Reading the Good Book Well: A Guide to Biblical Interpretation / Edition 1

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The state of teaching biblical interpretation in colleges and seminaries is generally a mess, and many conventional approaches can be alarming for religious students. The sources of this difficulty are wide ranging, but a quick summary would include at least the following: jargon that is unnecessarily technical; competing and contradictory methodologies; and a failure on the part of Biblical scholarship to demonstrate the direct relevance of its methods to the pastoral life of the Church. As a consequence, biblical scholarship is often opaque at best and distressing at worst to the student and beginning theologian. And because pastors and lay people are trained within this cobweb of methods, they are often functionally unable to draw clear conclusions from most teaching resources.

Jerry Camery-Hoggatt addresses this problem with several solutions: a return to a conscious affirmation of authorial intention as the beginning place for interpretation; a careful examination of the actual workings of communication; a concept of text to include the assumptions and cultural knowledge upon which the text depends for meaningful communication; an examination of the various academic disciplines with an eye toward correlating their conclusions with the necessary activities of reading; and easily accessible language that makes sense to the beginning student and the lay reader alike.

Here is a single, accessible volume that explains the basic vocabulary and logic of biblical interpretation, shows how the various methodologies can be fitted together into a seamless interpretive model for exegesis, and then reflects carefully on the implications of that method for the various issues of reading, teaching, reflection, and preaching.

Through common and practical examples Jerry Camery-Hoggatt teaches students a way of reading the Bible that replicates the activities the biblical authors expected their readers would perform, and he uses a model that is applicable across linguistic boundaries, genres, and various cultural contexts; that is, throughout the human experience of language there exists a common set of mental activities that can be identified and studied, and these are fundamental to reading and interpreting the Bible.

The prose style is conversational, non-technical, and is intended to be inviting to the beginning student, and refreshing for advanced students and teachers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687642755
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2007
  • Edition description: Paperback
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerry Camery-Hoggatt is Professor of New Testament and Narrative Theology, Vanguard University (Costa Mesa, California). He is a widely published scholar in biblical studies and a popular fiction writer.
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Read an Excerpt

Reading the Good Book Well

A Guide to Biblical Interpretation

By Jerry Camery-Hoggatt

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3217-1


Reading the Bible and Aching for God

You're conservative, aren't you?" The question was about my theology. The questioner was one of my professors at Boston University, where I was studying for a Ph.D. The professor was a world renowned sociologist with a heavy European accent, and he liked to buttonhole grad students in public as a way of testing what we were made of.

"Yes, I am," I said. No use pretending. This is what I'm made of. "Then answer me this question," the professor said. He took a puff from his cigarette, then flicked the ashes in my direction. He was enjoying my discomfort. "Why is it that the louder you conservatives are about the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the sloppier you are when you read it?"

Let me comment first about the assumptions that lay behind my professor's question: the question assumes that not all readings of the Bible are equally right, that reading sloppily is a bad thing, and that if we take the inspiration and authority of Scripture seriously we would want to be sure we were reading it well.

In these assumptions he was actually voicing a position that the New Testament itself voices. When I was a boy, a lot of my friends selected "life-verses." A life-verse is a passage of Scripture that serves as a kind spiritual anchor when life gets stormy. Mine was 2 Peter 3:15-16. The subject of the passage is the letters of Paul:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

I chose this verse because I resonated with the statement that there were some things in the letters of Paul that are hard to understand. I've included it here because of the way v. 16 ends. The writer seems to say that it's not enough to study the Bible. It's possible to study it badly, and when we do that, we "twist the Scriptures to our own destruction." At the very least, it means that not all interpretations of the Bible are equally valid. That in turn suggests that we ought to have some way of measuring validity. But of course, this raises the question to which this book is addressed: what does it mean to read the Scriptures properly?

