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Michael J.

Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995

Updated 2009

Some Difficulties a Person Encounters in Studying the Bible

1. The Problem of Canon and Text:
Can We Be Sure That We Have “The” Bible?
The first difficulty a person encounters in studying the Bible is simply
the fact that a person can never be sure that the book that he or she is studying
is actually “the” Bible. There are at least two reasons for this uncertainty.
(1) On the one hand, there is the problem of defining the “canon,” that
is, the official listing of just which books should be considered the authoritative
Scriptures for a person’s religion. Almost every religion has its own
“authoritative” writings (“Scriptures”) that tell the stories, set the boundaries of
belief, and define the faith. Most, if not all, adherents of various religions
believe that their holy books came, not from human imagination, but by means
of Divine revelation. Nearly all Christians and Jews and Muslims certainly have
that understanding. But how can a person “prove” Divine inspiration and
revelation to everyone’s satisfaction?
The story has been told about a man who bragged to his friend that his
pastor’s sermons were absolutely infallible and inerrant. The friend asked,
“How is that possible?” The man said, “Because he talks face to face with
God every day.” “But how do you know that is the case?” the friend asked.
The man answered: “Do you think a man who talks with God face to face
every day would lie about a thing like that?” And many people use the same
kind of circular reasoning in defense of their choices of sacred books.
Certainly most Muslims believe the Qur’an is inspired and authoritative
because the Qur’an’s own content says or suggests that it is. And many (but by
no means all) Christians believe that the New Testament is inspired and
authoritative, solely because they have come to the erroneous understanding
that verses like 2 Timothy 2:15 are declaring that it is. In fact, 2 Timothy 2:15
simply makes the point that the Christian Scriptures, “inspired” though they may
be, are “useful.” But the concepts of “inerrancy” and “infallibility” are never
mentioned in that passage or in any other. “Inspiration” and
“inerrancy” /“infallibility” are not the same thing. One concept does not
require the other.
But even within the “Judaeo-Christian” tradition there are disagreements
about what constitutes “the” Bible, and there always have been. If you are
Jewish, your official canon is the Hebrew Bible, the “Tanakh,” which Christians
have commonly called “the Old Testament.” If you belong to one of the many
branches of the Christian faith, additional books are added to those in the

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

Hebrew Bible. Almost all Christians give authority to the at least the 27 books
commonly called “the New Testament.” But even among Christians there are
some differences.
So-called “main-line” Protestant Christians and Pentecostal Christians
generally limit canonical authority only to the 39 books commonly called “the
Old Testament” and to the 27 books called “the New Testament.” But if you are
a Roman Catholic Christian your church also gives authority to a group of some
14 or 15 books called “the Deuterocanonical Books” or “the Apocrypha.” And
if you belong to one of the Eastern Orthodox branches of the Christian faith a
couple of additional books are added to that group, plus an additional Psalm.
(Some Lutherans and nearly all Episcopalians also give a degree of semi-
authority to most or all of the Apocryphal books when they include texts from
these in lectionaries of daily worship readings.) The Ethiopian Church adds the
Book of 1 Enoch, which was written originally in Greek, but which, except for
a few Greek fragments (Codex Panopolitanus), has survived only in the
Ethiopic language.
Adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the
“Mormons,” usually accord canonical authority to The Book of Mormon,
The Pearl of Great Price, and The Doctrines and Covenants, as well as to
official pronouncements made by the Presiding Elder of that church.
And if you are a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, the writings of the
founder of that denomination, Mrs. Ellen White, hold a degree of at least
semi-“canonical” authority for you.
Furthermore, if you are a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist,
you probably give a degree of at least semi- “canonical” authority to a work
called Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures, and perhaps to other
works by the founder of the Christian Scientists, Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy.
And those are only the present-day differences. In fact, nothing like a
unanimous decision about the extent of the canon for all of Christianity has ever
existed. In the New Testament itself, the Book of Jude, verses 14-15, quotes
from the “pseudepigraphical” Book of 1 Enoch (“Ethiopic Enoch”) (1:9; cf.
5:4 and 27:2). It is clear that the writer of Jude regarded 1 Enoch as an inspired
and authoritative text. Furthermore, Jude, verse 9, refers to an incident in the
work called The Assumption of Moses with similar implications. There are
many other references of similar nature scattered throughout the New
Testament, especially in the Pauline letters.

