Is the Bible Esoteric?

Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986) viii-ix.

I finished Copleston a few days ago, so now I’m proceeding to another philosophy book, one on the ancient allegorizers of Homer. Homer was like the Bible in antiquity, but he was problematic because he portrayed the gods in a less-than-flattering matter. As a result, interpreters sought a deeper meaning in the Homeric texts, one that was more respectful of the gods.

Lamberton says that “We know relatively little of methods of interpreting literary texts in antiquity.” He then quotes G.M.A. Grube, who “expresses the traditional view of the matter:”

Much is absent from ancient criticism which we should expect to find there. The ancients seem to have felt that great writers were quite capable of expressing their meaning clearly to their audiences, directly, without intermediaries. There is very little in the ancient critics of the ancient period about purpose or meaning, about imagery, symbolism, levels of meaning–these and other aspects of poetry which are not easily subjected to intellectual analysis are nearly completely ignored.

Lamberton disagrees, for he believes that Plato, the sophists, and a Macedonian papyrus demonstrate that allegorical interpretation of Homer existed “as early as the middle of the fourth century [B.C.E.].” 

My purpose in this post is not to evaluate the truth of Grube’s statement, however. Rather, I find his statement interesting in that it presents a particular approach to texts: that one can read and understand them without intermediaries, teachers who can tell you “what the text really means” through literary (or other kinds of) analysis.

This somewhat relates to the whole discussion in the biblio-blogosphere about “Who is qualified to interpret the Bible?” Jim West answered “biblical scholars only,” whereas others contended that religious communities and non-scholars should also have their say.

On my Christian dating site, there are people who think that they don’t need to know Hebrew and Greek to understand the Bible. After all, God’s word is for everyone, not just scholars of ancient languages, right? And then there are some who claim that the only teacher they need is the Holy Spirit. For them, anyone can understand God’s word, without formal or informal training (in languages, history, scholarship, etc.).

I know two families who have had a running debate on this issue. One of them does not attend church. They’ve had their fill of Armstrongism, and they don’t feel they need some self-righteous minister to teach them what the Bible means. They like I John 2:27: “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him” (NRSV).

The second family disagrees, for they believe that God gave us people to guide us on what the Bible means. They like Acts 8:30-31, where the Ethiopian eunuch says he needs some man to help him comprehend Isaiah.

I think that, on some level, a person can understand the text without knowledge of history, archaeology, and the biblical languages. They can learn how to love God and their neighbor, plus they can follow the flow of the stories. Some may argue, “Yeah, but maybe the common person will interpret certain passages literally when they’re a figure of speech, like ‘If your right hand offends you, cut it off,’ or ‘Whoever ploughs and turns back isn’t fit for the kingdom of God.'” The Catholic church used this argument against translating the Bible into the popular vernaculars.

But I don’t think this is an important concern, since people can filter the Bible through their own common sense. They use figurative language themselves, so why wouldn’t they be able to identify the Bible’s figurative language?

I suppose there are religious crazies out there who abuse the Bible, though they’re not fresh in my mind right now. And I’ve seen people come up with off-the-wall interpretations, which are refuted by a look at the Hebrew or the Greek.

There are some passages that I’d like to know the historical context for. For example, Jesus’ ban on lust. Did Jesus’ seriously mean that we shouldn’t have sexual desire? Some argue that Jesus didn’t mean that, and they appeal to ancient sources to support their point. But my problem is this: Did we have to wait for those ancient sources to be discovered for us to understand what Jesus meant? What about those who read the Bible before those sources were discovered? Were they barred from God’s communication?

I guess my question is this: Is the Bible esoteric or exoteric (or whatever the opposite of “esoteric” is)?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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