“The Bible is its own interpreter.The Bible speaks for itself. The Bible has no need for outside interpreters.” These are a few of the many clichés that insist the Bible is self-explanatory. When these statements are made during biblical discourse, they are usually employed as conversation stoppers or as a signal that only confirmatory information from within the Bible is welcome.
Often the Bible is made to “speak for itself” through “proof-texting”, where similar-sounding biblical statements are “deployed” and made to dialogue with themselves on any given subject, with little regard for contexts or original meanings. While this method of Bible study may have its place for the new initiate, it soon becomes inadequate as the student goes from – borrowing Paul’s metaphor – “drinking milk to eating meat”. As our knowledge and understanding of the Bible increases, our appreciation for nuancing grows and we generally become less enamored with straight-jacketed literalistic approaches.
A popular version of the self-evident Bible conceit finds its best example in 2 Tim 3:16a: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable...” (bolding supplied for emphasis). This text is often used as a clincher, a silencer of sorts, against critics who complain about inappropriate use of biblical texts. But the verse is pregnant with ideas that are hardly self-evident, and beg for elucidation. This essay is a somewhat playful attempt to demonstrate that biblical texts are not so easily pigeonholed as they might appear on first reading. By defining and placing the key words – All, scripture, inspiration, profitable – in context, this article explores some “hidden” meanings and implications of this fundamentalist-loving text.
First, some background about the book and its time. Second Timothy is one of three pastoral epistles (First Timothy and Titus are the others) commonly attributed to Paul. Increasingly, however, Pauline authorship is a minority opinion among scholars. Those few who consider Paul as author place the dating around 64 AD, a few years before his martyrdom around 67 AD. The majority who question Paul’s authorship believe the book was written in the middle of the second century, about 150 AD, by a pseudonymous “Paul” who sought to capitalize on the true Paul’s fame and standing in the Christian community.
This type of attribution was quite common in antiquity where lesser known writers, who were more interested in their ideas gaining readership than personal recognition, would ascribe authorship of their works to more important or better-known historical figures. Paul’s name was frequently used in such “author-appropriation”. Of the 13 New Testament (NT) books traditionally attributed to Paul, the consensus by modern scholars is that only eight – Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians – were actually written by him.
These books are called “pastoral” because they were written to ministers with established churches (a key knock against Pauline authorship). Early churches were loosely organized and thus less likely to have individual pastors during Paul’s ministry, which was heavily dedicated to missionary activities. It was different by the middle of the second century when the church had more structure. The thinking is that the true Paul would not be addressing letters to young pastors because those roles, unlike elders and deacons, were less defined in the Christian Church during his lifetime. But authorship may not be as impactful to meaning in 2 Tim 3:16 as the dating of the letter.
Now to definitions. Because this essay’s primary audience is English speaking, I will focus on defining the English words used in the dated, but unarguably most influential version ever published: the King James Version (KJV). Our first word is All. In 2 Tim 3:16a, the word translated as All also means every, which the Aramaic Bible in Plain English and the New English translations use. Now, we “all” recall being warned against an unrestrained use of the word “all” in categorizing. For example, we dismiss the veracity of statements like “All Adventists are good”, or “All Catholics are bad”. We are suspicious, even distrustful, when lumped together in such an “all.” And for good reasons: the connotation of the word is too sweeping, so we worry about its overstating potential. Since All, in 2 Tim 3:16a, does not go beyond its adjectival role in modifying scripture, we would first attempt to identify scripture as it would have been comprised in the writer’s time and then circle back to understand what the writer might have meant by All.
The Greek word, graphe, translated in the KJV as scripture, means a “document” or “contents of a document”. Christians now generally define scripture as the sacred writings within the Bible. But this is not how the writer or his audience in the first or second century would have understood the term, since they did not have our Bibles in their current forms. Scripture, at the time, comprised of the core Old Testament (OT) books and many others circulating in both Jewish and Christian circles at the time of 2 Timothy’s writing. Very few, if any, NT writings had gained universal recognition or acceptance in the same way the OT books had.
But even in the post-canonical era, this definition of “sacred writings within the Bible” presents a collection problem, because different Christian groups have different compositions for their Bibles. The Catholic Bible has: 73 books, Greek/Eastern Orthodox: 79, and the Ethiopian: 81. The 66 books in the more familiar Protestant Bible was assembled in the fifth century, hundreds of years after 2 Tim 3:16 was written. At the time its writing, the word translated as scripture could not, obviously, have referenced the 66 books on the Protestant list, or on any other Bible list, because canonization had not completed. If Paul wrote 2 Timothy, then the scripture reference would have included far fewer NT books than we have in our current Bibles. For example, Paul was dead before such notable books as John’s gospel or Revelation were written. On the other hand, if the book was composed in the mid-second century, then the author’s scripture reference could have included a broader collection than is in any current Bible.
