“’Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him’” (Luke 10:36,37).

The Good Samaritan by Jacob Jordaens.

Distance refers to the reality that Bible interpretation happens outside the life and times of the people and happenings depicted, and negotiating distance is at the heart of Bible study, because distance presents a disconnect for modern readers seeking full discernment. There are four main distances that challenge Bible interpretation—the distance of time, cultural distance, geographical distance, and distance of language.

The problem modern readers face is that while the biblical authors had a definite meaning in mind, they are no longer around to offer further explanation; moreover, as modern readers, we cannot study the text from the perspective of the original audience which is likewise no longer available for comment.1 Something that may have been obvious to the original audience, may not be so obvious to the modern reader, for example, consider Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke. The ancient Jews despised the Samaritans, as there was a turbulent history between the two peoples, yet whereas, a modern reader would likely have no frame of reference to give the matter a second thought, Jesus casting a Samaritan in the role of hero would have been highly controversial, shocking even, to His audience.2 Although different distances present different challenges for Bible interpretation, I believe that time presents a most formidable distance, while geography presents one that is most easily mitigated.

The distance of time presents modern Bible interpreters with a particular challenge, because not only is time travel an impossibility, but culture is largely an inherent function of time, which adds an additional dynamic to the predicament. The world has changed substantially down through the ages, and modern readers lack essential information about the world (i.e. the culture) of the past.3 Furthermore, adding to the difficulties involved with interpreting between two time periods separated by a thousand or more years, the time between when an event takes place and when it is written down is yet another distance that time gives modern readers to traverse.4 Despite the care in which biblical writers took in preserving the integrity of their message, modern interpretation remains left with the task of reconciling the world of the original event, or saying, with the world of the writer who came along later, which then must be reconciled to the world of the interpreter. 

Whereas I believe the distance of time presents Bible interpreters with the most difficult challenges to negotiate, the distance of geography presents the easiest. Geography is among the distances modern interpreters must address, but unlike the passage time, modern interpreters could visit the Holy Land. Given, time imposes its own distance on geography, in that we cannot visit the Holy Land of Abraham’s day, it is at least possible to visit the region and observe present day settings of most biblical narratives. Therefore, it is not that I am saying that geography is a distance that we can overcome, but rather, geography is the easiest given the other three.

Interpretation without any regard to the original author and the recipients would be incomplete. Even though absolute certainty may be forever elusive in this life, since it is impossible to interview either the original author or their original readers, the impact of exploring such a connection helps modern readers negotiate distances, thus putting us closer to discovering the fuller meaning of a text. As with the problem of not recognizing the presuppositions one brings to Bible study, failing to recognize these distances can easily lead to a biased, shortsighted interpretation of Scripture. In fact, not knowing about the dislike between Jews and Samaritans, one may not fully appreciate the answer given to Jesus: “’Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him’” (Luke 10:36,37, ESV).5 It was clear by this point that “the neighbor” is the Samaritan; however, the disdain felt between Jews and Samaritans was so intense that commentators speculate that the expert in the law would have been unable to bring himself to refer to the Samaritan directly in such a positive light. Therefore, he responded to Jesus simply: “the one who had mercy.”

1 Grant R. Osborne, Revised and Expanded the Hermeneutical Spiral A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 21.

2 William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2017), 52.

3 Ibid., 53.

4 Ibid., 54.

5 Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

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