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

As late as the year 325 CE, bound copies of the New Testament often
included books like The Shepherd of Hermas and The Letter of Barnabas and
The First Letter of Clement [Bishop of Rome c. 100 CE] to Corinth. At the
same time, many such bound NT copies omitted some books in our current
New Testament, like Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Revelation to
John, because these were not thought to be authoritative Scripture.
It is true that by about the year 397 CE something like a consensus had
been reached and published in some regional decisions within the Roman
Empire. But even as late as the year 1534 CE the Protestant reformer Martin
Luther felt perfectly free to place the books of Esther, James, and the Revelation
into an appendix to his German translation of the Bible because he held that they
should not be considered authoritative for Christians. He felt those books did not
reflect the central doctrines of the Christian faith, as he understood them,
especially the concept of “justification by faith.” The Roman Catholic canon was
set in April of 1546 during the fourth session of the Council of Trent (1545-
1563), but was never recognized as authoritative by Protestants.
(2) There is a second reason that a person can never be certain that the
book he or she is studying is actually “the” Bible. Let us accept for the moment,
either on faith, or just for the sake of argument, that only a certain group of books
were correctly chosen by some person or group with authority to make such a
choice, to be the only authoritative and canonical books. There remains another
problem. It is the unfortunate but true fact that we do not currently have even a
single book of the Bible available to us in the original copy (the “autograph”),
as it came from the pen of the original writer or compiler.
All that we have are copies—or to be more accurate, copies of copies of
copies of copies . . . And if you have ever attempted to copy any long passage
by hand then you have probably experienced this problem first hand. Today we
have thousands of manuscripts of all or parts of Biblical books from the Hebrew
Bible and the New Testament. But no two of them read exactly alike! Those
copies were preserved under less than ideal conditions, long before the age of
printing and proofreading. They contain numerous unintentional errors by
scribes, and often even some deliberate alterations to the earlier text that reflect
some scribe’s attempt to clarify obscure references or bad grammar, or to put
forth his own special bias or interpretation of the Biblical writer’s intent.
Devout Biblical scholars called “textual critics” have worked for many
years to develop principles by which to determine, as closely as possible the
correct and original text of the Biblical books. Both “conservative” and
“liberal” translators must depend on the work of such scholars. But this

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

science of “textual criticism” is still very inexact. Although we may indeed

have a fairly reliable and generally correct text of those books that our
particular faith-tradition may designate as Holy Scripture, we are nowhere
near having a text identical with the original as it may have come from the
pen of an Amos or a Paul or a John. We simply can never be sure that the text
that we have in our hand, or the text that we purchase in a bookstore, is “the”
Bible. Therefore it is incumbent on us all to approach our sacred texts with
openness and with humility rather than with dogmatic certainty.
2. The Problem of Translation
A second difficulty that a person encounters in studying the Bible is
that of translation. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we could be
sure that the right books were chosen for our canon, and even that we had the
original text as it came from the hands of the earliest writers or compilers.
Even so, very few people in our modern world could actually read them! This
is because they were not written in our Modern English, nor even in King
James English, but in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. Thus, those
Biblical texts must be translated into the everyday language that we read
and speak, so that an average person can read them with any kind of
understanding. Otherwise they would be of value only to Biblical scholars
proficient in those ancient languages.
Our generation is more fortunate in this respect than any generation
that has preceded us. There do exist in our time a multitude of good
translations in English and in other modern languages. However, far too
frequently many English-speaking persons still seem content to use only one
translation, the King James Version, which came into being nearly four
hundred years ago. It was completed in the time of William Shakespeare,
using the English language of that time rather than that of our own time. In
fact, the King James translators themselves deliberately used an archaic style
that was already out of date even in 1611. The version we use today is not
the first edition of 1611, but the seventh edition of 1769.
One would think that, after twenty centuries of Bible translation, Biblical
scholars by now would have arrived at some consensus concerning the one and
only true and authoritative meaning in English of those ancient texts. But as we
have noted, in our time translations are in fact becoming more and more
numerous. And they often differ from one another today to a much greater degree
than they ever did in the past. This is because Biblical scholars have become
increasingly aware that translation is a very difficult and complex science.
In part this complexity is due to the fact that our modern languages just