Moving from What the Scriptures Say to What They Mean

When I was a boy of maybe seven, my family was asked to dinner at the home of a woman in our church who frankly scared me spitless. She was the most refined and elegant woman I knew. She wore Emeraude perfume; she had those high, high shoes with the pointy heels and toes that only refined feet could fit; and she had little diamonds set into the frames of her glasses. I never knew what to say when I was around her, but this time it was worse because we were guests in her home, and it was my very first outing, and my father had warned me to be on my best behavior.

Everything went swimmingly until she served brussels sprouts. I hate brussels sprouts. (No, I loathe brussels sprouts.) I didn't eat the ones my hostess served me.

She noticed. She was sitting right next to me, so how could she miss? "Don't you like brussels sprouts?" she asked.

I glanced at my father. He had that look of fathers-don't-really-care-because-they-know-their-children-will-do-the-right-thing nonchalance, but he and I both knew it was a mask. He was on his best behavior too.

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "I like 'em fine."

"The boy loves brussels sprouts," said my father. He added more to my plate.

I looked hard at my father, hoping he didn't-really-care-after-all. He added more to my plate. I looked for the door. My father gave me his clearest young-man-you-will-sit-there-until-your-plate-is-clean look. I gulped, I swallowed hard, I stared at the plate, I toyed with the brussels sprouts, I stopped eating the food I liked because it had brussels sprout juice on it, I moved the food around on my plate, but as hard as I might have tried, I couldn't bring myself to put fork to plate to mouth. I didn't eat anything after that. The table conversation moved on to other things. I was home free.

At the end of the evening, the hostess began to clear the table to prepare for dessert. She stopped at my plate.

"I thought you said you liked brussels sprouts," she said.

"I lost my appetite," I said, as quietly as I could, hoping my father wouldn't hear.

"A growing boy like you? No appetite? Not even for brussels sprouts?"

What I said next, I intended as a compliment: "Sitting next to a woman like you ..." I said. Then I foundered. How to compliment my hostess? I really said this: "Sitting next to a woman like you would make any man lose his appetite."

I've told this story here because it illustrates a distinction that stands at the center of what we mean when we talk about interpreting the Bible properly. I didn't mean what my father thought I meant. It isn't enough to ask what the Bible says. We also have to ask what it means.

Consider for a moment the kinds of things I had to say to him to back out of the trouble I had gotten myself into. I didn't know the sentence had a double meaning. I had read it somewhere and thought it was nice. I wouldn't intentionally insult our hostess.

But these are the sorts of things we take into consideration all the time, whenever we read or listen to people talk. We ask questions like, "Where did this happen? Who said it, and was he smirking at the time? Does this boy usually insult hostesses? Why did he say it that way, and not some other way?" These are the kinds of questions that ordinarily guide our journey from what is said to what is meant, and they're the same kinds of questions we ought to ask when we read the Bible.

So what my professor was really asking me was, "If you people really think that Scripture is inspired and authoritative, why don't you give it the same kind of attention that you give even the most common language you use every day?"

Surface and Deep Structures

Linguists have their own terms for the distinction between what is said and what is meant. They refer to what is said as the surface structure of the language, and what is meant as the deep structure of the language. Sometimes a single sentence can puzzle us because it can have two deep structures. Here's an example:

• The chickens are ready to eat.

Depending on context, this may mean that the chickens are in the yard, waiting to be fed, or it may mean that they're in the kitchen, fresh from the oven.

Lots of the joy of language comes from recognizing the subtle interplays that can happen when sentences are ambiguous in this way:

• Librarians are novel lovers.

• I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

• "Know what happens when you don't pay your exorcist?"

"No, what?"

"You get repossessed."

We can learn something from examples like this: when we encounter ambiguous sentences, we sort through a series of questions, trying to figure out which meaning the speaker intended, or maybe if the speaker intended both. Most Bible scholars think we have to ask the same kinds of questions if we hope to come to right ideas about the meaning of the Bible.

But scholars point out another problem that's logically prior to the question of what the Bible means: before we can come to right ideas about what the Bible means today, we first have to understand what it meant when it was first written. This is a crucial step that a lot of people skip. In a striking commentary, Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes reflects on the way most of us read the Bible:

For many the Bible served as some sort of spiritual or textual trampoline: You go onto it in order to bounce off of it as far as possible, and your only purpose in returning to it was to get away from it again.

