It’s time to wrap up this series on Bible problem texts. I’ve conducted this series in dialog with Anthony Le Donne, and Anthony has posted his Final Thoughts on this question (and then added more thoughts). Up until now, I’ve danced around the question of how I read problem texts. It’s time to stop dancing.
It will take me more than one post to wrap up this series. In these final posts, I’ll try to explain the Biblical theology of a remarkable man name of Krister Stendahl, who among other things was Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm (not at the same time). Stendahl was a leading voice in interfaith dialog – he was the second director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He was an arch feminist and defender of the rights of religious minorities. Most important for us, Stendahl’s theology is a useful guide to problem Bible texts.
Stendahl taught that we must combine two approaches to understand Bible texts: we must analyze what a text meant, and then determine what it means. Sounds simple, right? You’ll sometimes see these approaches described as Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology, but “what it meant” and “what it means” will do just fine for our discussion.
(This would be a good time to mention that I’m not a theologian, and I’m not an historian of theology. Take everything I say here with a grain of salt. Anyone here who understands this stuff better than I do should so say, and help us to a better understanding.)
What did Stendahl mean by “what it meant”? Here, Stendahl is looking for the best possible understanding of what a Bible passage meant to its original author and original audience. Stendahl described this as a non-apologetic approach – in other words, “what it meant” is not a defense of any faith, nor need it be consistent with anyone’s faith tradition. “What it meant” could prove to be dated, problematic, irrelevant or (as Anthony and I have explored) horrifying to a modern audience. Anthony and I have expressed some of the problems we have with problem Bible texts, but Stendahl would say that a Biblical scholar pursuing what a text “meant” need not share our concerns. The question of “what it meant” can be determined dispassionately, objectively, descriptively, even (dare I say it?) scientifically. Once completed, a good analysis of “what it meant” should not be a faith statement – it should be accessible to all, Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, even agnostics and atheists, so long as all concerned understand the limited nature of the question being addressed.
For Stendahl’s theology, “what it means” is different from “what it meant”. “What it means” is a “translation” of what a Bible text meant into terms that are meaningful to a contemporary audience. “What it means” focuses on what the modern church ought to believe, and on how the modern church ought to live. As an example, think about Anthony’s discussion of the problem text in Deuteronomy 21:10-14, which permits a male soldier to take a female captive and force her to be his wife. Imagine that you had to give a sermon at your church or synagogue about this passage. What would you say? You might notice that the text does restrict (kind of, sort of) what a soldier can do with a female captive, and that the passage (kind of, sort of) seeks freedom or marriage for the captive. So you might preach that the Bible (or God) demands that we wage war in a humane way, and that soldiers are required to maintain and uphold the humanity of the people they conquer. Never mind that what the text meant was that female captives could be captured and married against their will; what the text means is that war must be conducted within rules that protect the human rights of non-combatants.
Or maybe the text means something else to you. Stendahl would say that “what it means” is answered in the plural, that Bible texts have “meanings”, and not a single “meaning”. Stendahl would also say that there’s never going to be a methodology we can follow to get to “what it means”. “What it means” requires a creative and imaginative kind of thinking, as opposed to the sober and scholarly analysis required to get at “what it meant”.
Let’s look at another example of “what it meant” and “what it means”, this one taken from Stendahl’s own life. When Stendahl was a student in Sweden in 1951, he was asked by higher ups to sign a statement that the ordination of women is incompatible with the New Testament. Stendahl refused. When confronted with texts like 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”) and 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“women should be silent in the churches”), Stendahl freely acknowledged that these texts “meant” that women could not serve as church officials. But Stendahl argued that circa 1951, the Bible has come to “mean” something different. Stendahl argued that in his present day, what the Bible “means” is found in “breakthrough” texts like Galatians 3:28 (“there is no longer male and female”) that set a trajectory for the church to follow through time. This “trajectory” argument, which is today more closely associated with people like R. T. France, imagines that certain key Biblical concepts could not be fully realized in Jesus’ day (or in Paul’s day), given the social and cultural constraints that prevailed in the first century, but that the church was charged with bringing these ideas to fruition at a later point, once these old constraints had been relaxed.
Personally, I am not an enthusiastic proponent of “trajectory theology”. I cite this theology because it’s the kind of creative, imaginative work that is required under Stendahl’s Biblical program in order to answer the question “what it means”.
Let’s take a step back. I don’t think there’s anything radical in Stendahl’s description of “what it meant” and “what it means”. Before Stendahl, people understood Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology to be two different things. What made Stendahl radical was the way he proposed to separate these two disciplines. Stendahl argued for a strict divide between the task of determining “what it meant” and the task of figuring out “what it means”. In Stendahl’s words, these two questions need to be “kept apart long enough for the descriptive task [what it meant] to be considered in its own right.” I think this separation can be phrased more simply: what it meant is not what it means.
This idea is so important to me – what it meant is not what it means – that I’m going to devote my next blog post here to more fully explain the idea. But I’ll conclude here with something Anthony said, that “we ought to be honest about the repugnance of such passages” as Deuteronomy 21:10-14. I think we achieve this honesty by keeping “what it meant” separate from “what it means”, not permanently of course, but for long enough that the meaning of “what it meant” has time to sink in and have its effect. So when I first read a Bible passage, particularly a problem Bible passage, initially I try to resist all of those prettifying “what it means” questions, like “what does this text say to us today” and “how does this text strengthen my faith”. Initially, I just try to “get” what the text is saying. In Jewish exegesis, this “plain meaning” is called the p’shat. Naturally, we all want to do the fancier readings, and get beyond the p’shat. But “what it meant” is, I think, the right place to start.
Let’s end with the “what it meant” for Deuteronomy 21:10-14: the text gave soldiers permission under certain circumstances to invade enemy territory and carry off women they desired sexually. Let the “what it meant” of this text bounce around in your brain a bit, before softening the text with apologetics, canons within canons and other “what it means” techniques. Here, Stendahl points the way to the “honesty” that Anthony and I call for in reading problem Bible texts.
 For this article, I’m relying heavily on Stendahl’s essay “Biblical Theology: A Program”, which appears in Meanings, a collection of some of Stendahl’s work. This essay is based on Stendahl’s entry “Biblical Theology, Contemporary” that appeared in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible in 1962.