INTRODUCTION

Daniel Patte

 

GLOBAL BIBLE COMMENTARY

General Editor: Daniel Patte

Associate Editors: J. Severino Croatto (deceased), Nicole Wilkinson Duran,

Archie Chi Chung Lee, Teresa Okure,

Nashville: Abingdon Press, October 2004

 

A Global Bible Commentary (or GBC) invites its users to expand their horizons by reading the Bible with scholars from all over the world and from different religious persuasions.  These scholars have approaches and concerns that often are poles apart.  Yet they share two basic convictions: biblical interpretation always matters, and reading the Bible “with others” is highly rewarding.  

 

Each of the short commentaries of the GBC is a readily accessible guide for reading a biblical book.  Written for undergraduate and seminary students and their teachers, as well as for pastors, priests, and adult Sunday school classes, it introduces its users to the main features of the biblical book and its content.

 

Yet each short commentary does more.  It also brings to all its users a precious gift, namely the opportunity of reading this biblical book as if for the first time.  By making explicit the specific context and the concerns from which they read the Bible, the scholars show the significance of aspects of the biblical text that readers in other contexts have often taken for granted or overlooked.  (See below Suggestions for Using the GBC In Bible Study Groups and Classes.)

How This Global Bible Commentary Came into Being

            The contributors to the GBC are literally from all over the world.  The associate editors, Severino Croatto, Nicole Wilkinson Duran, Archie Chi Chung Lee, Teresa Okure, SHCJ, and I have identified scholars on each continent—including Western Europe and North America—and from different religious persuasions.  The balance of this GBC seeks to approximate the geographical, denominational, and gender balance of Bible readers around the world today.  The GBC reflects the fact that almost two-thirds of the readers of the Bible are Christians in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania (ca. 1,178 billion, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia), as opposed to Western Europe and North America (ca. 661 million) and Orthodox Eastern Europe (ca. 158 million). Thus, approximately two-thirds of the commentators are scholars from the “two-thirds world,” with a proportional and thus smaller number of contributors from the Western world (including two Jewish scholars) and the Eastern Orthodox world.  In order to keep this geographical balance, we had difficulty reaching the gender balance; twenty-eight contributions are signed by women, instead of the thirty-three (half) we wanted, because the number of female biblical scholars is still relatively small, though growing, in the two-thirds world. 

            We, the editors of the GBC, asked each of these scholars to address through their commentary the question: “What is the teaching of the given biblical book for believers in your specific social, economic, cultural, and religious context?”  In order to give the scholars from the two-thirds world the opportunity to address issues that colonialist attitudes had prevented them from raising, we further specified that each of the commentators should ask: “What does this given biblical book say regarding the relationship of the people of God to the world?”   This question is voluntarily open.  It allows each commentator to define “people of God,” “world,” and “relationship” in ways that are appropriate for the scholar’s particular socio-economic, cultural, and religious context and for the particular biblical book.

Acknowledging the Contextual Character of our Interpretations

The contextual character of this GBC was a challenge for many of us contributors, largely because we did not fully grasp why making explicit the contextual character of our interpretations was important.  Similarly, readers of this volume, especially Western readers, will first be struck by the fascinating cross-denominational and cross-cultural insights these contextual interpretations of the biblical books bring.  Yet, there is more than new insight to be gained.  There are voices to be heard.  First, each of the contributions involves a gentle call to stop and listen.  When we listen, we hear voices that we are not used to hearing, those of biblical readers who in each context have long been silenced.  These voices are soft, yet firm, and indeed most powerful and often troubling, because they articulate teachings, issues, and questions that the biblical text raises for its readers but that, on our own, we could not or would not hear. 

It is when I heard such voices that my journey toward this GBC  began.  In July 1999 in Kasane, Botswana, with Musa Dube as a guide, I was visiting a congregation of the Church of the Eleven Apostles.  In this African Initiated Church, the priest (most often a woman) simply announced a passage (Acts 3:12-26).  A woman from the congregation stood up, read it, and preached.  Others followed her lead, as they felt moved by the Spirit.  This preaching by the parishioners rather than by a preacher is remarkable enough.  Yet I was not surprised.  Dube had written about this (see Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation 2000, 39-42, 184-95).  But I was astounded by the way this church practices communal preaching.  The translation from the Setswana language whispered in my ear gave me the gist of the rich and very diverse mini-sermons, each immediately followed by prayers, with everyone on his or her knees praying aloud.  After some prodding, I took my turn.  Most understood my English as I elaborated on the theme “we are all children of Abraham” (Acts 3:26-27) and brought greetings from French and American churches.  Seemingly the members of the congregation appreciated my words, nodding approval.  I sat down.  But the members of the congregation did not fall on their knees in prayer. Yet they did for the next “preachers.” Embarrassingly, my mini-sermon was the only exception.  After the service, I inquired of my translator: “What happened?”  His immediate answer was: “You did not ask!”  In response to my puzzled look, he explained: “As is well known” (and so, he had not translated this for me!),   “one concludes a sermon with the request, ‘Brothers and sisters pray for me, so that I might better understand the Scripture.’” 

