Jesus’ approach to
interpreting sacred text was radical for his time, yet honored his own
Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament). Even though
Jesus’ use of Scripture is plain enough for us to see in the Gospels,
many Christians are accustomed to reading the Bible in a very different
way. We simply haven’t paid attention and connected the dots! Over the
next couple days, I’ll share some examples that reveal Jesus’
hermeneutic so that we might follow his methodology:
Jesus actually does not quote Scripture that much! In fact, he is criticized for not doing this: “you teach with [inner] authority and not like our own
scribes” (Mark 1:22).
Jesus talks much more out of his own experience of God and humanity instead of teaching like the scribes and Pharisees, who operated out of their own form of case law by quoting previous sources.
Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources,
or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the
healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do” (see Mark 2:17, Matthew
9:12, and Luke 5:31), or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see
Luke 16:19-31). His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider
than sola Scriptura. He even quotes some sources seemingly incorrectly (for example, John 10:34)!
Jesus never once quotes from nineteen of the books in his own Scriptures.
In fact, he appears to use a very few favorites: Exodus, Deuteronomy,
Isaiah, Hosea, and Psalms—and those are overwhelmingly in Matthew’s
Gospel, which was directed to a Jewish audience.
Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That
is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any
passages—of which there are many—that appear to legitimate violence,
imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws. Jesus is a biblically formed non-Bible quoter who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings.
When Jesus does once quote Leviticus, he quotes the one positive mandate among long lists of negative ones: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
to many post-Reformation Christians, early centuries of
Christianity—through authoritative teachers like Origen, Cyril of
Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory the Great—encouraged as many as seven
“senses” of Scripture. The literal, historical, allegorical, moral,
symbolic, eschatological (the trajectory of history and growth), and
“primordial” or archetypal (commonly agreed-upon symbolism) levels of a
text were often given serious weight among scholars. These levels were
gradually picked up by the ordinary Christian through Sunday preaching
(as is still true today) and presumed to be normative by those who heard
different senses of Scripture were sometimes compared to our human
senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, which are
five distinct ways of knowing the same thing, but in very different
“languages.” After both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Western
Europeans reduced our ways of knowing to one for all practical
purposes—the supposedly rational/literal/historical. We have largely
compacted and limited the Bible to this single sense for several
centuries now, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. Our bandwidth
of spiritual access to the Bible was consequently severely narrowed, it
seems to me—and as many would say—to the least spiritually helpful
level. That something supposedly literally
happened in one exact way, in one moment of time, does not, of itself,
transfer the experience to now, me, or us. I believe that such transference is the transformative function of any spiritual text.
narrow, rational/literal/historical approach largely creates an
antiquarian society that prefers to look backward instead of forward. In
my experience, it creates transactional religion much more than transformational spirituality. It idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or actual change of heart.
was discredited from the beginning of the New Testament through the
inclusion of four Gospel accounts of the same Jesus event, which differ
in many ways. Which is the “inerrant” one?
earlier centuries of Christianity were much closer to the
trans-rational world of Jesus and his storytelling style of teaching
(which does not lend itself to dogmatic or systematic theology). The
Gospel says, “He would never speak to them except in parables” (Matthew
13:34). The indirect, metaphorical, symbolic language of a story or
parable seems to be Jesus’ preferred way of teaching spiritual
Almost all of Jesus’ parables begin with the same phrase: “The Reign of God is like.
. . .” Jesus fully knows he is speaking in metaphor, simile, story, and
symbol. But in recent centuries, many Christians have not granted him
that freedom, and thus we miss or avoid many of his major messages. We
are much the poorer for it.
More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored. Beyond fundamentalism or literalism, Jesus practiced a form that the Jewish people called midrash,
consistently using questions to keep spiritual meanings open, often
reflecting on a text or returning people’s questions with more
questions. It is a real shame that we did not imitate Jesus in this
approach. It could have saved us from so many centuries of
righteousness, religious violence, and even single-issue voting.
Rather than seeking always certain and unchanging answers, the Jewish practice of midrash allows
many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning—meaning that is
relevant and applicable to you, the reader, and puts you in the
subject’s shoes to build empathy, understanding, and relationship. It
lets the passage first challenge you before it challenges
anyone else. To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow
it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What
does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to
my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?
biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual
message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect
factual accuracy. Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists.
