What It Can Mean

One of the most frustrating, and most important, lessons I ever learned about interpreting Scripture happened when I was in Bible college. I’d had some Greek, and in an inter-session course I had the opportunity to take an elective from a wise old scholar whose name (I am ashamed to say) now escapes me. He was retired, but came in to spend mornings for a week lecturing us on Ephesians. Every morning, he would arrive at the classroom with only his English Bible and his Greek text. No lecture notes, no notepad, nothing but his two Bibles.

He would set his English Bible on the corner of the desk, where it would sit untouched for the next several hours. Then he would open up his Greek text to Ephesians and begin to lecture. The lecture consisted of reading a phrase or so at a time in Greek, translating it on the fly into King James-style English, making comments at length on the meaning of the Greek words and the overall passage, and entertaining questions along the way. I think we spent 4 hours a day for 5 days making a single pass through Ephesians, which will give you some idea of the length of the comments and the overall pace.

In that class there were several of us who had taken varying amounts of Greek, and a couple of dynamics quickly developed that were repeated many times over the course of our 5 days together.

The first one was when we thought we had caught him propounding an interpretation of Ephesians which contradicted some other passage of Scripture.

“But wouldn’t what you’re saying contradict [other passage], which says ______________?”

“Well, that would be a contradiction, young man, but [other passage] doesn’t say that. It says — ” and here he would quote the other passage, in Greek, from memory, translate it, and explain what it actually said and why it didn’t contradict his understanding of the Ephesians passage under discussion. He would then return to the lecture. As far as we could tell, this man knew the entire Greek New Testament by heart.

The second dynamic that happened repeatedly was when we thought he’d mistranslated one of the Greek words in the text.

“Sir, couldn’t that Greek word also mean ______?”

“Yes, young man, it certainly could. But in this passage, it doesn’t.” He would then explain why, in the passage at hand, the word meant what he was saying it did. I remember these explanations as well-reasoned, succinct, and effectively impossible to rebut.

Frustrating as it was, these were really important lessons in interpretation. Contradicting what I think a passage says is not the same thing as contradicting the passage. Choosing an interpretation of a word is harder than it seems. Words have different meanings: trunk can be the front of an elephant, the back of a car, the middle of a tree, the torso of a person, or an item of luggage. The fact that “trunk” could mean any of those things in some context does not mean that it does mean a particular one in this context. You don’t get to treat the list of possible meanings as a menu and just pick the one you like. The meaning has to cohere with the particular context, and demonstrating that you’ve made the right interpretive choice is not always a trivial undertaking. Sometimes it’s obvious, like using the word “trunk” when we’re talking about an elephant, and not talking about cars, trees, people, or luggage. Other times, it is less obvious: in the middle of a move, when the family car and Grandpa’s old steamer trunk are right next to each other in the driveway, “Put this in the trunk” could mean more than one thing. But if the back of the car’s already loaded with Dad’s greasy tools, the steamer trunk is open and half-full of linens, and Mom just handed you a lily-white tablecloth and said “Put this in the trunk,” there’s an excellent case to be made that she means one and not the other.

“But can’t trunk mean the back of the car?”

“Of course it can, young man. But in this case it doesn’t, and if you don’t want a spanking, you’d better get your exegesis right.”

2 Responses to What It Can Mean

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    Indeed.

  2. David Wyatt says:

    A whole trunk-full o’ spiritual goodies to enjoy here! Thank you bro. Tim!

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