Translated by Arina Itiva
There is and old legend in the folklore of the seminaries about a negligent student who had to translate Christ”s words from Latin in his exam: “The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak”(spiritus quidem promptus est, caro autem infirma). The student, who apparently knew grammar better than theology suggested the following translation: “Alcohol is good, meat is rotten”… Interpretation of a text always depends on a spiritual experience of a person.
There are many ways to understand any masterpiece of world literature, and even the daily newspaper can be read from different points of view. In fact any text is like a symphony created by the one who wrote it as well as by the one who reads it. The reader does not just consume the text, but makes it alive and creates it in his own way.
We cannot avoid different readings where the Bible is concerned – for it is the book from which we are rather far away not just on a spiritual level, but in the cultural and historical context as well. Whoever speaks about the Scripture reveals things about himself; his speech tells us about him just as much as it tells about the Gospel. The points chosen to be commented on, the comments themselves, the intonation of the talk and the conclusions drawn – all of these depend on the culture and experience of the person. Even the fact that we have four Gospels, not just one, and that they are called the “Gospel of…” suggests that any retelling of the Good News of Christ is done with some interpretation. To say it more clearly, if someone could read through the whole Gospel every day, he would actually read a new book each time, for he would be different himself, and not just different, but changed by the reading of the God-inspired texts as well, which is actually why the Church requires her members to read the Scriptures daily.
But every person can only understand things to a certain degree, and his understanding of whatever he encounters will always depend on his life and spiritual experience. So it’s not difficult to guess that a Greek, a Jew or an Egyptian of the third century heard the Gospel in a different way than an American of the Twentieth Century. But if this difference is inevitable then how can we choose the understanding that would correspond to the faith of the first Christian communities in the most accurate way?
Orthodoxy carried through the ages the understanding of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth given by the first generations of (mostly) Middle East Christians. Of course this initial experience was enriched and expanded, something was dimmed in it, something flashed brighter, but continuity from the ancient times has been preserved. In my opinion this tradition of reading the Gospel is historically and spiritually deeper and more reliable than the attempts of looking at it through the modern secular culture.
Orthodox theology honestly states: we interpret the Gospel. We cannot understand the Gospel unless we interpret it. Interpretation is inevitable. The way Christ was tempted in the desert shows us that Scripture is not self-sufficient: it is the lines from Scripture that the devil uses to tempt Him. “Nowadays the devil, just as he did when he tempted Christ, uses Scriptures to prove that Christianity can exist without the Church”.
The apostle Peter warned: “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter, 1:20). If the Scripture were understandable by itself Paul would not have had to explain it in such a sophisticated manner. Would it be clear without his help what the story with the two wives of Abraham means (Gal. 4:21-31)? A letter is not enough, one needs the Spirit.
That means we should think about how we can step onto this “holy ground”. We are warned that we can only step there “with shoes off” (see Ex. 3:5) and where the Lord Himself will show us the final sense of what He wrote in Gospel. “He who has acquired consciously within himself the Teacher of spiritual knowledge has gone through all Scripture, has gained all that is to be gained from reading, and will no longer have need to resort to books. How is this? The person who is in communion with Him who inspired those who wrote the Divine Scriptures, and is initiated by Him into the undivulged secrets of the hidden mysteries, will himself be an inspired book to others—a book containing old and new mysteries and written by the hand of God.“ – wrote Symeon the New Theologian in the 10th century. For an adequate interpretation of the sacred text one needs the spiritual experience coming from the same Source as that of the authors of the Bible. People who have this experience in its complete fullness are called saints by the Church. As Fr. Sergey Bulgakov once declared saints are “religious geniuses”.
Protestants often say that they just preach the Gospel and claim that the Bible can be easily understood. How can that be if even the apostle Peter writes that there “are some things hard to be understood” in apostle Paul”s epistles (2 Peter 3:16)? And Paul”s writings are a big part of the New Testament. Is it all that clear in the Gospels? Well, let someone explain why Matthew attributes Zechariah”s prophesy about 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12-13) to Jeremiah (Matt. 27:9).
