This introductory chapter describes the two basic
schools of biblical interpretation. We then examine
what our approach should be and address the
role of archaeology in our understanding of biblical
* Show the basic differences between the "traditional"
and "modern" ways of understanding the Bible.
* Propose the method of understanding that will be used
in this book.
* Give a brief overview of the value and limitations of
* Show the importance of written records.
There are a number of ways to study the Bible. We could work our way
through it book by book. We could take a thematic approach by following
key themes, such as prophecy or salvation or love, through both the OT and
the NT. We could look at major sections, such as the Pentateuch or the prophetic
literature or the Gospels. Each of these approaches is profitable.
In this book, which presents an overview, we will take a historical approach.
That is, we will follow the sequence of historical events portrayed in the Bible,
looking at the various biblical books within that context. In the process, we will
try to understand each book as it may have been understood by its original audience.
We use this method for several reasons. The Bible was certainly written
within a historical context as God dealt with individuals and groups. Some books
are records of events written shortly after the events occurred; Joshua and Philemon,
for example, seem to fit into this category. Other books, such as 1-2 Chronicles,
cover longer periods of time, even drawing on a number of sources. Still
others are not historical at all, such as Psalms and Proverbs; however, even though
these works are collections of material written at various stages, we can find convenient
slots in our survey to pause and note how that material fits in the historical
HOW SHOULD I INTERPRET THE BIBLE?
There are two basic approaches to understanding the Bible that divide the entire
field. Because these approaches differ drastically, we need to describe them briefly
before beginning our study. The major distinction between the two is how they
view the origin and nature of the
The Traditional View
The first school of thought in biblical
interpretation may be labeled thetraditional view, often known as theconservative view. This has been the
dominant position held throughout
the history of the church, at least up
to the last century or so. Basically, this
school accepts the biblical documents at
face value. Since the biblical documents
claim to record history, this
view begins by accepting that claim
as a working hypothesis. It assumes
that the documents are indeed historical,
even while carefully assessing
that claim. It then tries to correlate
how the various historical materials (biblical and extrabiblical) fit together, recognizing
that there are gaps in our understanding. In the process, the biblical documents
are weighed and evaluated, keeping in mind that they have been critically
appraised continually since their composition. Aware that there are problems in
the text we presently have, this view asserts that when we look at various periods
of history, we must include all the evidence before we come to a conclusion. If
there are conflicts in evidence (and our biggest problem is lack of evidence, not
conflicting evidence), we must weigh it and gauge the alternatives as in any other
area of history. Moreover, if there are records of divine intervention in human history,
these are viewed soberly as plausible, true accounts.
The Modern View
In distinction, the second school of interpretation is often called the modern view,
also known as the liberal or critical view (the latter term is unhelpful because it
could imply that the traditional view does not analyze issues critically). The modern
view approaches the biblical documents as suspect at best. While these documents
claim to be history, they are assumed to be late forgeries until conclusively proven
otherwise. This view gained dominance in scholarly circles during the latter part
of the nineteenth century. Its supporters continue to label the bulk of the Bible as
"myth," though their position on certain matters has often changed as a result of
corroborating evidence. The real issue underlying the thinking of these scholars is
a set of philosophical assumptions rather than conflicting evidence. In general,
these conjectures reflect a spirit of naturalism, which can be simplistically reduced
to the idea that miracles cannot happen. The miraculous accounts that appear in
the Bible must therefore be regarded as, at best, "embellishments" of the text.
These two views actually represent a rather wide spectrum of interpretive
thought. There is also a problem in using labels not only because doing so immediately
seems to attach emotional nuances to the discussion, but also because individuals
will differ on particular issues while agreeing on broader principles.
Therefore, I will use these labels merely for convenience' sake, recognizing the risk
of oversimplification. They should be understood as reflecting general trends.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE MODERN VIEW
While there have always been people who questioned the authority of the Bible
and the authorship of individual biblical books, the modern view gained dominance
in the 1800s after several scholars developed new theories about how the
OT was composed. These theories were brought together by Julius Wellhausen
in his foundational work, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (1878). Very
quickly, certain influential scholars adopted Wellhausen's theory for the OT and
then subsequently applied his principles to find multiple sources in the NT.
The process began with the Pentateuch. Scholars have long struggled with
certain problematic issues in these books. The relationship of Genesis 1 and 2
(which we will look at later) is a key example. Looking at issues of style, vocabulary,
and subject matter, Wellhausen and others concluded that despite the claims
of the Bible and other evidence to the contrary, the five books we have today are
a product of several writers over centuries. Because of archaeological discoveries
that have challenged Wellhausen's assumptions (such as when writing was
invented), this premise more recently has been modified to include underlying
oral traditions put together centuries after the books claim to have been written.
Wellhausen's theory is also called the Documentary Hypothesis, or the JEDP theory
(named after the four basic hypothetical documents or sources seen in the
text). The theory argues that these different sources were gathered into the collection
we have today between the times of King Josiah and Ezra (i.e., somewhere
around 650-450 BCE). After Wellhausen's argument about the origins of the
Pentateuch won general acceptance, the same principles of multiple sources were
applied to the rest of the OT and the NT.
THE BASIC ISSUE IN BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
When we speak of the two major approaches to biblical interpretation, we are talking
about the very basic issue of understanding what the Bible is. This fundamental
question regarding the nature of the Bible builds on the role of what I callsupernormal (in preference to the standard term, supernatural). Is there supernormal
intervention into space-time history or not? As we get into the actual study of
the Bible, we find that there are also a number of specific ways of interpreting the
text. We call the process of interpretation hermeneutics. However, particular methods
of interpretation are subordinate to the more basic issue we are addressing here.
Three examples of historical realities once thought mythical by liberal scholars:
Nineveh: Nineveh is mentioned a number of times in the OT, and its destruction and loss are foretold. After
the city was destroyed, its location was forgotten. Consequently, its existence was questioned by modern scholars
until archaeologists uncovered it in the 1840s. (See Arnold C. Brackman, The Luck of Nineveh [New York: Van
Nostrand, Reinhold, 1981], 11-14.)
Belshazzar and his position: Daniel 5 tells of a Babylonian ruler named Belshazzar. When excavation of
Babylon began, it was determined that the last king of Babylon was Nabonidus, with no place for Belshazzar. Scholars
asserted that Daniel was in error, but later discoveries showed that Nabonidus had a son (named Belshazzar),
who shared the throne with his father but apparently died with the overthrow of Babylon before he could exercise
sole kingship (Alfred Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998],
The Hittites: Although they are mentioned in eleven books of the OT (notably Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua),
the Hittites were long viewed as a nonexistent people. Then the excavation of an ancient site in
Turkey called Bogaskoy in 1906-7 proved the existence of the Hittites. Suddenly an entire civilization was
opened to archaeology (C. W. Ceram, The Secret of the Hittites [New York: Schocken Books, 1973], 3-45). See
also ZPEB, 3:166.