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Being Trained To Interpret Texts

In some rather surprising and ironic ways, I think my training in a particularly obscure and technical aspect of New Testament studies made me *more* qualified to write books for a general audience than most of my colleagues and peers.   Almost everyone I knew in my graduate program was interested almost exclusively in two areas of academic research: exegesis and New Testament theology.   I was interested in something that most of them did not care about in the least: textual criticism.  Let me explain the difference before discussing why an interest in the *least* reader-friendly field helped make me better able to make scholarship *more* reader-friendly.

“Exegesis” is the technical term used for the science and art of interpretation of texts.  It may seem obvious to you that interpreting a text is a simple matter.  You read what it says and you understand it.  No problem, right?  Wrong.  In fact interpretation of texts is a highly complicated affair and requires both well-thought out methodology and rigorous discipline.   We spent many years – hard years of hard work – mastering exegesis in graduate school.

The result is that when I or one of my colleagues reads John 1 or Galatians 2 or 1 Peter 3, we approach it very, very differently from the way an untrained reader does.   That in itself is a long story that I won’t go into great detail about here.  But I can give a couple of broad comments, focusing on the interpretation of ancient texts.  What I say here would apply to whether you were being trained to interpret the New Testament, the writings of Plato, the plays of Euripides, or any other ancient text.

On the very basic level, you have to be able to read the texts in their original languages.  There is simply no way to understand the nuances of what an author has to say if you are reading the text in translation.  Something is always lost, and some things are hopelessly changed, any time a text is put into a different language.  And so for my graduate program, our seminars were always based on the original Greek texts of the New Testament.  No English translations were allowed.  (That, by the way, is why I have friends who learn Russian when they want to understand Dostoevsky or Italian when they want to read Dante.)

How do you know what words mean when you read them?   That may seem obvious: words mean simply what they mean, right?   Well …

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Studying New Testament Theology
Speaking in Churches as an Agnostic; and Jewish Beliefs about Afterlife. Readers Mailbag August 13, 2016



  1. Avatar
    John  August 15, 2016

    Blimey, you’re up early!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      I was in England — five hours ahead….

      • Avatar
        John  August 18, 2016

        Ah of course, your Summer trip, I forgot. Hope you and Sarah are all good.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 15, 2016

    All of this certainly makes one cautious about all of those around us quoting scripture.

  3. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  August 15, 2016

    hello Bart

    Great post it will help me debunt those ignorant christian fundamentlists. This is what i have been telling to christian apologists concerning interpretation of the koran , but they refuse to accept it . they argue by saying why God sent books which can only be understood in arabic . they insist that they too can interpret it even they dont know word in arabic and i have to accept their interpretation. this is ludicrous. there was never ever since the begining of islam a koranic expert who was arabic ignorant.. All interpretation on koran was and still done in arabic . thats why expert on koran has first to master tools of interpretation which is the mastery of the 7 century Arabic Language. This means mastering Arabic grammar, syntax, morphology, rhetoric, poetry and prose , etymology and Qur’anic exegesis. Without mastery of these disciplines, error will be likely,indeed inevitable.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  August 22, 2016

      You’re not suggesting, are you, that you think you can change the minds of fundamentalists or that any of them will admit that their view has been debunked by your arguments?

  4. Avatar
    Todd  August 15, 2016

    Over the years I’ve been reading your site and FB posts and books the more I appreciate the importance of textual criticism for understanding of biblical literature.

    Textual criticism is very specialized and is not something the average church goer can even attempt to do.

    QUESTION: With that is mind, when an average Christian, or Jew, reads the Bible, what approach should they take and what might be the most they can get from the texts that might bring them closer to an understanding of the text as it applies to their faith? What is your thought on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      I think the best thing to do is to read not only the text but also scholars who are talking about the text, to get a sense of how it is being understood by experts. (Same with Chaucer, Dante, or any other text!)

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  August 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I tried to learn Attic Greek in order to read Plato and Aristotle in the original, but I got scared away when I learned that ancient Greek had 33 versions of “the” (i.e. 33 declensions of the definite article). Who has time for that?