So in fact that is not “just Gospel” that they preach but what they understand from the Gospel and that is inevitable, inevitable first of all because the Bible reached us in a form of ancient manuscripts. The New Testament is represented by more than 5000 manuscripts and all of them are slightly different from each other (simply because they were all written by hand). Of course most of these differences are nothing more than slips of the pen and involuntary changes of the text due to local language features. But some of them can actually change the theological sense of a phrase and then a choice between them becomes an interpretation. For example in some manuscripts Hebrews 2:9 is written as “that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man”. But in others there”s no word “grace” but instead of it – “in a distance, away” (which looks similar in Greek). That changes the sense of the verse and brings to mind the cry of the Saviour at Calvary – “My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). He, Jesus, was left alone by God so that none of us would have to face death alone…
One more example – Christ”s prayer at the Last Supper : “Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me” (John 17:11). In the King James Version (as well as in Russian Synodal translation) these words were understood by translators as giving the apostles to the Son by the Father, and yet a number of manuscripts that are used by some contemporary translators (see International Standard Version for example) contain a word “that” (which is a singular pronoun of a neuter grammatical gender) instead of “those”. Then it can only be understood as related to the name: “Holy Father, protect them by your name, the name that you gave me”. And this translation is more logical for it”s said in Philippians 2:9-11 that “God […] gave him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. Such a reading destroys all constructions of Jehovah Witnesses, for it turns out that His Name, that is the name Jehovah, was given to the Son by his Father.
In the ancient Scripture manuscripts there are no division between words, no punctuation, no capital letters. How should we read – “He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord!” (Matt. 3:3) or “A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness”” (Is. 40:3)? In the first case we hear a man that cries from the desert “Hey, those in the cities, get ready for the Lord is coming”, while the second one resounds in the center of the city calling to leave that full of sin place and go to the wilderness naked from the shabby cloths of the culture to meet the Creator of the world. This difference in the original text occurs if you just move a comma, but it does change the sense a lot.
Where to put a capital letter? “It is hid to them that are lost, in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not”(2 Cor. 4:3-4). Most translations assume that “the god of this world” means Satan to the joy of Jehovah Witnesses who thus obtain an example of using a word “god” about a creature who is not and draw their conclusion: if a fallen angel can be called “god” than calling Christ “god” doesn”t mean that He is really God. And yet at the end of the second century Irenaeus of Lyons read it as “the God hath blinded the minds of them which believe not”. (“Against Heresies”, 3,7,1)
Gospel is not preached to ancient Greeks in Old Greek any more. That is why we have to use translations, and translation is interpretation. The work of a translator is a creative work. Any computer translation is very bad compared to a human one because of that. Translating literally not just often makes a text rather incomprehensible , but can also give to it a false sense. It happened with the Old Slavic translation which has a very confusing line for a modern Russian ear. Luke 8:12 says “… then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved”. Old Slavic literally says “… so that they believed not and be saved”. And that”s where weird explanations arise – like if a person believes but sins then he can”t be saved while if he doesn”t believe he has a better chance to be saved as gentile (strangely ignoring even that it was a Satan”s will described by these words). The thing is that Old Slavic translation is in a word to word correspondence with Greek text, but Greek has different grammar. Surely the translator knew this grammar and tried to implant it to Slavonic, but it didn”t fin in and his translation became blasphemous.
However, not only grammar can contain some surprises for translators. The theologian-translator always has to remember that many words have different meanings and to translate one has to choose between them. Jewish word “aman” means knowledge and faith at the same time. Which way should it be translated in every case? The word “alma” means a virgin or a young married woman. So when Isaiah proclaims “Behold, a «alma» shall conceive, and bear a Son” (Is. 7:14) does he mean a normal birth given by a normal woman or he talks about a miracle happening with the Virgin? Clearly, a prophet wouldn”t speak about something which is usual as a thing important and bringing hope to Israel. Some Jews though manage to insist on translation which goes like “this woman is pregnant” declining the possibility of a miracle. So the general sense very strongly depends on the meaning that one uses to translate the original text.
How should a text be translated to be understandable for people from a different culture? For example, the word “flesh” in the Bible is not always an antonym of “soul”, in most cases it just relates to some living being. Here are some lines with it: “I am the Lord, the God of all flesh” (Jer. 32:27), “And all flesh shall know that I the Lord am thy Savior” (Is. 49:26), “Shall all flesh come to worship before me” (Is. 66:23). But in a language of Greek philosophy “flesh” had a clearly defined antonyms: “spirit”, “soul”, “mind”. And a talented orthodox theologian Apollinaris (who lived in the middle of the forth century) didn”t notice this difference and thus fell into a trap: he understood the apostle John”s expression “And the Word was made flesh” as a statement that Christ didn”t have soul, and …he turned onto a heretic.