Hebrew rabbis and scholars sometimes use the approach of midrash to reflect
on a story and communicate all of its underlying message. Scripture can
be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning,
comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.
The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the
least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden
meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each
listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism,
which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting
Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.  This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will
interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that
you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when
you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or
humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray
before reading a sacred text!
consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and
triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages
that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing
two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested
the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for
tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew
5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and
questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which
passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely
cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.
NOTE: As I said a number of times already, I believe that the future of Christianity in general, and that of evangelicalism in particular depends to a critical way on our ability to understand what is the Bible (is it a divine oracle, written by dictation, and requiring a literalistic approach, to be used as a recipe book, as fundamentalists want us to; or is it a purely human book, to be analised as any other piece of literature, as liberals want us to; or, rather, as Fr Rohr says, a divine-human book, ‘ a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation’, and, thus, understood according to the rules of a divinely inspired hermeneutic, dialogical, contemplative, paradoxical, in constant conversation with the changing reality around us, as we perceive it, with the help of science, art, culture, religion etc.
* * *
all its inspiration, for all the lives it has changed, the Bible is
undeniably problematic. Put in the hands of egocentric, unloving, or
power-hungry people or those who have never learned how to read
spiritually inspired literature, it is almost always a disaster. History
has demonstrated this, century after century, so this is not an
unwarranted, disrespectful, or biased conclusion. The burning of
heretics, the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, homophobia, and the genocide
and oppression of native peoples were all justified through the
selective use of Scripture quotes.
what are we supposed to do with the Bible? Today’s meditation will be a
bit longer than usual to begin addressing this question. And we’ll
spend the rest of the week unpacking what Jesus did with the Hebrew
Scriptures—the only Bible he knew.
My general approach is to change the seer and not to change the text. Only transformed people can be entrusted with inspired writings. They can operate in a symbiotic (“shared life”) relationship with words and are unlikely to use the Bible to exclude and shame others or as a rationale for their bad behavior.
Christian’s goal is to be transformed by the renewing of our mind into
the mind of Christ (see Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:16; and Philippians
2:5). That is why I try to read the Bible the way Jesus did, following
Jesus’ hermeneutic (a method of interpreting sacred texts).
Just as we are trying to do with this year’s Daily Meditations, Jesus
was a master of winnowing the chaff from the grain (see Matthew 3:12 and
Luke 3:17) and “bringing out of the storeroom new treasures as well as
old” (Matthew 13:52).
The Bible is an anthology of many books.
It is a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation. It
is an account of our very human experience of the divine intrusion into
history. The book did not fall from heaven in a pretty package. It was
written by people trying to listen to God. I believe that the Spirit was
guiding the listening and writing process. We must also know that
humans always see “through a glass darkly . . . and all knowledge is
imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Prayer and patience surrounding
such human words will keep us humble and searching for the true Living
Word, the person of Jesus,which is how the Spirit best
teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10,13)—through living exemplars. This is surely
what it means to know “contemplatively.”
history finally gets to the Risen Jesus, there is nothing to be afraid
of in God. Jesus’ very breath is identified with forgiveness and the
divine Shalom(see John 20:20-23). If the Risen Jesus
is the full and trustworthy unveiling of the nature of God, then we live
in a safe and love-filled universe. It is not that God has changed, or
that the Hebrew God is a different God than the God of Jesus; it is
that we are growing up as we move through the text and deepen
our experience. Stay with the Bible and with your inner life with God
and your capacity for God will increase.
as the Bible takes us through many stages of consciousness and history,
it takes us individually a long time to move beyond our need to be
dualistic, judgmental, accusatory, fearful, blaming, egocentric, and
earning—and to see as Jesus sees. The Bible itself is a “text in
travail,” according to René Girard’s fine insight.  It mirrors and
charts our own human travail. It offers both mature and immature
responses to almost everything. In time, you will almost naturally
recognize the difference between the text moving forward toward the
mercy, humility, and inclusivity of Jesus and when the text is
regressing into arrogance, exclusion, and legalism.