New Testament standards of interpretation by Joel Smith

How should the Christian teachings be interpreted? Should they be taken literally at face value or do they instead need to be explored for hidden, symbolic meanings? Which viewpoint did Jesus and the founding fathers want us to have? What examples of interpretation did Jesus provide us with?

Those who are familiar with his method of teaching know that Jesus taught by telling parables (Greek: PARABOLAI). These parables were simple stories drawn from everyday life which hid important spiritual lessons. They were not intended to be interpreted literally. When Jesus was asked why he taught by using parables, Jesus replied: "because it has been given to you to know the mysteries (MUSTERIA) of the kingdom of heaven, but it has not been given to those... because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." -Matthew 13:11-13 (Interlinear Bible, Jay Green, Hendrickson Publishers)

Notice that, in this passage, Jesus characterizes his own teachings as "mysteries". In another place, we find that Jesus describes his own teachings as "the hidden (KRUPTA) manna." Manna, of course, was the food which sustained the Jews as they followed Moses in the wilderness. In other words, Jesus was saying that his teachings are the "hidden" spiritual food. And then when we look at the writings of the Apostle Paul, we discover that he too characterizes the Christian teachings both as "hidden" and as "mysteries". In his first letter to the Corinthians, for example, Paul wrote: "we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery (MUSTERIO) having been hidden (AOPOKRUPTO)... so let a man think of us as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." -1 Corinthians 4:1 (Interlinear Bible)

Jesus and Paul both described the Christian teachings as "hidden" and as "mysteries". They are not simple. They contain hidden meanings. And they should not be taken only at face value. In fact, Jesus himself warns that unless these teachings are correctly interpreted, then it is entirely possible that they could be both seen and heard but still not understood --- "because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but it has not been given to those... because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." -Matthew 13:11-13

The Apostle Peter confirms that, even back in the earliest days of Christianity, this warning was already becoming a reality. He wrote that Paul's teachings "contain some obscure passages, which the ignorant and unstable misinterpret to their own ruin." -2 Peter 3 (New English Bible) Evidently, even back in Peter's day, the "hidden" "mysteries contained in Paul's teachings were being "misinterpreted" by "ignorant" people.

What is the right way to interpret Paul's "obscure" message? The answer can be found in his writings where he encourages us to: "earnestly study to show yourself approved to God, a workman unashamed, rightly dividing (ORTHOTOMEO) the word of Truth." -2 Timothy 2:15 (Interlinear Bible)

Paul wants us to "earnestly study" so that we may become intimately familiar with what the Christian "word of truth" actually says. And then, he wants us to have the insight to be able to "rightly divide" or to correctly interpret these teachings. What's the best way to avoid misinterpreting the Christian message? All we have to do is to follow Paul's example. He tells us, in unmistakable language, how he "sees" these teachings. Paul wrote: "we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught us by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." -1 Corinthians 2:14 (New International Version)

The phrase "spiritually discerned" is translated from the original Greek PNEUMATIKOS ANAKRINETAI. The word ANAKRINETAI is derived from another Greek word... KRINO, which means judged or determined. In other words, this passage can also be correctly translated as spiritually judged, spiritually determined or spiritually interpreted.

What Paul was trying to tell us is that literal minded people cannot correctly understand "spiritual truths" expressed in spiritual language. Paul's teachings must be spiritually perceived or spiritually interpreted if they are to be "rightly divided". And this is only one of many statements from Paul's writings which substantiate this viewpoint.

One of the most prominent recurring themes in Paul's writings is the contrast between the flesh and the spirit. In the original Greek manuscripts of Paul's letters, the Greek word SARX appears over ninety times. This word is most often translated as "flesh" and represents the physical, literal, carnal viewpoint. The opposite of the word SARX is the word PNEUMOS. This word appears over one hundred and thirty times in Paul's writings and is translated as "spirit". The PNEUMOS represents the spiritual, non-physical, symbolic view.

One of the best examples illustrating this contrast between the fleshly, literal outlook and the non -physical, spiritual perspective can be found in the epistle that Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome. In this letter he declared: "there is therefore now no condemnation to those... who do not walk according to the flesh (SARX), but according to the Spirit (PNEUMOS)... for the mind of the flesh (SARX) is death; but the mind of the Spirit (PHRONEMA TOU PNEUMATOS) is life and peace; because of this the mind of the flesh (SARX) is enmity towards God... those in the flesh (SARX) are not able to please God... if anyone has not the Spirit (PNEUMOS) of Christ, this one is not His... for as many as are led by the Spirit (PNEUMOS) of God, these are sons of God." -Romans 8 (Interlinear Bible)

When Paul spoke of "those in the flesh [who] are not able to please God", he certainly was not implying that anyone who has a physical, fleshly body can't please God. Instead, he's referring to the "mind of the flesh (SARX)"... the fleshly, literal attitudes, interpretations and ways of thinking which "are not able to please God". It is the "mind of the flesh" - being literal minded which is "death." It is the "mind of the spirit" - having a spiritual viewpoint which "is life".