Not only culture can have an effect on translation and understanding of the Bible text, but the historical time difference as well. Apostle Paul writes (in Greek) that now we see the mysteries of the Kingdom of Christ “as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). Some translations keep the word “mirror” (e.g. American Standard Version or Old Slavonic one), but some say “through a glass” (e.g. King James Version or a Russian Synodal Bible). For a modern man these two things are just the opposite. To say that you see something as in a mirror is to say that you see it perfectly clear. But “through a glass” would most certainly mean that a picture is inaccurate, that you have to guess or assume something. The context of the epistle tells us to chose the second reading, and yet it is “as in a mirror” in the Greek text. Everything becomes clear when we remember that the mirrors in ancient times were not our modern mirrors, but were made of metal and could only give a rather twisted image. That”s why “reflected as in a mirror” inevitably meant “twisted”, “inaccurate”. So King James and Russian translators kept the sense of this expression, but had to sacrifice the literal philological accuracy.
Far beyond work with a dictionary is the translation of the Gospel to the languages of non-European cultures. For example Chinese translators came to the conclusion that the only way to translate the famous line from the Gospel of John “In the beginning was the Word” was to write “In the beginning was Tao”, using a term from taoism.
And how can “I am the Bread of Life” be translated for nations who never eat wheat bread but live on rice? They can only buy bread in restaurants for Europeans, so literally translated “I”m the bread of life” would sound strange, just like “I”m a hamburger of life” to a Russian. So it had to be translated according to its sense: “I am the Rice of Life”.
Another difficulty is with 1 Corinthians 3:6 where Paul tells about the growth of the Church under the influence of two preachers: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase”. Russians or Europeans understand this. People in the dry Middle East understand this. But what about a Vietnamese? Rice grows in water. Why would it need to be watered? And the translators had to study their agriculture to find the second necessary stage after planting: “I have planted, Apollos tied the sprouts to sticks”.
Can we do things that were not described or recommended in the Gospel? For example it is said that the teaching of Christ will be preached “upon the housetops”. Can we understand this as a command to preach on TV? Or a more serious problem – can we use today the criterion of distinguishing a religious lie from truth proposed by apostle John: “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God” (1 John, 4:2)? For example, a Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo acknowledged (unlike those ancient heretics-docetists whom apostle John argued with) that Christ had flesh, that He didn”t just seem to be human, but actually was one. Is it enough to recognize Aum Shinrikyo as a Christian movement?
And do we have to perform literally everything that is prescribed by Scriptures? “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face” (Matt. 6:17). What do you put on your hair when you fast? The same wood oil that Jesus meant? Or do you find it possible to use modern cosmetics by Procter&Gamble instead of the ancient one? Or do you agree with the interpretation that the sense of this advice doesn”t have anything to do with cosmetics and hygiene, but warns that your fasting shouldn”t be a burden on those around you?
There are turns of speech in the Bible that allow very contradictory understanding. An example is the apostle Paul”s advice “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather” (1 Cor. 7:20-21). Luther interprets this text as a call for gaining freedom, while Old Slavic translation implies the opposite. Original Greek text is neutral, it just says “choose the better” and doesn”t give any explanations on what is actually better. And yet Slavic translation is not a grammatical error. John Chrysostom, who was a native Greek speaker, also suggests to stay in slavery in his comments on Paul”s epistle. So, it”s not a question of grammar but a question of what a translator thinks would be better. Contemporary French translation actually says “draw the benefits of your condition of slave” (“mets plutot a” profit ta condition d”esclave”), it”s clear that “the benefits” are meant to be for the soul. Probably this cannot be explained theoretically. But there is a strange and very important experience for a soul behind that. At least several priests who went through internment camps told me that the time of their slavery was the time of the greatest spiritual, internal freedom, freedom of prayer. A man from the late antiquity or Byzantine had more experience of captivity than a modern man from the Western world, and through this experience of pain and suffering he could probably see things more clearly than can be understood today by someone with an averagely-good life. Just like Monasticism which formulated so vividly Orthodox ways of acquiring spirituality was born out of the knowledge that “there are no non-crucified in Paradise” and the tree of life is a Calvary tree. The simplified interpretation of Bible verses can be described by Gregory the Theologian”s words: “An apostolic word, but said and understood not in an apostolic way”.