My head knew that I have much to learn from people reading the Bible from other cultural and religious contexts.  I knew that in any reading, in order to make sense of a biblical text we use our language, our culture, our religious perspectives, and our concerns.  This focuses and sharpens our understanding of the text as binoculars do, but also narrows down our field of vision, becoming blinders.  I also knew that only people from different contexts could show us our blind spots—the many aspects of the text that we are missing.  This is why I was in this African Initiated Church!  I knew all this with my head, but not with my heart.  My practice was saying loud and clear that, as a European-American biblical scholar, I understood the biblical text quite well on my own, and that I did not need any help from anybody else for that.  But I needed these sisters and brothers from Kasane to show me one of my blinders.  Indeed, they exemplified the way to remove it.  All that it takes is to ask at the end of a sermon or of a lecture: “Brothers and sisters, pray for me so that I might better understand the Scripture.”  When one concludes a sermon or lecture in this way, one is ready to listen to other interpretations with the expectation of learning from them. 

 

Can Contextual Biblical Studies Be Critical?

 

However, who would ask “pray for me so that I might better understand the Scripture” in a church or in academic circles in Europe or North America?  I have to confess that I rarely end my lectures with this formula.  In academic circles it would be awkward.  But thanks to the prayers of these brothers and sisters in Kasane, we Western readers can recognize that biblical scholars in other parts of the world have developed alternate strategies with the same effect: contextual biblical hermeneutics, such as a) inculturation, b) liberation, c) inter(con)textual approaches.  All these critical approaches are attempts to better understand the Scripture in particular life context. 

 

These critical approaches have been developed respectively in Africa by Teresa Okure and others, in Latin America by J. Severino Croatto and others, and in Asia by Archie Chi Chung Lee and others.  Then, we can recognize that, in Western Scholarship, feminist approaches are themselves contextual—especially when woven together with cultural sensitivities, as in Nicole Wilkinson Duran’s articles on “Jesus: A Western Perspective” and (with Derya Keskin Demirer) on “1 Corinthians 11 in Christian and Muslim Dialogue.”   But for many of us trained in Western scholarship, acknowledging the contextual and cultural character of our interpretations was not an easy exercise.  Articulating the context of one’s interpretation is articulating that which is assumed, not articulated, while one interprets a text within it.   Following a long scholarly tradition, we envision a contextual interpretation as the application of the teaching of the text to our context.  And so it is, in a sense.  But “application of a text to a context” is an attitude that unduly denies that the “teaching of the text” that we identified is already constructed in terms of our context.  Thus, in a European-American context, an alternate strategy for becoming aware of the contextual character of our interpretations is often necessary.  I found pedagogically helpful to present as equally legitimate, and plausible, several scholarly interpretations of any given text and then to invite the audience into a discussion to assess what is the “best” teaching for a specific situation. See in this volume my contextual commentary on “Romans.” 

All of us, contributors to this volume, struggled to make explicit the contextual character of our interpretations.  We did it in different ways.  But in the process, our vision of the relationship of our interpretations with other interpretations and with the biblical text began to change.  As we want others to respect our (contextual) interpretations, so should we respect the interpretations of others, even when these are blatantly contextual—such as the mini-sermons of the sisters and brothers in Kasane.  Consequently, the GBC invites its users not only to respect these “other” interpretations, but also to recognize and make explicit the contextual character of their own interpretations of the Bible.  In this way, instead of belittling their own interpretations (waiting for a preacher or a scholar to give them the “correct” interpretations) the users of the GBC will hopefully recognize that they can respect their own interpretations and assume responsibility for them.   (See the “Suggestions for Using this Global Bible Commentary.”)  

 

This contextual awareness applies to the reading of this volume: every reading of this GBC will necessarily be contextual.  Therefore, my presentation of it in this “Introduction”—a reading—is also contextual.   In what follows, my goal is limited to introducing this volume to a specific audience: North American undergraduate and seminary students and their teachers, as well as pastors, priests, and adult Sunday school classes.  Actually, I am writing this introduction while keeping in mind the undergraduate and seminary students at Vanderbilt University—a culturally and religiously diverse group in a Western context.  Readers from other contexts might be curious to eavesdrop on our conversation.  But I trust that as this GBC is translated and/or prepared for publication in other contexts around the world, different introductions specially prepared to facilitate reading of this volume in these contexts will supplement or replace this one.  

 

An Invitation to Read the Bible as for the First Time

 

Most commentaries in this GBC will provide us readers of the Bible in North America with the opportunity to read the biblical books as if for the first time.  Why?  Because each given commentary makes explicit the context and concerns from which the scholar reads the Bible.  Since the scholar’s contextual concerns are different from ours (often even when the commentary is written in North America), the commentary points out significant aspects of the biblical text that we have overlooked, possibly simply because we have taken them for granted. 

