Commentary: Religious Texts Require Context

A misinterpretation of a text can lead to people being led astray.
A misinterpretation of a text can lead to people being led astray.
Photo used by permission from Pixabay

Interpreting religious texts for an audience gives the interpreter a great amount of power. And with that great power comes great responsibility. All texts require context in order to be understood, and interpreters have a duty to consider the audience and time for which the texts were written.

When it comes to sacred texts, a disconnect from their original context can lead to dangerous interpretations.

When speaking to Religious Studies Professor Eric Vanden Eykel about the misinterpretation of sacred texts, he spoke about the importance of not divorcing them from context.

“(When it comes to misinterpretation), the biggest culprit is failing to take into account the century that they were written for,” he said. “When there’s a lack of attention to the original context, that’s where you get into problems.”

This doesn’t only go for religious texts but all texts.

He brought up the Twilight books as an example.

“If you’re reading the Twilight books as an historical account of vampires in the northwest, you’re going to completely miss the point that the author is trying to get across,” he said.

The same goes for trying to interpret the gospel of Matthew; if a person tries to interpret it as a text written for the future, they will miss the point entirely.

Herein lies the issue of how misinterpreting biblical texts can be dangerous.

Many people see the Bible as the word of God, as something to be followed absolutely and without question. If someone’s job is to preach about these texts, that is a great deal of responsibility.

Because the interpreter and speaker is in a position of power, their interpretation is going to be believed and valued. If the Bible is wrongfully interpreted by someone in a position such as this, it is not only the improper handling of a text, but also a huge neglecting of their duty in leading people.

“It’s especially dangerous with the Bible because of how many people see the Bible as a sort of infallible collection of documents,” Vanden Eykel said. “If I misinterpret Twilight, I’m just going to look stupid. If I misinterpret the Bible, then I can convince people to go out and do all sorts of violent things. The same is true for any text that people consider to be sacred if they have an authority figure who is misinterpreting it and convincing them that it says something it doesn’t really say.”

People have been led to commit violent acts due to misinterpreting a text before. Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon, misinterpreted Catcher in the Rye.

Chapman murdered John Lennon because he believed he thought Lennon was a “phony”. It was discovered that Chapman thought the main character, Holden Caufield, would have also wanted to kill all of the “phonies” in the world.

Moreover, Harold Camping is a man who misinterpreted the Bible and terrorized multiple people, causing them to believe that the end of the world was nigh according to biblical texts.

“The end, he said, would come on May 21, 2011. The date was based on a complex formula involving the biblical flood survived by Noah in what Mr. Camping said was 4,990 B.C., a 7,000-year clock that began ticking from that moment, and the subtraction of one year because of a difference in the Old Testament and New Testament calendars,” a New York Times articles states.

Of course, the end never came, and Camping left people terrified and preparing for the worst. This is, to say, a very dangerous interpretation of the Bible that is, sadly, not the first and will not be the last.

All texts require context, but the more revered a text is, the more important context becomes. At their core, all religions claim to be the ultimate truth, and all of their texts will be devoutly adhered to by their followers.

Misinterpretation of sacred texts is dangerous and irresponsible but also avoidable.

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