Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, they say. Never has this been more the case than in our day when modern pagans attempt to exegete or explain the teaching of the Holy Bible. The modern world has form in this regard: its overwhelming predisposition is to see the West and its dominant cultural motifs liberated from the constraints and commands of the Scripture.
One facile trick to carry out this vast libertine exercise is to misinterpret the Bible--carelessly or callously, it matters not. Consequently, we have learnt over the years, never to take anything said by Unbelievers about the Bible and its teachings without a very big dose of salt.
Not that the Bible is a wax nose to be twisted at will. The message and teachings of Scripture are pretty plain to any fair minded reader, with only some things hard or difficult to understand. The Bible itself warns against such twisting:
. . . as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. [II Peter 3:16]The classic method required to interpret the Bible correctly is known the grammatical-historical-theological method. The first step is to unpack a text according to the meaning of its vocabulary, parts of speech, syntax, grammatical structure, and so forth. The second, is to view the grammatically "unpacked" text through the prism of its sitz im Leben ("setting-in-life"). The historical, sociological, and cultural context of the time in which it was written provides a fundamental guide as to the meaning and significance of the passage. The third aspect is the theological context of the text--which requires interpreting the text in the light of what the Bible teaches as a whole.
Doubtless the fair minded reader will quickly conclude that there is nothing secretive or mystical about such a method of interpretation. It is used constantly by scholars as they seek to understand texts--any texts--from Marx's Das Kapital to Plato's Republic.
Is it any wonder that the Bible is constantly being misinterpreted and misunderstood? We live in an age when people cannot even begin to do grammatical analysis upon any text, let alone the Bible. They cannot tell a participle from a pronoun, a tense from a mood. They have little to no clue about history and historical cultures. And few have read the Bible comprehensively let alone from cover to cover. So they end up focusing upon what the "text means for them" and blurt forth their ignorant prejudiced ramblings at will. Now, couple this with contemporary culture being one which celebrates the pulsing lusts of the libertine. General competence with interpreting and reasoning through anything is beyond most in our day.
The bottom line is never to trust the modern Unbeliever's interpretation of text of the Bible, or any text for that matter.
Sarah Ruden is an interesting classicist. She has forcefully pointed out that the Apostle Paul, the greatest interpreter of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, King of the world, must be understood against the context, the historical and cultural context, of Paul's own time. As we have argued above there is no special pleading involved here. This is what must be done with all biblical authors, not just Paul if they are to be understood fairly and accurately. She argues that most moderns have misinterpreted or misunderstood Paul.
As I began to read Paul in connection to Greco-Roman writing, I seemed to be actually reading him: understanding his devotion and his constraints, and not simply listening to I Corinthians 13 with boredom and irritation, and with smug agreement to excoriations of his "betrayal of Jesus' message." I came to see how a man whom a divinity student friend of mine called "grumpy-pants Paul" had spread an uncompromising message of love, and how he had established a community that proved to have, if not a steady power for good, then at least a power for renewing its ideas. More and more, I wanted to take his part. [Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined In His Own Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), p.4.]
Then she gets down to cases:
This feeling grew even stronger when I researched the origins of our bad impressions of Paul. It seem that many reactions to him across the centuries had been distorted or incomplete in ways that would not have survived a look at his main contemporary and near-contemporary audiences through their own books. For every implausible reading of Paul, there were Greco-Roman works through the lens of which he showed more plausibly. [Ibid.]At this point, Ruden insists the reader understand Paul historically, in terms of the actual historical period and culture in which he lived and with which he interacted. Again, this is not a novel approach; it is mandatory if one is to prevent the "modern perspective" intruding to the point of removing Paul from any serious consideration--which, one may argue--seems the real point or objective of our libertine culture.
In her introduction, she provides one example of how stripping Paul from the socio-political context in which he lived and against which he contended, leads to a stunted, attenuated understanding of both Paul and the Bible.
What Greco-Roman works can teach us about Paul's writings is incredibly rich and unexplored so far--and often rather mortifying to a previous knee-jerk anti-Paulist like me. For example, there is the matter of the komos and the right to have a really good party. The "fruit of the Spirit" passage in Galatians does not forbid "carousing" the outrageous New Revised Standard Version translation of the word, or "revellings," as in the King James. A komos was a late-night, very drunken, sometimes violent postparty parade--which could even end in kidnapping and rape. We have vivid scenes of it in Greek comedy and other genres. It was nearly the worst of Greek nightlife, and if any Christian young men counted on still being allowed to behave like rampaging frat boys or overgrown trick-or-treaters in a found mood, their elders would have been relived to have it in writing from Paul that this was banned. . . . We would never guess from the English that the abuse Paul is peaking of is both serious and customary. [Ibid., p. 5f.]We have visited modern, cutting-edge Christianity. It is blunted with both prejudice and cant in an effort to gain "respek" from a self-indulgent, self-important libertine world. This is the way of death. It is the way of the "ignorant" and the "unstable". It leads to people "twisting the Scriptures to their own destruction".
Our dominant, Western culture has practices, habits, and conventions every bit as evil and extreme as those found in Paul's contemporary world. They are to be confronted with force, without compromise, as the Bible does, including Paul's writings therein. The Big A (abortion) is but one example. Way to go, Paul! Way to go, Sarah Ruden!.