When the ‘plain reading’ is not the ‘best reading’ of the Bible

It might seem like the best way to think about reading Scripture, but it’s not. There is an argument that the “plain reading” of Scripture is the best reading thereof. Of course, this entirely depends on what “plain” means. In most cases, the people arguing for this are looking for a literal and simple reading. And in most cases, this does not take into the intricacies of language, culture, history and context.

Let me give you a few simple examples.

Let’s say that I told you that someone I know had kicked the bucket, what would you respond? If you’re an English first language speaker, you will probably say, “I am sorry to hear that” or “Shame”. It is a figure of speech that means that someone has died. Figures of speech are one key reason that we cannot read the “clearest reading” of Scripture – you have to be sure that you understand (and even spot) the figures of speech. Here’s a particularly racy Biblical example: it really does appear that “uncovering his feet” is a euphemism for oral sex in ancient Middle East culture. This certainly changes the story of Ruth and Boaz (but does explain why Boaz was so enthusiastic about Ruth). Seriously, I’m not making this up. The Bible is full of sex, without embarrassment.

And this leads to a second example. Our cultural lenses shape how we read things. So, for example, you probably have a picture of Jesus being born in a stable with lots of straw and animals all around. This is not true. In Bethlehem, like other Middle Eastern towns at the time, private homes had two levels – the lower level was the general living area, with an open hearth for a fire. At night, the family would sleep on the upper level, and bring their animals into their home to sleep on the lower level. Even a tiny knowledge of Middle Eastern culture will tell you that no woman in that area would EVER be sent to a barn or stable to give birth all on her own. Mary would have been taken into someone’s home, and given birth in the general living area, and Jesus placed in a manger that would have been handy.

This is not about cultural interpretation, but simply about understanding what the actual words are saying and the image they’re supposed to be conjuring in our minds. Can we be sure then, that references to the length of hair, what we should wear and greeting each other with a holy kiss are best understood by simply reading the “plain meaning”.

And I haven’t started to think about translation issues. Anyone who speaks more than one language will know there are words in one language that cannot be translated well into another language without a whole lot of explanation. In some cases, especially in English, we just adopt those words and don’t bother with translation.

And then there is theological presumption that has to be added as well. Your theological position will influence how you read a controversial passage in the Bible.

The Bible is a complex book, inspired by a God who is above and beyond us. It is supposed to be difficult to understand – it talks about eternal and complex issues. So, we need to give up the notion that the “plain reading” of the Bible is always the best.

Scot McKnight quoted a great example of this today on his Jesus Creed blog:

Hugging the Rock
From Mimi Hadad, President of Christians for Biblical Equality:


Analogies can be powerful tools that bring clarity to complex issues. Educators suggest that metaphors and analogies enable individuals to grasp quickly the essential elements of logic in what are otherwise complicated discussions. Perhaps this is one reason Jesus used metaphors and analogies when explaining spiritual realities. Because the biblical interpretation is often complex, it can be helpful to use analogies to grasp the meaning of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Consider the following example.

When climbing a steep rock, or when reading a confusing passage in Scripture, the temptation is to hug the rock too closely—to rely upon the “clearest reading” of the English text. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is a classic example. It is a very steep rock—it is a difficult text to interpret not only because Paul suggests that women are saved through childbearing (v. 15), but also because Paul uses a strange Greek word, found only once in the Bible—authentein (v. 12). The passage, by virtue of its complexity, demands more of us, just as a skilled climber recognizes that climbing a steep incline requires a counter intuitive measure: despite the laws of gravity, the safest path upward is not to hug the rock but to lean away from it. In order for us gain a universal application from a difficult text like 1 Timothy 2:11-15, we must lean away from the plain reading of the passage in order to gain perspective through a historical, cultural, and linguistic analysis, and by allowing what is clear in Scripture to shed meaning on what is unclear.

To gain balance and perspective in understanding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, we lean back and consider how other writers from the first century used authentein. The answer is very helpful. First century writers nearly always used authentein for “authority” that was domineering, misappropriated, or usurped. It can also mean to behave in violent ways or to kill. That is why the Vulgate, the Geneva Bible, the King James Version, and others translations of Scripture translate authentein as “domineering,” or “usurping authority.” It is also helpful to lean back and learn that Ephesus was a city known for its worship of the fertility goddess Artemis, who promised women safety in childbearing. Unlike most goddesses, Artemis did not have a male partner, and this background helps explain why women affiliated with Artemis might have usurped authority to promote myths and genealogies that are contrary to Scripture. Paul opposes their efforts by using the unusual Greek word authentein.

As we continue to “lean back” and study the situation at Ephesus further, we observe that Priscilla and Aquila built a church in their home in Ephesus, where they instructed Apollos (1 Cor. 16:19). Significantly, Priscilla is referenced ahead of her husband in teaching one of the most gifted speakers mentioned in the New Testament—Apollos. She instructed him in the very place—Ephesus—where Paul asks women not to usurp authority over men. Clearly, the type of leadership Priscilla exercised is one that was godly and not domineering. Importantly, she did not promote myths and genealogies but explained the way of God more adequately! The universal principle of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not to exclude women (like Priscilla) from teaching, but to exclude false teachers who usurp authority.

To give Scripture its fullest authority in our lives means we resist the “clearest reading of the text” when doing so places Scripture at odds with itself, as when reading 1 Timothy 2:11-15 at face value. Hugging the rock and clinging to a plain reading of the passage may feel safe, but it places Paul in conflict with himself! It is the surest path not to the top of the mountain of biblical clarity, but to the bottom.

Source: Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog

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