 

What was for us a familiar biblical book, which no longer had anything new for us, becomes once again a surprising, disturbing, challenging, prodding, demanding, or wooing address that we cannot ignore.  The muffled, subdued, tamed biblical text with which some of us might have been satisfied becomes once again alive.  Then, time and again, we find ourselves having to wrestle with the text in order to extract from it a blessing, often an unexpected blessing (as happened to Jacob in Gen 32:22-32, a significant passage in Clare Amos’ commentary on “Genesis”).  

 

Reading a biblical book as if for the first time, as a strange and alien text, is oddly enough what happens both when scholars read it from a critical perspective and when believers read it as Scripture.  This is understandable.

The more sensitive the scholars are about their own culture, the more aware they are of the historical and cultural gap that separates them from the biblical text.  Thus, the critical outlook that we value so much in Western scholarship is sharpened when we read with scholars who make explicit the cultural and ideological perspectives from which they interpret the Bible in their part of the world—as each contributor to the GBC strives to do.

 

Similarly, the more believers read the Bible as a Word-to-live-by in all aspects of their life context, the more aware they are of the moral and religious gap that separates them from the biblical text.  Thus, our ethical and scriptural sensibility is sharpened when we observe how scholars decide why choosing a particular biblical interpretation matters in their life context—which each commentator makes as explicit as possible.  Accordingly, the GBC brings together—sometimes in side-by-side commentaries, sometimes in the same one—the critical readings of scholars and the scriptural readings of believers.  As a result, the readers of this GBC are invited to assess scriptural readings from a critical perspective, as conscientious preachers should do when they prepare their sermons. (The practice of scriptural criticism is further explained in Grenholm and Patte, 2000, 1-54).

 

Biblical Interpretation Always Matters

 

Biblical interpretation always matters because, for better or worse, it directly affects the lives of believers and the people around them.  With this conviction, each contributor to the GBC begins by making explicit the specific context from which she or he writes.  As a member of a community or a group, he or she asks two questions: How does reading a particular biblical book transform the common view of this life context?  And, vice versa, how does approaching this biblical book with the concerns and insights arising from this particular context transform one’s understanding of this book?

 

Biblical Interpretation Matters for Believers and Scholars

 

Biblical interpretation matters for believers who read the Bible as Scripture, and for preachers who do so in preparation for a sermon, because it involves choosing a Word-to-live-by.  Both groups deliberately choose one of the several potential teachings of a biblical text because they think it most directly addresses concerns they have in their present life-situation.  At times, this teaching simply confirms and reinforces convictions that believers already hold, although they might have some doubts about them: “I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24—a significant verse in Hisako Kinukawa’s commentary on “Mark).  But in many instances, the Word-to-live-by that believers and preachers find in the biblical text deeply challenges them, changes their views of a situation, demands from them a new commitment, and transforms their way of life.

 

Scholars have long frowned upon this practice, because biblical interpretation also matters for them: “One should not pick and choose in a text what one likes.”  We biblical scholars care so much about biblical interpretation that we have devoted our entire life to preventing misuses and abuses of the Bible.  Thus, it is part of our role to be suspicious of all interpretations of the Bible and to assess them.  To avoid misuses of the Bible we insist that any interpretation be properly grounded in the biblical text.  We, the biblical scholars involved in the GBC as contributors and editors, strove to play that most important role.  Yet, we disagree with the traditional objection mentioned above.  Picking and choosing what is particularly relevant for our life context or what is most significant for us is what all interpreters do. 

 

Biblical scholars should not be surprised to hear that interpretation always involves making choices.  Actually, the more rigorous we want to be in our exegesis, the more we pick and choose interpretive options.  In order to ground our interpretation in the text, we scholars choose one particular critical method among many different methods and we choose a particular aspect of the text as most significant (as shown in Patte, Stubbs, Ukpong, and Velunta, 2003, pp. 54-57).   Furthermore, as I have illustrated in the commentary on  Romans” in this volume, in making these methodological and textual choices, self-consciously or not, we scholars also choose a particular teaching of the text for our life context—exactly as believers do-- although scholars and believers might disagree on the most appropriate choices. 

 

In sum, nothing is wrong with picking and choosing in a text what one perceives as most significant and as most appropriate for one’s particular contexts.  Indeed, nothing is wrong with picking and choosing features of the texts because they are more significant from the perspective of one’s religious convictions and ideologies.  The most rigorous scholars do so.  However, this is not to say that everything goes.  The biblical scholars’ role remains; we still must strive to prevent misuses and abuses of biblical texts.  Two strategies are essential for this. 

 

First, we need to assess how each given interpretation is grounded in one or another aspect of the text.  But because there is a plurality of legitimate interpretations, we biblical scholars have to be more democratic and less suspicious.  Rather than considering a believer’s interpretation “guilty until proven otherwise,” biblical scholars should consider it “legitimate until proven otherwise.” 