So while a first reading of this statement might impress, based on readers’ supposition that the scripture reference is to the Bibles they’re familiar with, this comforting sense disappears when readers become aware of its context and associated meanings. And because scripture could be variable, we can’t easily identify what the All signifies. Does All embrace the Torah and other Jewish religious literature of the period? Plus all Christian literature of the writer’s time and beyond? How we answer this question might depend on our understanding of another word in the text – inspiration.
What Timothy’s author intended to convey by his use of the Greek word, theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed” and was translated in the KJV as inspiration of God, has been the subject of endless debates. The International Standard Version, for example, maintains the verbatim Greek meaning by translating the line as: All scripture is God-breathed. Despite the debates, almost all interpretations of the word concede the involvement or influence of God in what the writers are communicating. The disagreements have centered on the degree or depth of God’s participation in the process.
At one end of the spectrum are believers in verbal plenary inspiration, who contend that God virtually dictated the words used by biblical writers. My observation, which admittedly might be too simplistic, is that generally those who espouse such a belief in verbal inspiration also tend to be conservative or fundamentalist in orientation, and prefer older Bible translations like the KJV. On the opposite end is thought inspiration, in which God is believed to have revealed his ideas to his chosen messengers commensurate with the writers’ abilities to understand. Then they communicated those wishes, relying on their own thoughts, experiences and expressions. Because thought inspiration allows greater latitude in biblical interpretation, Christian progressives and liberals lean in this direction, and are more accepting of newer translations like the New International Version. Between these poles are multiple different understandings of inspiration.
The last word to parse in this partial verse is profitable. This word is derived from the Greek word ophelimos, which is sometimes translated as: helpful, advantageous, or serviceable. I don’t think we pay enough attention to this word, which in Christian practice is really the engine that powers the entire text. When we make a sweeping claim that the entire Bible is profitable, meaning it is “good” for some XYZ, how do we understand the word? Do we mean by profitable that all the contents of the Bible; the stories, laws, admonishing, etc. are an example or template to order our lives by? If so what do we do with competing propositions advancing opposing ethics, as when God enshrines in the Decalogue the imperative: Thou shall not kill, but elsewhere the same God orders and sometimes does the killing? What is profitable? The law not to kill, or the order to kill? Lest we forget the practical implications derived from these opposing directives, many communities model their penal codes, notably the death penalty, in some form based on their understanding of these injunctions.
The irony is that, increasingly in the Western world, the more “Christian” the community, the more likely they are to approve of the death penalty. We see this vividly in the divergent attitudes between European countries (where all but Belarus have abolished the practice) and the United States, where a 31-state majority still support it. And in the US the irony is even more poignant: the more “Christian” southern states, who have the most statutes protecting a fetus, are also the communities most likely to promote the death penalty.
In other areas, does the profitable template refer to the God who exacts “an eye for an eye”, or the Son who asks us to “do good to our enemies”? Infringement of the adultery law mandated death, so when the woman was brought before Jesus (John 7:53-8:11), her accusers were rightly requiring that the death penalty be enforced. But not only did Jesus not enforce the law, he told the disgraced woman: “Neither do I condemn you.” On slavery, is the Bible a helpful example of God’s laws regulating the practice? Should we follow Paul when he hestates: “there is no slave or free”, or when the same Paul returned Onesimus to Philemon – with Onesimus still in chains? Was polygamy an inspired example which served God’s elect for a time but no longer works? Was the law that sanctioned virgin females – captured in war as booty for Israeli soldiers – ever a just law? Are the observations in Proverbs that “Those who spare the rod hate their children” (13:24) and “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (22:15) profitable advice? Some swear by them, but children have also been irreparably harmed by brutes who used this as justification.
These questions grow out of a search for biblical models that are worthy of emulation, that are – in essence – profitable. Invariably, when we take the Bible seriously, we come to the realization that there are no easy cookie-cutter answers. So we must do the diligent work of sorting out the wheat from the tares, instead of settling for simple slogans.
Much as we might want to believe that the original writer of this verse had future Christians in mind, we were not his initial audience. He wrote this, as all writers do, to a specific audience, his immediate contemporaries. And they were local church community, maybe a district but certainly not a worldwide Christian community with such divergent backgrounds as exists today. When we appropriate this verse in our time therefore, it serves us well to consider its original context. If we don’t, if we continue insisting that everything in the Bible is good and useful without considering time and context, we behave like the proverbial ostrich that will not leave the sand box and look around.
The good news is that most Christians are discriminatory with biblical directives. We pick what works, (and there is plenty to pick from) but shy away from that which is harmful. It’s why we pray when we fall sick but also go to see our doctors. A refusal to contextualize biblical ethics or abandon clearly outdated understandings of how the world works, simply because the wrong information happens to be in the Bible, is akin to relying only on healthcare and transportation practices of that era. God expects more from us because he has given us the tools to move with the times.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
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