audience shaped what and how he wrote. Invariably biblical authors periodically wrote in shorthand or crib-note fashion that the original audience would have picked up on immediately, but modern readers do not. The study of social-historical backgrounds helps to narrow this wide interpretive chasm between the modern reader and the sacred text and thus, enable us to understand Scripture more accurately.
Commentaries: Help for Minding the Gap
While everyone can surely benefit from studying at a Bible college or seminary, many people have neither the time nor the money nor the energy to invest in further, formal studies. This is where commentaries come in; however, they must be the right kind of commentaries! The best commentaries for evangelical pastors and lay people have two chief characteristics. First, they are evangelical. While there are many excellent background studies done by non-evangelicals, frequently many good insights become wedded to bad theology. The second characteristic is that they are academic. While devotional and pastoral commentaries can be useful, they simply remain inadequate to provide solid background studies. They lack the necessary proficiency to deal skillfully with background because the commentator’s theological training does not include significant work in the discipline of social-historical backgrounds, or their deeply ingrained theological prejudices keep them from dealing with background material in an even-handed way. Admittedly, academic commentaries demand more from their audience: they tend to be a bit technical. But the extra effort it takes to digest what they offer is well worth their higher ticket price. Two very helpful academically-oriented commentary series include the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament from Baker and from Zondervan.
Preach and Teach with Understanding
The Bible is God’s divinely revealed, divinely inspired, and inerrant Word, and remains the bedrock for faith and ministry. Nevertheless, Scripture is an ancient, foreign and complex text; and these qualities create an interpretive gap for modern readers—a gap which often results in too many biblical misunderstandings. By using evangelical, academic commentaries to help us dig into the social-historical backgrounds surrounding Scripture, we can narrow this interpretive gulf so as to deepen our grasp of God’s Word and properly apply it to our lives, in order to become more like Jesus, the Word-made-flesh.