How Do We Read This Thing? Authority and Interpretation of the Gospels



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How Do We Read This Thing? Authority and Interpretation of the Gospels
[Note: The two main documents we are using in this course can be found at the following URLs, (1) Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation --> http://www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/scripture-use.pdf , (2) Overview and handouts from Clint and Jon --> http://projectbraintrust.com/cogburn/sundayschool/hdwrttall.doc ]
The goal of the class is to wrestle with two questions inherent in any study of Scripture: ‘How do we interpret the text?’; and ‘What kind of authority does the text hold for us?’ The two questions are intertwined, with answers to one part having implications for the answers to the other. The class will explore these questions with specific emphasis on the Gospels. Among the issues to be discussed are: the meaning of authority, different views of the authority text, different methods of interpreting the text, how those interpretive methods are in dialogue with our understanding of authority, and the role of subjectivity in interpretation.
Week 1(8/30): Introduction: How do class members currently understand the authority of Scripture and what are the important factors in interpretation in their minds? Introduce the two main themes and discuss how the two are interrelated. Introduce PC(USA) resources on authority and interpretation as dialogue pieces for the rest of the class.
[Handout 1. (pp. 4-6) I. Survey: “Clarifying How you view the Bible,” II. Relevant Information: brief version of PC (USA) guidelines for interpretation, III. Discussion Questions. Discussion led by Mitchell.]

Week 2 (9/6): Issues with Authority. What does it mean for a text (any text) to be authoritative? In what ways is the Bible authoritative? Are all parts of the Bible equally authoritative?

[Handout 2. (pp. 7-9)I. Survey: Examples of authority, II. Relevant Information: Some philosophical distinctions, a fallacy to watch out for. III. Shared meditations on Authority, the Word, and words. Discussion led by Cogburn.]
Week 3 (9/13): Getting to the Text. How do we go from ancient, handwritten (and sometimes conflicting) manuscripts of the Gospels to the version we find in our Bibles today? Session will discuss issues of translation, sources, textual variance, establishing the text, and the relative the way these issues relate to the authority of the text.
[Handout 3 (pp. 10-12) Disucssion led by Mitchell w/ Powerpoint.]
Week 4 (9/20): The Gospels as History, Pt. 1: How does the historical context in which the Gospels were written impact our interpretation of the texts? Will include issues of authorship, original audience, dating the text and discussion of the social/cultural world in which the texts were written.
[Handout 4.1. (pp. 13-16) Social and Intellectual Context of Early Christianity. Discussion led by Cogburn.
Introduction to The Synoptic Problem. Discussion led by Mitchell.]
Week 5 (9/27): The Gospels as History, Pt. 2: How are the Gospels historical texts depicting the life of Jesus? Issues include the author as editor, sources, redaction (evolution of stories through different editors), oral/written transmission of stories.

[Handout 5. (pp. 17-32) Q (Handout by Mitchel and Cogburn). Discussion led by Mitchell.]

Week 6 (10/4): The Gospels as Literature, Pt. 1: How is each Gospel a literary work to itself? Topics include the author as creative theologian, specific stories being told by each Gospel, using literary techniques to understand particular texts within the context of specific Gospels. (Cogburn will be out of town).
10/11, 10/18, 10/25: Presentation and discussion from Interfaith Federation of Baton Rouge.
11/1: No Sunday School
Week 7 (11/8): The Gospels as Literature, Pt. 2: How are the Gospels composed as literary texts? Examine different literary forms and techniques used in the Gospels and how these form the text.
[Handout 7. (pp. 33-36) Form criticism. Discussion led by Cogburn.]
Week 8 (11/15): Authority re-revisited and the rule of love.
[Handout 8. (pp. 37-44) Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma and Scriptural Ethics. Discussion led by Cogburn.]
Week 9 (11/22): Ideology and Interpretation: How do different ideological commitments (Reformed, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Feminist, Liberationist) shape the way that interpreters understand the text? How has the history of interpretation been shaped by unspoken assumptions? Discuss the extents to which interpretation is objective/subjective.
[Handout 9 (pp. 45-49) The History of Biblical Interpretation. Discussion led by Mitchell.]

Week 10 (11/29): Social Location and Interpretation: How does our and my social location influence our interpretation of the text and our understanding of its authority? Do we inevitably pick and choose based on our own preferences? Can we abstract from our own interested position? How does the text challenge and inform us? Is it possible to come to the text with new eyes?

