The Difference between Event and Text and the Interpreter’s Task

Jason A. Clark

As one studies more closely the science and art of biblical interpretation, one is increasingly confronted with concerns of which he was hitherto ignorant. Though at first glance some of these aspects of interpretation may seem insignificant, further scrutiny reveals that they must be thoughtfully considered in order to faithfully apply oneself to the task of understanding the Bible. Such is the case with the question, "Is the event or the text the proper object of interpretation?" The answer, as it shall be demonstrated, is that the biblical text is the vehicle that contains the actual message of God and ought to be the focus of the interpreter’s study.

We understand the term "event" to mean the historical circumstance that occurred, be it the slaughter of Abel, the exodus of Israel, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By "text," then, we mean the actual written record of said event, captured through the personality and literary style of its chronicler. The author had a specific purpose in mind when he recorded the event that is recoverable not through examination of the event, which we do not possess, but only through examination of the text itself, which we do.

By narrowly approaching the event and neglecting the text in our study of scripture, one can easily be fooled into thinking that he "knows all there is to know" about a given occurrence. He is assured that his understanding of the story is complete; in fact, he may have read or heard the story of a particular biblical event hundreds of times! With little or no consideration given to the event as contained in the message itself, however, the interpreter misses out on vital information to aid him in understanding the author’s purpose.

There is only one literary genre to which this principle is applicable: the historical narrative. The problem arises from the reader’s tendency to view the account as mere history. With such a presupposition as a foundation, the reader feels that he is getting "the bare facts" of a biblical narrative. In reality, though, he is missing the very essence of the biblical account. The careful interpreter must realize that historical narratives were written using certain literary forms and are found within a larger context.

Suppose for a moment that one attends just one scene of a play and then promptly exits the theatre. From his limited frame of reference, as he recounts what he has observed to others, he could easily come to believe that there is nothing more to know save what happened in the scene he witnessed. Of course, the scene is contained within the act, and the act in turn is an integral part of the larger whole—the play. Character, setting, plot, climax, denouement, and the overall message of the dramatic work – all these are lost upon the man who chooses to view only the "one scene."

In the book of Numbers, we find an episode in which a man was gathering wood on the sabbath day. After consulting the Lord for judgment, Moses and Aaron directed the Israelites to take the man outside of the camp and stone him to death (Numbers 15:32-36). If an interpreter were to view only the stoning itself, he would miss the entire point of the passage. The narrative is found in the larger context of instruction regarding sacrifices for unintentional and inadvertent sin under the Mosaic Law (15:22-31). It had been provided by the author in anticipation of the inevitable question, "What about those who sin deliberately? Does the law prescribe anything for them?" Moses provided the answer in the form of a narrative. The true meaning of this passage would be lost, then, if one merely chooses the event as the object of interpretation.

It has been said that "the issue is not what Jesus actually said. What matters is what the gospel writers meant when they recorded Jesus’ words." Typically, a Christian’s gut-level reaction to these seemingly appalling words is to reel in shock, horror, and disgust—aghast at the prospect of cheapening the red-letter words of Christ. In order to conduct accurate exegesis, the Bible student must realize that (since he does not have access to them) "meaning" does not reside in the ethereal vibrations that were spoken by the Savior two millennia ago; rather, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John quoted Jesus in differing contexts and for differing purposes, to advance distinct truths. It is only through careful examination of the biblical text that we possess that one can discern the intended meaning of the writer of the account. Are we in fact guilty of lessening the importance of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ? On the contrary, it is only when we focus on the biblical text instead of the event that we discover what the true author—the divine author who inspired its writing—meant.

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