Warning: Biblical Hermeneutics
The language of legalese is specifically complicated to remove any ambiguities and to preserve clarity for as long as possible. It needs to be understood in the present and the future.
However, language evolves. Not only does language alter to such an extent that in a hundred years time we’ll be scratching our heads (take text speech as an example) but the meaning of words change too. We might be able to physically read, vocalise, a legal document or a book from a couple of centuries ago but comprehension is harder (eg Canterbury Tales).
Something else to consider is that not only is the language harder but it refers to objects and activities which were taken as an everyday basic in the time of the text being composed. But today’s world is vastly different and many objects and activities have been replaced/superseded by others. Take for example the gaslighter, or a knife-grinder – we may no longer have people in these positions but from the description we can easily work out what their function was. This is not so easily the case with, for example, a scullion.
Which brings me to the BBC 4 Thought for the Day I heard earlier in the week. It isn’t just jobs and items it is the whole image of a particular way of life and the hierarchy and inherent knowledge of the manner in which society is structured that is at the heart of understanding. When we look at a piece of literature, like the bible, how do we know that we are interpreting it correctly? The words It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God I had always thought were self-explanatory. The poor will get into heaven because they are not greedy, nor do they amass wealth at the expense of those who live without. I had unintentionally ignored the bit about the camel, interpreting it unconsciously as a tongue-in-cheek analogy because the camel was the largest animal they knew of.
However, the speaker on Thought for the Day, urges us to remember that in the days of the bible the camel was a source of food, clothing and travel. It was the most important asset any person could own. Like the camel, the richest asset, which provided and supported so adequately, so the rich man had to provide and sustain the community. The statement now becomes a positive ideal rather than a negative warning; a rich man can enter the kingdom of God but it will be harder and he has to be as giving as a camel; it is the rich man’s duty to provide for those less well-off. It is easier for the camel because the camel is utilised (and has no choice) but man has choice and it his will that governs him; his will shall sway the gate to the entrance of Heaven (which is what I interpret the kingdom of God to be).
I am not wholly convinced that the speaker is correct, but I am willing to accept that my interpretation of the text is not as unshakingly valid as I had first believed.
Literal translation is one thing, interpretation requires significantly more.
And here endeth today’s sermon.