[Handout 10.(pp. 49-53) Social Location, Interpretation, and Authority: The Possibility of Impartiality.]
12/6: No Sunday School
Week 11 (12/13): Authority Revisited. In light of other discussions in the class, revisit initial notions of authority.
[No Handout: Focus on Section IIB from Biblical Authority and Interpretation, link above, especially three views.]
Week 12 (12/20): Principles of Interpretation revisited
[Handout 12: Focus on Sections III and IV from Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture, link above.]

How Do We Read This Thing: Authority and Interpretation of the Gospels

Week 1 (8/30): Introduction
[Note: The two main documents we are using in this course can be found at the following URLs, (1) Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation --> http://www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/scripture-use.pdf , (2) Overview and handouts from Clint and Jon --> http://projectbraintrust.com/cogburn/sundayschool/hdwrttall.doc ]
I. Survey (from Opening Doors to Discipleship). Circle an answer for each of the following.
1. The Bible is the most treasured book of all.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree

2. The Bible is a human book filled with contradictions and errors.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree

3. We should be able to add more books to the Bible.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


4. It is important to understand the historical context of any text before we apply it to today.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


5. The answer to every question and problem can be found in the Bible.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


6. We cannot understand the New Testament without understanding the Old Testament.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


7. The Bible is too complicated.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


8. The Bible is better understood as a library of sacred books.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


9. It is important to read through the entire Bible at least once a year.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


10. The church should have the final word on how a text should be understood.

(a) strongly agree, (b) somewhat agree, (c) neutral, (d) somewhat disagree, (e) strongly disagree


II. Relevant Information: Some of the most central Presbyterian guidelines for interpretation are summed up beautifully in Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers, Geneva Press, 2003, pp.17-18. (We will return to these in light of Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture; I’ve put the relevant section of that document in brackets after each of these.)
  1. Recognize that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the center of Scripture. Luther called the Bible “the cradle in which Christ lies.” The Old Testament anticipates Christ; the New Testament witnesses to his coming as God’s Messiah who has redeemed his people. Jesus Christ is the central focus of the biblical story. [IVC]


  2. Focus on the plain text of Scripture. Some biblical texts are clearly symbolic; many others are best understood when we know the particular settings and customs of the time. We need to know as much as we can about the biblical languages and the social and cultural contexts of the biblical writings to interpret them well and take the Bible seriously. [IIIC]

  3. Depend on the Holy Spirit’s guidance for interpreting and applying God’s message. The Holy Spirit enables us to see and hear things in the biblical texts that may have been hidden to us before. God’s Word and God’s Spirit always go together. Prayer for the Spirit’s illumination is always important for biblical interpretation and for applying the Bible’s word. [IVH]

  4. Be guided by the church’s doctrinal consensus or “rule of faith.” The church has interpreted the Bible through the centuries. We should always pay attention to what the church has heard the Spirit saying in the Scripture, and recognize as significant the creeds and confessions of the ancient church as well as of other Reformed churches when we interpret. [IVF]

  5. Let all interpretations be in accord with the “rule of love.” Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbor. Later theologians spoke of the “rule of love” as being a guide for us. Our biblical interpretation should not lead us towards views or actions that are destructive of or harmful to others, since we are clearly commanded to love them. [IVE]

  6. Remember that biblical interpretation requires earnest study. No amount of prayer or piety is a substitute for using the best resources available to us for helping with biblical interpretation. Today we have many such aids, a large number written for those with no specific theological training. These should be appropriated and well used. [IIIABC]
  7. Seek to interpret a particular biblical passage in light of all of the Bible. Biblical interpretation should move from “the whole to the part.” The big, overarching messages of Scripture should help us understand particular biblical passages. They should also stand as guides to warn us if our individual interpretations are moving in directions contrary to the larger, clearer biblical themes. [IVD]


III. Discussion
Can you think of examples of people misunderstanding the Gospels by failure to interpret according to the above lights?
As contemporary Presbyterians we are strongly encouraged [IIIABC] to avail ourselves of all relevant historical scholarship. But historians are entirely interested in questions such as recovering what early Christian communities were like, what the authors of the texts intended in that context, what we can learn about the history of the composition of the texts and related material. The methodology they use to do this has to bracket the issue of whether the religion is true (though some of the evidence for dating involves presupposing that miracles did not happen) and not follow the above rules. Is there a problem with us granting authority to people who by the Presbyterian view are systematically misinterpreting our holy texts (for examples, since as historians they do not follow the rule of love)? If so, how do we negotiate this as followers of Christ? One way to reconcile this is to think clearly about what holy books are supposed to do. The historian qua historian is doing something different with the text than that same historian qua Christian. But what she does qua historian is one of the constraints upon how she reads the text qua Christian.

