How much should we rely on commentary when reading the Bible?
“I recently heard about a group in a remote part of Africa that is hearing Bible stories translated aloud into their language for the first time, but without any explanation or commentary. They are coming to very interesting and wise biblical interpretations. What do you think about this approach?”
This question was posed in a recent discussion group, so I thought it might be interesting to explore together. Maybe some of you will come up with a practical way to organize doing some experimenting with it. Obviously most of us have been steeped in biblical stories and the explanations that often go with them, but it’s interesting to think about suspending those side notes as much as possible to see what else emerges.
I think reading the Bible without commentary can be invaluable and filled with creative and new insights as well as a valuable questioning of traditional interpretations that really are not very representative of what the texts actually say. It’s one thing to do this on your own, but doing this in a group setting creates an entirely different dynamic.In our modern age of printing and electronic availability, as well as our rampant cultural individualism, it is easy to forget that the biblical materials were actually written to be read publicly by a reader, and heard in community. Remembering—or, more importantly, practicing—that reality puts us more in touch with the original documents and with how they might have been heard by an individual who first of all was hearing as part of a community.
In fact, in Germany, during the oppression of the non-cooperating churches by the Nazis, the “confessing church” leaders used a similar process to avoid what they knew would be their tendency to interpret the Bible in a manner that was “safe” rather than “honest.” It was a powerful tool. Although no one is holding a gun to most of our heads in the American culture at the moment, we are certainly all somewhat hostage to a very powerful cultural worldview of individualism, money as the measure of everything, and affluence. A group reading/hearing of the text has a greater chance of confronting us with our tendency to hide from the tensions the biblical challenges often create in us.
On the other hand, it is also true that any reading of the Bible can benefit from some scholarly help. This starts with the fact that most of us cannot read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. What’s more, all translations are, to some extent, commentary. (Perhaps this is a topic for another blog post, if anyone is especially interested.)
There is also the cultural element. Just as we do not understand statements and literature written by people from Japan or India or Indonesia very well if we do not find out what we can about their culture, we also do not understand literature in the Bible if we do not do our best to put it into its cultural context. Most of us need some scholarly help to do this well.
So, I would say that scholars and teachers who can “interpret” or “translate” the biblical materials well are a gift to God’s people and should be prized, BUT they are not, and should not be, the final word on what God is communicating through the text. There are many other gifts God gives us through our sisters and brothers—experience, intuition, realism, and idealism to name a few—that should also be prized when we attempt to hear the Bible as God’s living word.
What have been your best experiences in Bible reading, studying and understanding?
Pastor Ron Simkins