It is impossible to read a text without interpreting the text in some way. The very fact we are converting signs and symbols on a page into thoughts in our mind is an act of interpretation. Every time we read a sentence, we make many decisions about what words mean or how a metaphor is to be understood. Rarely do we step back and think about how we understand a text. At the beginning of this series on the Gospels, I want to discuss the need for interpreting a text.
The genre of the text matters. If a reader does not know Harry Potter is fiction rather than history, they will be very confused indeed! But it is possible to describe Harry Potter as fantasy. Fantasy has certain “rules” which hold the stories together in ways a crime novel does not. If you think Harry Potter and Dirty Harry should solve their problem in the same way, you have misunderstood the genre! A Harry Potter book can also be described as a “young adult” novel. The young adult genre also has some characteristics typical of these stories (young protagonists, usually in some sort of difficult home life, some teen-romance, etc.) If you confuse the genre Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey (a completely different genre!) you will not fully understand the story. With respect to the four Gospels, we need to be very careful in understanding the genre of these books. They are not dispassionate histories in the modern sense of the word, attempting to set the record straight about what Jesus really did.
The intention of the author matters. In most cases writers create documents in order to be understood. A good writer has an idea they want to express, or a feeling they want to create. A historical writer might want to describe a particular time and place in the past, or prove a point about some important event. With the exception of some modern poetry (or student papers), writers do not simply string words together and allow the reader to create whatever meaning they want. When we read the Gospels we need to be very careful to hear the voice of the author and correctly read the gospel as it was intended.
The situation of the reader matters. I am not advocating for some sort of reader response criticism that allows the reader to ignore the author’s intention and make a text mean whatever the reader can imagine. By situation I mean a reader’s cultural context. For example, I am a white male living in a wealthy, industrialized country. I am going to read texts about agriculture or poverty differently than someone in the Congo. I often miss things my female students hear in a text. Historically, I read the text of the New Testament differently than someone in the sixteenth century, or in the fourth century. I am often perplexed by the things that got Luther and Augustine excited, because my cultural context is different.
Another situation of the reader that matters is a reader’s preconceptions. For example, when I read Harry Potter, I assume magic does not exist, there are no magical people living in London, there is no Diagon Alley where I can buy an owl. In my opinion, people who “really believe” are deluded and hopefully grow out of that delusion by their thirteenth birthday (or when they do not get an invitation to attend Hogwarts). If a reader as a preconceived belief that the Gospels cannot contain any real history, then they will read the story of Jesus differently than a believer. If a person is a committed Catholic, they may read the stories of Peter (especially Matt 16) differently than a committed Protestant. A person with a Charismatic theology will read some of the stories in the gospels with different eyes than a non-Charismatic.
My point here is not to argue reading is so arbitrary that all readings are equally valid. I am saying we ought to understand the text as clearly as possible, beginning with the words, genre and authorial intention, and at least recognize our assumptions when we come to the text of the Gospels.
How will an awareness of genre, authorial intent and the reader’s situation change the way we approach the Gospels? Perhaps you have encountered someone who read a text considerably different because of their personal context – were they “wrong”?