Saturday, August 1, 2009

Truth forecast: cloudy

A lot of the justification I see in terms of the Bible is how its truth has stood firm over the last 2,000 years or so: what was true in the time of Jesus is true today.

If this is the case, shouldn't we expect the understanding and interpretation to have not varied that entire time?

I recently came across a post from a rather well-known Christian (in Christian circles, at least) about Matthew 25, and the parable of the talents. This person was connecting the parable to how Christians use what God has given them. The parable was "obviously" meant to show how God will react with how we respond to our talents: if we use them to produce results, as the first two servants did, then God will be pleased. If we are like the lazy servant, and fear losing the talent, then God will cast us away.

One problem with that interpretation -- according to The Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, the above interpretation isn't anywhere close to what's going on in the parable.

To quote:

In the "limited good" world of the first-centuary Mediterranen, however, seeking "more" was morally wrong ... because the pie was "limited" and already all distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people, therefore, did not try to get more and those who did were automatically considered thieves. Noblemen avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves. Such behavior could be condoned in slaves since slaves were without honor anyway ...
When the day of accounting arrives, we find the master rewarding those who were vicious enough, shameless enough, to increase his wealth for him at the expense of so many others. These slaves, in fact, are just like their master. For we find out from the third slave (and the master agrees) that indeed, the master himself is quite rapacious and shameless "a hard man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed." In other words, he is by definition a thief. A "hard" man is one whose eyes/heart, mouth/ears, and hands/feet are rigid, non functioning, arrogantly inhumane ...
From the peasant point of view, therefore, it was the third slave who acted honorably, especially since he refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the greedy, rich man. Moreover, the harsh condemnation he received at the hands of the greedy owner, as well as the reward to to servants who cooperated, is just what peasants had learned to expect.
Pages 124-125.

So my question is, if it's the Holy Spirit that leads the reader to the correct interpretation of Biblical passages, shouldn't our interpretation today match the understanding from 2,000 years ago? Rather than being a direct opposite?

It's situations like these, where a correct interpretation is dependent on understanding historical context, and the common interpretation pretty much matches how the Western Society behaves, that makes me feel religion as a whole is man-made and man-directed. It would be much more convincing to have someone with no understanding of that culture come to interpret the parable of talents the way it was understood back then.


Kay said...

I remember reading somewhat recently that the interpretation of the parable of the talents has been understood wrongly for quite some time and that is was the third slave that was the good one. I can't remember where I read it, but it seems to me that the person who brought it up was ridiculed by other blog participators (Christians) as being incorrect.

I'm fully convinced that the Biblical narrative is hopelessly redacted and twisted and discombobulated, and that we will never know what most of it really meant.

OneSmallStep said...


Do you remember what reasons the Christians were giving for why this viewpoint was wrong?

**I'm fully convinced that the Biblical narrative is hopelessly redacted and twisted and discombobulated, and that we will never know what most of it really meant.**

Part of that is probably because of how the Bible is approached. If you approach it the way you would any other historical document, then you already have certain filters in place -- such as, men don't come back from the dead in defiance of natural laws. In another historical document, something like that would be it dismissed.

Plus, there are entire belief sets riding on interpretations of the Bible -- more than any other historical document out there (except other religious texts). That, and a claim to how to interpret it correctly is due to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But how can anyone measure the Holy Spirit?

Kay said...


I don't remember specifics. It was along the lines of how it was "obvious" that those that invested their talents were the good guys.

Even approaching the Bible as history is a bit difficult for me. Once you get rid of the supernatural and that which doesn't agree with science and that which is contradicted by archaeology, there isn't much left. I suppose what is left is interesting in a academic sort of way, but I don't think it has much to do with the "big picture" of life. :(

Sarge said...

Kay has the right of it, I think.

The "interpretation" thing has really always been a total frost to me. They take the same words but can come up with wildly different views of what was meant.

In a nutshell, it seems that the message comes down to, "Listen to what we tell you Jesus said and what he meant when he said it...or else".

