How is the correct biblical interpretation determined?

Wrong interpretations of the Bible"Some places have to be marked with warning notices"

Christiane Florin: The Bible is a collection of texts, a canon of scriptures, on which church decision-makers have agreed. The Catholic and Protestant Bibles contain different books. The Bible is available in many different translations into German, plus editions in fair, easy and youth language. THE Bible is actually an understatement. There are many Bibles.

Thomas Hieke, the interlocutor for today's program, is professor of Catholic theology at the University of Mainz. His specialty is the Old Testament. He's published a book called "Bible, Misunderstood." It is a collection of deliberately one-sided interpretations, of inaccurate translations and the persistent desire to be able to divinely justify human intent to discriminate. I spoke to Thomas Hieke last week and first of all I asked him what about this book, which is based on so many human agreements, what is supposed to be divine about the Bible.

Thomas Hieke: The Bible is not a divine instruction like an instruction manual or software that we have to work through. In the second letter of Peter 1:21, the Bible itself says what it is: Driven by the Holy Spirit, people spoke on behalf of God. So the Bible did not fall from heaven; it is God's word in the word of man. Like every word of man, the Bible cannot be understood without interpretation, not without interpretation. Every translation is already an interpretation. Every reading, every reading is already an interpretation. It is also nonsensical to say: I take the Bible literally, because that would also be an interpretation and an inappropriate one at that.

Thomas Hieke teaches Catholic theology at the University of Main. His main focus is the Old Testament. (University of Mainz)

I see the Bible as a treasure trove of human life experiences, and this treasure, these life experiences, has crystallized into literature. If we read this literature carefully, then we will benefit from these life and God experiences. I have such a little universal key for interpreting the Bible, and it's pretty hidden in Leviticus 18: 5. It says: The person who acts accordingly, namely according to God's instruction according to the Torah, will live. That is, a successful life is the goal. If, however, an interpretation of the Bible no longer enables people to live, but rather makes people afraid of life, then I believe the interpretation is wrong.

Florin: You emphasized that the Bible did not fall from heaven, it is not a set of rules to live by. It is a literary work, a collection of experience reports, of stories from the lives of very many different people. Nevertheless, it is seductive, at least for certain trends, to say: "This is how it should be! There is no discussion, there is no deviation, there is no room for interpretation!" Why is that?

Hieke: These are interests of people who make a text their own, but then ultimately take control of the text and no longer interpret the text, but use it and then possibly misuse it. We like to criticize Muslims who use the Koran for their political interests. But that also happens with the Bible. Certain circles also seize the Bible text, pull individual sentences out of context, hold them in front of them and say: "It is written in the Bible and it has to be. That is how it is." And when I experience something like that, I like to say: "Oh, show me where it is." Sometimes what is being said is not there at all. Or I say: "Just turn the page, there is something completely different in another place." And then these strong statements - "It's in the Bible and that's how it has to be!" - relativized.

"Genesis is not a biological theory of the origins of the world"

Florin: And is that how you convince others?

Hieke: I can convince the students with it. I myself have little other opportunity to get into conversation with actual fundamentalists, although sometimes it doesn't really help to discuss things with such people in this way. But I would like to enable my students to argue in this way.

Florin: The problem starts at the beginning or, as it is called in the Book of Genesis, at the beginning. We now hear an excerpt from the beginning.

"It was evening and there was morning: the third day. Then God said," Lights shall be in the vault of heaven, to separate day and night. They shall serve as signs for festivals, for days and years. to shine over the earth. And so it was. God made the two great lights, the great one to rule over the day, the little one to rule over the night and the stars Earth shine, rule day and night and separate light from darkness. God saw that it was good. " (Genesis 1, 13-18)

Florin: Because today is Ascension Day. What is being told about heaven here?

Hieke: At the beginning, the description of the Bible is downright scientific, especially in comparison to its ancient oriental environment. The Babylonians still believed that heaven and earth came into being through the division of the original goddess Tiamat. In contrast, the heavenly firmament and the earth are works of God in the Bible. Moon, sun, and stars are not deities like the Babylonians, but lamps: the large lamp, the sun, the small lamp for the night, the moon and the stars.

Against the background of the data at the time, the biblical text of creation is comparatively sober. But it doesn't really want to be a scientific text in our current sense. This special, modern way of asking questions about the text is actually very strange, and I think we would overwhelm it if we were to turn it into a physical-biological theory of the origins of the world. Instead, the Bible asks what makes sense behind it all and is amazed at the order it finds. So the key word is order. The key word for this text in Genesis 1 is order: six days plus one day - six plus one - a familiar scheme that recurs several times in the Bible.

Florin: It took the Catholic Church a long time to come to the conclusion that no scientific statement is made there. In any case, no longer in the sense that here we really learn something about the creation of the universe. Why did it take so long?

