Since the Bible is not sufficient…

[Things have been quiet here at BBB so I’ll try to shake things up.]

This semester at the Mozambican Bible Institute, my third-year students have been studying the Pauline epistles. What is different about this semester is that the day students and night students are studying all the third-year courses together. The day students are Christians and pastoral candidates with a long history of involvement in the church. The night students are for the most part pagans. We have journalists, school teachers, and shopkeepers all in this night course because they’re hoping to get a degree. The mix of secular and saintly students is a recipe for excitement. It is the most stimulating course I have ever taught. Discussions range from hot to heretical. But they are never dull.

As part of the course, I paired the students up and asked them to make a short presentation to the class on difficult passages in 1 Corinthians. This led to some awkward moments such as when the attractive young lady from the night students was paired up with one of the male day students and their topic was Paul’s instructions on couples abstaining from sex. In general, the students have done an excellent job even if by and large they haven’t the foggiest idea how to exegete the text.

Last night was a good example of the exegetical problem. Two groups made presentations. The first group explained the passage where Paul instructs women to keep their heads covered (1 Cor. 11:2-16). The second group spoke on Paul’s instructions regarding believers taking each other to court (1 Cor. 6:1-12).

Regarding disputes between believers, there were direct connections between the Corinthian and Mozambican situation. But the presenters on women’s head coverings were pretty much flummoxed by this passage. They were able to make the connection between ancient culture and Mozambican culture and assert that “women normally have long hair.” But they weren’t really able to make any kind of exegetical leap and say something like, “In Paul’s day, women covered their heads as a sign of modesty. The women in our churches should likewise dress modestly.” Very few of the students have study Bibles and most of them are too busy to spend time hunting for information in the library. So they just have a bare bones Bible. And with obscure passages like this one they have to make guesses at how to apply the message. 

Which brings me back to the teaser in this post’s title. Assuming that the average reader will misinterpret much of the Bible most of the time should we be looking for a better Bible: a Bible that disambiguates? The options are legion in the English speaking world, but step across the linguistic divide and you will find the majority of believers around the world using Bible society editions. Bible Societies like ABS have a mission that involves “producing materials that avoid endorsing or advocating any doctrinal positions.”1 So they get the sixty six books and maybe a couple of maps. I’m thinking about those students in my third-year class. They are heading into society, some of them into pastorates, with a Bible that they do not understand. And yet a proper understanding of 1 Corinthians would be incredibly helpful in addressing the problems they will face in their churches. Since the Bible is not sufficient in this situation, what needs to be done?


1 from Mission Statement of the American Bible Society

13 thoughts on “Since the Bible is not sufficient…

  1. Glennsp says:

    With all due respect, as they have been receiving instruction from you for 3 years, but still struggle with this, just what have you been teaching them?

  2. Glennsp says:

    Oh yes, I find your assumption that “the average reader will misinterpret much of the Bible most of the time” to be just that, an assumption.

    Personally I have found it to be otherwise. The average reader will get it right most of the time and the areas where they find difficulty are in the minority.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Bible translator pairs up pastoral candidate with attractive young woman of the night to discuss sex – make sure you don’t get quoted out of context, David! 😉

  4. Bob MacDonald says:

    I think the policy of minimal confessional interpretation is a good one. If the sufficiency is in Christ, then the readers who have committed to him will know – won’t they – whether they are learning in their own power or in the power of the Spirit of the one who gave up all power for our sakes. Maybe then they will even recognize voice changes and sarcasm in Paul’s writing – like in “what! did the word of God originate with you?”

    If they needed teaching from ‘a man’ then I hope you will be giving them forensic tools so that they allow their own assumptions to be questioned. Maybe 2000 years from now, they will stop the practices that they find convenient today.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    So, Professor Ker, where ever it gets quiet you have to go shake things up? 🙂

    Kudos to you for teaching! I love teachers (and still want to know who your best teachers are; in naming them, you may still “avoid endorsing or advocating any doctrinal positions.”)

    Honestly, I do have the overwhelming choice of Bible translations here and the wacky will “to spend time hunting for information in the library” a good library at that.

    But I, like your other students, also am not “really able to make any kind of exegetical leap and say something like, ‘In Paul’s day, women covered their heads as a sign of modesty. The women in our churches should likewise dress modestly.'” Being a man too, how do I flip that around for us men? Does that mean that us men in our churches don’t have to dress modestly since Paul keeps the men in Corinth from dressing up their heads? Or since short uncovered hair or baldness is a natural sign for Corinthian men as men, in church, then must I make some other exegetical leaps? Please give me more than 66 books and 2 maps–lest I think for myself, or find the Greek text too.

