“The Bible is a vehicle that unveils God and God’s will” (Lennan, 1998, p.82), it is a collection of books that bring to the forefront the relationship between the Divine and human beings. Just reading the Bible may not give the depth of understanding that is needed to bring to life religious insights, interpretation of the Bible must be undertaken to make clear the importance of the intersection between God and God’s people (Lennan, 1998).
Interpretation is central when reading the Bible
Although the Bible may appear to be one large book, it is actually a combination of many books, a “library” (Lennan, 1998, p.82). The pages hold generations of stories told from cultures long gone. The Biblical world could be referred to as a tapestry of cultures that entwine and bring to life God’s love. Wright and Prologue (2005) states that “The Bible has been woven into the fabric of normal Christian life at every point” (p.5), it has taken such an important place in our lives because the Word of God has not been read, but has been interpreted and understood. The culture of the year we presently live in is very different from the culture of the Bible, but through interpretation a bridge is formed to link “the aural cultures” of the Bible to the “written and visual culture in which we live” (Lennan, 1998, p.84). These old cultures and settings need to be unpacked/interpreted in order to fully understand the context in which God’s message was made evident, helping us understand what it means to us today and how we can apply it to our lives.
Interpretation is central because of the language used in the Bible: “The language of the Bible is a language to be read and reread, to be pondered and scrutinized” (Wright & Prologue, 2005, p.131). The rich dialogues between Christ and the disciples often have multiple layers of meaning. Interpreting what was said ensures depth to the meaning of what Christ was saying or alluding to. Through the complicated language lessons were taught, ideas were developed and beliefs were formed and reformed. Metaphors build the relationship between the reader and their understanding of Christ, this can only be achieved through interpreting the language because “only the Bible is the Word of God” (Harrington, 1978, p.23). We as believers need to have a well-developed understanding of the words spoken in the Bible by Christ and the disciples in the Bible in order to continue to build our faith and devotion. The language within the letters used by the disciples, was often a language not heard today, so once again there is a need to interpret the true meaning and/or message because “the Bible is the means for an ongoing encounter between God and ourselves” (Lennan, 1998, p.94).
Wright and Prologue (2005) stated that “reading and studying Scripture has been seen as central to how we are to grow in the love of God” (p.5). Through reading and studying we can interpret God’s truth and understand how to live the Gospel of Jesus in our everyday lives. Through understanding we can grow within ourselves and then share this with those around us. It is easy to read an account of events within the Bible but through interpretation, we encounter God’s Word. “The Bible’s place in the Christian community today derives from the fact that it continues to nourish and energise that community” (Lennan, 1998, p.86). We as the community are nourished through our understanding of the Gospel and its place in our life today. It is unpacked and presented to the congregation through the Homily or in depth information within a church bulletin. Teachers use their interpretation to educate and facilitate their student’s faith journey.
Different methods of Interpretation
We are driven to interpret the Bible because we “are guided by belief that the biblical text is the medium for God’s self-revelation” (Lennan, 1998, p.94). As Christians and believers we seek God’s word, to hear the messages as they were composed and intended by God. Since the Bible is a complex combination of many books, there are also many methods of interpretation that can be employed. This should be expected today, given that we think in a very different way to that of the Bible’s original audience. Hermeneutics is the “actual discipline of explaining and exploring the very process of interpretation itself” (Dizdar, 2003, p.253). It examines the spoken and written language of the text and focuses on the contemporary relevance. “In Biblical studies, this is usually called exegesis” (Lennan, 1998, p.93). Exegesis also describes the actual process of interpreting and understanding a given text. When we are interpreting we are “attempting to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it” (Fee & Stuart, 1993, p.19) so as to ensure we have the purest understanding of God’s intent.
When we interpret “we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas” (Fee & Stuart, 1993, p.14). The Pontifical Biblical Commission (1994) proposed that there were six methods and approaches that could be used when interpreting the Bible. These methods and approaches were: Historical-Critical Method, New Methods of Literary Analysis, Approaches Based on Tradition, Approaches that use the Human Sciences, Contextual Approaches and Fundamentalist Interpretation. The Historical-Critical Method interprets the significance from a historical version and has three major approaches: source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism (Lennan, 1998). This is where the original written source is discovered, critically investigated or there is a focus on the editorial process. The New Methods of Literary Analysis involve “rhetorical analysis, narrative analysis and semiotic analysis” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994, p.8). These methods offer a way of linking the story to the human person, helping them to fully understand the Biblical message. The Literary approach employs the “tools and procedures of modern literary criticism” when interpreting the text (Lennan, 1998, p.100). The approaches based on Tradition specifically focus on interpreting the message of the canon of Scriptures, delivering it to the faith filled community. The approaches that use Human Sciences employs a sociological approach, looking at the “social conditions distinctive of the various milieus in which the traditions recorded in the Bible took shape” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994, p.15). The Liberationist Approach and the Feminist Approach to interpretation come under the Contextual Approaches. The Fundamentalist Interpretation is the literal interpretation. In all its details, it does not take into account an understanding of the historical origins of the Bible (Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994).
