I’m consistently amazed at the impact that the words we use have on our interpretation of reality. You may have heard the phrase, “Words create worlds.” At the very least, being in possession of and then deploying a word removes some of the chaos, mystery, and uncertainty “out there” in the world in the sheer act of naming. Not all of the mystery - I only have a rudimentary understanding of a bunch of everyday things, like how electricity powers the laptop I’m using to write this, but my “world” is brought into little bit more order merely by having some language to describe it.
But what happens when we use the wrong word to describe something? And, what does “wrong” even mean in this context? Perhaps it means that the word you are using, and more precisely, the conceptual ideas that your community of fellow speakers associate with that word, does not really fit the thing you are attempting to apply the word to. The activity of trying to use words to appropriately communicate in accordance with the norms of your community has been called a “language-game”. The rules of the language-games we “play” are shifting all the time, but we are necessarily bound to play them.
Hard-left turn: what does this philosophy of language have to do with the Bible? Your view on how and what it means for the Bible to be inspired will lead to different assessments of the following idea, but one might suggest that at the very least, the Bible is the product of human authors engaged in a language-game. They are attempting to communicate to their audience in accordance with the norms of their day - picking words, selecting literary conventions, following the broad, unspoken guidelines of various genres - there’s a lot going on in language-games. And the biblical authors were no less playing it than we are.
Temporarily adopting the rules of the biblical authors’ and audience’s language-games is the key to fruitful, modern interpretation.
This is no easy task. Yet, really smart people have spent their lives researching these language-games and have sought to let other inquiring minds in on their findings and scholarship. There are a lot of great resources out there - an easy first step is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a great introductory text to understanding biblical genre and what biblical authors were up to in their choice of what kind of literature to write.
Yet, we make this task of understanding the ancient language-game even more difficult by having strange conventions in our modern language-game. For instance, consider the widespread use of the word “book” to describe the Bible itself and its contents. The Bible is not a book - it is a library of many different kinds of documents. Nor should the contents really be categorized as “books”; Philemon is a personal letter from Paul to a guy named Philemon - it is 25 verses long. Jonah is a short-story. Psalms is a collection of songs and poems, a hymnal of sorts.
I’m not saying it is absolutely horrible to use the word “book” to describe the contents of the Bible - but we should be on guard for the conceptual baggage we bring with that word and the imposition of the rules of our language-game onto the ancient language-game being played in the pages of scripture.
Think of our modern “book”. Perhaps you are old-school and you’ve purchased one from a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Already, you’ve departed from the ancient language-game - few members of the largely Hebrew audience were literate and owned literature. More likely, your reading is done online, and unless the content is pay-gated, literally anyone with an internet connection could potentially consume the content. Again, another departure - there is almost no chance for the average ancient Assyrian to have any contact with the document Leviticus. Our books can be self-published or done through a publisher, and in most cases things like length, titles, word-choice, cover art and other details are chosen, at least in part, to make a profit on sales of the book. These norms simply aren’t part of the ancient language-game either - there might be versions of them, but not a one-for-one correspondence.
The crucial point: let us be more vigilant for the ways we bring our language-games to our work of understanding and using scripture.
We give a brief introduction to the topic of biblical genre in this week’s episode The Bible is Not a Book. Currently, the best way to support Open to Truth is to subscribe to our YouTube channel and interact via comments. We’d love to help other folks like you on their faith journey.
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