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

do not always have vocabulary and syntax corresponding to those of the

ancient Biblical languages that can do justice to the original intent of the
writers and compilers of Scripture. Translation involves not merely finding
equivalent words in each of two languages. Translation also involves
communicating, insofar as possible, what the original writer intended to say in
his language into equivalent thought-units in another language. But sometimes
there are just no really appropriate equivalents. All that the most devout
linguists can do is work with their limited understanding of two languages, in
the hope that what is said in one language can be approximated in the other.
This complexity of the science of translation is also due in part to the
fact that every modern language is constantly changing—words and
concepts do not stay the same. New words are added daily and new ways of
expressing ideas keep coming as well, even as older ways become outmoded.
Both because our use of our modern languages and our knowledge of the
ancient ones are constantly changing, translations of the Bible can never
come to a fixed, static, unchangeable position.
Then there is the problem of “textual criticism” that we mentioned
earlier. Translators are dependent on the work of “textual critics” (work that is
always in progress) to determine just which text represents most closely the
original words of the Biblical writers. And new Biblical manuscripts keep
turning up in every generation to throw new light on the Biblical text. Thus, the
text that we translate today is indeed quite different.from the one that the King
James translators used in 161l. Many differences in translations may be due to
the fact that the translator has concluded that a differing Hebrew or Aramaic or
Greek text from an earlier or more reliable manuscript more accurately reflects
the earliest we can know about what the Biblical authors actually wrote.
For all these reasons, the American Bible Society has recommended that
every modern translation be revised at least every thirty to fifty years. Thus, the
very popular Revised Standard Version (NT 1946, and OT 1952) was revised
in 1989 as The New Revised Standard Version. The New English Bible (NT
1961 and OT 1970) was revised in 1989 as The Revised English Bible. And
The Holy Scriptures, published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917, was
revised in 1985 as TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures.
Several other revisions of standard translations have recently been
completed or are in progress. But there will never be only one “correct” Bible
translation, in English or in any other language. Most modern translations are
fairly dependable, but the student of the Bible must always remain humble,
working always with the awareness that none of them is final.

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

3. The Problem of Culture

A third difficulty that persons encounter in studying the Bible is that we
are separated from the culture of the Biblical writers and their readers/
hearers in terms of both time and space (distance). Languages reflect and
interpret more than just words and thought-units. They also reflect and
interpret cultural conditions and assumptions.
Culture is transmitted from one generation to another through the use
of language. Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek are dead languages
from ancient cultural conditions on the other side of the world from us. The
Bible came out of a culture that is totally foreign to us in the modern United
States. We must always resist the temptation to read our modern Western
ways of logic and practice into the ways of those ancient cultures.
Let us assume again that we had the correct canon, and its original text,
and even a perfect translation of them. Even so, to interpret a text in the Bible
accurately it still is necessary for us to come to a realistic understanding of the
ancient Middle Eastern cultural context out of which the Biblical writer wrote
and to which the writer addressed himself. This is a basic presupposition for all
Biblical interpretation.
But today’s Middle East itself is not entirely the same as the ancient
one. Even if we had the means to travel to the geographic area from which
the Bible came, we still could not also project ourselves back into their time
and reason with the thought patterns of those times. We can analyze the
archaeologists’ discoveries of ancient manuscripts and analyze their findings
at various excavated sites. Yet archaeologists themselves often differ in their
own understanding of the cultural remains that they find. Thus we can never
be sure we have it all down right. We can never fully understand the cultural
context out of which the Biblical books arose.
All we can do is humbly try to educate ourselves, to learn all we can
about the geography and history and customs and thought-patterns and other
cultural circumstances of that world and that age. Indeed, this will be a large
part of what the present course of study attempts to do. We are impelled, if we
hope to interpret the Bible correctly, to gather all the information we can about
those matters of cultural context, all the while humbly realizing that our store
of such knowledge will always be imperfect and less than adequate for the job.
4. The Problem of the Bible’s “Religious” Character
A fourth difficulty a person finds in the study of the Bible is that one is
compelled by the linguistic and cultural evidences found in the Bible to admit