 

Second, we must ask the interpreters to be as aware as possible of their religious and ideological convictions.  The more that interpreters make their presuppositions explicit, the less the risk that they will simply “read them into” the text.  Interpretations that pretend to be objective or a mere presentation of “what the text meant” hide their presuppositions and inscribe them into the meaning of the text that should be universally accepted.  Besides being narrow-minded, this type of interpretation is questionable because it denies any legitimacy to interpretations that presuppose religious or ideological convictions different from theirs—a problem further discussed below. 

 

Therefore, in the GBC, the commentators do not hide their religious or ideological convictions.  They readily disclose them in order to clarify the reasons for their interest in one or another theological feature of the biblical text.  A few examples are enough here.  When commenting on “Hebrews: Sacrifice in African Perspective” or on Jesus’ uniqueness as the only Savior of the World in “Colossians,” Teresa Okure, SHCJ, explains why these issues are important for her as a Roman Catholic sister in Nigeria by referring to the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, to the 2001 “Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” to the teaching of John Paul II, and to the Vatican II Council.  Petros Vassiliadis by commenting on “John in an Orthodox Perspective” is led to emphasize what this Gospel says about “the liturgical character of the relationship of God’s people and the world . . . through which this unity of humankind in God and the preliminary manifestation of the future kingdom are made present.”  Similar Orthodox interpretations are found in Stelian Tofanâ’s commentary on “Hebrews” and in  Vasile Mihoc’s “Jesus Christ: an Orthodox Perspective.”  Paul Swarup on “Zechariah” and Paul Kalluveettil, CMI on “Haggai” make clear the struggle of their respective Anglican and Catholic communities in India.  Alan Cooper and Susanne Scholz offer their commentary on “Leviticus” as a dialogue between a Jew and a Protestant woman.  As a liberal, feminist Protestant, Lee Kyung Sook focuses her commentary on “1 and 2 Kings” on the features of these books that reinforce the “gospel of prosperity”—a powerful movement among Protestant churches in Korea—but also on those features of these texts that undermine this movement and support the “gospel of justice” of her tradition.  Similarly, though she emphasizes that her perspective is ideological and not religious, Athalya Brenner focuses our attention in her commentary on “Proverbs” on features of this book that are most dangerous from the perspective of her stance as “a woman scholar, Jewish, a native Hebrew speaker, a first-generation Israeli born to immigrant Ostjuden parents, a-religious, a mother to a son, divorced, living in Amsterdam and Haifa, teaching bible and Jewish studies in Amsterdam and Texas (mostly to Christians), of working-class origins, a feminist with left-oriented political opinions.”  Thus she highlights what Proverbs says about class distinctions and attitudes to young and old, as well as its reflected social and sexual anxieties, its shallow religiosity, and its presentation of wisdom as consumer goods. 

 

Biblical Interpretation Matters Because of Its Powerful Effects on People

 

In view of the fact that any interpretation results from a choice among several legitimate interpretations, biblical scholars have to join believers and preachers in asking: Is this the most appropriate interpretation for a particular life context?  This question is always important when one reads a biblical text in order to identify a Word-to-live-by.  A better choice of interpretation might have considerable positive consequences for the believers and those around them.  But another question is even more important, although believers and preachers might forget to ask it: Whom does the chosen interpretation help and whom might it hurt?  Certain choices of interpretations have devastating effects. This is a second reason why biblical interpretation always matters.  

 

We readily recognize unacceptable interpretations when we look at history. Think of the biblical interpretations that were used as a justification for the crusades and the massacres of “infidels,” or for racism and slavery, or for the all-out attacks on indigenous peoples and their cultures in the Americas and elsewhere, or for anti-Semitism and the Shoah (or Holocaust)—as André Lacoque emphasizes in his commentary on “Daniel.”  Yes, biblical interpretation matters when millions of people are murdered or oppressed because horrible interpretations have been made.  

 

We believers and scholars readily nod in approval.  Such interpretations need to be rejected.  But when we consider present-day uses of the Bible that justify other kinds of oppression, violence, and destructive attitudes, we hesitate.  Part of our hesitation is due to our inability to imagine interpretations different from the one we are accustomed to.  Too easily we are inclined to declare, “As everyone knows, this is what this biblical text says,” even when many other readers propose different interpretations.  Another part of our hesitation is due to disagreements regarding what is oppressive, violent, or destructive. 

 

Diverse groups denounce as most harmful quite different kinds of biblical interpretations: those that justify patriarchalism and violence against women; those that justify; those that justify colonialism, the violent exploitation of entire nations, and the denigration of their cultures ; those that justify isolationism and the refusal to intervene to protect innocent people from dictators; those that justify homophobia and the denial of basic human rights to persons with different sexual orientation; those that justify the rejection of family values; as well as those that justify classism and the marginalization of the poor with the assumption that they are responsible for their poverty.  Yes, biblical interpretation matters, when it justifies injustice and abuse of innocents, instead of calling us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).  But, as Huang Po Ho points out in his commentary on “Micah, this verse does not provide us with clear-cut criteria; we need to wrestle with it so as to receive a blessing from it!  We need to debate with the text and among ourselves who should benefit from justice and kindness, who should be defended against injustice and abuse, and what is justice.