Besides, every Christian denomination has its own “denominational blindness”: people do not notice certain biblical texts. They know and read them but just do not pay any attention. At the same time other verses become favourite and their meaning tends to be exaggerated. For example there is no dearer verse for a Catholic than Christ”s words said to Peter: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). For Catholics “Peter-the rock” means every new Pope. The Orthodox say, just as Origen used to, that this verse refers not to a person of Peter, but to his faith; that the faith in Jesus as Christ, as the Son of God is the rock upon which a new life of a Christian, new society and new Church can be built, and thus the Orthodox do not share Catholic enthusiasm about these words. A favourite line for Adventists is the commandment about observing the Sabbath and they completely ignore the New Testament words about apostolic meetings “upon the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7). No matter if the Orthodox show to the Protestants Old Testament commands about making images of Cherubims, the latter never see any biblical evidence about images except “you should make no image”.
The Protestants often reproach Orthodox for practices, rituals and theological formulas that are not explicitly described by the Bible, and to justify their belief that humanity cannot enrich its experience after the Bible was given to it, that nothing new (for revealing biblical truth in the diversity of human life and history) has a right to exist, they cite the last verse of Revelation: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Rev. 22, 18-19) This is a seal that apostle John put upon his book. What can give a reason to think that this seal concerns the whole Bible? John warns against temptation to add other dreams and voices to the Revelation that was given to him. That is a quite understandable precaution. But John repeats it several times – “this book”. But the Bible is not “a book”, it”s “books”. “The book of prophesies” is the book of Revelation, but not the Bible as a whole (which contains parts that are not prophetical, but only pastoral – like the Epistle to Philemon for example).
At the time when John was writing these words, the New Testament (in a sense of a collection of books) simply didn”t exist. It was not until the middle of the second century that the scattered books were put together and published by Marcion. Furthermore, until the fifth century in the East the Book of Revelation was not even included in the New Testament texts (based on Luke 16:16 – “The law and the prophets were until John”). “The book of prophesies” written after the days when John was baptizing seemed to violate those words of our Saviour. So the fact that the Book of Revelation is the last one in Bible is simply due to fact that it was the last one to be included in Bible, not that it had something in it which had to be said at the end. The last words of Revelation just concern Revelation, they are not actually “the last words of the Bible” speaking about the whole of it. Orthodox tradition still holds an ambiguous attitude towards this book. Acknowledging that it is God-inspired, the Church, however, does not consider it absolutely necessary for every Christian to know it: Revelation is the only New Testament book that is not read at the liturgy, and it”s quite natural that the book with unclear prophesies became the favourite source for different sect”s speculations and fantasies. Orthodoxy has a hope that before the events described in Apocalypse come the Lord will send to the Church an interpreter who will warn: now is the time of Apocalypse, come and see, open the book and get ready (one of the stories existing in Orthodoxy – though not being an official teaching – tells that John did not die (see John 21:22-23), but was taken to heaven alive and at the end of times will come to us with Elijah and Enoch to help fighting the Antichrist).
The Protestant interpretation of the last verse of Revelation doesn”t consider the fact that John violated this command himself. Irenaeus of Lyons writes at the end of the second century that “the Revelation was given not a long time before present, at the end of the rule of Domitian”. Domitian died in 95. That means Revelation had been written before 95 (and a lot of modern bible researchers tend to think that it was written in the middle of the first century thus considering it to be the first book of the canonical New Testament). As for the Gospel of John, there”s a common consent that it was written at the end of the first century-the beginning of the second one. So Revelation is not the last book written by John. He didn”t violate his promise though, but only a Baptist understanding of it.
The Orthodox Church neither adds anything to the apostle”s John book (or to the Bible in general) nor take anything away from it. In fact the considered understanding of John”s verse is not just a prohibition to write new books, it”s a prohibition for any creative religious work. Though those supporting such an understanding violate it constantly by writing their own works on theology and publishing guides for reading the Scriptures. As well as writing recommendations on every day behavior, on business, on missions or texts about what is wrong in the Orthodoxy. All of these are not in the Bible. After all, Protestants believe in Trinity and use this word, and it”s not in the Bible. It was introduced in the second century by Theophilus of Antioch. It accurately summarizes the biblical revelation about God, and yet it”s not in the Bible.