How Do We Read This Thing? Authority and Interpretation of the Gospels

Week 2 (9/6): Authority

[Note: The two main documents we are using in this course can be found at the following URLs, (1) Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation --> http://www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/scripture-use.pdf , (2) Overview and handouts from Clint and Jon --> http://projectbraintrust.com/cogburn/sundayschool/hdwrttall.doc ]

I. Survey
(1) Give examples of the following kinds of things that have authority: (a) person, (b) institution, (c) text.

(2) Give examples of things that have the following kinds of authority: (a) technical, (b) legal, (c) moral, (d) spiritual.

(3) Some examples of rejecting authority: (a) In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan’s wickedness is represented as founded in rebellion against God’s authority. (b) In the movie “The Wild Ones,” when he’s asked what he’s rebelling against, Marlon Brando’s character responds “What have you got?” (c) Christianity itself seems to be to some extent a rejection of central aspects of the world’s authority. In your mind, when does it make sense to reject authority and when does it make sense to embrace it?

II. Relevant Information


Philosophers often understand human beings primarily in terms of experiential input, mental processing, and behavioral output. The mental processing involves beliefs, desires, and reasoning. All of these aspects are subject to authority. An watched television show, for example, can change all of these: (a) perceptions, (b) beliefs, (c) desires, (d) patterns of reasoning, and (e) actions. When something has authority it has the power to cause these changes. Consider how television news warps people’s perceptions of the kinds of dangers the modern world presents us with, e.g. the likelihood of being the victim of a crime or terrorism versus being the victim of an aggressive driver.
Note that authority over a person can be to some extent explicit. This is when a person recognizes the thing guides their perceptions, beliefs, desires, patterns of reasoning, or actions. But much more common is when authority is implicit, when we have dim to no awareness of what (and how) institutions shape our thoughts and behavior and perhaps would not rationally endorse the shaping if we were fully aware.

Explicit authority can be endorsed or rejected. When we endorse it we regard it as true or rational. When we regard an authority as true we usually take it to affect us in the following ways.

Perception- being caused to have more accurate perceptions.

Belief- being caused to have more true, less false, and more relevant beliefs.

Desires- being caused to have desires that lead to greater flourishing.

Patterns of Reasoning- being caused to reason in ways that make one’s beliefs and desires better (in the sense stated above), and one’s actions more rational expression of one’s beliefs and desires.

Actions- being caused to act in ways that promote flourishing.
Of course, this all depends on what counts as accuracy, truth, and human flourishing! Charles Manson thought (his interpretation of) the Beatles’ “white album” was an important true authority and his followers thought he was truly authoritative.
So enlightenment first seeks to render authority explicit, and then to genuinely distinguish true from false authority.
At the heart of Christianity is the distinction between the false authority of the world and the true authority of the Word. We pray for grace so that we can submit ourselves to the true authority of the Word. In this class we’re trying to make more sense of the relationship between the Word (Jesus) and the words (Gospels) attesting to His incarnation.

We should always consider the scope of an authoritative object or person. For example, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property cases will be authoritative about intellectual property law, but far less authoritative in other areas of law, and usually even less about other areas such as medicine. As Presbyterians we take the Bible to be “the rule of faith and life” which delimits the scope of its authority. We don’t take the Bible to override our best natural science. We don’t take the Bible to be the only way God is revealed to us. In interpreting the Bible, we do take into account the research of historians and social scientists; we do follow the rule of love. All of these things have authority outside of the printed words in the text.

Finally, the fact that the Bible supposedly says that it is authoritative (e.g. “Proverbs 30:5-6: "Every word of God is flawless", etc.) is no evidence that the Bible is authoritative. In addition to equating the Word with actual words in a text (and the fact that “The Bible” didn’t exist when the books with these passages were written), appeal to such passages to give authority to the Bible involves committing the logical fallacy called “begging the question.” If somebody or something says they are telling the truth, this is no evidence on its own that they are, for they could be mistaken about their own accuracy. [For a nice overview about what the Bible is taken to say about its own inerrancy, see http://www.religioustolerance.org/inerran3.htm ].
III. Things to Discuss
(1) What is the scope of the Gospels’ authority? (2) How and to what extent do they improve perception, belief, desires, reasoning, and actions within this scope? (3) What is the scope of Jesus’ authority? (4) How and to what extent does He improve perception, belief, desires, reasoning, and actions within this scope? (5) What is the relation between the authority of the word (biblical texts) and the authority of the Word (Jesus)? (6) If the Gospels do include contradictions and (non-miraculous) statements that are historically implausible, how does this affect our answers to (1)-(5)?

