Concept: In his lead essay, Breed maps a general landscape of biblical scholarship using Paul Ricoeur’s model of the three worlds of the text. In order to gain understanding of biblical interpretive methods, participants will study and exegete a scripture text using these different worlds. This lesson builds the foundation for later study of reception history and exploration into the complexities of biblical interpretation.
Setting: Intended for an adult education class, this lesson is set to run for about 60 minutes, though it can be adjusted for shorter or longer timeframes. This class is part of a four-part series on biblical interpretation. Participants are encouraged to attend all four sessions.
In this first lesson, participants will:
Opening (10 min): As people enter, encourage them to sit at tables with others they may not know very well. Encourage participants to sit so that all three tables have equal numbers.
Begin with prayer:
God of mystery,
draw us nearer to you.
God of relationship,
draw us nearer to each other.
God in Trinity,
draw us into deeper understanding
through your gift of faith
and the outpouring of your love.
“Opinion Barometer—Where do you stand?”
After introducing the topic of study, invite participants to gather around the “opinion barometer” line taped on the floor in the room. Explain that after you read certain statements, they will stand in a spot on the line to mark their opinion. After each statement (below), allow time for participants to share with the group why they are standing where they are standing. In between each statement, instruct participants to step away from the line to “reset” before the next statement is read.
Reassure participants that there are no right or wrong answers. If they don’t have an opinion or can’t decide, they can stand in the middle of the line.
[If you have members in the group for whom moving around is difficult, invite them to remain seated for this exercise. Instead of standing on the barometer line, offer them paper to write their opinion scores on a scale from 1-10 (10=strongly agree, 1=strongly disagree, 5=not sure), in response to the statements. While others move on the barometer scale, those sitting can hold up their opinion scores for everyone to see.]
Exploring (20-25 min):
After allowing enough time for discussion during the opening exercise, invite participants back to their tables. Announce that they will now have the chance to explore and test some of these interpretive claims.
Invite someone to read aloud the scripture passage you have chosen for study.
Assign each table one of the three “worlds” of the text. Following the written exploration questions on their respective tables, invite the groups to work together to come up with an interpretation of the text using their assigned methodology. Tell the groups to choose a scribe and a presenter. Once they have constructed an interpretation of the text (asking, what does the text mean?), they will present their findings to the other groups. To incite some competition (and fun), challenge the groups to argue why their assigned methodology is the best way to determine what the text means.
Exploration Questions (to be printed and distributed to each of the groups)
Group #1: The World Behind the Text: Using the resources at your table, explore as much as you can about the historical context of the passage. When was the text written? What do you know about the author(s)? Who was the original or intended audience? Why was the text written? What was its ancient purpose and function? Look up the Hebrew/Greek translations for certain words and phrases that stick out—how does knowing these translations inform your interpretation? Are there other ancient texts similar to this one? What was the socio-political and geographical landscape? What has happened just prior to this event in history? If the text includes characters, what were the societal roles, expectations, and limitations of these characters? Given all of this historical information, what does this text mean?
Group #2: The World in the Text: Conduct a “close reading” of the text, treating it as literature. What themes emerge? What stylistic and rhetorical patterns do you notice? What genre(s) does this passage belong to (e.g. narrative, poetry, epistle, parable, law, etc.)? If the text includes characters, how are the characters described and portrayed? What information is included, and what is omitted? What do we know about these characters in other scripture texts? What texts are directly before and after this passage? Where is this passage located within the larger book? If this text is repeated in another part of the bible (such as in other gospels), how does this version differ? What are the theological implications of this passage, i.e., what does it say about prayer, resurrection, salvation, faithfulness, or doubt? Can this passage be understood as allegory? Based on what you know about the world within the text, what does this passage mean?
Group #3: The World in Front of the Text: Instead of trying to determine the author’s intentions, explore how different readers might construct their own meanings. Sharing with one another around the table, how do you as individuals interpret the text differently? What about your different experiences shapes how you read this text? Try to imagine how this text might be read by different communities around the world. How might this text be read through the lenses of gender, disability, race/ethnicity, empire, class, etc.? How do our modern-day beliefs and cultural practices influence how we read this ancient text? What are the theological and ethical implications of this passage for our modern context? What does this text mean to us today?
Presenting (10 min):
Invite each of the groups to present their findings and research. You may need to limit each group to 3-4 minutes for presenting. Encourage them to argue why their particular approach is the best way to determine the meaning of the text.
Responding (10-15 min):
Lead the entire group in a closing discussion, asking:
What did you learn about the text from studying your assigned “world”? What did you learn from the other groups? What are the limitations and benefits of each approach? Thinking back to our opening exercise, have any of your opinions about biblical interpretation changed? Are some approaches and methodologies better than others? If so, why? Why does studying these “worlds” of the text matter for our lives as Christians?
Closing (2 min):
Close with your own prayer, or read the opening words of John 1 from the Common English Bible for a closing prayer/meditation:
1 In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
3 Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.
What came into being
4 through the Word was life,
and the life was the light for all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
(John 1: 1-5, CEB)
1. Prayer by Joy Tetley in Prayers Encircling the World: An International Anthology (John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 1998), 211.