Cognitive Bias on Biblical Interpretation

Introduction

Have you ever felt that there are logical issues in the text when you are reading Genesis? Commonly, any casual reader would pick up and have questions about the text. For instance: Why do we have light on day one, and sun, moon, and stars not until day four? How did Adam name all of the animals in only one day (day six)? Where does Cain get a wife? An who is he afraid will kill him? You might have all sorts of questions like this: Why does God need rest? Does God get tired? When we start trying to think about how the Bible makes sense and what it has to offer us, we will face this sort of logical issues. Then, how should we deal with these questions? Is the Bible wrong? Of course not. If there is nothing wrong with the Bible, that means there is something wrong on our side, which is the bias on biblical interpretation. The reason why there is bias is that the Bible was written thousands of years ago, but we read the Bible from our context, not the author’s context (Ancient Near East). 

Map Ancient Near East in the third millennium

Ancient Near East in the Third Millennium. Holman Bible Atlas

An Ancient Text

The Bible is written for us, but it is not written to us. The Bible had its own original audiences. When we read the Bible, we’re reading someone else’s mail. We’re not free to impose our own context, such as our own culture, our own questions, and our own issues, on the biblical text, and demand that it addresses our situation. The message (timeless biblical principles) transcends the culture and time, but the form is culture-bound. When we apply those timeless biblical principles to our own life and our current situation, that is biblical application. But when we read the Bible, we have to respect the historical sweep and context of the Bible. It’s addressed to an ancient culture, in an ancient language, and in ancient times. It is important to make sure that we are entering that world instead of dragging the text as if it were talking to our world and in our terms. 

Earth

This "Blue Earth" image is our earth. But the ancient world did not think in "Blue Earth" terms and would not understand a Blue Earth portrayal. In the ancient world, they are not conveying very much about the material makeup of the cosmos, or the material structure. They're really not interested in the material makeup of the cosmos. They're more interested in the question: Who's in charge? And so they have a picture that's filled with deity. 

Science in the Bible

When we read the Bible, we are more interested in the material makeup of the cosmos, and read the Bible from our own worldview. However, there is a principle that we need to recognize: there is no new scientific revelation in the Bible. Now when I say scientific here, what I mean is there are no upgraded explanations about how the, what we call, the natural world works - about its mechanisms, or processes, or normal ways of operation. When God talks about the world around them to the Israelites, He doesn't give them new, upgraded explanations. He doesn’t talk to them in ways that would change their mind about something, and He doesn’t use language or terms, or concepts that anybody in the ancient world would not have understood. 

When God talked about the circle of the earth in Isa 40:22, that’s not a word that means a globe. He’s not giving them new information about the shape of the earth. It’s a word for “disk.” Everyone in the ancient world believed that the earth was a disk. There’s nothing new there. In the ancient world people had no idea of the physiology of the brain. All the things that we associate to the physiology of the brain, they attached to things like the heart, and the kidney, and the liver, even the intestines. When they talk about believing, or loving, or thinking, they talk about it in terms of the heart, or the kidney, or the liver.

Any time that the Bible is talking about the natural world, it’s using ancient terms, ancient ideas, ancient concepts, instead of introducing modern ones or new ideas. Now, if the Bible is not a textbook—that is, its objective is not to teach science—and if the Bible is not revealing any new science information, then we have to ask a question: Is the Bible making any claims that pertain to the regular operations of the natural world? If it’s not revealing it and it’s not teaching it, and it uses their ways of thinking as the incidental framework for communication, then we should not think that the Bible is vesting its authority in claims about science, and that’s going to affect how we look at things like origins as well.

Communication

The Nature of Communication

There is a popular board game called Taboo. Each card contains a word that one person on the team has to get the other members of the team to say. The catch is that the card also lists five other words that may not be used in the attempt. Invariably, and by design, these five words are the ones that would most easily lead to the mystery word. Over years of experience, the results of games have demonstrated what anyone could predict with a little thought: The more shared experiences a team has, the more successful they will be. Thus, if the word were “key,” a husband/wife team might hit the word immediately by saying “what you misplaced this morning,” whereas people who don’t know each other so well might take longer to find the information that will lead to the right answer. This illustrates how important shared knowledge is to communication. Communication requires a common ground of understanding, both speaker and audience must do what they can to enter that common ground.

