What does this mean? – Bible Sunday 2011

What is the meaning of this document? A hundred years ago they wouldn’t have given to me, because I don’t have enough Latin to translate it. But I get the gist of it: in 1985 the University of Dublin conferred me with the degree of Bachelor in Arts. But what does that mean? We would have to talk about the idea of a university, of recognised standards of learning, of books and essays and exams. We would recognise the origins of degrees in the medieval universities, when the gowns and hoods and Latin were for everyday, and not just fancy-dress for Commencements. And we might see that “having a B.A. degree” is not quite the same then as now; part of the meaning comes from a wider social setting.

 

But still, what does it mean, that you can put letters after your name? Does it mean a job? Are you better than someone without a degree? No, and no! And now our discussion of meaning has moved to include the idea of value. What value does this have? Not the piece of paper, which is worthless, but the degree – does it mean anything? We might look at the words at the top of the parchment – Universitas Dublinensis, The University of Dublin, Trinity College. Pretty good! Not quite as good, say, as Oxford or Cambridge; infinitely better than some obscure American institute to which you send $100 and get a doctorate back in the post. The gentlemen’s convenience in the arts block always had graffiti over the paper-holder: “UCD Engineering degrees, please help yourself”. I’m almost certain that was unfair to UCD…  Or we might do comparisons, then and now. Degrees were worth more back then, B.A. meant something – nowadays everyone needs a Master’s. Or we might evaluate the B.A. by looking at the recipient. “He has a degree, but he’s still stupid”. If you measured this by my present acquaintance with my degree subjects, Maths and Philosophy, you’d be forced to say it didn’t mean much; what little I ever knew I’ve long since forgotten.

But still, does this not mean something, on a personal, subjective, level? Well, yes; we were the first generation to go to secondary school, let alone university – it was an achievement. And, given the lack of study and the dicey exam results, it was something of a miracle as well.

Nehemiah 8:8 “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

In our Old Testament reading today, we read how the Levites assisted Ezra the scribe in reading from the Torah, the Law or Teaching of Moses, by translating the original Hebrew words, which were no longer generally understood, into the people’s language of Aramaic. They read clearly, or with interpretation, and caused the people to understand the meaning. It remains a live issue for us, every time we listen to the Bible or read it ourselves: what does this book, or text, mean? And that is a big question, as we saw in connection with a degree parchment. The issues involve translation, the wider social setting in which we read, and then questions of value, and personal, subjective understanding.

Fortunately we don’t have to do the hard graft of translating the texts out of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. But those who do the work know how hard it is, not only to decide what the correct words are, and what they mean, but how best to convey them in English or Irish or Swahili. Should they reproduce the style of the original, or should they try to use more natural idioms? And the words they choose have different feel to them – for example, God’s righteousness in some versions becomes God’s justice in others: are they exactly the same, or do they suggest a different approach?

And then there is the wider social setting in which we read. We do so in the context of church worship, in which the Bible has been broken down and ordered to provide suitable texts for the church year; we read in the context of scriptural praise, in psalms and canticles, and it all serves the central goal of proclaiming Jesus Christ. In this, we read scripture in much the same way as Roman Catholics do. In other circles, the scriptures might be read in the context of persuading people to a certain sort of conversion experience and committment, and so the meaning found in the texts might be somewhat different. Again, an atheist reading these texts might find it all very primitive, bloodthirsty, and incomprehensible – things which we may not notice because we read through a filter of tradition and interpretation. So, for instance, we can happily read stories of Samson’s violence and foolishness with women without feeling obliged to approve of him, let alone imitate him.

And so we come to the issue of value; what meaning, what value, has this text for us, here and now? All of us make value judgements when we read the Bible, even the so-called bible-believing christians, as well as the so-called liberal christians. What value, for instance, did you put on today’s Old Testament reading? Not much, I bet. As a story, it’s useless – “Ezra read the Bible to the people who then kept a religious festival”. I don’t imagine you learned it in Sunday School – not half as good as Samson. A scholar reading it might note something about the re-building of the Jewish community after the Exile. A Jew, however, might find rather more meaning: for here is the origin of the liturgy of reading the Torah which he sees every week in synagogue. Here is the scribe, the forerunner of the rabbi; here is the wooden platform and the scroll and the attendants who support the reader. Most of all, here is the idea of  a people gathered to hear, understand, and observe the Torah – the whole raison d’être of Judaism. During the Reformation, a passage like this would have found a new resonance with the Protestant reformers, especially perhaps the Calvinists; in this picture of the ministers reading scripture and explaining it to the gathered people, we can see the Calvinist idea of the church as a congregation under the Word of God – but the contents of the Protestant “Law of God” are not quite the same as Ezra’s Torah. Value judgements have been made. The law forbidding, say, the use of mixed fibres in clothing – e.g. you can’t have a wool/linen blend – has ceased to have value for Christians, although strict Jews still wear kosher clothing. We know what the text means, and maybe why it is there, but it no longer means anything for us.

And as well as the communal “meaning for us“, there is the personal, subjective, meaning for me. Most of us, for instance, hear Jesus’ command to “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me” without making any change whatsoever in our lives – without in any sense thinking of ourselves as rejecting a divine command. Yet there are some for whom this has been a direct order: it has a specific meaning “for me“.

Our current party tensions are to a large extent about the meaning of the Bible, about the meaning of certain texts: it’s not just about what the words say, its about the wider setting in which they were written and in which they are heard; and so we are driven to ask value questions, for which there may be several answers, and maybe none of them wrong. What is the meaning for us here and now? What is the meaning for me, in my life and experience?

“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood

 

 

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