 

            This Global Bible Commentary invites its users to such debates in presence of the concrete reality of economic, social, health, and cultural crises all around the world.  This crisis can be summarized in numbers that are so staggering that they are beyond comprehension—“1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar per day;  one billion people do not have access to clean water; more than two billion people have no access to adequate sanitation”  (Serageldin, 2002, 217).  But for many contributors of the GBC this tragedy is a very concrete part of their life context.  For them, a reading of the Bible that would ignore the cruelty and starkness of poverty, hunger, devastating diseases, injustices, cultural decompositions, social and political chaos would be both meaningless and irresponsible.   In an AIDS context, Botswana, Musa Dube cannot read “Mark’s Healing Stories” without taking into account this situation.   Similarly, one cannot ignore the spot light that each biblical text puts on one or several particular features of the economic, social, political, cultural, and religious crisis in Argentina when reading “Deuteronomy” with Mercedes García Bachmann,  Ezekiel 1-39” with Samuel Almada, “Joel” with Pablo Andiñach,  “Obadiah” with Jorge Torreblanca,  “Malachi” with Claudia Mendoza, “Galatians” with stor Oscar Miguez;  in the Democratic Republic of Congo when reading “Judges” with Fidèle Ugira Kwasi; in Ghana, when reading “Job” with Benjamin Abotchie Ntreh;  in Indonesia, when reading “Ecclesiastes” with John Prior; in Kenya, when reading “Isaiah 1-39” with Victor Zinkuratire; in Nigeria, when reading “2 Corinthians” with Ukachukwu Chris Manus;  in Rwanda, when reading “Habakkuk” with Innocent Himbaza;  in Uruguay, when reading “James” with Cristina Conti.   Similarly, Alejandro Duarte cannot ignore the political murders of eleven of his friends in Argentina and his situation in Ceuta, a small Spanish colony in North Africa, as he reads “Matthew.”  

 

It is fascinating to see how each biblical text focuses the attention on specific issues in the given concrete situation of the commentator and conversely how this concrete situation brings to light aspects of the text that otherwise do not appear to be particularly significant.  This is also true of several commentaries that led several contributors to pay close attention to issues of patriarchalism and violence against women in India, as Monica Melanchthon did when commenting on “Song of Songs”; in the African Amrerican context, as Renita Weems did when commenting on “Jeremiah”; in the barrios of Brazil , as nia Mara Vieira Sampaio did when commenting on “Hosea,”  and of Costa Rica, as Elsa Tamez did when commenting on “1 Timothy.”  Similarly, other commentators focus their studies on the cultural plights they encounter in their context, as Madipoane Masenya does when commenting on “Ruth” as a South African; as Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan does when commenting on “Amos” as an Asian American; as Chen Nan Jou does when commenting on “Jonah” as a Taiwanese; and as R. S. Sugirtharajah does when presenting the “Matthew 5—7, the Sermon on the Mount in India” as read by Raja R. Roy and Mohandas K. Gandhi.

 

            Facing the concrete issues of their particular life contexts, other commentators lead us to raise issues concerning the responsibility (or irresponsibility!) of the churches, in Brazil, when reading “Ezekiel 40-48” with  Sandro Gallazzi;  in Korea, when read “Philemon” with Jean Kim; in the Philippines, when reading “2 Timothy and Titus” with Daniel C. Arichea; in the United States, including among African American churches, when reading “Philippians” with Demetrius K. Williams.

 

            In the GBC, certain commentators find that they have to debate with the biblical text, because its taken-for-granted message was and still is so destructive in their contexts.  It is enough here to mention four commentaries that struggle with books that were used to justify colonialism and colonialist mission:  Dora Mbuwayesango reading “Joshua” from Zimbabwe and Southern Africa; Jione Havea reading “Numbers” from the South Pacific Islands; Justin Ukpong reading “The Gospel of Luke” from Nigeria; and Danna Nolan Fewell reading “Ezra-Nehemiah” from the perspective of a European American mother who keeps before her the effects of colonialism on the children in the Two-Thirds World.   Struggling with the biblical text, as Jacob struggled with the angel!

 

Biblical Interpretations Engender Defensive Attitudes

 

 Biblical interpretation matters so much for all of us readers of the Bible that we often become very protective of our interpretations.  We are convinced that, whatever they might be, our interpretations are the “best” from the perspective of our theological or ideological views and of the life contexts that are our primary concern.   Because so much is at stake, we make sure that our interpretations truly express “what the text says.”  We verify their legitimacy in discussion with others and by consulting appropriate resources.  Then we feel that, in good conscience, we can ignore or reject all interpretations that differ from ours, and hold firm to our own interpretations.  