There”s one more problem with the above understanding of the verse though – it creates irreconcilable contradiction between two of John”s books: Revelation and Gospel. One says “do not add a word”, the other: “The world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). The mystery of Christ, the mystery of His resurrection and His life in human hearts cannot be ever fully described by no matter how many words. So I would advise Protestants to be less enthusiastic about reading John”s verse to Orthodox as something that forbids studying the works of the Church Fathers.
The Adventist”s understanding of the 16th chapter of Revelation is one more example of inappropriately broad understanding of biblical texts. While they correctly got the pessimistic notes from Old Testament texts which didn”t allow the possibility of immortality (and especially of joyous immortality), they failed to notice that the New Testament brought quite different views on that subject. But since it is a bit improper for Christians to base their views solely on the Old Testament texts, Adventists try to find indications to the simultaneous death of soul and body in the New Testament. And that”s what they write finally in one of their books: “The word psyche can indicate animals or humans. Psyche is not immortal, it can die (Rev. 16:3)”. But Revelation 16:3 says: “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.” How does death of fish indicate mortality of human soul? That is a blatant abuse of biblical text.
One more type of inevitable interpretation is a choice of where to put an emphasis. Every preacher has his favourite lines. However nothing is underlined in the Bible itself; there”s no indications of the type “this verse is more important than the previous ones”. The choice of verses which should be repeated more often, which have more significance is thus, again, a work of interpretation. Lewis”s Screwtape in giving an advice on how to stop a man from becoming a true believer, tells his nephew to guide him to a parish run by a priest whose way of leading the service he finds truly adorable: “In order to spare the laity all “difficulties” he has deserted both the lectionary and the appointed psalms and now, without noticing it, revolves endlessly round the little treadmill of his fifteen favourite psalms and twenty favourite lessons. We are thus safe from the danger that any truth not already familiar to him and to his flock should over reach them through Scripture. But perhaps your patient is not quite silly enough for this church – or not yet?”
The art of altering the sense of a text through specific choice of citations from it and changing of their positions has been known for a long time. In the latter days of the Ancient Greek times, a special genre of literature was created – “centos”. Poets would take lines from famous writings of other poets (Homer was especially popular) and create new works by just mixing these lines. For example Hosidius Geta made his own drama “Medea” of Homer”s “Vergilius”. It”s not difficult to create an attractive cento using the Bible. St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his famous work “Against Heresies” (written in the second century) actually compares heretics to the authors of centos and to people who would take to pieces a mosaic representing a king to make a new one representing a dog.
So a choice of places to cite (and the inevitable silence about some biblical texts which a preacher doesn”t consider to be concerning his topic of interest) is a kind of interpretation itself. Interpretation is everywhere – even in an answer to a question such as which particular situations in life and Church require which particular verse from the Scripture. Do I have to remember Christ”s words “to be like fowls of the air” when I”m going for lunch? Birds do not use forks and knifes – do I have to peck my food? Or do I rather have to find spiritual and symbolic sense of these words? This is the main question of biblical theology – determining the right situation to apply a particular Bible verse and a right Bible verse to apply to a particular situation in everyday life.
Inquisitors (from any denomination) always supposed that their job was justified by the words of Christ about a sinner who would be better off with a millstone on his neck in the depth of the sea (Matt. 18:6). But did Jesus mean that it was up to Torquemada to hang this stone on the neck of a sinner? Is it a call to action or just a warning? Did He really say those words to justify an itch to play police? So any time when I want to urge all the punishments on a head of a heretic – should I remember this verse or another one, where Christ warns His disciples very strictly not to root up the tares (Matt. 13:29)?
But on the other hand – what should a Christian judge follow in his work? Does he have to remember Paul”s words (“…for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” – Rom. 13:4) or should he be guided by the command of Christ to forgive until seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22) and only condemn super-recidivists while just inviting those who killed or raped for the first/100th time to join Sunday meetings?
Determining to which cases and individuals a particular Bible verse can be applied is another traditional source for inter-Christian disputes. Which commands of Christs concern all Christians and which just the apostles? “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”(Matt. 18:18) – is this about apostles and bishops or any Christian? Does that mean that any decisions of apostles and their successors will be confirmed by Heaven or that whatever a person gathers in his soul and whatever he throws out from it will form his eternity?