    I can say, however, that when I read the Hebrew Bible in the Hebrew, it definitely reads much differently from any English translation. The Hebrew Bible sounds totally ridiculous in English translation. Even in the, supposedly, more poetic King James translation, the Hebrew Bible sounds almost comically ridiculous. But when I read it in the Hebrew it’s like stepping into a time machine. Everything suddenly makes sense within the context of that culture and language. The rhythm, the emphases, the puns: they all come through in the original Hebrew. These are things that are not easily captured by an English translation.

    Here’s one example of what I mean. Numbers 13:1-2 “And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a prince among them.” That sounds really clumsy in English, not to mention how pretentious it sounds in the King James English. But in Hebrew it sounds really poetic and almost sonorous. The first verse is in an actual meter and in somewhat of a chiastic form: Yedaber Yahweh, el-Mosheh le’mor. And where the second verse sounds clumsy in English, in Hebrew it sounds very bold and commanding: Shlach lekha anashim, wa-yathuru et-eretz Kna’an…! In Hebrew it reads like actual literature. In English is reads like a toddler poorly recounting a story.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 17, 2016

      Well, that’s probably the first time someone has described Hebrew in such a way that it makes me wish I could read it. One of my former colleagues can read Hebrew. He has this little book he keeps in his office that gives the number of variants for words. Some are listed as *serious*. When I skimmed through it, I thought–Who can make heads or tails of all this?

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 15, 2016

    This is an OT question – maybe for the Readers’ Mailbag, if you’d be willing to answer it at all.

    I remember your saying that in one of the conservative Christian colleges you attended, they gave you a course in Apologetics – presenting “proof” of the existence of God, and ultimately, I assume, “proof” of their form of Christianity’s being the One True Faith. Not because they wanted to convince you, but because they wanted you to convert others.

    Would you be willing to tell us, if you remember, what their arguments were?

    When I was attending a Catholic high school, a priest gave us a course like that in our senior year. I think he *did* want to convince *us*!

    At my then-young age, I accepted his arguments. But the only one I remembered, even a few years later, I knew by then was fallacious: that Protestants couldn’t claim Jesus was a great spiritual teacher, but not divine, because he’d *claimed* to be divine! So if he wasn’t divine, he was either a charlatan, or crazy.

    I’m guessing most of his other arguments were like that: begging the question, by accepting as fact things that were actually dependent on what he was trying to prove. (If Jesus couldn’t be shown to be in any way “special” by reasonably disinterested sources, there was no basis for accepting claims made by his biased followers.)

    I was grateful to that priest for giving me a *methodology*: Start by asking how the Cosmos came into existence – including whether there was necessarily a “Creator” – and go on from there. I tried it, and *wasn’t* convinced there was a “Creator.” So I never needed to go any further (choosing among religions and denominations).

    But I still wonder what his arguments were, and why he found them convincing. So I’d like to know what you were taught, and why it did (temporarily) convince you.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      I’m afraid it would take a semester for me to discuss the arguments! Maybe if you would pick one topic of interest I could explain some of the arguments.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  August 18, 2016

        Okay! I’m most interested in the beginning: how apologists offer “proof” of the existence and significance of a “Creator,” a “Supreme Being.”

        I’d *expect* someone to begin by saying the Cosmos (including all universes and/or dimensional realms that exist or ever have existed) *necessarily* owes its existence to an “Uncaused Cause.”

        And I can’t accept the reasoning even that far – not with the “necessarily.” I can see two “outlier” possibilities: a literally infinite chain of Causes and Effects, or levels of reality on which “Cause” and “Effect” no longer apply.

        But if one accepts the “Uncaused Cause” even as a probability, it could have been any of an unimaginable number of things. The Christian apologist has to go further: to “prove” it was an omnipotent, omniscient, eternally existing Being, who’s continued to take an interest in his/her/its creation. (Personally, I incline to the belief that *the Cosmos itself* is the “Uncaused Cause” – in some sense, a gigantic, living Being. And we are all *parts* of that Being, rather than inferior “creations.”)

