Wednesday, February 23, 2011
On Bible Intepretation
I have a dear friend who is an agnostic with very little interest in the Bible or Christianity. Recently, he was visited by some Jehovah’s Witnesses. During the visit, they urged him to read 2 Timothy 3:1-5, which reads as follows:
1 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!
My friend was puzzled by the passage and wrote me to ask what it meant. I told him it referred to the state of humanity in the days leading up to the Second Coming of Christ, when the Antichrist will rule on the earth. He wrote back and said that he didn’t see how this interpretation is possible, especially since neither Christ nor the Antichrist are mentioned in the passage. This was my reply to him. I hope you find it helpful.
Suppose that I wrote a letter to my brother and sister early one December and that my letter contained the following passage:
“I look forward to seeing both of you this Christmas Eve and sharing dinner with you. I also look forward to blessing you with that delightful saying that Mom always shared with us every Christmas Eve.”
Now suppose that two thousand years later an archaeologist discovers a copy of my letter and reads the above passage. Part of the passage is easy to understand. The interpreter would instantly know that I was looking forward to seeing my brother and sister and dining with them. He would also understand that I wanted to tell my siblings something, and this “something” was a saying that our mother used to say to us. With a little historical research, he could even determine the date I was planning to have my siblings for dinner (December 24). But then the interpreter would run into a difficulty. What exactly was the saying of our mother that I mentioned?
One way the archeologist could solve this problem would be to read other letters that I had written (assuming any were still extant) and see if I made any other reference to this saying. Perhaps I gave the exact text of the saying in another letter. If not, perhaps I left other clues as to the meaning of the mysterious saying.
If he could not find any other references to this saying in my other writings, then the next thing he might do is try to find some writings of my brother or sister. Failing this, he would then scour the writings of my children, since is almost certain that my children heard this saying, and it is entirely possible that one of them wrote it down.
Failing all this, the next best thing to do would be for the researcher to try to find any living descendants of mine to see if perhaps the mysterious saying had been preserved throughout the years through the family line.
If none of these efforts were to bear fruit, the interpreter would have to just make his best educated guess, based on his historical research and/or knowledge of me, my life story, and my writings. If he were honest, he would have to admit that his interpretation was merely a conjecture. He could even just say, “I have no idea what the writer means”…but of course, doing this doesn’t pay very well.
Interpreting the Bible is much the same. Some passages are totally clear, but others are obscure. When we come upon an obscure passage, there are a number of things we can do to try to interpret it. First, we should check the other writings of the author of the passage. In which other passages did St. Paul refer to the “last days,” and how do these other passages shed light upon the passage we are trying to figure out?
Second, we should examine the other books of the New Testament, which were written by other Apostles (the “brothers” of St. Paul). Did Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, or Jude have anything to say about the “last days?” If so, how do they help us interpret the passage in question?
Next, it is important to see how the earliest Christians (the “children” of the Apostles) understood the troublesome passage. For they learned everything they knew about the Scriptures from the Apostles themselves. How did they understand the phrase “the last days?”
Finally, we see how today’s living “descendants” of St. Paul interpret the passage. Who are these descendants? Collectively, the spiritual descendants of St. Paul and the other apostles are the Orthodox Church, the only Christian tradition that can trace an unbroken connection back two thousand years to the first century Church without major changes to doctrine and practice.
When we do all this, we learn that the phrase “the last days” means the new era that began with the first coming of Christ, a period which lasts until his second coming. Often, however, the phrase “last days” is used in a narrower sense, indicating the period of time immediately prior to the second coming. This period of time includes the advent and reign of Antichrist. It is certainly true that in 2 Tim 3:1-5, St. Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Christ or the Antichrist. He didn’t mention them explicitly because he didn’t need to. Timothy (to whom he wrote the epistle with this passage) and all of the early Christians would have instantly known that St. Paul was referring to the time of the Antichrist, the time leading up to Christ’s return, just as my brother and sister would know that the saying of Mom’s that I referred to was “I can’t believe it’s Christmas Eve!”