To make absolutely certain that Christians don't miss this important point, Paul repeats it again in another passage. He wrote: "God made us able ministers of a new covenant; not of letter, but of Spirit (PNEUMOS). For the letter [the literal] kills, but the Spirit (PNEUMOS) makes alive." -2 Corinthians 3:6 (Interlinear Bible)   The literal "kills". The "mind of the flesh" is "death". But seeing things in terms of their spiritual meanings breathes life into them and fosters true understanding.

It was to these kinds of literal minded people that Jesus was referring when he said "seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand". Literal interpretation misleads and results in spiritual blindness and death. Paul's analysis of this problem proved to be frighteningly accurate. As witnessed by later developments, this literal, fleshly method of interpretation resulted in the deaths of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, the rest of the Apostles and thousands... perhaps even millions of other Christians throughout history.

In his writings, Paul consistently emphasized the spiritual significance of some things that most people of his day took literally and he provides us with examples of what he meant when he wrote that "the literal kills".

For example, speaking of the Jewish initiation rite of circumcision, Paul wrote: "he is a Jew which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit (PNEUMOS), and not in the letter [the literal]." -Romans 2:29 (King James Version)

Male Jews had been circumcised "in the flesh" for at least two thousand years before the time that Paul wrote this passage. To Jews this ritual was not optional. In fact, for a Jew to not be circumcised would very likely get him shunned by the community and in some situations it could result in his being killed. According to Paul however, true circumcision is "in the spirit", an inner spiritual reality of the "heart" and not literally in the flesh.

Paul certainly was aware of the Jewish interpretation of this ritual and yet he taught that this literal interpretation was wrong. The only circumcision that Paul recommended was of the "heart"... or, as he described it in another place, the "circumcision made without hands". -Colossians 2:11 KJV

Another excellent example that illustrates this spiritual method of interpretation is found in Malachi's prophecy foretelling the return of Elijah from heaven. Jesus said that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this prophecy. (see the article about this prophecy elsewhere in this website) Ask yourself, was the fulfillment of this prophecy literal... something that was so obvious that no one could miss it? Or, was it instead a "hidden""mystery"... something which required spiritual "eyes" and "ears" before its fulfillment could be understood? If we are to trust Jesus' explanation of the return of Elijah from heaven, the fulfillment of this prophecy was not literal. It was the "spirit and power" of Elijah that returned to dwell in John the Baptist, not the return of a fleshly body from the literal heavens.

Jesus very patiently tried to lead Christians to the recognition and acceptance of these subtle, inner, spiritual perceptions of his teachings. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John Jesus surprises those around him by asserting "I came down from heaven." This account states that not only did the rabbis who heard him say this reject this claim, but it also says that Jesus� own disciples abandoned him forever when they heard him say this. As he stood there watching his disciples walk away knowing that they were not going to ever come back, Jesus explains that he was not speaking literally when he said "I came down from heaven." Jesus said "it is the spirit (PNEUMA) that gives life; the flesh (SARX) is of no avail: the words that I have spoken to you are spirit (PNEUMA) and life." -John 6:63 (Revised Standard Version)

The "words" of Jesus are "spirit" and his teachings are fundamentally spiritual in nature. The "mind of the spirit"... the spiritual, inner symbolic "way" gives "life and peace". This is the "way" that Jesus wanted us to "see" and to "understand" his words. At the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Jesus again repeats this critical truth over and over again. Seven separate times he said: "he that hath an ear let him hear what the spirit (PNEUMA) sayeth to the churches." -Revelation 2:17 (King James Version)

Why did Jesus repeat this message seven different times? Can you see the lesson that he wanted us to learn?

Paul similarly urges Christians to safeguard this inner spiritual understanding of the Christian message. He cautions:
"Keep before you an outline of the sound teaching which you heard from me... Guard the treasure put into our charge... [people will arise] who preserve the outward form of religion, but are standing in denial of its [inner] reality. For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy... They will stop their ears to the truth and turn to mythology." -2 Timothy 4:4 (New English Bible)

Paul equates the fleshly, "outward", literal interpretation and practice of religion with "mythology"... something which to him represented corruption, ignorance, misinterpretation and apostasy. Have modern Christians remained faithful to the original standards of spiritual interpretation as expressed by Jesus and Paul? If they haven't --- why haven't they?

Click here...

Joel Smith is a member of the Baha'i Faith living in the United States. Much of the material on this homepage consists of extracts from existing Baha'i publications, but also included are a number of insights and comments which are entirely the author's own understanding and, as such, do not necessarily represent the official position of the Baha'i Faith or its teachings.