 

This is a necessary attitude.  Each of us needs to have a firm conviction (“naiveté,” Ricoeur would say) that our choice of interpretation is the “best” Word-to-live-by before living by it in our daily lives.  We have much at stake in this choice.  What we do in our lives depends on it—at times our very lives depend on it.  We must reach a point in our reading of the Bible when we decide to act accordingly.

 

Acting—praxis—cannot be indefinitely postponed, when urgent issues regarding justice for the oppressed are at stake.  This is what the commentaries written from a “liberation theological” perspective directly or indirectly intimate.  Here I could list most of the commentaries on the prophets.  Be it enough to mention the commentaries on “Isaiah 40–55,” “Isaiah 56–66,” and “Fourth Isaiah” by Severino Croatto from his context in Argentina, and on “Nahum” by Valmor da Silva from his context in the mid-western region of Brazil.  But the same urgent call for praxis in contexts involving injustice is found in commentaries on other books, such as those on “Exodus” by Jorge Pixley, from his context in Nicaragua; on “Luke’s God and Mammon, a Latin-American Perspective” by René Krüger, from his context in Argentina; on “John 1, 2, and 3” by Johannes Beutler, SJ, from his context in Europe and with keen empathy for the dramatic effects of globalization as economic oppression; on “1 and 2 Peter and Jude” by Sharon Ringe, from her context in the United States “in solidarity with Latino/a communities in the United States, and with communities in Central America and the Caribbean”; or on “Revelation” by Christopher Rowland.     In order to advocate and be involved in action (praxis), one must adopt a certain interpretation of the biblical book under study.  This is what believers and preachers also do all the time.  A quest for a Word-to-live-by must lead to living by this Word! 

 

Yet, as liberation theologians have long underscored, one must not stop the process.   Finding a Word-to-live by, and living by it is good.  But we should not freeze our choice of interpretation once and for all.  When we do so, we have, in effect, stopped reading the Bible.  Rather we need to go back and forth between, on the one hand, living by the teaching of the biblical text with full conviction (with a first or second naiveté, Ricoeur would say) and, on the other hand, reading the text anew, with the openness to find that another choice of interpretation might be better in new circumstances or that we had overlooked an aspect of the text which turns out to be most significant.  Yet, this openness is difficult to maintain by ourselves.  Reading with others makes it much easier. 

 

The Many Benefits of Reading the Bible “With Others”

 

An Invitation to Read the Bible with Others

 

In this GBC, each of the contributors offers us the opportunity to sit down and read with her or him a book of the Bible.  What a precious gift! 

 

These scholars take the risk of opening themselves up to us in order to expose the otherness of their views, cultures, and ideological and religious stances.  They do so by making explicit how they see their life context from the perspective of a biblical book and this biblical book from the perspective of their life context.  In the process, these scholars invite us to read with them.  If we accept this invitation, we soon find ourselves reading this biblical book as if for the first time, astonished by unexpected treasures, frightened by dangerous teachings, unsettled by both the awe and the dread of an encounter with the text as a mystery.

 

Accepting these scholars’ invitation to read with them is greatly facilitated by their willingness to acknowledge that their interpretations are contextual.  Because we know that the interpretation of a given biblical book is concerned with a context other than ours, we do not need to be defensive.  It is clear from the outset that these commentators are not reading the Bible for us or to us.  They are not telling us either how we should be reading the biblical book or what interpretation of the biblical book we should adopt.  On the contrary, the commentator frees us to read and re-read the biblical text on our own, both with the sharp focus provided by critical tools available in our culture and with the insights gained from the theological interests and contextual concerns that reflect our life contexts.  

 

Some of the commentators not only invite us to read with them, but also exemplify in their own commentaries what reading with others entails.  Rather than presenting their own interpretation, they present what they heard when they read with others.  In a sense, this is true of most of the commentaries—our interpretations reflect our discussion of the texts with our students or with other groups.  Yet, five of the commentaries were deliberately prepared by reading with a group.  These commentaries include: “Numbers,” which Jione Havea “read” in the South Pacific Islands with “a Tongan kava-drinking group called Kau pakipaki folofola (“breakers of scriptures”)” in which he told and retold the story of Numbers as an island-storyteller; “1 and 2 Samuel,” which Gerald West read with groups of southern African readers, including groups of African women; “Zephaniah,” which Shigeyuki Nakanose, SVD, and Fernando Doren, SVD, Enilda de Paula Pedro, RBP, read with their base community in Brazil; and “Ephesians,” which John Riches read with a contextual Bible study group in Scotland. 

 

Reading with Others, Rather than Reading for (or to) Others

 

Why are the GBC commentators inviting others to read with them, even as they themselves read with others?   To begin with, they are very aware of the disastrous effects of reading for others or of reading to others.  This kind of reading has the effect of reducing others to the demeaning rank of subalterns, just as speaking for others and speaking to others do.  As Spivak pointed out (“Can the Subaltern Speak?” pp. 277-313), this is a typical colonialist attitude that silences the “others,” stripping from them their dignity as persons, denying any value to their culture, and depriving them of their personal and communal identity.  Many of the commentators from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands, as well as the commentators who are women, have suffered from this denial of their cultures and contextual concerns, when they were taught to read the Bible as Western males do.  Male teachers, missionaries, pastors, and scholars from North America and Western Europe had read the Bible to them and for them. 