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

that the Bible is primarily a “religious” document (or more correctly, a

collection of “religious” writings). And this means that the Bible is not primarily
or essentially the same thing as certain other kinds of writing—history,
biography, or science, for example. And while it is true that certain data from
those other disciplines may indeed occur within the Bible, always reflecting the
often limited understanding that people of those times held of such matters, such
data are secondary to the Bible's main purposes, which are religious.
As a religious document, the Bible deals with certain “ultimate”
questions of life: “Why do human beings exist?” “Why must human beings
suffer, and how should they deal with their sufferings?” “What is the ultimate
purpose or destiny of humanity?” “What is to be the relationship of humans to
the Divine?” “What is to be the relationship of human beings with each other?”
“How should human beings deal with questions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ and with
their own consciousness of ‘sinfulness’?” And how have the people in the past
who considered themselves to be God’s people dealt with such questions?
The Bible is not just carefree literature, like a paperback novel, intended
by its writers/compilers to be read simply for relaxation or entertainment.
Neither is it a biography, or a textbook of history or of science, to be read just
to gather “facts.” The Bible “interprets” life and history in the light of the
writers’ profound faith in, and experiences with, their God. The Bible is
not solely their remembrance of the chronological course of events in the
ancient Middle East, or of the biographical facts of the lives of Moses, or
David, or Jesus, or Paul. Rather, the Bible is an “interpretation” of those
matters, as seen through “eyes of faith.” Thus, Biblical scholars conclude that
the Bible contains “sacred history” or “salvation history,” (German:
heilsgeschichte) rather than pure “objective history.”
For example: “objective history” might conclude from the available
records that sometime around the year 1280 BCE, there occurred an escape of
a band of unpaid Hebrew laborers, and a minor border skirmish between them
and their Egyptian rulers, near a marshy body of water called the “Sea of
Reeds.” But a Jewish or Christian believer might interpret those same events
through “eyes of faith,” as “salvation history.” Such a person might conclude
that in those events there was the intervention of the one and only eternal God,
an intervention that resulted in the formation of a community of faith out of a
mixed rabble, and that forever changed the human situation. “Objective
history” can neither prove nor disprove such an assertion.
Likewise, “objective history” might speak of the execution of one Jesus
of Nazareth about the year 30 CE in Jerusalem by a group of Roman soldiers,

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

acting under orders-from the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, perhaps at the
instigation of certain Judean religious leaders, as the execution of a rabble-
rousing revolutionary. But a Christian believer, reading the same story through
“eyes of faith,” might interpret that same event as another instance of Divine
intervention into human history. He or she might see it as another instance in
which the eternal God entered into a human life in a unique way, engaging in a
self-offering, as a kind of “sacrifice” for the sins of the world, again forever
changing the human situation. Again, “objective history” can neither prove nor
disprove such an assertion. It is a matter of personal faith-interpretation.
Such conclusions as these can never be proved or disproved by the
methods of scientific or historical research. The student of the Biblical
texts must always be humbly aware that the Biblical writers do read their
history through “eyes of faith,” as “salvation history,” because the Bible is a
collection of “religious” writings.
5. The Problem of the Limitations of Human Language
When we recognize the Bible’s religious character and purpose we
then encounter a fifth difficulty in studying the Bible. We now find ourselves
compelled to recognize that those Biblical writers were attempting to
perform an essentially impossible task. They were attempting to express
ideas that are basically inexpressible, and to describe events, and concepts
that are basically indescribable, simply because human words have limits,
and because human language is inadequate to communicate what the Biblical
writers were attempting to communicate.
Those Biblical writers were attempting, through “eyes of faith” to speak
of encounters of human beings with that which is Divine or transcendent, or
supernatural. Human language is not really adequate for this task. Human
words cannot totally communicate the kinds of realities these Biblical writers
wanted to describe. And much of the time they had to use symbolic, or poetic,
or metaphorical, or parabolic, or even mythological language, because those
are often the only kinds of language that can even come close to doing justice
to the kinds of realities these Biblical writers were trying to communicate.
Thus, the writer of Genesis speaks of a primeval time when human
beings had personal fellowship with God in a Garden, where there existed
talking snakes, and trees whose fruit was not apples or pears, but Life, and the
Knowledge of Good and Evil. And thus, the writer of the Revelation speaks of
the reward of the faithful that included a New Jerusalem, with gates made of
precious stones and streets paved with gold. That is the language of poetry, of
metaphor, of allegory, of symbol, of parable, and of myth. Such language

