Everything But Interpretation

“What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?”
-Antonin Scalia

Many Bible ‘interpreters’ just don’t read the text that’s actually in front of them.

Invoking the old saw that “no passage stands alone” and an unconscionably loose application of the regula fidei, they will find meaning everywhere but the passage at hand. Confronted with a difficult passage in (say) the Gospel of Mark, they will veer off like meth-driven hummingbirds to passages in 1 Corinthians, Revelation, and James. Mark’s original audience didn’t necessarily have access to any of those books, but never mind that.

But no. If the passage at hand is in Mark, and somebody is getting it wrong, then the first place to show it wrong is right here, in the passage at hand. If it’s a misinterpretation, then it’s a misinterpretation here. Conversely, if you’re hoping to establish what this passage means, there’s no substitute for demonstrating your point from this passage right here. Hermeneutics is reading what’s in front of you, not free-associating from the text in front of you to three other–allegedly clearer–passages, taking an average of those passages, then reading that back into the text in front of you. That’s everything but interpretation.

A man who can’t be trusted to address the passage in front of him, can’t be trusted with two or three witnesses elsewhere. Bet you dollars against bent toenail clippings that when you get into those passages, he does the same thing: run to three other passages rather than deal with what’s in front of him. Again, everything but interpretation.

And this is to say nothing of the even worse case where the man free-associates from the words in the passage at hand to his favorite systematic theology. No. Pace Niles Eldridge, meaning cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Reading a tendentious interpretation of a handful of cross-references back into everything else in the Bible, and justifying it with an appeal to regula fidei, is just cowardly. Face the passage in front of you. Be corrected by the passage in front of you.

It’s true enough that no passage stands alone. If we’re working with a passage in Mark, then it is first of all contained by the other passages in the Gospel of Mark. Attend to the context it actually has, and see where that takes you.


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