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How can the Bible be interpreted? the literal

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How can the Bible be interpreted?

Over the centuries, Jewish and Christian scholars have developed different ways of interpreting the Bible. Jewish rabbis living around the time of Jesus developed an elaborate set of rules to help them interpret their sacred texts. Among early Christian writers, there were two main schools of thought about biblical interpretation.

Those who studied the Bible in Egypt tended to favour more symbolic interpretations. Those who studied in what is now Turkey, however, preferred more literal, historical readings.

A monk called John Cassian (360–435 AD), took the discussion to the next level by bringing both kinds of interpretation together. He identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical. By the Middle Ages, these four methods of interpretation (or ‘senses’) had become fairly standard among Christians.

The ‘four senses’ of interpretation
An early monk called John Cassian (360-435) identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical.

One approach is to take biblical texts at face value. This doesn’t necessarily mean absolutely literally (e.g. that the rivers really should ‘clap their hands’ as the song of Psalm 98.8 has it).

Generally, it means that texts should be read in their ‘natural’ or ‘historical’ sense. Because it deals with actual events, actual people and actual statements, the literal method is often – but not always – considered the most important kind of interpretation of the Bible. However, some Christians prefer a more simple distinction between ‘the spirit and the letter’ – i.e. spiritual versus literal readings, rather than the four traditional methods.


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