 

Despite this demeaning experience, all the GBC scholars respect Western interpretations by male scholars, as the bibliographies and the comments make clear.  Yet, as scholars in their own right they resist the temptation to do to others what others did to them.  Thus, instead of reading for us or to us, they generously invite us to read with them, with the expectation that those who join them in reading the biblical text will have their own, distinctive interpretations for their own contexts. 

 

Avoiding the negative effects of reading for (or to) others is one thing. Yet, reading with others has additional important benefits, which are reflected in the experience of the GBC contributors who have not personally suffered from this denial of their cultures and contextual concerns.  I am referring to the European/American male contributors who are among those who represent Western Europe and North America in this GBC.

 

At first, several of us in this position understood our scholarly role as reading for (or to) others—teaching our students the “right” reading of the text, as we were ourselves taught.  But each of us “turned” around.  Through different circumstances and paths, each of us was convinced to do so because feminist, African-American, liberation, post-colonial, and other advocacy scholars generously invited us to read with them. 

 

Often we European/American males had a hard time hearing this invitation—as was my case.  We mistakenly thought that these advocacy scholars wanted to read for us—to teach us “the” right interpretation.   To our mistuned ears, this is what they were telling us when they asked us to respect their interpretations and to acknowledge their legitimacy, plausibility, and validity.  This was a misguided understanding of what advocacy scholars were telling us.   In the same way, it would be a misunderstanding of the contributions to the GBC if they were to be read as reading for us—teaching us the right interpretation.

 

The contributors to the GBC, following in the footsteps of the pioneer feminist, liberation, and African-American scholars, do not want us to appropriate their interpretations or to mimic them. This would amount to co-opting them.  Rather, they call us to recognize that our own interpretations are also framed by our own contextual and theological concerns—the first step in a long and ever ongoing journey toward abandoning our exclusivist outlook (be it imperialist, Eurocentric, androcentric, elitist, or religious) which gave us the nerve to claim that we were reading for everyone else whom we reduced to the status of subalterns—a strategy that European-American males unfortunately perfected.  

 

In addition, by accepting to read with others, we begin to adopt a totally different attitude toward our own interpretations.  As we learn to respect their interpretations, we find that the differences between our interpretations reflect divergent but plausible interpretive choices of three kinds: textual, contextual, and theological choices. 

 

We have already noted that most of the commentaries of the GBC make explicit their contextual choices and that reading with the commentators helps us to perceive our own “contextual choices.”  It remains to mention how reading with the GBC scholars helps us to recognize the roles of culture in our textual choices and of our view of Scripture in our theological choices.

 

 

Recognizing the Role of Intertexts in Interpretations by Reading With Others

 

By reading with others we recognize that our “textual choices”—our choices of certain textual features as most significant—reflect not only the critical exegetical method we have chosen, but also a particular hermeneutical theory shaped by the intertextual dialogue in a particular culture.  We always, though often subconsciously, read biblical texts in terms of familiar intertexts that lead us to pay attention to certain aspects of these texts.   The parochial cultural character of our textual choices and the role of our own intertexts become most obvious when we read with interpreters from other cultures who make explicit their own intertexts.  Several GBC commentators exemplify for us this intertextual and thus cultural character of biblical interpretations, among these: Archie Lee when he reads “Lamentations” in terms of Chinese laments; Tat-siong Benny Liew when he reads “The Acts of the Apostles” in terms of Chinese-American inter(con)textual stories; Yeo Khiok-khng when he reads “1 Thessalonians” and “2 Thessalonians in terms of Chinese Marxist and Confucian views of hope and eschatology; Joseph Pathrapankal, CMI when he reads “1 Corinthians” from the perspective of the multi-religious culture in India; as well as David Tuesday Adamo when he invites us to join him as he reads “Psalms” with African Initiated Churches in terms of their African religious culture.  Each of these cultural perspectives highlights the significance of certain textual features that in our culture might not seem significant, exactly as our exegetical methods and hermeneutical theories lead us to highlight the significances of certain textual features.  Reading with these and other GBC commentators we cannot but ask ourselves: What are the intertexts—religious or secular—in terms of which I read the biblical texts?   These cultural differences are most visible when comparing the views of “Jesus: An African Perspective,” by Anne Nasimiyu Wasike ; of Jesus: An Asian Perspective,” by Carlos Abesamis, S.J.; of “Jesus: A Latin American Perspective,” by Pablo Richard; of “Jesus Christ: An Orthodox Perspective,” by Vasile Mihoc; and of “Jesus: A Western Perspective,” by Nicole Wilkinson Duran.  Yet, these articles also reveal significantly different theological choices.

