‘Religion leads to violence when it conscrates hate’, writes Rabbi (Lord) Sacks in his excellent ‘Not in God’s Name’ (which will be reviewed here later this week). The Bible contains much in it which, if read literally and out of context, could be thought to consecrate hate. One of the most foolish things anyone can say is that any text interprets itself; all that means is that the individual, instead of trying to read the text in context, has decided to read it in a way which aligns with his, or her (usually his) views. Deuteronomy, after all, even has a law about a rebellious son being stoned, but we know, from the Talmud, that this law was never implemented and was interpreted within the context of God’s love for all his children, and was therefore used only as an example of how God regarded rebellion against a loving father. Every text-based religion develops its own interpretation of traditon.
It is clear from what St Paul writes to Timothy that the traditions passed on were not partial and incohate, but a system meant to serve Christians; not one word of it was yet written in a Gospel. By the time he is writing to the Thessalonians, that tradition is both written and oral. When St Peter writes his second epistle, he refers his listeners (and remember the letters were meant for reading out, not private study) to remembrance of the words of the prophets and the Apostles, whilst St John refers to the words they heard and handed down. The notion, which is now very common, that we, as an individual, can ignore this context and replace it with one of our own devising, is, at best, myopoic, and at worst arrogant, as it effectively ignores what two thousand years of witness has written. When St Paul says that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life, we might bear this in mind.
From the very beginning of the Christian revelation, there has been the need for interpretation. St Peter (or his continuator) writes about those scoffing because the second coming has not happened yet, and has to point out they have misunderstood what Jesus was saying; this has not stopped Christians periodically deciding they know that the end is nigh, of course. The ‘unlearned and the unstable’ misread Paul’s letters, which, Peter admits, can be hard to understand; but that is why they need reading within the tradition which produced them, it is why it is simply wrong to say that the Bible needs no interpretation; even saying that is to provide your own, very modern, and very man-made, interpretation.
The application of any ancient text, even the inspired word of God, to the present age, requires interpretation, which is why Judaism, Christianity and Islam all read their texts within tradition. Shakespeare was correct when he noted that ‘the devil can cite scripture for his purpose.’
Unfortunately, fallen mankind has a tendency to think it knows better. Men who see the corruptions that power, and perhaps wealth, have had on their own religious establishment, fail to note the beam of pride in their own eye, and, concentrating on the mote in the eyes of others, decide they need to live by the holy word as it was before it was interpreted, and, indeed, that interpretation is a main cause of what they call ‘corruption’. They can usually call in aid texts from what Rabbi Sacks calls the ‘confrontational reading’ of any holy book – thus Jesus saying he brings a sword, or the driving of the merchants from the Temple. They focus on a literal reading of texts which support their own view, which is why, so often, such people cite a limited number of texts repeatedly; ignorant of what others have written, they excuse their ignorance because they are convinced they are inspired and others, even if they have died for the faith, were not. As Rabbi Sacks concludes (p. 219):
That is what makes fundamentalism – text without interpretation – an act of violence against tradition. In fact fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that its meaning is not self-evident. It has a history and authority of its own.
For the Christian, the texts are, as Saints Peter, John and Paul all testify, part of that tradition. Read them outside the tradition and read them by the light of one’s own intellect, and you will get from them what you put in; read them inside the tradition and by the lights of a thousand saints, and you will uncover more of what God put there. But, like the Israelites of old, we can be a proud and stiff-necked people – not even learning from what happened to them because of their pride.