“Both the reconstruction of the original sense of the text and the subsequent construction of meaning by the modern reader are therefore necessary when interpreting the Bible” (Van Dyk, 2018, p.2). Text within the Bible was never meant to have one meaning. Deeper meanings need to be interpreted to ensure the text continues to speak to faith filled people (Witherup, 2010). Postmodern hermeneutics is where the reader/interpreter “has an imminent impact on the meaning of the text, the reader shapes the meaning of the text” (Koci, 2014, p.221). In essence it is the Biblical message that hermeneutics seek to unveil, bringing the Bible to life and ensuring an understanding of God’s Word.
Interpretive method most suitable for my situation
I am currently a full time Year 1 classroom teacher at a Catholic school in Sydney. Often to my Year 1 students “the language of the bible is foreign” (Pelikan, 2005, p.230). As a teacher I need to interpret in order to make religious education relevant to the lives of the students in my classroom, I must ensure I engage students, to develop their knowledge and faith journey. The students I teach are six to seven years old so my job as a religious educator is primarily to “help students learn to think about the subject matter” (Rossiter, 1988, p.10), the subject matter being the richness of the messages within the Bible.
Rymarz and Sharkey (2019) described the use of “hermeneutic spaces”, where students become actively involved in the interpretation of the Bible. I believe I use this type of interpretation within my classroom as I “systematically weave Catholic symbols, beliefs, rituals and practices into their learning” (Rymarz & Sharkey, 2019, p.97). I engage my students through Scripture storytelling, followed by “I wonder” questions where they have the chance to reflect on the stories, putting themselves within the context and challenging themselves with how they would have felt or handled that situation. Students then have further opportunities to reflect through explicit engagement and then begin a variety of higher order thinking tasks. My students are encouraged to “move out into new concepts and understandings” (Rymarz & Sharkey, 2019, p.97) through opportunities that encourage them to interpret and think about what is being taught, to ultimately develop a lifelong journey and encounter with God and the Catholic faith.
When interpreting the Bible, as the teacher I often use the Literary Analysis Method, to ensure I have a very thorough understanding before I begin teaching my students. “Biblical exegesis makes use more and more of new methods of literary analysis, in particular rhetorical analysis, narrative analysis and semiotic analysis” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994, p.8). As the teacher I seek to understand the Biblical message and then communicate the teachings to my students. I strive to engage my students in discussions that allow them the opportunity to openly discuss their emotions, ideas and beliefs. The traditions of the Bible must be understood by the students, they need to have opportunities to reflect and attend to the significance of God in their world today and what it means to them (Rymarz & Sharkey, 2019).
I believe I also employ the Historical-Critical Method for my own personal interpretation. I seek to understand “the written sources that go to make up a text” (Lennan, 1998, p.97). I am interested in the significance of what I read, the historical process which paves the way to the Biblical texts. The complexity of those historical times that span such a long period, gives an insight into the Biblical passages that forge the bond between God and God’s people. This method of interpretation offers me a solid foundation of background information that I can then draw upon when I am preparing units of work for my students.
“If students are to engage with elements of the tradition as living expressions of Catholic faith, they need to be taught by teachers who both know and love that faith” (Rymarz & Sharkey, 2019, p.103). It is through a teacher’s devotion and systematic interpretation of the Bible that both the message and meaning of the Scriptures are revealed to the students of today’s Catholic school community. It is the opportunities that are used to engage and challenge our students that will develop their understanding and love of the Bible.
- Dizdar, D. (2003). How to Read the Bible. In M.Ryan (Ed.), Reading the Bible: An Introduction For Students (pp.250-266). Tuggerah, NSW: Social Science Press.
- Fee, G.D., & Stuart, D.(1993). Introduction: The Need to Interpret. (2nd Ed.), How to Read the Bible For all its Worth: a Guide to Understanding the Bible (pp.13-27). Grand Rapids, Michi: Zondervan Publishing House.
- Harrington, W. (1978). What is the Bible. (Ed.), The New Guide to Reading and Studying the Bible (pp.23-31). Wilmington Del: Michael Glazier, Inc.
- Koci, K. (2014). Interpreting the Bible against postmodern Biblical Hermeneutics: The role of Time and tradition. Theologica, 4(2), 219-231.
- Lennan, R. (1998). Attentive to the Word. (ED.), An Introduction to Catholic Theology (pp.80-106). New York: Paulist Press.
- Pelikan, J. (2005). The Strange New World Within the Bible. (Ed.), Whose Bible is it? A Short History of the Scriptures (pp.223-244). London, England: Penguin Books.
- Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II. (1994). The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Origins, January 6. Retrieved from https://catholic-resources.org>ChurchDocs/PBC-FullText.htm.
- Rossiter, G. (1988). A cognitive basis for affective learning in classroom religious education. British Journal of Religious Education, 11(1), 4-10. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.108/014620880110102.
- Rymarz, R., & Sharkey, P. (2019). Religious education as Catholic Hermeneutic Space. (Ed.), Moving from Theory to Practice: Religious Education in Australian Catholic Schools (pp.97-114). Mulgrave, Vic: Garratt Publishing.
- Van dyk, P.J. (2018). When misinterpreting the Bible becomes a habit, Herrormde Teologiese Studies, 74(4), 1-8. doi:10.4102/hts.v74i44898.
- Witherup, R.D. (2010). The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Bible Today, 48(4), 195-202.
- Wright, N.T. (2005). Prologue. (Ed.), The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding Of the Authority of Scripture (pp.3-22). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.