Extracting Meaning from the Bible

Abraham Lincoln once said, “take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.” Of course, he was referring to the Bible. The Bible, an infinite well of wisdom, culture, history, and more importantly, praise, praise for the Lord. St. Augustine said this, “The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.” But there’s a twist with same letters. The Bible is one of the hardest books, if we can even call it a book, to understand. But there’s the catch. The Bible is not one book.

The word Bible comes from the following (taken from etymonline.) from Medieval and Late Latin biblia “the Bible” (neuter plural interpreted as feminine singular), from phrase biblia sacra “holy books,” a translation of Greek ta biblia to hagia “the holy books.” Books being the key word.

This is why we can’t take everything in the Bible literally, or symbolically. Different books must be read with different lenses, to put it one way. And this is vital for both believers and non-believers alike to be able to read these books for what they are worth, and not just take them at face-value. So, in this short piece, two different perspectives of Biblical interpretation will be addressed. Perspectives for the way in which we can read and draw further meaning from this text.

Firstly, is the historical critical method. Perhaps the more skeptical of the two, looking at matters from a purely historical perspective, and even then, quite critically. It deals with finding out what actually happened, the historical events of the text and time, whether they be big or small. In addition to this, the origins of the text are also scrutinized. Who wrote it? When was it written? Where was it written? And perhaps more importantly, are there other texts like this, written similarly and detailing the same events? Bishop Robert Barron comments on the method, “I would say that historical criticism seeks primarily to discover the intentions of the human authors of the Bible as they addressed their original audiences.”

Regardless of this method stripping down the teachings and Word of God, it would be foolish to disregard it. When used by faithful and responsible scholars, this method has provided a very valuable insight. For the Bible is, in truth, grounded in the rich soil of history and the vibrant Middle-Eastern culture. For the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are not of mythological descent. They are a relation of the history of the people, and the story of God’s influence, his hand, perhaps, in that same history. But that is the one problem that returns. To quote Bishop Robert Barron again, “it concentrates so exclusively on the intention of the human author, can easily overlook the intention and activity of the divine author of Scripture.” The Bible is Sacred Scripture, and although is written by human authors, it is vital to remember one thing. Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

And once again, I’d like to reinstate the fact that in no way should this method be dismissed. Because the Bible has been written within ancient cultures and contexts which we moderns find hard to grasp. Therefore more accurate meaning is found when we can better understand the world of the text; how did that culture conceptualize the world, God, human purpose, etc. This shouldn’t make the text harder to understand, on the contrary, it should help us gain a fuller and deeper sense of the authority and meaning of the text.

Moving on to the narrative analysis method, narrative eisgesis is a method of comprehending and communicating which focuses more on the form of narration and personal testimony; a fundamental convention of literary communication. Felix Just says “while the historical-critical method considers the text as a “window,” narrative analysis insists that the text also functions as a “mirror” which exercises an influence upon readers’ perceptions in such a way as to bring them to adopt certain values rather than others.” This method is probably the more popular one, seeing as it extracts moral meanings from the texts. Which I believe is the reason why it should be used in alternation with the historical critical analysis to be able to provide context to the morals being displayed.

Just like the famous works of Tolkien and Lewis, these same Biblical texts act as imaginative apologetics – evangelizing and spreading the word of God through literary techniques, whether they be fiction or not. Anecdotes, allegories, analogies, and the countless language features – sensory language, repetition, eloquence, and synecdoches. Although it may not seem like it, the Bible is still wholly applicable in the modern day. Just like Homer’s great poems, these texts detail the building blocks of human nature and civilization, virtues, values, and laws.

The latter paragraphs make it evident that both methods are applicable, and that both should be used in alternation to gather the most meaning and information while reading the Bible. So, to give an example, I will now be superficially applying both methods of interpretation to the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible.

Historical critical analysis method:

In the year 95 A.D, or thereabouts, a wise man received a vision. John. He went on to write that vision down. The writing is known as Revelation, or the Revelation of John, and the name comes from the very first word of the text (written in Greek): apokalypsis, which directly means revelation or unveiling.

Author: John was a Christian leader of Jewish origin who was in exile on the Roman prison island of Patmos. Irenaeus says John the apostle (Mark 3:14-19) was the author of both Revelation and the Gospel of John, but that is not certain. Regardless if he was the author, or if it was John the Elder, a lesser known Christian figure, both are and were respected, and the text can be viewed as true or reliable to what they actually saw.

Time: There is two main dates believed when Revelation was written. It is believed that it was written either during the reign of Emperor Nero or Emperor Domitian. Firstly, according to a statement by Irenaeus (AD 130 to AD 202) who was a student of Polycarp (Polycarp was a disciple of John), and he said that Polycarp claimed to have seen “it.” Whether he was referring to John having the vision or the text itself is unknown. He claimed the book was written nearly at the end of Domitian’s reign, who died in A.D 96. And secondly, it is thought that the text itself is referring to the impending destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which happened in AD 70, contending that the Apocalypse was penned around A.D. 68 or 69. So there is about a 30-year period in which most scholars and readers believe the text was written in.

Location: The “island of Patmos,” (1:9) off the coast of Greece in the Aegean Sea. This is where John was said to be during the vision and writing of the book.

