Hermeneutical Horror

The other day I was listening to a Christian podcast where one of the hosts is a minister. He made a statement that just left my jaw on the floor. “We know that the forbidden fruit was not an apple because the apple is not a true fruit. It’s a false fruit.”

Ouch. That’s bad hermeneutics. The problem with it can be seen by asking two questions:

1) What’s a false fruit?

From The Free Dictionary, “A fruit, such as a strawberry, that contains tissue not derived from a ripened ovary.” Since apples contain tissue from a swollen thalamus, they are, indeed, a false fruit.

2) Is that a distinction made in the Bible’s time?

NO. In the Bible, fruits are simply the fleshy parts of trees that contain seeds. They don’t make a distinction over whether the fleshy part came form ovary, thalamus, or anything else. You’d be hard pressed to even find them using any of those words.

An important question that follows is “does the lack of distinction make the Bible wrong about apples?” Not at all. To force the issue is to commit the Fallacy of Modernity (also called the Appeal to Novelty). That is, to assume that because something is new, it is better (GK Chesterton hated it when people committed this fallacy. In his words, they preferred Wednesday simply because it came after Tuesday). Likewise, there is the Appeal to Antiquity where one assumes that something is better simply because it is old.

Are there other examples of the Bible not making a distinction that we do? Yes. Here are two just off the top of my head.

Bats are Birds

Leviticus 11:13-19 contains a list of birds that one is not to eat. At the end of the list is the “bat.” Ah, we might say, committing the Fallacy of Modernity, we know that bats are mammals and not birds; therefore, the Bible is wrong.

Great. Wonderful. We don’t put them in the same category; therefore, any culture that does is wrong to do so? There are several things wrong with that statement.

It’s better to look at the two words in question and see if, first, they are used the same way that we use the words. Both words have different ranges of meaning than the words they are translated to. Such a fact is very common translating between any two languages as different as English and Hebrew. The word for bird, ‘oph is also used to refer to insects (Leviticus 11:20) and the verb form is used for how angels move (Isaiah 6:6), in short anything using wings to fly can be an ‘oph. Even more generally, sparks (Job 5:7) and a scroll (Zechariah 5:1ff) can use the same word in a figurative sense.

The other word, ‘atallep, is only used three times in the Scripture. Here, the parallel passage in Duet 14:18, and Isaiah 2:20. From Duet and Leviticus, we can determine it is an unclean, winged thing. From Isaiah we see that it is a wild pest of some kind. The Septuagint translates the word with nukteris, “bat,” so there is an ancient tradition for identifying it this way.

Simply put, the Hebrews classified things differently. They didn’t use the same classification system that we do. Therefore, whether ‘atallep is a bat or not, it’s not a big deal. Clearly, whatever it is, uses wings to move.

Jonah’s Fish

Likewise is Jonah’s fish. People spend a lot of time debating if the dag was a fish or a whale. I’ve even read commentators who wax eloquent over the fact that it must have been a fish because whales are not fish, and the Bible, being inerrant, would never confuse the two. Same fallacy as above with birds and bats! The Hebrews did not distinguish between whales and fish. It isn’t wrong for them to not split them. They simply never had a reason to make a distinction.

However, those who insist that Jonah’s dag be a fish according to the modern understanding run into a problem with the Gospel of Matthew if they likewise insist on a perfect KJV. The KJV translates the words of Jesus in Matthew as “whale.”

Matthew 12:40 has the Greek word ketos, which on top of referring fish or whales can be used for sea monsters. The word only appears there in the New Testament. But it is the same word used in the Septuagint of Jonah instead of the usual word for fish, ichthus.

In conclusion, these are distinctions that didn’t matter back then and shouldn’t be argued now. When interpreting Scripture, the student must never press a modern understanding on the text in preference to the Biblical understanding.

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About frankluke

Professionally: pastor, programmer, writer. Personally: husband, father.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Hebrew, Hermeneutical Horrors, Hermeneutics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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