Bible studies tend to follow this route.... A verse or passage is given out, and the group or class is asked, "What does this mean to you?" The answers come thick and fast, and we are off into the life stories or personal situations of the group, and the session very quickly takes the form of Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve-Step meetings, or other exercises in healing and therapy. I do not wish to disparage the very good and necessary work that these groups perform, for I have seen too many good effects and have known too many beneficiaries of such encounter and support groups to diminish by one iota their benefit both to individuals and to the community. I simply wish to say that this is not Bible study, and to call it such is to perpetuate a fiction.

Don't get me wrong here. The scholars aren't saying that the what-doest-his-mean-to-me? approach is all that wrong. We simply think it's asked too quickly, and that we shouldn't short-circuit important questions about what it meant to its original author and readers.

Different Uses of Scripture

One consideration that can help us be clear about what we're assuming is the distinction between surface structures and deep structures that we looked at earlier in this chapter. We can look at the contexts in which people read the Bible, and then also at the kinds of questions they ask, and then ask what they have in common, in their deep structures.


By homiletics, we are referring to the use of Scripture for preaching.

Pastoral Care

Sometimes people come to pastors and theologians hoping for guidance in dealing with some spiritual problem such as an habituated sinful behavior or attitude, or the inability to get past some trauma that has happened to them. Sometimes they're dealing with loss, like the death of a dream or the death of a marriage. Such moments are called pastoral care.

Spiritual Direction

Sometimes we ponder Scripture as a way of asking ever deeper and more probing questions about life, and about what God is calling forth in us. If we do this tenaciously, we may find ourselves following a trail of clues to spiritual depth. If we do this in conversation with a guide, we are engaged in spiritual direction.


By polity we mean the resolution of questions about the church's legal and organizational life. Questions of polity include such things as membership, voting rights, ordination, ministerial ethics, and so forth. The question of the ordination of women is a matter of polity.


By mission we mean the use of Scripture to define what it is the church is called to be in the world. Is it the mission of the church to make disciples? To lead people to spiritual wholeness? To guarantee the moral core of society? To worship? Is it all of these? None? Some combination of these, or perhaps others?


By ethics we mean the use of Scripture to provide directives, principles, and examples that can guide our moral decision making. The issues surrounding abortion are issues of ethics.


By apologetics we mean the reasoned defense of the faith. Apologetics includes such things as the proof of the reliability of Scripture, defense of the logic of revelation, or the proofs of the existence of God. Issues relating science and the biblical worldview are often addressed apologetically.

Public Theology

By public theology we mean the way in which Christians draw upon Scripture in our attempts to affect public attitudes, laws, and policies. This is related to apologetics, but with a different slant: its intention is to evaluate public policies from the standpoint of faith, and to represent the faith in the Great Conversation that takes place in what has been called the Public Square. Advocating for a pro-life political stance is public theology. So is working toward economic justice for the poor.

What Do These Have in Common?

Now, the question to ask is, What assumptions do these approaches have in common? What do they share in their deep structures? I will suggest three.

Scripture Is Authoritative

The first commonality here is a deep sense that the Scripture is authoritative. By authoritative, we mean that we find it binding in some way. In general conversation, authority has four uses. Sometimes we talk about authority by virtue of office. When a police cruiser turns on its flashers behind my car, I pull over because the officer has authority by virtue of office.

A second kind of authority is authority by virtue of competence. When I go to my dermatologist to ask about a lesion on my shoulder, I plunk down good money because she is an authority in her field. She has authority by virtue of competence.

A third kind of authority is moral authority. If I see a man beating a child, I have a moral obligation to stop him, even though I'm not a policeman, and even though I'm not very good with my fists. (If you look closely at my nose, you will see the marks of one such encounter. I stopped the man as an exercise of moral authority.)

