Reading the Bible with Giants: How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation can Shed New Light on Old Texts.

David Paul Parris. Cascade Books. Second Edition. 2015. [220 pages].

The vast majority of current Bible study books and methods aim to help the reader understand what biblical texts meant for their original audience so that its message can be faithfully applied to modern audiences. This process is essentially a two-way dialogue: there is the text, and there is the reader. David Parris’ Reading the Bible with Giants promotes the value of a third voice. This third dialogue partner is the history of interpretation that stands between us and the original writing of the text.

For anyone who has read familiar Bible stories with a secret yawn of bored familiarity, this book reveals to us a way to find fresh and surprising interpretations by showing us how to engage in its history of interpretation – even if you are not a Bible college graduate. The way that past writers have interpreted Scripture (for better or for worse) prompts us to think about what we read in the Bible and consider why we might understand it in the way that we do.

Reading the Bible with Giants does give basic guidelines to biblical interpretation, like any book on biblical interpretation (15-35). As much as the author’s aim is to have us explore the array of interpretations from the past, the ascertained meaning of the biblical author must anchor our interpretation and will help us to discern what is and is not an acceptable understanding of a passage. In line with this the book takes the time at the outset to establish the importance of the background cultures of the Bible and the study of words and the meanings in their original contexts, especially where the associations a word carries differ markedly in our own language.

There are five features of this book that I think make it worth reading.

#1. It highlights some drawbacks to what is called ‘the historical-grammatical method’ of Bible study (66-71). This method is the predominant way the Bible is studied by theologically trained Christians. By examining the historical background to a text and the arrangement and meaning of its words, we can recover the original meaning of a text. While this is a vital part of studying the Bible, it is not without its limits.

The drawback to this is that it easily leads to interpreters becoming too trusting in correct methodology, as if simply using proper study procedures will produce a correct interpretation. The Christian ought acknowledge that the Bible is not a specimen for us to analyze, but that as we study it, we sit under it rather than over it, and that we sit under it with others. The historical grammatical method gives a very high regard to individual judgement. The ideal interpreter is likened to a lone scientist making a breakthrough using new method or procedure, and rethinking accepted knowledge. The tradition of interpretation shaped by this method ‘places a high value on the individual who questions everything, with the result that we have become intellectual orphans, cut off from culture, community, and tradition’ (67). It neglects the role of other interpreters – including those who lived and died long before us.

#2. Reading the Bible with Giants provides some substantial case studies on the history of interpretation. While there are numerous short examples throughout the book, there are two longer ones that stand out.

The first is the rather colorful history of the way (and size) Jonah’s “Great Fish” has been understood (36-62). Ancient Greco-Roman stories of massive sea monsters shaped the interpretation of earlier readers of the book of Jonah, as well as the word used for “Great Fish” in later translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek and Latin. A notable shift in interpretation can be seen as the scientific revolution (mid-16th C) begins to affect the study of the Bible. Up until Luther it was common to understand Jonah’s time inside the fish as a spiritually formative experience. It was akin to being sent temporarily to hell (a la Jonah 2:1-2), where Jonah found that even there God was present with him. The lesson to be drawn from this is that even in the most hellish trials we may experience in life, God may be found to be present with us, as the reluctant prophet discovered during his time in the belly of the ‘fish’. After Luther, reading the commentary written by Calvin only half a generation later, we see the beginning of a shift whereby questions of a more scientific nature are asked in place of spiritual ones. What kind of fish could swallow a man whole? Is such an experience survivable?

As the age of science and incredulity for the miraculous dawned, the questions asked of the Bible changed. But the questions of the more distant past remind us of what else the Bible might have to say to us.

The assumptions that I bring to reading Jonah are provoked when reading Luther’s interpretation. In the process I have not only learned about how he read the text, but have realized some of the unspoken presuppositions that I bring to the text as well.

David Parris, page 90

The second case study considers the sweep of history of the Great Commission of Matthew 28 (112-134). Surprisingly (to the Christian of the modern, western, evangelical world), the impetus to mission was curiously absent in most early Christian interpretation of this passage. It was also somewhat absent in early Protestant interpretation, to the glee of their Roman Catholic opponents. How Matthew 28:18-20 struggled its way to become the preeminent Missions passage for modern Protestantism is one of the fascinating stories hidden in the history of biblical interpretation, and is a story that Parris takes the time to tell in this book. This section alone makes the book worth reading.

#3. Ten Reading Strategies. Ten quick ideas on different ways to participate in the history of biblical interpretation for yourself (166-172). All of these are accessible with non-specialists in mind, although some are more time-consuming than others.  Parris directs readers to make good use of the increasing array of resources available on the internet for studies in reception history of a passage or story. He provides a list of sources that are available in English, and many which are available on the internet, on pages 201-220.

#4. Guidelines for Tracing a Text’s Historical Road Map (135-142). A list of things to pay attention to if you do decide to take a careful look at the ‘twists and turns’ in the history of a text’s interpretation. Very useful if this book inspires you to do some of the hard work of mapping out a history of exegesis and application.

#5. Tips for Teachers and Preachers wanting to make use of the history of interpretation are scattered throughout pages 173-193. These are illustrated through brief case studies. One suggestion is to show how a passage may be explained alongside a single figure’s understanding of (or struggle with) the passage. (Parris discusses Augustine’s developing interpretation of Romans 7). This would have the long-gone interpreter become a ‘guest speaker’ at your church or home group who we can learn from or disagree with while we ourselves come to terms with the difficult message the passage may be bringing to us.

By using another figure we can distance ourselves from a difficult interpretation that is nonetheless valuable to our audience, as we take the time to help them understand that figure’s point of view, and why his interpretation is not only reasonable or true but also helpful. Something like this might be rather difficult to pull off well, but this is but one of several useful ways that the history of a text’s interpretation can be handy for those of us who teach and preach regularly.

Reading the Bible with Giants suggests how to resolve the tension between the likely original meaning of biblical authors and the variety of interpretations seen in its history of interpretation. It shows how the Bible is God’s living word to his people in all times and places, and not merely an historical founding document. This book will be a delight, a stimulation, and a challenge to Bible teachers and preachers alike as well as curious laypeople.

Reading the Bible with Giants is available at Book Depository, and was priced at $44.65 on July 13, 2020.