Continual Reinterpretation of Sacred Texts is Imperative

Is the meaning of scripture fixed, or can it be given new fresh meaning? I think it is much more of the latter than the former.

When studying ancient texts, we are often concerned only with the author’s original intent. Often this original intent is valuable to know, but we can also reinterpret their words in new ways, and derive new meaning from them. The texts may act as a kind of springboard to new inspiration in present context.

Here are a couple passages from religious scholar Karen Armstrong where she discusses this in her book The Case for God:

When a philosopher expounded an authority, such as Plato or Aristotle, his chief purpose was to shape the spirituality of his pupils. He would, therefore, feel free to give the old texts an entirely new interpretation if this met the needs of a particular group. What mattered was the prestige and antiquity of the old texts, not the author’s original intention.

-location 1627

Revelation did not mean that every word of scripture had to be accepted verbatim, and midrash was unconcerned about the original intention of the biblical author. Because the word of God was infinite, a text proved its divine origin by being productive of fresh meaning. Every time a Jew exposed himself to the ancient text, the words could mean something different.

-location 1961

This is why when I translate the scriptures I am not overly concerned about what the original author may have meant by a text, but rather I seek to see what the text means to me, how it coincides with my mystical experience, how it inspires me today, what I think the text means about the human condition, why it may be important to me and humanity today in our modern times. It is about how it resonates with my consciousness and spirit.

A text that could not speak to the present was dead, and the exegete had a duty to revive it.

-Karen Armstrong

Many spiritual texts seem to be dying, and it is perhaps through new interpretations, new meanings, new translations that emerge from our mystical and contemplative experiences, that they can be resurrected and speak to the present again.

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2 thoughts on “Continual Reinterpretation of Sacred Texts is Imperative

  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas was the greatest Catholic theologian. He abandoned writing Summa Theologiae after his own mystical experience. He said “All that I have written seems to me like straw compared with what has now been revealed to me.”

    Jesus himself never wrote anything. The New Testament was based on the recollections and interpretations of the Apostles. It was first written in koine Greek. English translations have varied, sometimes significantly.

    1. Yes, words have severe limitations, and yet we must use them to attempt to communicate with each other, even to point at that which we call “God.” It is because of these limitations that we must continually reinterpret and retranslate them, according to our direct experience, otherwise they simply become dead to us. Once we have that experience, the words may become superfluous, but perhaps also confirmatory, of our experience, and a means by which we can help others. As Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” It seems words are necessary, and when we use them, we must continually improve upon them.

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