    Bob makes a great point about the teacher man, his tools, and their assumptions. So I wonder if Ruth really did give Boaz (a baseball cap and) a bunch of rule-breaking tools, with a toolbox to boot, to question his own assumptions by, as the woman Carolyn Custis Jones (with no hat on) suggests she does.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    I too am not able to say,

    “In Paul’s day, women covered their heads as a sign of modesty. The women in our churches should likewise dress modestly.”

    This post on Eumachia’s veil is my attempt to pose the right questions regarding a woman’s veil.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Paul, I thought your comments were helpful. I wish you had left them up. It’s OK for some comments to be longer. You had something to say.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    Your post on Eumachia’s veil really does reveal the right questions.

    Paul (writing to the Corinthians) may have seen his word in LXX as the Mosaic prohibition against the veil for male lepers (in Lev. 13:45). But the Corinthians would have known about Eumachia’s veil and about Mnesilochus’s veil. The latter is the brother-in-law of Euripides who gets dressed up as a woman in the veil in Aristophones’s play “Women at the Festival” (or “Thesmophoriazousae” line 890). As he pretends to sit on a tomb, which is the altar to Demeter, the Athenian’s revered goddess of agriculture, Mnesilochus’s true identity gets revealed. It’s a sexist comedy, and funny to the Greeks because veils are for women (not pretenders who are men), particularly for the priestesses (like Eumachia, the public priestess of Venus) at the temples of the goddesses.

    Aristotle did have some things to say about this too.

    Wayne, I’m with you:
    Paul (the commenter here), I thought you had some good observations in your comments!

  9. Paul Larson says:

    Well, I thought it was kind of dopey, so I deleted it. Confusing spirituality with religion and academics! You know hanging around here with all the academics, its a little intimidating. I am an amateur Bible hack in search of some insights that will bring me close to knowing the mind and manner of God. I have received some training by Crossways International in a two year weekly survey of the Bible. Harry Wendt, the founder, developed a set of graphics with which to teach the idea of God’s grace to illiterate Africans, and would allow illiterate people to teach other illiterate people and since exploded all over the world especially in Asia. It also widened to include a rather formal ecumenical Bible Study for white people living in the suburbs, somewhat to the chagrin of local pastors. You know, wackos reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves. A marvelous man full of love and intellect. Because of my oddball theology which evolved out of the Oxford Groups (nothing to do with Oxford University, he found me interesting and I was invited to some lectures by Dr. Kenneth Bailey who absolutely astounded me with his intellect and experience. He spend 20 years teaching Bible and related studies primarily in Beirut. He was of the opinion that the Bible ought to be approached as a book written my middle eastern people, with a middle eastern culture, and the middle eastern attitudes of the times. Look him up on the internet, he has a series of lectures on 1 Corintians dealing with this middle eastern background and the habit of what he called writing with bookends, which made this book a whole lot more accessible to me. He also has a series of books and videos on the parables of Luke, again with this background, Prodigal son……the father ran to him……middle eastern fathers did not run… demanded them, they why did he do it? That kind of stuff. He also once said that in Jewish myth the story of Abraham and Issac was actually Issac’s story, about how much he did for his father……a different take. Thanks for the encouragement but you may have created a monster. again I went on too long, but this post is more coherent.

  10. mynogan says:

    I think the best tool, especially in a non-western context, after a good Bible translation, is a good Bible dictionary, preferable a one-volume dictionary that focuses more on background and content than on the latest critical theories.

  11. Tim says:

    A Bible translation should be just that a translation, with as many notes as are needed to make it honest and comprehensible by the target reader.

    All that is really important (at least all that is needed for salvation 😉 is clear and said several times.

    But there are difficult bits, that’s where reference works, and teachers come in. But do not confuse these things into one post David! (BTW the neat trick, where I suspect ABS and others have been too cautions is to know what notes are “needed” by the target audience to understand the translation and necessary decisions and compromises the translators made.)

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    Paul, thanks for your comment. Kenneth Bailey is indeed an excellent teacher with exceptional insights into the Middle Eastern background of the Bible.

  13. David Ker says:

    Just checking in. Glad to see Paul commenting again! And I will comment more at length in the near future. Right now I’m home recovering from an awesome get away with the fam.

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