        Or do apologists take a completely different tack, and begin by arguing for “intelligent design”?

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 15, 2016

    A friend of mine and a former colleague who graduated years ago from Dallas Theological Seminary suggested I take some classes or pursue a degree in biblical studies since I talk about it so much. As it turns out, I have no interest in learning how to read Greek, Hebrew, or any modern foreign language! My colleague said I should at least take an introductory course for Greek. I checked into it, but it just did not appeal to me at all. The only language I’ve been interested enough to take a class in was the history of the English language. Obviously, not a foreign language! It was a great class though.

    I’ve tutored writing off-and-on for years before formally becoming a teacher. It’s ranged anywhere from kids with learning disabilities to adults writing papers as they continued their education. Most of the students I’ve had who demonstrated a proficiency in writing, were usually avid readers. They read a wide variety of genres and were intrinsically motivated to do so. They also had a developed sense of humor, a broad vocabulary, and very imaginative.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 15, 2016

      I’m about 1/3 of the way through a trade book right now, (by a scholar) and it’s understandable with lots of good details, but there doesn’t seem to be any real organization to it. I keep flipping back to the table of contents trying to get a sense of where this book is headed. Is organization an issue with scholars as well or is it just this particular author?

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  August 22, 2016

        I’ve been–I hesitate to describe it this way–writing a book–forever it seems. It’s changed, over the course of time, from a defense of agnosticism to a criticism of Christian fundamentalism. It’s taken a long time because my views keep evolving. Within the last six years, I had a friend and a local editor tell me that it was disorganized. I took the criticism to heart and began to look anew at what I’d written. I saw that even sentences and paragraphs got off topic, that I wanted to say too much at once, that I needed to begin pulling things out of every section and many paragraphs to put in their own sections and organize them within those sections. I needed to make as sure as I could, for the reader, that it was clear how this sentence followed from the previous one, how this paragraph followed from the previous one, and the same with each chapter or major part. Organization isn’t just a matter of having nice neat, recognizably separate parts, like food in a pantry. It is success in helping the reader follow the writer and understand what he or she is up to and what the arguments are, if any, and how they build to the writer’s conclusions. It makes the work easier to read and understand.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  August 22, 2016

          Exactly. I’m not seeing that with this book even though it was highly recommended. I’m having a tough time getting through it.

  8. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 15, 2016

    In Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 Jesus tells the disciples they will rule on12 thrones when The Son of Man comes in the clouds.

    I believe in earlier blogs you said that you thought these are original words of Jesus.
    However, These scriptures seem incompatible with orthodoxies and I’m surprised they survived.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  August 15, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    You’ve stated in the past that your profession requires a certain facility in modern European languages because that’s where a lot of the scholarship is. What modern languages other than English do you have and what would you consider your best non-English modern language?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      My main languages have been German and French, though a couple of years ago I learned Italian as well. None of my languages is nearly as strong as I wish!

  10. Avatar
    Jason  August 15, 2016

    On the topic of non-literal translation, are there any good innuendoes in the original script languages of the scriptures that get lost in (or for that matter that have so defined the development of as to change) the English versions?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      Yes, you can’t really understand the nuances without reading the texts in the original

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  August 22, 2016

        How far can one go in understanding the nuances by reading English explanations of them?

  11. Avatar
    KathleenM  August 16, 2016

    This is what I’ve always been interested in on some level — when I’ve studied Sanskrit texts, I eventually came across something that puzzled me entirely….I think it was the Brihat Samhitra…ancient Vedic science, the astronomer/astrologer/philosophers…It was a verse about where pimples appeared on the cheek of a raja or king…as it turned out I eventually located an interpretation that had the right approach…it was apparently a joke or a sutra/paragraph making fun of everything that had already been in several volume book…as if to say, yes we can study omens, but we don’t take any of it overly seriously, we want the larger picture, to see the forest and the trees.

