A scholar has warned of the dangers of the “nonsensical” literalist interpretation of the Bible.

– “Every translation, every reading is already an interpretation”

Mainz biblical studies expert Thomas Hieke came out on Deutschlandfunk radio last week against the misuse of scriptural texts, and insisted against those who distort them to fit their own ends that the contexts of verses from the Old and New Testaments must always be taken account in their interpretation.

“Like every human word, the Bible cannot be understood without interpretation, without explanation. Every translation is already an explanation. Every reading, every reading aloud is already an interpretation”, Hieke explained.

The expert further cautioned that “it is also nonsensical to say: I take the Bible literally, because that would also be an interpretation and on top of that, an inappropriate one”.

– For an interpretation to be authentic, it must be life-giving

How, then, are we to read the Bible, according to the expert, if we can’t just pick up the sacred texts and take them at face value?

In the first place, Hieke said it is important to remember that the Bible is above all a “treasury of the life experiences of people, and this treasury, these life experiences, have crystallised into literature”.

Readers of the Bible can therefore benefit in their own lives from the life and God experiences contained within, but only if they make living the “good life” – in the philosophical and theological meaning of that term – the goal of their reading, the expert highlighted.

“If an interpretation of the Bible no longer empowers people to live, but instead scares, then I believe the interpretation is wrong”, Hieke argued.

On top of that danger of finding not life but death in the sacred pages, the biblical scholar also cautioned against people and interests “who make a text their own, but then ultimately take possession of the text and no longer interpret [it] but instead use it and then possibly abuse it”.

Christians and others like to criticise Muslims, for example, for precisely that kind of instrumentalist reading of the Koran, “but it also happens with the Bible”, Hieke lamented.

– Two pillars for faithful Bible reading: context and community

Against those oppressive and instrumentalist readings of the Bible, Hieke explained that authentic biblical interpretation rests on two pillars: context and community.

The Bible reader must always be aware of the social and cultural background of the authors of the biblical text – and also of the place of that text within the rest of the book and canon – but also of the place and time in which he or she is opening up the sacred pages, Hieke explained.

That situation of the reader of the Bible is known in biblical hermeneutics as the “interpretative community”, and actually, “there are a lot of them”, the scholar explained.

The interpretative community is not just the Roman Catholic Church, but “it is actually every parish, every Bible study group or, when I am sitting with my students in a seminar, we are also an interpreting community”, Hieke insisted.

– What does the Church teach about biblical literalism?

Though many Catholics and other Christians still engage in literalist interpretations of the Bible, the Church teaches that the practice is not legitimate.

In the words of the Catechism (109): “In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man [sic] in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words”.

And in order to discover the intentions of the authors of the Bible, the Church counsels the biblical reader to “take into account the conditions of [the authors’] time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current”.

Quoting, finally, from Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism teaches: “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing [in the Bible], in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.