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

does not make the realities any less real for the person of faith, but the Biblical
student must humbly recognize this problem of literal versus figurative or
mythological language in dealing with Biblical texts, and not get the two kinds
of language confused.
6. The Problem of Erring and Fallible Interpreters
The final difficulty is the simple fact of our own human imperfection.
Even with all the knowledge available to Biblical interpreters today, and even
with full realization of, and compensation for, all the other difficulties that
have been described above, there is still no guarantee that anyone can provide
a perfect interpretation of any Biblical text.
Whatever a person might believe about the theory of an infallible or
inerrant Bible, the plain fact is that such a Bible, even if it exists, must still
be subject to interpretation by fallible and errant human beings like you
and me. No Pope, no Church Council, no Council of Rabbis, and no pastor
or Bible teacher can guarantee a perfect interpretation. As Martin Luther
observed, Popes have erred, and Church Councils have erred. And the plain
fact is, that you and I err also. And since human beings are imperfect and
fallible, how would they be able to recognize something infallible and
perfect if they encountered it? One might even conclude that, if God
purposed to send an inerrant or infallible revelation to humanity, then God
had failed in that purpose, since humanity has never discovered an infallible
or inerrant interpretation of the infallible inerrant revelation that all
humanity could agree upon and recognize immediately for what it is!
Examples abound throughout history of the ways in which persons of
equal sincerity and devotion and scholarly ability and knowledge and
persistence still have come to widely divergent interpretations of the very
same crucial Biblical passages. This fact applies not only to Rabbis
Shammai, and Hillel, and Akiba, in Jewish interpretation, and not only to
Pelagius, and St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, in the early centuries of
Christian history, and not only to Luther, and Calvin, and Zwingli, during
the Protestant Reformation. It applies to all of us in every generation.
And thus it is that our world is still divided by a multitude of religious
denominations and sects. Most of them have at one time or another chosen
to believe that theirs was the only way to believe, and that all others were
“heretics,” while “each drew his sword on the side of the Lord.”
But even if I myself were to rely solely on my own judgment and
scholarship and devotion, without benefit of those potentially erring opinions

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor in Religion, East Carolina University 1986-1995
Updated 2009

of others—an impossible proposal in itself—yet the problem remains. The

only way for the concepts of the Bible to get into my own mind and
value-system is for them to become intimately involved with all of my
own human imperfections.
The very moment that any written text passes through the prism of my
eyes it is in danger of being mis-understood and mis-interpreted by me. And
the moment that any spoken text passes through my eardrums on the way in it
is in danger of being mis-understood and mis-interpreted by me. And the
moment that the text leaves the tip of my tongue as an “interpretation” on the
way out, it is in danger of being mis-understood and mis-interpreted by
others. Try as I may, I simply cannot perfectly understand the Bible, nor
perfectly explain it to someone else.
And yet, if my value-system or my religion includes the Bible in any of
its canonical forms or texts as an authority, or as a source of guidance for my
living, as an individual, or as a member of a faith community, I must humbly
press ahead with the task of interpretation. Even if I am simply seeking to
understand my own culture, so influenced by the Bible, and by people whose
religious heritage and authority have been rooted in the Bible, I must humbly
press ahead with that task, in spite of all the difficulties involved.
This discussion was strongly influenced by lectures of Dr. William Hull, formerly
Dean of the School of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville,
Kentucky, and Dr. Calvin R. Mercer, Professor of Religion, East Carolina University,
Greenville, North Carolina.

Michael J. Watts, Adjunct Instructor of Religion, East Carolina University. Revised 2009