    In the movie the Young Messiah the scene where Joseph takes Yeshua along with Cleopas to meet the rabbis now that they are back home in the Holy Land, Yeshua really speaks out about the Messiah being the carpenter that tears down the temple and builds it up in 3 days – in short being a “craftsman in wood,” a tekton, It might have been accidentally, but there is the Aramaic expression that a wise man is a “carpenter,” and even wiser “the son of a carpenter” — men who tear the scriptures apart and put them back together with the meaning understood. There is a real carpenter shop in Nazarath of course attached to one of the houses. But possibly Joseph himself was a rabbi of some sort, or the “wise man” of his village, putting puzzles all together for the young men. (That movie also portrayed how small a town Nazarath was and the caves where people went to hide from taxation, or lived underground in their humble but adequate homes. It made me realize that in the gospel where it says “the hills swallowed up Elizabeth and John the Baptist” or “the hill country,” probably meant the two of them (at least until Joseph came back from Egypt) might have turned into “cave” dwellers, along with some family and/or friends, getting out of Dodge with Herod’s sourges. For visual people it was great to see all the real scenery of the stories (except perhaps the crucifixtions, a bit too graphic for staging IMHO). Some good miracle scenes – or if you portray what the people experienced in their psyches it showed that — the relief of feeling you’ve confessed and repented, like the world is lifted from your shoulders. Value on several levels, which ever one prefers to think is going on!!! All good. Showed Soloman’s portico, etc., pretty well. I like the DVD series AD as well for the portrayals, I was always an artist at heart and “seeing” something makes it real to me.

  12. Avatar
    Lee Palo  August 16, 2016

    If I had to guess, based on my own experience, when you know something very specialized, that few people have familiarity with, any time you have conversations with them it forces you to find shorthand ways to help them understand what it is that you know.

    For me, I do not believe that Genesis 1 is a linear, scientific, description of how the world came into existence. When I would talk with people, I had to find a shorthand for them to understand how I could come to that conclusion. What I settled on was drawing two vertical columns of three boxes. The first column with day 1, 2, and 3 descending, and the second with day 4,5,and 6 descending. Then I draw arrows horizontally from day 1 to 4, day 2 to 5, and day 3 to 6. Then I tell them that the first column represents a space God creates where the second column is where God fills that space. When you can show people features of a text like that, it is easy to ask them if that looks linear or scientific to them, rather than poetic or theological. Watching people’s expressions when they see that is pretty fun!

    In any case, necessity is the mother of invention, and if you have a need to express something, you end up getting pretty creative about how to do it, as well as having plenty of practice doing it to refine your methods.

  13. TWood
    TWood  August 16, 2016

    1. Hermeneutics and exegesis have always seemed to be used as synonyms, but you probably see them as different—maybe?

    2. Among scholars today, apart from Paul’s seven legit letters, is it basically universally accepted that the rest of the New Testament is either anonymous or pseudonymous? (for example, I think it’s safe to say basically no one believes Peter wrote 2 Peter, but is it almost as safe to say the same thing about 1 Peter, the Pastorals, and Paul’s other probable pseudepigraphical letters (2 Thess, Eph, Col,)?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2016

      I would use exegesis to refer to the historical attempt to establish a historical meaning, and hermeneutics to refer to the philosophical reflection on what meaning is and how it can be conveyed and known.

      Scholars differ on such matters, of course. Most think 2 Peter and the Pastorals are pseudonymous. But some think they are actually authentic!

      • TWood
        TWood  August 17, 2016

        1. Do the scholars who believe the disputed letters are authentic do so largely because they believe the New Testament was “God breathed” by “holy men of God who were moved by the His Spirit?” (It seems like some serious circular reasoning is going on if that’s the case).

        2. What is the main argument that *real scholars* use for the authenticity of letters like 2 Peter and 2 Timothy? (Church tradition is my best guess).

        • Bart
          Bart  August 18, 2016

          1. Some think that; others use historical argumentation 2. 2 Timothy: similarities to other Pauline letters; 2 Peter: the lack of evidence that it was *not* written by Peter.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  August 22, 2016

          These points are off-topic and maybe are ones that are already clear to you but 1. It’s good to keep in mind that, when 2 Timothy was composed, there was no New Testament. That is to say, they were not yet Christian scriptures that 2 Timothy could have been referring to as “God-breathed.” 2. Of course the author is writing about their own scriptures (the LXX) but, literally, “all scripture” would include those of other traditions. 3. To use 2 Timothy to prove all scripture is God-breathed would be a circular argument.