The question of Bible understanding is also a question of understanding one”s own life. What a person sees in himself will influence how he sees his reflection in Scriptures. If, for example, a person had some experience of seeing the spiritual light he might want to understand it through the prism of the Bible. And the Bible tells us about the two opposite sources of that light: there is the light of Transfiguration, the light of Tabor and there is the light that deceives, that comes from Satan (2 Cor. 11:14). So which one of those phenomenas invaded his life?
I repeat again, a person choses himself which page of the Bible speaks about him and the rightness of that choice depends on the subtlety of his spiritual vision. Everyone wants to see himself in the highest and most wonderful biblical events. What can be more startling than the gift the apostles received at Pentecost? No wonder that many people declared themselves partakers and owners of that gift. But is what happens to them the same as what was happening to the apostles? The gift of speaking in tongues was given for preaching. That was a gift of communicating from heart to heart , an opportunity to speak any language without interpreter. I was told that once a local pentecostal leader in one Russian town said something in a language that was recognized as Chinese. If he said those words in Shanghai it would be a miracle. But saying them in a little Russian town sounds more like a trick – for who could understand his preaching in Chinese there? Apostles didn”t speak Russian in Ethiopia or Chinese on the banks of the Dnieper.
But just as there are words in the Bible that everyone wants to apply to himself, there are words that Christians remember very reluctantly and not often think that they concern their own communities. Those are bitter words of the Saviour about the pharisees. Maximus the Confessor wrote: «“Precisely these words that the Lord was speaking to reprove the Pharisees I feel He is speaking to us, the hypocrites of today […]. Do not we also require others to carry crushing weights while we do not touch them even with a finger (Luke 11:46)? Is it not possibly true that we too look for the best seats at banquets, the front places in meetings and life to be called experts? And do we not have a mortal hatred for anyone who does not offer us these honors? Have not we too, perhaps, thrown away the key of true knowledge and shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in the face of other people, so that we neither enter ourselves nor allow others to enter?Do not we cross land and sea to recruit a single follower, and when we do, do not we make that person twice as fit for hell as we are? (Matt. 23:15) Are not we the blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel? (Matt. 23:24) Do not we clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but on the inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence? (Matt. 23:25)[…] Do not we build tombs for martyrs but behave like those who killed them?”
Sometimes the Bible tells things that seem to contradict each other. Which one of them should we choose? Apostle James writes: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21) But apostle Paul seems to state the opposite: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaak” (Heb. 11:17). James says: “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers”(James 2:25), but Paul continues: “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace” (Heb. 11:31). This is a classical argument between Catholic and Lutheran theologians and each side has their own stock of quotes. This difference in biblical texts led Luther to the idea of using scissors to reconcile his catechism with the Bible – he wanted to remove James”s epistle from it by stating it was a fake. Clearly, such interpretations go beyond philological aspect and start influencing practice of spiritual life.
But when there are prophesies there”s a temptation to make them clear, to apply them to one”s own life, to people around (and to one”s enemies of course). Just like an American televangelist Jerry Falwell did in 1979. He said: “In Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 we read that this country (that will rise against Christ and attack the Israel from the North) is called Rosh. Ezekiel mentions two cities of Rosh – Meschech and Tubal — the names here are remarkably similar to Moscow and Tobolsk, the two ruling capitals of Russia today.” In fact, Tobolsk is not even a regional center, but surely this detail can be sacrificed for the sake of such an exciting interpretation supporting Reagan”s “crusade”.
Which of the Bible”s prophesies is fulfilling now? “He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night?” (Is. 21:11). What is coming in our times: sunrise or darkness? (“The watchman said, The morning comes, and also the night” (Is. 21:12)). There are prophesies in Bible which are threatening and the ones that give hope. And every epoch looks into the Bible trying to see it”s own reflection in it, asking “what is said about me here?”. No need to say that behaviour of a person or a community would depend a lot on what they believe is coming – the night time of the last battle or the lights of civilization of peace and love building around the era of unprecedented progress. There are biblical texts that seem to promise prosperity on Earth as a result of the world historical progress. And there are the ones that warn that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, that the Spirit of that Kingdom is the Spirit that comes not from the world and that the world cannot accept Him, and that the love can only enter our world crucified…
The very fact that the Bible is made of two parts compels mind and spirit to work. There is the Old Testament and there is the New One. We cannot accept all of the Old Testament literally – we would become Jews if we did. Neither can we fully reject it – we would become gnostics in that case. Thus we need to accept the Old Testament but make it “safe” by looking at it through the Gospel. That means that the necessity of bringing the Old Testament to Church required to take it through very sophisticated exegesis.