In the early days of the USA, the preachers would expound at length on points of scripture and their meanings for hours at length, quoting "The Commentators" and other supporting "authorities", and the more incomprehensable it was, the better the congregations seemed to like it, they would give each other knowing nods when contemplating and discussing these mysteries among themselves.

Here's a joke from during for sure, and possibly before the civil which illustrates misunderstanding and communication on "The Scriptures" on more than one level:

At the end of a church service (down south) a congregant thanks the minister for a fine sermon hands him a bag which has several potatos in it.
Preacher thanks the congregant, but asks, "why the potatos"?
Congregant says he indicated a need for them.
Preacher asks, "How? When"?
Congregant says that the past Sunday he was expounding on some scriptural point and paused, said, "The common 'taters don't agree with me, but..." so my husband and I thought you might like these Jersey Blues better.

And, so the "Good Word" is spread.

societyvs said...

I have to wonder about Malina's and Rohrbaugh's interpretation on this passage...even historically they could be off a tad. The passage itself does not seem to lean in their direction - by mere adjectives alone. Now we can the passage was changed (and maybe it was) - but how can Malina and Rohrbaugh claim anything about it then? Are they not just re-writing it again?

(a) the story is about the owner's possessions and his slaves (comparable to a hired hand these days). By nature we expect the slaves to work with what they were given - is that too big a leap?

(b) Would the peasants be happy the one slave did nothing? Even the master comes back and asks why he didn't just leave it in the bank (or whatever system they used then)? I find it hard to believe a farmer (or another slave for that matter) would see the benefit of 'doing nothing'.

(c) The point of the story (everyone is gonna hate this) is responsibility. The little the slave was entrusted went to the one that doubled the money of the owner. Does this neccesarily mean 'Capitalism' - no. The idea is not a political one. It's just about being responsible when entrusted with that favor.

One can say the parable is teaching responsibility - not greed. If one wants to point out the growth of one man's money at the hands of slaves - well - we do have the beginnings of American Capitalism right thurr. But ain't that reading back?

I just cannot see how, even with the wording used, how one could say the last slave (farmer) is to be glamorized...heck in the story he is even be-rated...which I am guessing a slave would despise.

Is it just me or do we have to say this whole story is pretty much changed to say something more Capitalistic in order for Malina's take on it to work?

OneSmallStep said...


**Once you get rid of the supernatural and that which doesn't agree with science and that which is contradicted by archaeology, there isn't much left.**

I don't know ... Thomas Jefferson seemed to make due. ;)

OneSmallStep said...


Love the joke.

OneSmallStep said...


What the book is saying is that essentially, the culture back then is so radically different from ours. And I think the point is that adjectives specifically calling this out in the story are unnecessary, since everyone understood the context back then.

Like the perceptions of good (and I'm blatantly quoting from the book here): our perception today is that goods are in unlimited supply. In ancient Palestine, the perception was opposite: all goods exist in finite, limited supply and are already distributed. This isn't just material goods, but things like honor, friendship, love, and everything in life. These goods cannot grow larger, so the only way you gain something is if someone else loses it.

That's why the rich back then are automatically defined to be either unjust, or the heir of an unjust person.

Then there's the fact that this system is honor-driver. To be "poor" is someone unable to maintain their inherited honor standing. People who are maimed, lame, blind and such as poor, regardless of how much land they own. A widow is considered a "poor widow" even if she has lots of money.

Back then, noblemen could avoid the appearance of a lack of honor by having slaves do the "dirty work," since slaves had no honor anyway.

**I just cannot see how, even with the wording used, how one could say the last slave (farmer) is to be glamorized...heck in the story he is even be-rated**

Berated by someone who is specifically called out to be greedy -- "he reaps where he did not sow, and gathers seed that he did not scatter." Yes, the master is praising the first two servants, and not the last one. But given his character, can we expect anything less?

Sarge said...