  14. cheito
    cheito  August 16, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

  15. Avatar
    jlparris  August 16, 2016

    This is a very interesting post that indirectly focuses upon the distinction between academic degrees and professional degrees. A minister that has to navigate a congregation and meet their diverse needs, and deliver a sermon or two each week, a wedding, and a funeral every now and then, has a very demanding job. It seems like a luxury to say “Many of them considered themselves experts in only one book of the New Testament.” I am glad that there are specialized academics, but I am even more glad that there are those with professional degrees laboring in the trenches.

  16. Avatar
    Michael Sommers  August 17, 2016

    It seems to me that there is something wrong with this approach. Presumably, the original authors wanted to communicate something. They wouldn’t have expected their (often illiterate) hearers to spend months figuring out what each sentence meant. Surely, far, far more often than not, those authors meant what they said, not something that could only be determined by months of study.

    Of course, today, since we are not first-century Greek speakers, some study is required, in order to figure out what a first-century Greek speaker would have understood the text to mean. Beyond that, though, it appears that exegesis is the craft of getting a text to mean something other than what it says.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  August 22, 2016

      You say that “those authors meant what they said.” Well, yes, they meant what they meant, but, standing in between what they committed to “paper” and what they meant are another language, two thousand years, innuendos, idioms, historical context, polemic motive, and more. Without explanation, you then say, “Beyond that…, it appears that exegesis is the craft of getting a text to mean something other than what it says.” Your words “Beyond that” are key. Why you come to this conclusion is, in my view, well beyond justification.

      • Avatar
        Michael Sommers  August 22, 2016

        I guess I didn’t make myself clear. What I was trying to say is that, beyond what is needed to make allowance for the different languages, cultures, etc., there should be little explanation of what the authors meant, since those authors presumably wanted to get their messages across clearly, and were not writing secret messages that could only be understood after years of training. Thus when exegesis explains that sleeping was a euphemism for death, that is good and helpful, but when it tries to explain why “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” really means that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, it is getting into very dubious territory.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  August 25, 2016

          Even passages that were meant to have meanings that would be clear to anyone at the time who was able to read them, 2,000 years later many might as well have secret meanings. In Mark, the Apostles often fail to understand what Jesus means. And John’s Revelation has a lot of obscure language that is code for judgments against Rome.

  17. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  August 17, 2016

    All I have to say is that this was a refreshing post! I have a Fundamentalist friend that insists that “the text says what it says and it is written so anyone can understand it.” Of course that plays out to mean that the text says what HE thinks it says/means and if you disagree with him, it’s not HIM you’re disagreeing with but the text itself! This makes discussion of the text where we disagree virtually impossible! He will always be right!

    When I attended some Fundamentalist churches in the 80s I found there were many debates among believers over interpretation of the text and this in fighting seemed to be constant. This fighting over interpretation is one of the many reasons I left and it feels good not to be around all that bickering!

    So it refreshing to it affirmed that scriptural interpretation is not simple.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  August 18, 2016

      Liam, there are (quite literally, I think) as many interpretations of the Bible as there are serious readers.

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  August 18, 2016

        I agree! I think we all interpret scripture through each of our unique perspectives.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  August 22, 2016

      There were so many times that a born-again or evangelical Christian and I would be arguing and he would finally write down some verses for me to read, as if, if I read them, I’d understand–maybe even accept– his belief. I actually went home and read them. 90% of the time, they had absolutely nothing to do with our discussion. It became clear, over and over, that they were reading meaning into the verses.

  18. Avatar
    dcjacobs  August 18, 2016

    The first thing I thought after reading today’s post is: why don’t you write your own translation of the New Testament? If written with annotations it would be a great tool for students and lay people alike.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2016

      That would take a lifetime! That’s probably why it’s not on my agenda!

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