My least favorite thing about graduate studies in biblical studies was coming to the realization that there was a multisyllabic, Latin- or Greek- derived word for everything, and that precious few of these words would be found in a standard dictionary. Elder Dallin H. Oaks had an experience with this:
Some of us have never even heard of some of the subjects in which professional ministers have spent many years of professional preparation. A few years ago I encountered an example of this. I was talking with a Protestant minister who taught in a seminary. When I asked what subject he taught, he said, “Hermeneutics.” I had never heard that word, so I said, “What is that?” My minister friend explained that hermeneutics is the art of interpreting and expounding the scriptures. I smiled and said, “Well, yes, I guess I understand a little bit about that, but I’ve never heard it called that.”
I avoid peppering Church lessons with these words because I think that would be evidence of hubris, but I do think they are sometimes useful because of their precision. At any rate, a nice working definition of ‘hermeneutics’ is ‘the theory or methods used to interpret a text’, in this case, the scriptures.
There have been occasional stabs at developing a formal LDS hermeneutic, but for the most part, we are plodding along with unexamined assumptions about what is and what is not legitimate to do when interpreting the scriptures. I want to toss out just one question here for our consideration: Under what circumstances are the details in the scriptures important?
I recently had an interesting discussion here with Matt Evans as to whether Nephi’s use of ‘clinging’ in 1 Nephi 8:24 and ‘continually holding’ in verse 30 are significantly different, or are merely synonymous. How might we approach this question? Before we consider it, let’s look at a few other examples of the same phenomenon in the scriptures:
(1) Here is John 21:15-17 with a few of the Greek words included:
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapas) thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (philw) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith unto him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapas) thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (philw) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (phileis) thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest (phileis) thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love (philw) thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
You’ll notice that the word the KJV translates as ‘love’ is actually two different Greek words. Agapas is a stronger word than philw: it is possible to translate the former as ‘love’ and the latter as ‘like’. Some scholars think these words are used interchangeably, others do not. Obviously, you would interpret the passage very differently depending on which position you chose. Is this detail significant? How do you know?
(2) Take a look at Mark 14:3-9. Notice that the woman in never named, although, ironically, Jesus says that the wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will be told in memory of her. Is the absence of her name some sort of error or oversight? Should we just flip over to John to learn her name, and read mark assuming that that’s her name? Or did Mark deliberately leave her name out to make a point? If so, what’s the point? Are any of these legitimate questions to ask when we read the scriptures, or are they too minute, obtuse, or archane?
I could come up with a million more examples; for virtually every single detail (or missing detail) in the scriptures, I could ask if the detail (or its absence) is significant. Should I ask those questions? If they are legitimate, how do we go about determining their answers?
Let me share my tentative answer to the above questions, for you to mercilessly deconstruct.
Details are important and we should read for them much, much more often than we do now, in personal scripture study and when we teach. Here’s why: If you get to 1 Nephi 16 and you think “Liahona on the doorstep. Faith and diligence. Next.” your reading will be neither interesting nor inspiring. To quote some of the wisest words I have ever read in regards to reading scripture:
Assume that the scriptures mean exactly what they say and, more important, assume that we do not already know what they say. If we assume that we already know what the scriptures say, then they cannot continue to teach us. If we assume that they mean something other than what they say, then we run the risk of substituting our own thoughts for what we read rather than learning what they have to teach us. – James Faulconer (yes, our own Jim F.)
So, if you approach this chapter and start hacking at details (Why does the broken bow story interrupt the Liahona story? Why does the writing appear only after the broken bow incident? Why is the shape of the Liahona mentioned? Is the shape symbolic? What’s up with the two spindles? Why do you need two? How did it work? Why does Lehi find the Liahona on his doorstep, but Nephi has to make the ore to make the material to make the tools to make a boat?), scripture reading not only becomes new and interesting, but your act of pondering these questions creates an opening for the Spirit to whisper truth to you that the catechism approach does not.
So, I firmly believe that reading for details is very important. I think the worst thing we do when we read is to read 1 Nephi 16 today, 17 tomorrow, 18 the next day, etc. We should read chapter 16 each day for one week. I can guarentee that you will notice things about it on day 5 that you never would have spotted on day 2.
The next question is harder: When are details significant? Which ones are just, well, details and which should be read symbolically? To use another example from the same chapter, I wonder why it is mentioned that Nephi’s bow broke, but his brothers’ had lost their spring. It seems to me that you wouldn’t carve this into metal if it were simple historical fact (who cares?), but at the same time, I wonder if I am stretching when I posit that there is a metaphor here to Nephi’s broken heart and contrite spirit, versus his brothers’ ability to see angels (see angels!!) and then ‘spring’ right back to their wicked ways. Again, this feels like a stretch to me, but I can’t get over the idea that details in metal are not included accidentally. In other words, I don’t know when or how we know when details are significant. You might answer, ‘we know details are significant when the Spirit impresses us during our study.’ Of course, this is true. But is it the only way to know? Or might we formulate some guidelines?Thoughts?