High and Low Context

There are different levels of communication, and biblical scholars called it “high context and low context.” What does these mean? High context means that the author and the audience share a lot of information. They share culture, they share language, they share experiences. They share a lot that will help their communication be easy and there’s a log of things that they don’t have to explain in order for communication to take place. That’s a high-context communication.

Low context is the other side of the spectrum where the author and audience share very little information between them and, therefore, a lot has to be explained. For instance high-context communication is what happens when teenagers text with their friends; and low context is when parents try to text with their teenagers. High context is communication between insiders, and they don’t have to explain a lot of things. Low context is communication that tries to reach out to outsiders. That is the difference between them. This is important for biblical interpretation.

I have to understand that we are outsiders of the biblical communication, and if we want to fully understand what the bible author was talking about, we have to penetrate the insider communication. When we try to understand the biblical communication, we can’t assume that they’re telling us everything that we need to know, because they’re not talking to us. They’re talking to their insider audience in a high-context situation. We have to do what we can to move into that context and move into that audience. Successful interpreters must try to understand the cultural background of the ancient Near East just as successful missionaries must learn the culture, language, and worldview of the people they are trying to reach.

Map the table of nations in Genesis 10

The Table of Nations in Genesis 10, Holman Bible Atlas

 

Consider the following example from Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck as adapted by R. Simkins:

At one time a man had a large flock of sheep and goats, but eventually most of them died in different ways. Which response to this situation do you prefer?

  1. You just can’t blame a man when things like this happen. There are just so many things that can and do happen, and a man can do almost nothing to prevent such losses when they come. We all have to learn to take the bad with the good.
  2. The sheep and goats died because the man had not lived his life right—had not done things in the right way to keep harmony between himself and the forces of nature (i.e., the ways of nature like the rain, winds, snow, etc.).
  3. It was probably the man’s own fault that he lost so much of his flock. He probably did not use his head to prevent the losses. It is usually the case that people who keep up on new ways of doing things, and really set themselves to it, almost always find a way to keep out of such trouble.1

In the ancient world, people would have answered in accordance with one of the first two categories. The dominant way of thinking in the modern Western world is represented in option C. This contemporary Western value orientation results in a worldview characterized by the following assumptions:

  1. People are fundamentally different from all other creatures on earth, over which they have dominion.
  2. People are masters of their destiny; they can choose their goals and learn to do whatever is necessary to achieve them.
  3. The world is vast, and thus provides unlimited opportunities for humans.
  4. The history of humanity is one of progress; for every problem there is a solution, and thus progress need never cease.2

Map modern states and the Ancient Near East

Modern States and the Ancient Near East, Holman Bible Atlas

 

We are living in the 21 century and we have our own worldview. We need to set aside in part or in whole when reading Old Testament, because they were not part of Israel’s worldview.

The Bible was produced by a high context society for high context readers. It assumes a rich culture that the biblical writers felt no need to describe. It is not surprising, then, that the Bible lacks any explicit articulation of the Israelites’ worldview and values toward the natural world. Their worldview and values were simply assumed by all members of the society; they formed the presupposition of the biblical writers rather than the subject of their discourse. Consequently, we cannot expect to discover their worldview and values from a low context reading of the biblical texts.

If we hope to glean their unexpressed worldview and values from the biblical texts, then we must become acquainted with the ancient Israelite culture that is assumed by the texts. In other words, we must read the Bible from the high context perspective in which it was written.3

Two individuals, wearing Christian apparel

High-End Christian Apparel, an ad from SACRIZE Christian Apparel. SACRIZE offers a wide variety of t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies for both men and women.

 

Authority

Next, we will talk about the authority of the Bible. What is the authority of the Bible?

Authoritative words are words that impose obligations on the lives of their readers and hearers. To say that the Bible is authoritative is to say that it governs all areas of human life.4

We understand that God has revealed Himself through the Bible and that revelation has taken place in a particular way. God could have done it any number of different ways. For instance, God could have revealed Himself into each one of our minds. I think we all will like that if God chose that way to reveal himself, because it will make much easier for us. But God didn’t do it that way. Instead, God chose to reveal himself through a particular group of communicators, we call them authors, in a particular culture, in a particular language, in a particular time. That’s what we have to work with because that’s God’s choice. Now in doing that, we learn that God’s purpose is then going to be carried out through that human author’s purpose. That’s the way God set it up. That means that if we want to get to God’s purpose, we have to get there through the human author. We have to understand what the author was saying, what the author meant, what the author intended because God chose to communicate through that author.

