Why do we make mistakes in interpreting the Bible?

Do you remember that part of the Gospel of John where the Jews took palm branches and went out to meet Jesus and called him King? That episode is recorded in John 12. It made me wonder:

Why palm branches?
What do palm branches signify?

I’ll be brief about my answer and findings. What I care more to explore is why those questions come with fixed answers in the commentaries. I read the commentaries, and they all point to the Jewish history of palm branches signifying the successes of an earlier event in Jewish history. Namely, a couple hundred years before the death of Jesus (less a decade or two) there was the famous Maccabean Revolt. It was a revolt where the Jews took back their country. Soon after that, Jewish coins were minted to celebrate the victory, and on those coins there are palm branches. Commentaries on the Gospel of John pick up on this and tell us that the Maccabean Revolt is the Jewish background of John 12.

Therein a question arises: Where did the earlier Jews get the idea to use a palm branch to represent the triumph of their revolution? Well, the answer goes back to the Roman world. In the Roman world, the palm branch was a sign of victory. It was placed upon their coins. Roman currency communicated the realities of the Roman world — realities represented with symbols. One of the symbols was the palm branch. Here is a sample:

124 BC Roman Coin with Palm Branch

That means that when the crowd took up palm branches to greet Jesus, the Romans understood the meaning. It was not only a Jewish idea (going back to the glorious days of Jewish independence), but it was a cultural idea embedded in the larger Roman world of that time.

Okay, now I am ready to move to my real subject, and I ask my main question out of sincerity. I ask what I am about to ask precisely because I myself miss important points when I read the Bible. Thus, I want to know, Why do I overlook or miss key facts in my Biblical studies? Why do the many commentaries I checked — all of them written by experts in the Gospel of John — leave out or miss the above bit of history about the Roman use of palm branches?

I will propose some hints that may get us close to the answer, but more importantly I will direct your attention to researchers who explore 1) why we make mistakes and 2) why we often remain comfortably mistaken.

I propose, then, that an answer may be related to understanding a dilemma. Namely, while reading the Gospel of John, we may find in it what we always find. For those of us in America, we may be culturally conditioned to be introspective, semi-Pietistic, Western Christians who view the passion week and palm branches in terms of the end results: our personal salvation. Other cultural conditions abound, I simply picked a sample set of factors. The main point is that we may only see the ideas that our pastors and theologians have always emphasized. Shaped by their sermons and conclusions, we may fail to stop long enough to look for other connections. To be fair, the pastors and theologians are just like us — giving to us what was given to them. It may be in this process of reaffirming and seeing what is always affirmed and seen that we miss what was always right there in the text. In always seeing variations on the same themes (perhaps the ones that are most introspective, individual and Pietistic), we miss the bigger Roman world and the political messages that would have been caught by those at the actual event.

This theory of not-seeing what we should see is a topic that is developed brilliantly in a recent publication about mistakes. Why We Make Mistakes is a fantastic book about the psychology of human error:

mistakes.jpg In this little book (remember: little books are often the best books), the author explores how it is we miss information when looking right at it. Why do we overlook an idea or connection that is in plain sight? Overlooking data that is clearly present–so the studies show–is a regular feature of human mistakes.

When we look at the Gospel of John, we can find what we are looking for and miss the bigger points that are plainly waiting to be found. We may remember the old sermons and theological articles about John 12, and inadvertently miss the connection between palm branches and the Roman world. [To be fair, I am certain some commentaries pick up on the Roman connection — I did not do an exhaustive search, only enough of a search through reputable scholars to convince myself that something obvious was missed by people who are experts with the details].

The problem does not stop at this. When we fail to see aright, we sometimes double the problem by defending our less-than-accurate conclusions. Such can be the cause for theological debates. New information about the Gospel of John can become an irritant to those who missed the important bits of data. The ensuing theological debates may include illogical arguments which appeal to some authority, “Since Dr. Expert did not see it, it must not be there to be seen.” We are capable of defending our inability to see what is visible.

Humans have the ability to defend a view of reality even when that view is about to be replaced by an updated version. This brings me to a second resource of which I want to make you aware. Earlier today I wrote a about James Burke and the formative affect he had on my thinking. He explores why it is we are the way we are, and how it is we integrate fresh change into current thinking. He has a provocative thesis about a culture’s ability to defensively sustain (or offensively advance) its view of reality. I won’t repeat here what I wrote there (check it out on my technology blog), but I do suggest that an inaccurate understanding of some part of the Gospel of John may be so entrenched in our thinking that its extraction from our brain would be akin to conducting an intellectual war.

If ideals about the proper structure of society are counted worthy of armed conflict, how much more so convictions about the Sacred Book? People are often dedicated to the propositions of their religion such that they are psychologically willing to march to Zion, as it were, to die for their beliefs. John 3:16, for example, says, “For God sooooo loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” The probable and likely fact that it really should be read to say, “For God loved the world like this,…”, may be taken as a frontal attack on the true and orthodox religion. After all, who can muck with John 3:16 (often thought to be the core verse of the whole Bible)? Religious devotion can be blinding to various degrees so that we can miss seeing what is in front of us (even as we remain convinced that we see perfectly).

We can make mistakes in interpreting the Bible. The Scripture has such a high status that we may resist new archaeological data or historical information that might change our interpretations. We can fail to see what is plainly visible. We can make mistakes and then defend them!

Steve

Eastside Church of the Cross
Louisburg, Kansas

Related post: Ancient Facts vs. Traditional Interpretations

This article was published under Archaeology, Gospel of John, Interpretation, Jesus, Top Posts.

2 Responses to Why do we make mistakes in interpreting the Bible?

  1. Domenic Durante says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for the article on mistakes we make. It was very helpful. I think an analogous situation sometimes occurs in the world of sports. I live in New York City and have been a Yankee fan since the early sixties. Obviously, I am going to be somewhat favorably biased toward the players wearing pinstripes, the organization, the numbers, etc. and will probably be somewhat antagonistic toward those who criticize the Yankees. A case in point. I think Derek Jeter is fantastic and deserves all the positive recognition. Those who don’t like the Yankees will think much less of him, even if he collected 10,000 hits.

    My point is that we all come to the table of discussion and opinions with either built in biases or those we have nurtured and fondled for many years- sometimes decades. As you have correctly stated (I think), we are so blind to truth that is right there in front of our noses. John 3:16 is a good example. For years I too thought it was “For God sooo loved the world…” Only in recent years did it come to my attention that it just might be talking about the quality or kind of love God has, as opposed to the quantity. After all, how can we measure that?

    One of my favorite passages is Acts 17:11, you know the one where the Bereans are commended for being incredibly careful in studying the scriptures. It says they did so in this case to make sure PAUL knew what he was talking about! Imagine that. They didn’t take Paul’s word as absolute truth but made sure the scriptures and Paul were in agreement. How much more do we need to carefully check the conclusions of pastors, evangelists, authors, etc. to make sure they are on target, or as close to on target as possible? And of course, we need to be very careful with our own renderings of scripture. Thanks for the article and for reading this. Dom Durante

  2. We are translating John 3:16 in our Sunday school class, “The Gospel of John in Greek”, attended by kids from ages 4 to 14 — plus parents who sit in. So it is interesting that you bring up this text. So far, we have concluded that the translation is something like this: “For God loved the world like this: that he gave his unique son that all the believing should not perish but have life of the ages.” I would also recommend the last appendix of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology where he explains the justification for the use of the word “unique”.