There are parallels in secular cautionary tale interpretations as well. Cross cultural and time stuff changes with the viewpoint of the culture which tells it, I think.

Take "Pandora's Box":

Curiosity gets the better of her, she opens the box in spite of admonitions not to, and unleashes a rain of razor blades on humanity...but wait! The gods were kind enough to also include hope, which will always be with us (warm fuzzies descend on us, a spot of serenity in a stormy sky)

I know a literature professor who is also a story teller who has researched these things and he tells me that the original is very different in its context on many levels.

First, she says it was a jar instead of a box, it was specifically given to a woman (considered to be a very perfifious creature by the originators of the tale) to ensure that something would go wrong and mankind could only blame itself, not the gods, and when it does, and woe is loosed on the world, hope (second), is indeed, always remaining.

This was the worst of the lot and a particularly fiendish touch, it wouldn't leave, and compelled men to fight against their fate, tangling the skeins of its web and causing problems for others whose threads were disrupted or cut short because of rebelling because of the influence of Hope.

(Hope...the guy who taught me to ride and train horses had a way of disposing of such concepts, 'Hope {or want, wish, need} in one hand, shit in the other, and see which one fills the fastest. Act, and do the best you can, boah!')

Not nearly so pretty in what I'm told is the original context, and as a speaker of foreign languages even in modern times translations and concepts are kind of iffy on occasion in a cross cultural level.

OneSmallStep said...


Thank you for the example. I was trying to think of one, but it was earlier in the morning, and I had to rush to work.

societyvs said...

"Berated by someone who is specifically called out to be greedy -- "he reaps where he did not sow, and gathers seed that he did not scatter." Yes, the master is praising the first two servants, and not the last one. But given his character, can we expect anything less?" (OSS)

I guess the cultures just may be that different - and a story like this can resonate on another level - one of the 'opposite' effect.

I remember reading about this same phenomenon from a book I read by a Jewish lady - concerning the people that went up to pray - a samaritan and a pharisee. She puts an 'opposite' twist on that story also - one that may not be known to the readers...which kind of stuck with me.

Point being, parables can say more than one thing - depending on who reads it - (and when I guess). In this parable - your point is the one I admire (but I love the poor also and the under-dog). But I can also see how another person can read it and see an idea for being responsible when entrusted.

Parables - some of my favorite reading in all honesty - they can say sooo much with sooo little.

Sarge said...

Understanding and context are most important. Any group has an "in" joke or story which makes very little sense to people not in the group. Or they put a meaning to it which may not have too much to do with the original narative.

Just a couple of months ago a band I direct was giving a program at a grade school, and a teacher was asking me about our rope tensioned drums.

I was explaining about the periodic pulling of the ropes to keep the strain right, and mentioned that we'd "tugged" (the word for doing this proceedure) them for about an hour and a half just the week before, and that it wasn't easy.

A little boy asked, "But, isn't it easier to just pick them up and carry them"? (We told him yes, on many levels, and explained about what we actually meant. In plain language he got it right away)

I've heard the same parable spun many different ways as long as I've been hearing them, and they all come from the same source. The difference is the interpreter.

mysteryofiniquity said...


WOW! I'd not read that anywhere before but it makes so much sense! Of course we should read any text in context, even the bible, which is supposed to be only interpreted via the Holy Spirit in fundie circles. That seems like an obvious statement, but it amazes me how little it is followed. Thanks for this!!

Reg said...

I make my living entertaining the British public, and it's clear that a lot of the most popular "special songs" which people have are those with the most ambiguous lyrics. More people get to take a shot at what it means, and the meaning they want to hear will come straight out of the song at them, while someone else will think it means something else..

The bible has been so randomly put together over time, and comprehensively edited subsequently by successive church councils keen to insert their own doctrinal spin, that we, or I at least, can no longer be sure how much of the text bears any resemblance to the original. Jesus may have given a detailed explanation of the conclusion his audience was supposed to draw from his parable of the talents, or he may have been content to let it stand as a story decrying rapacity in master and slaves, or as a story advocating the merits of using God-given abilities creatively, wisely, "responsibly".