How Do We Read This Thing: Authority and Interpretation of the Gospels

Week 3 (9/13): Getting to the Text.

Slide 1: Introduction (photo: Gutenberg Bible)

The class session will discuss how we go from the life of Jesus and the early Christian community to the writings that appear in English versions of the Bible. Event—Oral Tradition—Written Tradition—Collected into Books—Books into canon—Canon translated to English

Slide 2: Overview

Describe the general flow of the class.


Slide 3: From Stories to Books

There are no known writings by Jesus or that were written while the events of his life actually occurred. The earliest extant accounts of Jesus life are from approximately 40 years after his life. By contrast, the apostle Paul wrote letters to churches, which give us detail and insight into his biography and character. The stories of Jesus were told by his disciples and passed down for many years. Since the early church believe that Jesus’ return was immanent, there was no pressing need have written biographies of Jesus. As time passed, the need for such written accounts became necessary as the original witness died and as the Christian community grew. Some of these early written texts focused on Jesus teachings, some on the story of his life. These accounts, both written and oral, were then collected by the Gospel writers. One of the Gospels tells us this, Luke 1:1-4: Since many have undertaken to set down and orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

Slide 4: Sources

The primary sources for the New Testament are hand copied manuscripts. Texts are divided into three types: Papyri, Uncials and Minuscules. The earliest sources are fragments of papyrus scrolls or codexes from as early as the 2nd century. Papyrus degrades significantly over time, so no complete papyri exist. The earliest complete editions are parchment codexes from the 4th century. The New Testament is the most frequently preserved ancient text, with more than 5800 Greek texts (fragments or complete), over 10,000 in Latin and 9,300 in other languages. Another important set of sources often cited are writings of early church leaders who quoted (often without attribution) the NT writings. For instance, Justin Martyr writing in the early second century.

Slide 5: Pictures

(1) P52, papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, specifically John 18:31-33 and 37-38. 3.5”x2.5” Oldest known portion of the New Testament, ca 125-160, “... a King I am. I for this have been born and (for this) I have come into the world so that I should testify to the truth. Everyone being of the truth hears my voice. Says to him Pilate, "What is truth?" and this saying, again he went out to the Jews and says to them, "I nothing find in him a case." 2) P45, papyrus fragment, ca 250 contains portions of Matthew, Luke, John and Acts.


Slide 6: Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus

Earliest complete copies of the New Testament, ca 350. These are among the best and earliest complete texts. The standard Greek texts of the New Testament rely significantly on these texts unless earlier papyri fragments indicate otherwise.


Slide 7: Problems with Ancient sources.

The ancient sources do not agree entirely, with each text having its own peculiar variations. Usually, these variations are in the form of scribal errors. Imagine working by candlelight, copying line after line of text. Errors are bound to be made. Some variations are related to additions to the text that add descriptive words or phrases, but do not change the meaning or thrust of the text to a large degree. Sometimes, more significant variations appear.

Slide 8: Determining the Text

There are two types of evidence that scholars use when trying to determine the text, internal and external. External evidence looks at the number and quality of manuscripts that support a particular variation. The common heritage of manuscripts is taken into account, since manuscripts from similar locations, possibly relying on similar source material, often share many variations. Linguistic roots also play a part here. Internal evidence looks at the linguistic structure, vocabulary, writing style, and context to understand what might be a more reliable variation. Both types of evidence are taken into account when making decisions.


Slide 9: Case Study

Mark 16 Look as a class at Mk 16 (time permitting). This text highlights the problem involved in determining the text as well as how evidence is used to make determinations. The external evidence strongly suggests that v. 9-20 are not original, but were added sometime in the late second century. The two portions of v. 8 directly contradict one another, one saying that the women told no one, the other that they did as they were told. Many scholars are led to believe that the Gospel originally ended with “for they were afraid”, but there is no external evidence for this conclusion. Even excluding 8b, it is unclear if the intention of the author was for the Gospel to end at this point. Some theorize that the original ending is lost or perhaps even that the author died before completing it.



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