 

Recognizing the Role of Conceptions of Scripture in Biblical Interpretation by Reading with Others 

 

By reading with others we also recognize that the “theological choices”—our interests in specific theological Fissues mentioned by the text—reflect not only our religious or a-religious interests, but also a particular conception we have of how believers relate Scripture to their lives as a Word-to-live-by.   In the process we discover that we have a choice of views of Scripture. 

 

As readers of the GBC, we North American readers of the Bible are again and again surprised by the many different views of Scripture that these commentators presuppose or implement.   Since the authors often do not make it explicit, I will not list specific commentaries at this point.  Yet the users of the GBC need to be aware that different views of Scripture are presupposed by the various commentaries.  Of course, quite a number of commentaries presuppose that a quest for a Word-to-live-by involves looking for a teaching that believers should implement in their lives: a moral teaching, be it a way to walk (“a lamp to my feet and light for my path,” Ps 119:105), or a canon of behavior to assess who belongs or does not belong to the community, or an expression of what God wants, for instance, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [your] God” (Mic 6:8).  

 

Yet, many other commentaries are reading biblical books for another kind of Word-to-live-by: a Word of hope, where there is no hope; a Word of love and of welcome as full members of the people of God, where there is exclusion, racism, and marginalization; a vision-giving Word, where nothing makes sense any longer and one needs to see one’s life context with God’s eyes; but also a troubling, disturbing Word, which is so dangerous that we have to wrestle with it and against it in darkness and with all our might to avoid being cursed by it and somehow to extract a blessing from it.  This latter view of Scripture might sound sacrilegious.  Does this wrestling indicate a refusal to submit to the authority of Scripture?  This might be our knee-jerk reaction when we read with commentators who cannot but struggle with biblical texts through which they and their people have been so deeply hurt.  But this knee-jerk reaction is unwarranted.  Far from being sacrilegious, such wrestling readings of Scripture reflect an encounter with the Bible as “Holy.”  It is also a liturgical reading of Scripture, which can be a mysterious irenic Eucharistic Presence (see Petros Vassiliadis) or a shattering Eucharistic Presence, a “breaking of Scriptures” comparable to the breaking of bread (see Jione Havea).  Encountering the Sacred as Mysterious Other is encountering a reality which shakes us up, and which we cannot accept at face value without betraying it.  Respecting this mystery of Scripture involves refusing to reduce it to what is obvious, recognizing that it is always more than what we understood, and wrestling with it as long as it does not allow us to acknowledge and respect the mystery of those Others who are with us.

 

Each of us who contributed to the GBC made the contextual character of our interpretations as explicit as we could so as to signal that we were not reading for others, but inviting others to read with us.  Even though quite a few commentators would find it difficult to use these words, this was our way of asking from you, the users of the GBC: “Brothers and sisters pray for me, so that I might better understand the Scripture.”

 

 

Bibliography

 

Barrett, David B., George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson.   World Christian

    Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. 

    2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

 

Croatto, J. Severino.  Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading as the

   Production of Meaning. Trans. Robert R. Barr.  Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987.

 

Dietrich, Walter, and Ulrich Luz, eds. The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in

    Contextual Hermeneutics.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. 

    It includes essays by Justin Ukpong (“Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African

   Approach to Biblical Interpretation”), Elsa Tamez (“Reading the Bible under a Sky

   without Stars”), and by Seiichi Yagi (“Ego and Self in the New Testament and in

   Zen”).

 

Dube, Musa W. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St. Louis, Mo.:

   Chalice, 2000.

 

England, John C., and Archie C.C. Lee, eds.  Doing Theology with Asian Resources: Ten

    Years in the Formation of Living Theology in Asia.  Auckland, New Zealand: Pace

    Publishing, 1993.

 

Grenholm, Cristina, and Daniel Patte. “Overture: Receptions, Critical Interpretations, and

    Scriptural Criticism.” Pp. 1-54 in Reading Israel in Romans: Legitimacy and Plausibility

    of Divergent Interpretations. Ed. C. Grenholm and D. Patte. Romans Through History

    and Cultures Vol. 1. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000.

 

Okure, Teresa, ed.  Evaluating the Inculturation of Christianity in Africa. AMACEA Gaba

    Publications Spearhead 112-114.  Eldoret, Kenya:  AMECEA Gaba Publications, 1990.

   (See especially, pp. 55-88, Teresa Okure, “Inculturation: Biblical Theological Bases.”)

 

———. To Cast Fire upon the Earth: Bible and Mission Collaborating in Today’s

   Multicultural Global Context.  Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Clusters, 2000.

 

Patte, Daniel, Monya Stubbs, Justin Ukpong, and Revelation Velunta. The Gospel of

   Matthew: A Contextual Introduction for Group Study. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2003.

 

Serageldin, Ismail.  World Poverty and Hunger—the Challenge for Science,” Science 296, 2002,  54-58.

 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Pp. 277-313 in Marxism and the

   Interpretation of Culture.  Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University

   of Illinois Press, 1988.