Authority is Vested in the Human Author

 

Now some people might say: “Well, maybe God has more purpose, more message than what He communicated to that author.” Maybe He does, but the question would be if He did, how do we get to it? The fact is, we wouldn’t have any authority in that kind of observation about other purposes that we might think that he had. We’re looking for what the Bible has as its authoritative claims. Authority has been vested in the author, and the author then is our access to that authority.

The intelligible nature of divine revelation—the presupposition that God’s will is made known in the form of valid truths—is the central presupposition of the authority of the Bible.

For evangelical orthodoxy, if God’s revelational disclosure to chosen prophets and apostles is to be considered meaningful and true, it must be given not merely in isolated concepts capable of diverse meanings but in sentences or propositions. A proposition—that is, a subject, predicate, and connecting verb (or “copula”)—constitutes the minimal logical unit of intelligible communication. The OT prophetic formula “thus saith the Lord” characteristically introduced propositionally disclosed truth. Jesus Christ employed the distinctive formula “But I say unto you” to introduce logically formed sentences which he represented as the veritable word or doctrine of God.

The Bible is authoritative because it is divinely authorized; in its own terms, “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tm 3:16 niv). According to this passage, the whole OT (or any element of it) is divinely inspired. Extension of the same claim to the NT is not expressly stated, though it is more than merely implied. The NT contains indications that its content was to be viewed, and was in fact viewed, as no less authoritative than the OT. The apostle Paul’s writings are catalogued with “other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:15, 16). Under the heading of Scripture, 1 Timothy 5:18 cites Luke 10:7 alongside Deuteronomy 25:4 (cf. 1 Cor 9:9). The Book of Revelation, moreover, claims divine origin (1:1–3) and employs the term “prophecy” in the OT meaning (22:9, 10, 18). The apostles did not distinguish their spoken and written teaching but expressly declared their inspired proclamation to be the Word of God (1 Cor 4:1; 2 Cor 5:20; 1 Thes 2:13).5

The four-line Akkadian inscription above the double line on this unusual tablet appears to be a hymn  J. Maxwell Miller, “Syria: Land of Civilizations,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64, no. 1–4 (2001): 127.

The four-line Akkadian inscription above the double line on this unusual tablet appears to be a hymn, and the six-line text below has been interpreted as a musical staff, making it the oldest known of its kind. From Ugarit, 1400 BCE. Photo by Georg Gerster. Courtesy of the National Museum, Damascus. 

Conclusion

It is easy for us to think that the Bible differs from other literature in being automatically comprehensible, or that our good intentions and love of God will overcome our need to study in order to appreciate the quality of the ideas He has put into writing for us. This is the bias that most Christians might have. Unfortunately, it causes problems for us when we read the Bible, such as those logical issues, we mentioned at the beginning. Reading the Bible from its own context will help us understand what the Bible is talking about and what genuine messages God wants to tell us. It will not just help your Christian faith, but also help people around you to have a logical understanding of the Bible and Christianity.

 

In future blogs, we will solve those logical issues that occurred in Genesis through the Ancient Near Eastern context. 

 

 

1. R. A. Simkins, Creator and Creation (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 35–36, based on F. R. Kluckhohn and F. L. Strodtbeck, Variations in Value Orientations (Evanston, Ill.: Row, Peterson, 1961; reprt. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1973), 81–89.

2. W. R. Catton and R. E. Dunlap, “A New Ecological Paradigm for Post-Exuberant Sociology,” American Behavioral Scientist 24 (1980): 15–47; cited in Simkins, Creator and Creation, 38.

3. Ibid., 42

4. John Frame, “The Bible’s Authority,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

5. Carl F.H. Henry, “Bible, Authority of The,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 298.

1 comment

“that was so much knowledge to take in” What gives a human superior power? Creation, Making a Sun to shine at different times over different atmosphere? The bible was written by inspired humans. Where did they inspiration come from? How can one be inspired ? Who is this God of the bible that made so many humans have so many different faiths.,,He is and was and is to come we have believe that is more to this science that something so Powerful just can not happen…its a mystery that we never fully understand no matter how smart we think we are….keep your head up….we in this world together

kathleen July 03, 2020

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