Hieke: That is a mystery in church history. It actually took until the early 1990s when the later canonized Pope John Paul II resolved the Galileo case for the Church and then said in his address on the occasion of the rehabilitation of Galileo: "We have to look at the natural sciences and do not believe that they can derive scientific facts from the Bible. Because these texts do not want to say that at all. "

Florin: What does this book of Genesis say about God, what kind of God is that?

Hieke: This is a god who is very different from his creation. In contrast to the ancient Babylonian, ancient Oriental or ancient Egyptian myths, in which the gods are always part of this world, this god is the creator, in the biblical doctrine of creation very different from his creation. We use the theological term "transcendent". It also transcends space and time. It's hard to imagine, hard to think. God is not there. Up in the blue in space, in the sky. When someone goes to heaven - after all, it is the holiday of Ascension Day - then that is not a rocket launch into space, but it is a departure from this spatial-temporal world.

"The blood call has a devastating impact history"

Florin: And against whom do you have to defend this now? Who is stubbornly saying something wrong?

Hieke: There are common ideas, for example in baroque churches there is often a hole in the ceiling where a figure is pulled up on Ascension Day. There is also the strange idea that eternal life is a simple extension of the local existence ad infinitum, into infinity. And that's scary, because they say: This life here goes on forever. That's not what is meant by it. Or there is the idea that when someone dies, they have to be kept somewhere and stay there in the dust until the time is up at some point.

Florin: I would now like to take a long leap in the Bible, from the Old to the New Testament. An example of how the Bible is used and abused politically, namely for anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. A jump into the Gospel of Matthew, to a place that is also proverbially known. A powerful man, a Roman governor, washes his hands in innocence.

"Pilate said to them: What should I do with Jesus then? The man who is called the Christ? Then they all answered: On the cross with him. He replied: What crime has he committed? But they shouted even louder When Pilate saw that he was not achieving anything, but that the tumult was getting bigger, he had water brought in, washed his hands in front of everyone and said: I am innocent of this person's blood, that is your business Then all the people cried, "Be blood on us and our children! Thereupon he released Barabbas. But he had Jesus scourged and delivered him to the crucifixion." (Matthew, 27, 22-26)

Florin: This blood call is one of many biblical passages with which Christian anti-Judaism was founded: the Jews as Christ murderers. How did this interpretation come about?

Hieke: The blood call has had a really devastating impact and is used as an explanation or justification for the negative fate of the Jews. In this view they are punished by God for the execution of Jesus, for which all Jews are collectively guilty for all time. This also legitimizes active action against Jews, which was legitimized in the past.

But if one reads the context of the Gospel of Matthew and embeds the blood call into it, then this blood call actually turns out to be a call for salvation. He is the blood of the covenant, which is symbolically shed in the Lord's Supper, with which Jesus symbolically interprets his death in the Lord's Supper. This blood is shed for the forgiveness of sins. And the people who utter this blood call also hope for this redemption. This could be understood on the context level of the Gospel of Matthew. But taken on its own, taken out of context, this sentence is of course ideally suited to marginalizing Jews, accusing Jews, making them collectively guilty and thus also persecuting them.

The problem in general is that one must not use the history of the impact of biblical texts against the biblical texts themselves, but one has to criticize the history of impact. The New Testament simply came into being at a time when the early Christian communities were looking for their identity. And when young people look for their identity during puberty, it is not painless and often only possible through a very hard distinction. And this painful process of harsh demarcation between early Christians and Judaism is what we experience in the New Testament. This is reflected in these texts. This process of demarcation - and that is the bad thing - has historically been connected with an incredible amount of violence by Christians against Jews. That is a very shameful fact. It is even more embarrassing, I find, that Christians actually only grew up after the Shoah and hopefully no longer define their identity at the expense of the Jews.

"Christian hostility towards Jews has a long, deep-seated tradition"

Florin: You are just saying it yourself: there is a very deep-seated hostility towards Jews, a deep-seated hatred of Jews, a contempt for Jews. You can't just turn it around by saying: "This passage is not really meant. It is just misunderstood. You have to see it in a historical context." Isn't the essence of scripture such that it is well suited to devaluing others, saying: "We have the true faith, we have overcome something that others still believe in. We are the better"?

Hieke: Yes, there is no cure for this chauvinism. That is also a piece of stupidity. And of course using sacred texts for one's own interests. But that happens often and not only in Christianity, but also in other religions. You simply have to act against it. At this point there is also a counter-argument for me against the traditional argument: We have many bad, terrible traditions in Christianity. The hostility to Jews is a very, very long, deep-seated tradition that has now been overcome in the Catholic Church, at the latest with the document "Nostra aetate" of the Second Vatican Council. A very clear language is spoken there, which Pope John Paul II continued with his speech about the never-denounced covenant and about the older siblings, the people of the Jewish faith. We must continue to work on this, and of course, as Christians, also admit that we are guilty of this terrible story. It doesn't undo it, nor does it excuse it. But we have to see that today we work differently, think differently and also teach differently. There is this famous theology after Auschwitz, according to which it is clear: there must never again be a hostile demarcation between Christians and Judaism. And even the New Testament texts that arose out of this historical period, we have to understand today under certain circumstances as no longer valid in the narrower sense.