Purpose: Until the year 313, Christians were openly persecuted in Rome. This is in, in theory, about 230 years after Revelation was written. Scholars have speculated that it is a warning for the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem, but it could also just be a general cautionary text detailing the malice of the Romans – the Beast or Babylon. Because the persecution of Christians would have been at its height then, so it is quite probable that John was writing to encourage and inspire the readers – to stand fast in the face of Satan, and the persecution that was being encouraged.

The narrative analysis method:

The Book of Revelation is a myriad of symbols, sensory imagery, and repetition, all seemingly evoking visions of Heaven, Hell, and the future of mankind. It’s strikingly different from the rest of the New Testament, because it’s apocalyptic, a kind of writing that is highly symbolic and metaphorical.

Symbols: As mentioned before, this text is permeated with symbolism, due to it’s apocalyptic nature, and it’ easy to pick out certain recurring symbols. Most noticeable, is the number seven. In the past, the number seven has stood for completeness, or perfection. Seven churches (1:4,11), seven trumpets (8:2), seven crowns (12:3), and seven signs (12:1,3; 13:13-14; 15:1; 16:14; 19:20). This is significant because it shows that only with God can we achieve perfection and feel complete.

Kathleen Rushton figured out that it also uses the words “Beast” and “Babylon” (due to their razing of the temple, just like the Babylonians did) as a sort of code name for the Romans at the time. This is metonymy, a type of metaphor where something is not stated directly by its name, but by something it closely identifies or is associated with. To give some examples, “its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth” (13:2). As well as; “Babylon the great, mother of whores, and of the earth’s abominations” (17:5). The vision is quite clearly disapproving, and even fearful of this plague upon the earth. It looked as if the end was near for Christians. This is significant in the text because it encourages Christians to stand strong in the face of the enemy and persecution, especially with some of the other imagery that is used later in the text.

Structure: Although the book is split into multiple chapters, 22, the Book of Revelation consists of three main sections. Firstly, is what John has read, what has already happened. Secondly, is what John actually saw in the vision, so this is the more ethereal imagery. And finally, John looks towards the future, and predicts what’s going to happen.

Going back to the nature of the text, the repetition is very important for John to be able to put his point across. It is hard to describe without directly quoting the text, so here is a small fragment of it; “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” (6:15,16). Here John is emphasizing the crazily varied demographic of people, and this re-instates the fact that God does not see those menial differences in people.

These literary and narrative techniques only go to further the air of mysticism which surrounds the entire text, and it also helps confuse the Romans to it’s true purpose, as it is definitely difficult to extract a literal meaning from.

So, what can be inferred from the Book of Revelation, when reading and analyzing it with these methods? Well, it was certainly written for the time, unlike some of those universally applicable parables from Jesus, but the thing is, even after the Roman Empire, this text is still applicable.

Firstly, not only did the early Christians face persecution, but even current-day Catholics, especially among the younger demographic. Religion, organized, at that, is something that is not looked upon that well. Especially with the stricter and more regulated Catholic doctrine. Instead of fear of death and persecution pushing early Christians away from the faith, today it’s social pressure. Whether it be your friends frowning upon your religion and the time spent practicing it, or games and social media sucking away your time; it’s much easier to lose focus, and drift away. So, what does Revelation address with this? It almost denounces the material world, and heralds the goodness of the Lord, and Heaven, and the second coming of Jesus Christ. It reminds us that the persecution received here doesn’t exist in Heaven, and that those who have wronged will go to the fires of Hell. It is important to look past the setbacks, the losses, and the misfortune of the world we live, and look to higher things.

Another wider implication is that a lot of its message and imagery is still used and referenced in the church today. Take, for example, the Sacrifice of the Lamb. This theme is most prominent in Revelation, and that same motif is seen everywhere in Catholic Church in celebrations of Mass. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.” Joseph Smith makes a very good point; that the Lamb, Jesus Christ, works through the hands of Saints, priests, and members of the Catholic church. This goes to prove the simple yet fundamental fact that our struggles to uphold good and justice are not futile.

Judging from the results of the analysis, it is evident that to the purpose of extracting the most information and meaning out of a text, both methods should be used in sync and alteration, along with a healthy dose of common sense and wider meaning. The historical critical analysis was more useful, stating the obvious, for pulling out a bit more of that historical information; it’s author, location, purpose, these things help to understand what the text actually meant at the time. The narrative analysis method helps infer some of that deeper meaning that was intended by the author, and especially with such a cryptic text as the Book of Revelation.

Now, I’d like to conclude with a disclaimer of sorts. I myself haven’t even read the Bible in it’s entirety. I have no formal education or authority to begin to claim that I understand this text. But I’d like to extend this to you as well. The chances are that you don’t either. So before pulling up a Bible quote and saying “Christianity condones slavery,” or something along the lines, try and remember that we don’t really have a basis to claim anything about this text. And before claiming something about it, about anything, really, take the time and research to inform your opinion. I’ve given you some tools and insights today to help you out. God bless.

Some websites I used:

The Pope’s View of the Historical-Critical Method of Biblical Interpretation

Pope Benedict and How To Read the Bible




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