It is a question that was encountered by the first Christians and by apostles themselves – which ones from the Old Testament instructions should be still followed and which ones are already in the past? And the argument continues even today. Adventists for example insist on Old Testament food restrictions, on exclusive celebration of Saturday (Sabbath). Protestants in general transfer to our world the prohibition of making images ignoring the question of why something concerning gentile gods should be applied to the images of Christ, and the Orthodox still argue if we are allowed to eat things that contain animal blood.
The need to clarify the attitude to the Testament that became Old made Christian thinkers work out a very complicated, historically justified view on the Bible. It had to be recognized that Divine commandments change depending on the spiritual growth of the people. John Chrysostom emphasizes that the past should not be judged by the standards of present. “Now that the rules from Old Testament are abolished do not ask how they could be right. Ask if they were good for the time they were given. Look, today we need them just to see their insufficiency. If they had not brought us to the understanding of the better commandments we would not be able to see that they are insufficient. Do you see now that the same things can be right for a time, but after that time not stay that way?” Elijah was right when he brought the fire down unto the heads of sinners because that punishment was necessary in order to strike the imagination of the nation that was still in its childhood, but James and John who wanted to act like the prophet were denounced by Saviour. So the Church had to face the necessity to make “an inventory” of the Scriptural library: what should be left in the past or in allegorical interpretations and what should be taken to the future and kept until the end of the time.
If someone insists that his community lives strictly according to the Bible (as opposed to orthodox who modified the biblical teaching) I will have to ask where is his spade (Deut. 23:13). I am sure I will be answered that it is not necessary nowadays and I will agree to that, but will also ask – if he doesn”t want to be blamed for violating biblical rules by not having a spade – not to blame the Orthodox for violating the Old Testament rule of not making images.
American history contains a good example of how understanding of the Bible depends on people and how it can influence those people. Protestants felt in America like “the New Israel”. They tried to find places in the Bible which would speak about them. And finally Catholic Europe became gentile Egypt, Pope – a pharaoh, Luther – Moses. Just like Jews were oppressed in Egypt, protestants went through hatred from European catholics. And America seemed to be the Promised Land. They saw a new Canaan in America. There were gentiles living in the ancient Canaan. And there were gentiles living in America. What happened to Philistines, Canaanites and other worshipers of Baal who refused to give up their land? What did the Lord tell Moses and Joshua to do to gentiles to whose land He brought them? “And Joshua at that time turned back, and took Hazor, and smote the king thereof with the sword […] And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire. And all the cities of those kings, and all the kings of them, did Joshua take, and smote them with the edge of the sword, and he utterly destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. […] And all the spoil of these cities, and the cattle, the children of Israel took for a prey unto themselves; but every man they smote with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, neither left they any to breathe. As the Lord commanded Moses his servant, so did Moses command Joshua, and so did Joshua […] So Joshua took all that land, the hills, and all the south country, and all the land of Goshen, and the valley, and the plain, and the mountain of Israel” (Josh. 11:10-16). “Sola Scriptura” led to such a view on the Bible when the Old Testament was not transformed in the New, but mechanically added to it. Through this a war with Indians became religiously justified and the literalism in handling the Scriptures gave base to the genocide of the indigenous American population. Thus, through the wrong understanding, the Bible can become dangerous to a person reading it and to the people around him.
In all religious traditions of the world the unity of the text is determined solely by the unity of the tradition of its interpretation. Because of that in the ancient time Hilary of Poitiers said that “Scripture is not in the words, but in understanding” (“scripturae enim non in legendo sunt, sed in intelligendo” – from a letter to Constantius 2nd). This way, when a Protestant says that “the view of the Orthodox contradicts the Bible ” what he really says is that that the view of the Orthodox contradicts his understanding of the Bible. So before someone triumphantly declares “The Bible tells so!”, it would be a good idea to stop for a second and think – is it really the Bible that tells so or, may be, it”s just me and that professor we listened to recently?