Florin: How does that work in practice? Do you then have to somehow mark these places, give a warning and say: You can actually no longer read this - at least without comment - in a church service?

Hieke: Yes, mark passages with a warning - you will laugh: This proposal actually exists, at least for the Old Testament there is a proposal from a colleague from the USA, James Watts, to print certain Bible texts with the type crossed out.

Little demand for information about the Bible

Florin: How is it in the New Testament? We have just talked about the New Testament, about the blood call in the Gospel of Matthew, and there are also passages in the Gospel of John that are anti-Judaistic.

Hieke: Correct. Here, too, it would of course make sense to put up warning notices or, of course, to point them out accordingly in catechesis in religious instruction, in theology studies.

Florin: So there is a problem that the Bible is a bestseller, that it is read by a lot of people who have not studied theology, have not studied biblical studies, who read this book unconditionally.

Hieke: Do people really just read the Bible so impartially? If you are honest, you should then actually ask questions and perhaps use these questions to approach people who are more familiar with them. But the questions are limited. Actually, I see the demand for information about the Bible rather limited at the moment.

Florin: I would like to move on to another subject, the subject that you yourself have dealt with in this book, namely homosexuality. The story of Sodom is often used for this, including the catechism of the Catholic Church. You say: This passage doesn't actually talk about homosexuality, but rather about violence, about an abuse of the hospitality rights. What do you hope for if, as you say, you interpret the Bible correctly? So when you say that it doesn't mean that this is about discriminating against a certain group?

Hieke: I see here, also on the part of the catechism, but also by many other Christian groups, simply an attempt to use the Holy Scriptures as a murderous argument or as a hammer argument against a certain sexual orientation, or to put it in a somewhat harsher form: the Bible is intended to legitimize one's own homophobia become.

"Misinterpretation in order to enforce homophobic interests"

Florin: If I understand you correctly, what you are writing amounts to saying that the catechism must be changed. Do you think you will be successful with this claim?

Hieke: I do not know that. At least I said so. Afterwards nobody can say that I didn't say anything. I have published my expertise here. I don't know if I have to write this straight to Rome now. Many of my colleagues who interpret these passages also say that the catechism can be changed. It's not a big deal. Pope Francis recently did the same when he changed the passage on the death penalty - against the considerable opposition, particularly from American bishops. But it works. At this point the catechism could also be corrected.Because the simple assertion that is there in the catechism that the Bible has always called homosexuality a terrible aberration is simply wrong, as it is there in the catechism. The story of Sodom is not about homosexuality. You can actually see that very quickly, because it means: All the men from Sodom gather and want to socialize with these visitors to Lot. So are all the men of Sodom gay? So it's downright absurd. Here you can see how the later interpretation misused or misinterpreted a story in order to enforce homophobic interests.

Florin: Here, too, the question arises in a similar way to the issue of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism: There never was a Roman Catholic Church that did not discriminate against homosexuals. So it's really that easy to thoroughly interpret a passage from the Bible, to say, "Something has been misunderstood. Something has been misunderstood. Something is being misused." Is it so easy to change such a long history of contempt?

Hieke: Yes, I really hope I can once again remind you of the topic of anti-Judaism. There we have a broad and centuries-old current of anti-Judaism. Nobody can seriously go up and say: "But it's a long tradition in the Catholic Church to despise Jews, we have to uphold that." You just can't uphold such a tradition. And that has also been officially refuted and ended by the Church, by the teaching of the Church, this tradition, with the document of the Second Vatican Council. To put an end to bad traditions and to bring a different doctrine, that definitely exists in the Catholic Church. We see this in attitudes towards Judaism. And in the same way one can change the attitudes and teachings of the Catholic Church about homosexuality, about sexuality in general, but also, for example, about questions of women's ordination.

"The fundamentalist must not turn the page"

Florin: And who is the authority that decides what is right?

Hieke: You could get on to teaching now. But I don't want to bring this instance into play. Rather, I see two great pillars on how one can interpret the Bible correctly. One is the context, so I look closely at the context. What is the context of the passage that I want to interpret? And are there possibly other positions that shed a special light on my position? So: never detach from the context. There is also a nice sentence that my students know: "The fundamentalist must not turn the page." In order to be able to maintain a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, one must not turn the page, because then one finds other texts that put this into perspective again. So one thing is the context. The other pillar is the community of interpretation. There are quite a few of them. This is not just the Roman Catholic Church now, it is actually every parish, every Bible study group or, when I am in seminary with my students, we are also a community of interpretation. And then everyone has to give their Bible reading, their Bible interpretation into this community of interpretation. And in the conversation it will then crystallize out whether this interpretation works or whether it is perhaps one-sided, aloof, whether one has to put it into perspective again with other Bible texts.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

Hieke, Thomas and Huber, Konrad (eds.): "Bible misunderstood. Persistent misinterpretations of biblical texts explained. "
Stuttgart, Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2020. 300 pages.