A fourth kind of authority is especially difficult for Americans to grasp: the authority of a monarch over his or her people. Recently we had a British guest in our pulpit. He made an interesting distinction between the legal status of Americans and that of the British: "You are citizens," he said, "but we are subjects." (This is the kind of authority I tried to get my kids to see when I sent them off to bed when they were little. "Why?" they wanted to know. "Because I'm the father, that's why.")

When we make the claim that Scripture is authoritative, we mean all four of these kinds of authority wrapped up together in one. We read the Bible in certain ways because we believe that it makes some kind of claim on us, that it demands we live our lives in a certain way, and that we neglect that demand at our peril.

Scripture Is Inspired

The second thing these uses of Scripture have in common is the notion that Scripture is inspired. We sometimes use the word inspired in the quite ordinary sense of artful or pleasing or the work of genius. We might say that the music of Mozart or Andrew Lloyd Webber or Sting is inspired in this sense, meaning that it's brilliantly written or performed, pleasing to the ears, beyond the reach of ordinary writers or performers. Much of Scripture is artful in this sense, but that's not what we mean when we say that the Scripture is inspired. Christians have traditionally based our understanding of inspiration on a famous passage in 2 Timothy: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (3:16-17).

In this passage, the word inspired is a translation of the Greek word theopneustos, which means "God-breathed." When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, we mean that it possesses revelatory significance, that it provides access to a kind of Truth that cannot be worked out by logic alone or by observation alone or by logic and observation working together.

Scripture Is Sacred

A third commonality of these uses of Scripture is a deep sense that the story told in the Bible is sacred. What does it mean to say that something is sacred? This is actually quite difficult to define, so I'd like to try by thinking about the sacred in its smaller, more ordinary sense. What does it mean for anything to be sacred to us?

In the book To a Dancing God, Sam Keen tells a story about an object that had become sacred to him. The story has three episodes, the first of which was an experience he had when he was a very young boy. One day he and his father were out fishing. To pass the time, his father picked up a peach seed that was lying on the ground, took out his penknife, and carved a tiny monkey. The boy immediately fixated on the monkey—he wanted it more than anything—but his father refused, saying, "This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday."

Time went by, and his father forgot and never did carve for him a peach-seed monkey. Eventually the matter was forgotten completely.

The second episode takes place much later in Keen's life. He went to visit his father, who was ill and not expected to live long. They sat on the edge of the desert, under a juniper tree. His father voiced his hesitations about facing the end of his life. Keen recalls, "I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence: 'In all that is important you have never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me—you never carved me that peach-seed monkey.'"


Excerpted from Reading the Good Book Well by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface     xi
The Why of Exegesis: AKA Prolegomena (AKA Preliminary Stuff)
Reading the Bible and Aching for God     3
It Isn't Just about God; It's also about Garry: The Problem of Hermeneutics     15
The Bible Says It; I Believe It; That Settles It-Oh, Really?: Introducing Paradigms     23
Reconstructing the Original Wording: The Discipline of Textual Criticism     37
Your Version, My Version: Thinking about Translation Theory     59
The How of Exegesis
The Master Paradigm: An Introduction to Exegesis     71
How We Fill in Gaps: An Introduction to Schemas     83
How We Find Out about Schemas: The Discipline of Lexicography     99
How We Find Out about Cultural Knowledge and Practices: The Discipline of Backgrounds     107
How We Find Out about Cultural Norms: The Discipline of Social Science     115
How We Find Out about Genre: The Discipline of Form Criticism     127
How We Find Out about Historical Contexts: The Discipline of Introduction     139
How We Disambiguate: Getting to the Gist     153
How We Recognize Polyvalence: Dealing with Double Exposures     165
How We Deal with Intertextuality: Dialogues between Texts     177
How We Deal with Sequence and Pace: Aspects of Literary Criticism     187
Pulling ItAll Together     205
Looking Ahead, Looking Beyond: A Concluding Unacademic Postscript     219
Notes     227
Indexes     233
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