It seems to me that the only problem exists for those who have some inner feeling that the bible is more than a random Judaeo-Christian scrap book. Like any article of faith, if you don't have that view, as I don't, it's difficult to understand why anyone else would, but that goes for many of my beliefs as well I'm sure.

I'm not dismissing the bible of course; far from it. Inspiration is all around us, not in a particular book, and there is much in the bible which inspires me. the advantage to my view of it is that I don't have to try to make sense of the rest of it. those who wrote it wrote it for all kinds of reasons, and they, as we, saw "through a glass darkly".

Once we let the "spirit" out of the institutional control of priests, we're all going to have our own ideas of what to pick and choose from a book like the bible, and what we make of it. If we know in our hearts that this feels like the spirit we understand as Divine, then who's to tell us we're wrong?

Our special songs may make us cry, even while others are dismissing them as sentimental rubbish. But, with many of those songs, if we're interested, we may be able to find out what the author thought it meant. Good luck with the bible.

OneSmallStep said...


**Point being, parables can say more than one thing - depending on who reads it - (and when I guess).**

But if we're reading something into the parable that was not the author's intent, can we still say the parable is true? Or doesn't the parable just come to mean whatever we want it to mean?

And we can say that it means whatever we want it to -- but then can we say that the parable offers any sort of guidelines? Guidelines themselves imply that there are unacceptable methods.

OneSmallStep said...


**Of course we should read any text in context, even the bible, which is supposed to be only interpreted via the Holy Spirit in fundie circles. **
And that's what makes me pause about the Holy Spirit claims -- if it does guide the believers the way fundamentalists claim ... shouldn't they reach the contextual interpretation without having to know about the historical context? Yet I don't think we would ever come across someone today who would read that parable the way the book states, without knowing something about the history of that time.

mysteryofiniquity said...


You wrote: "...shouldn't they reach the contextual interpretation without having to know the historical context?"

Yes, they should, which is the chief stumbling block I have with claiming the Holy Spirit as one's sole interpretive tool. Fundies also say that we have to interpret scripture with scripture, but that makes no sense, as Reg has noted in his comment, because the scriptures were assembled and redacted numerous times by writers throughout the centuries. Why didn't they know the context being closer in time to those same scriptures? Because perhaps they had an agenda about what they wanted the bible to support and not support.

We all do it. If we wish the bible to support peace and not war we pick out the "peace" passages and ignore the war passages. If we focus solely on sexual sin, we find all kinds of support for demonizing and even killing sexual sinners and ignore the "judge not" passages. This is why I gave up trying to make sense of it ages ago. If the Holy Spirit were there for bible interpretation, which I don't believe it is, then we would all come to the same conclusions. Since we don't, it's sure proof that either the concept is wrong or we should listen to ourselves and let the rest be sorted out in its own time.

Love your thoughtful posts, by the way. :-)

OneSmallStep said...


**Because perhaps they had an agenda about what they wanted the bible to support and not support. **

Yes. A person's approach to the Bible tells me boatloads more about who they are and their personality than it really does about God or Jesus.

Katie and Da Katz said...

Found your blog entry while working on a paper...

We should interpret scripture within its original context.

It only makes sense to interpret within original context. Maybe Law and Order SVU should be interpreted within the culture of living in NYC....

Although it is true that wise use of resources is commendable... which explains why this passage has been seen as a lesson in investing oneself (and used to the extreme by the Word of Faith Bless Me Movement), refusal to give in to greed and harsh rulers (taking away our freedom) is perhaps the better lesson, especially now.

OneSmallStep said...


The issue I see here is how "original context" is decided. For many -- and I group myself in this category -- the original context is based on the environment around the quote. What else is going on in the paragraph? The chapter?

The problem is that given the society and culture of that time is so different than ours, the original context has to include that historical knowledge as well. The only way to gain that would be through outside research.