the weblog of Alan Knox

The First Interpreters

Posted by on Jan 7, 2010 in discipleship, scripture | 7 comments

Imagine for a moment that you lived sometime around 60 A.D. You have recently become a follower of Jesus Christ, and you are meeting together with other believers for the first time.

When you walk through the door, you soon realize that something special (even for this group) has happened. A traveling companion of Paul (or Peter, or John, or James, or one of the other New Testament authors) recently arrived with a letter for the church. Although you’ve never heard of this person, you quickly learn that he was one of the first people to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world.

You discover that this group of Christians came through your city not long ago (just a few months or maybe a year earlier). Some of the people in your group had been following Jesus since that time, but most are fairly recent converts, like yourself.

Eventually, during the course of your time together, someone reads the letter. It takes between 15 minutes to just over an hour for the entire letter to be read. Parts of the letter were very encouraging. But, other parts were hard to understand (even Peter said that parts of Paul’s letters were hard to understand – 2 Peter 3:15-16). There were even some things in the letter that seemed completely unreasonable or impossible.

In other words, you didn’t understand everything that you heard. As the letter was being read, you looked around the room. You noticed that there were others who appeared to be struggling with parts of the letters.

Now… the purpose of this post… who interpreted this letter for you? Who interpreted it for others in the room?

There were no seminary trained professionals. In fact, most people in the room had been following Jesus for less than a year. A few may have been converted just over a year earlier. Even Paul’s traveling companion had only been introduced to Jesus Christ a couple of years ago.

There were no commentaries written about this letter. There were no devotional books. You could not turn to New Testament scholars to help you understand.

So, who interpreted the letter for you? Or, perhaps even more important, once you understood what the letter meant, who taught you how to apply it in your own life? What about those around you?

Who were the first interpreters?

Is there anything in those letters themselves that give us clues as to how they would have been interpreted and applied?

How can thinking about these questions help us today?


7 Comments

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  1. 1-7-2010

    The apostolic fathers (some of whom I have read) seemed to do more re-stating and then adding their own thoughts that our style of commentary of the text. At least that is my observation. They seemed to lean more into the Holy Spirit as one who would interpret the letter for them and their listeners/readers.
    One must always be open and alert to what has been thought before by those more skilled and knowledgeable than oneself. However, I think in todays education of our churches, we lean way to much into what others have said. In doing that we limit the interpretation to what man has thought. The Holy Spirit still needs to have the last say with His own words. However, this is a harder learning curve for us today for some reason. There seems to be more “reading of books” than devouring of the Book.

  2. 1-7-2010

    Alan,

    Those are great thoughts. I believe the community itself would interpret those letters, with the help of the elders. Then because of this they would also help apply those letters to their lives and because they were a community they could help one another interpret it and apply it a bit more intimately.

    Next I think the commands to “encourage, exhort, admonish…. “these things” (as Paul says) seem to be clues on how they would interpret these letters.

    I think the hard part is that they had a cultural and personal context in which to interpret these letters and for us to rightly interpret and apply we have to find a way to put ourselves there and then bridge the gap. They did have a gap to bridge as you rightfully stated about Peter’s qoute; however 2000 years later and with all of the layers upon layers that have been added throughout history our gap is much, much further, not to mention seminary has become a prerequisite and foundation to understanding and interpreting which lives the “layman” at a positional disadvantage. They had the letter the Spirit, the culture, the language and the context. We have lost some of those by sheer history and added some unnecessary layers.

  3. 1-8-2010

    Iris and Lionel,

    Thank you for thinking about this with me. It seems we’ve come a long way… some probably for good and some probably for bad.

    -Alan

  4. 12-18-2012

    I’ll have to admit that the word “interpret” has always bugged me when it comes to scripture. I think the original hearers of scripture, from the moment it was first spoken understood it just fine. We don’t speak of interpreting a newspaper, right? It says what it says and it has been written for us to understand. If however, we need to translate that newspaper into another language, then we’ll need an interpreter.

    I understand that that is exactly what has happened in our current non-hebrew/non-greek versions. But, for the most part we understand all too well what the scriptures say in English. I happen to read ancient Greek. I have to admit, that there have been very few, respectively speaking, surprising moments for me in “interpretation.” After peeling back most of the greek, I arrive at the same understanding I had of the English rendition.

    When it comes to figuring out how to apply these scriptures to my life, some may consider that “interpretation.” But, as a believer, I have an constant companion interpreter in the Holy Spirit. Even in that example, I’m not sure that there is really any interpretation going on. God says what He says in a manner that supersedes interpretation. He communicates in an intentionally understanding way.

    Am I out in left field here?

  5. 12-18-2012

    Miguel,

    I don’t think you’re in left field. However, we DO have to interpret everything we read or hear. Of course, the closer we are to the source, the easier it is to interpret. That said, I do agree with you that most of Scripture is pretty easy to interpret. The difficulty is in the application.

    -Alan

  6. 12-19-2012

    Alan,
    As you point out, the first interpreters were not Bible experts. Since that time, many Bible experts have contributed to the interpretation. And some have been more helpful than others.
    Your story about interpreting the apostle’s epistle reminds me of your remarks about ‘teaching and admonishing one another’ being mutual and reciprocal.
    The scripture is God’s word to Man, so He made it accessible to all men. Scripture wasn’t written just for the scholars. There is enough good stuff in the scripture to keep any scholar busy, but we all can understand it when we read it, or listen to someone read it.
    Nelson

  7. 12-20-2012

    Nelson,

    What are some ways that we can help people understand that “Scripture wasn’t written just for the scholars”?

    -Alan