Adolf von Harnack: How Do You Read the Bible?

Ah, I’m glad to be working with twentieth century theology. It’s just so good. The thing about twentieth-century theology, right, is that it makes the arguments that we all use in our everyday lives, but it actually explains the underlying philosophy in a direct, explicit way. For example:

“Jesus Christ and his disciples were situated in their day just as we are situated in ours; that is to say, their feelings, their thoughts, their judgements and their efforts were bounded by the horizon and the framework in which their own nation was set and by its condition at the time.”

That’s Adolf von Harnack, a German Lutheran theologian, in his lectures at the University of Berlin in 1900, titled ‘What Is Christianity?‘ In his first lecture, which we’re looking at today, Harnack explains the role of history and how it impacts our understanding and interpretation of the Bible. His main point is that everybody is embedded in their own time and cultural fabric, and that our embeddedness shapes and limits our thoughts and beliefs. Harnack writes that Christ and his disciples had their thoughts and feelings “bounded” by their worldview, by the horizon and framework of their cultural context – it was the container that gave form to everything they thought and wrote. They couldn’t get away from it, and neither can we: “A man can think, speak, and do absolutely nothing at all in which his peculiar disposition and his own age are not coefficients. A single word may seem to be really classical and valid for all time, and yet the very language in which it is spoken gives it very palpable limitations.” This text itself, actually, is a really good example of its own point: Harnack (or rather this 1908 translation of Harnack’s work) uses the male-specific term ‘man’ as a default term meaning ‘all humans’ or ‘people in general’. These days, we tend to see that as treating men as the default or normative setting, and so we prefer more gender-neutral terms. We can still understand Harnack’s point, because we know the framework that he was using, but it reads as old-fashioned. We can spot that it belongs to an earlier period in history, to a different cultural context.

When we read the Bible, then, we have to take into account this doubled problem of historical context. We have to think about the context that it was written in, and about our own context, and then we have to translate from one into the other. Sometimes it’s pretty easy – for instance, we talked last week with Schleiermacher about the verse in Joshua 10 where the sun stood still. Obviously that verse reveals the astronomical framework that the writer of Joshua was using – they clearly existed at a time where they thought the sun went round the Earth, and so it made sense to say that the sun stood still. We don’t use the geocentric model today, because it’s inaccurate, but – in terms of the process of reading and understanding this text as modern day readers, when we identify the geocentric model underpinning this verse, we do this little bit of mental gymnastics. We translate: we enter into the writer’s framework, extract the gist of their meaning, and drag it back into our own point of view, disarticulating and rearticulating it as best we can given the foreign conceptual terrain. It’s a small example, but I think the fact that it’s quite small and neat gives us a nice way to understand the process, which unfurls across the text more broadly in ways that might not always be obvious. Sometimes we don’t even realise the violence we’re doing to a text.

Here’s an example, actually. I still have to follow this up and confirm it, so maybe don’t take it too seriously – but I was reading the other day about that verse in Matthew 5, where Jesus says that if your eye is a bad and sinful eye, you should pull it out of your head and chuck it away. I read somewhere that it’s actually a specific reference to church leadership – again, I’m not sure if this is true, so maybe don’t take it to heart, but the idea was that people went around referring to ministers or pastors as the ‘eye’ of the church, and so when it was written, this verse essentially meant that if your minister was a bad person, you should turf the fucker so he doesn’t ruin everyone’s faith. If that’s true, we can start to understand this idea of doing violence to the text. We might typically read this verse as talking about how we should regulate our bodies, how we should dominate and terrorize our eyes into not looking at bad things and leading us into temptation – but it might be that Jesus never meant anything of the sort. It might be that he was exclusively talking about church structure and church leadership. If that’s the case, by applying the verse to our physical bodies – it’s like throwing a knife at someone who says hey throw me that knife. It’s too literal. It’s an example of how the process of translation can violate the text’s meaning, reassembling it into some mutant Picasso that doesn’t have anything to do with what was originally being said.

So Harnack takes this problem of translation and historical context, and addresses it directly. If you think that the Gospel can only be properly understood in its original context, without translation, he says, then you have to abandon it to the past. We’re not first-century Palestinians: the absolute original meaning of the Bible “came with its time and has departed with it.” That doesn’t mean that the Bible is entirely inaccessible or foreign, though – we can do some reconstructive work to try and understand some of what it originally meant, and we can do some translation to bring it into our own time. But it’s important to remember that we’re not accessing the original text in its pure, untranslated form: human beings “cannot cease to feel, understand and judge as children of their age.” We translate the Bible into our own time and context, disarticulating and rearticulating, dragging it from one framework into another, and looking for something true amidst contorted shapes and twisted limbs: “something which, under differing historical forms, is of permanent validity.” It’s even arguably appropriate to talk about Bibles in the plural – if we’re all carrying out this transformative, potentially violent work of translation, arguably it would be more appropriate to say ‘I’m reading a twenty-first century New Zealand translation of the Bible’, or ‘I’m reading a twenty-first century rich white American Bible’, or whatever other elements of your context might be relevant to your understanding. At the end of the day, those are separate and distinct translations – they’re not going to be identical with (for instance) the sixteenth-century German translation of Martin Luther. And it would be misleading to talk about ‘the Bible’ as something common between you, as a single shared point of reference, without taking into account the cultural and historical differences that give rise to your separate translations and understandings.

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