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Theorizing Vs. Inferring: A Review of Common Biblical Misinterpretations

March 31, 2019

People who read and study the Bible arrive at conclusions about what the Biblical text teaches. Some people arrive at their conclusions by theorizing, and some do it by inferring. There is a difference between theorizing and inferring, and it is important to know the difference.

   To theorize means to speculate, to guess, to conjecture, to suppose, to hypothesize. To infer means to deduce, to arrive at a conclusion based on known facts that are embedded in the text. To infer means to put two and two together and see that the obvious, inescapable conclusion is that 2 + 2 = 4.

   Basing your conclusions on unprovable theories can lead to error. Basing your conclusions on known facts that are embedded in the Biblical text will lead to truth. Let’s look at some examples of theorizing and inferring.

   Because the Biblical text leaves so much information unsaid, people love to theorize about the unknown and the unstated. What kind of fruit grew on the tree of knowledge? Where did Cain get his wife? Had it ever rained before Noah’s Flood? Why were people’s lifespans so much longer before the Flood? What did Jesus do during the “Silent Years” of His childhood in Nazareth? What did Paul do during his “Silent Years” in Arabia?

   People come up with all sorts of answers to questions like these. But without any solid evidence, the answers can only be regarded as theories, not as facts.

   A theory might possibly (theoretically) be true, but without indisputable proof, it is just a guess. Conclusions must not be based on guesses and hunches and hypotheses; conclusions must be based on facts.

   Some facts are plainly stated outright in the Biblical text. Other facts can be inferred from the Biblical text.  For example, the Bible plainly states that after Adam and Eve sinned, they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. Then when God came looking for Adam, Adam said he hid from God “because I was naked.” From Adam’s statement we can infer the following: Even though Adam was wearing fig leaves and was technically not totally naked, he nonetheless felt naked (exposed) in the presence of God. The Bible does not plainly state that Adam felt naked in his fig leaves, but from the text we can infer that he did, because of what he said.

   After Adam realized that his fig leaves left him still feeling naked, God made coats of skins and clothed Adam and Eve. Since skins come from animals, we can infer that an innocent animal had to be killed to provide suitable coverings for Adam and Eve. We do not know whether God killed the animal, or had an angel do it, or had Adam do it. We can infer that an animal had to die to provide the skins, but we can only theorize about who killed the animal or which species of animal it was.

   Here’s an important New Testament passage that has led to both theorizing and inferring. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).

   Some Christians theorize about what Jesus meant by this statement. Their theories (which are based in part on their erroneous theories about God’s Old Testament law) lead them to erroneous conclusions: “We don’t have to obey the Old Testament law, because Christ fulfilled the law.”

   This statement is based on the erroneous theory (an assumption, really) that “fulfill” means to abolish. But that would make Jesus be saying, “I have not come to destroy the law.  Rather, I have come to destroy the law by fulfilling it.” This is a contradictory statement. (“I have not come to destroy the law”; “I have come to destroy the law.”) Furthermore, this conclusion is shown to be a false theory by the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth:

   “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:18f).

   Since heaven and earth have not yet passed away, we can infer from verse 18 that the law is not abolished. From verse 19 we can infer that faithful disciples of Yeshua will do and teach the commandments of God’s law.

   Another theory about the Old Testament law is the theory that it is impossible to keep the law. Ask the average Christian this question: “Under the old covenant, before Christ came, did any of the Jews keep all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly?”

   Most Christians will probably answer, “No, that wasn’t possible.  The law was too hard for anyone to keep it blamelessly.”

   Yet Luke 1:6 says this about John the Baptist’s parents, Zachariah and Elisabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”

   Since John the Baptist’s parents lived under the old covenant, we can infer from Luke 1:6 that under the old covenant it was indeed possible for a Jew to walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. And since the new covenant is “a better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 8:6), we can infer that it should be just as possible, and perhaps even more possible, for a new covenant disciple to do it.

   Does this mean that Zachariah and Elisabeth were absolutely sinless, that they never committed a single sin their entire lives, or that a Christian can be absolutely sin-free his entire Christian life? No, because Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned,” and 1 John 1:8 says “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” From this information we can infer the following about Zachariah and Elisabeth: Their normal walk with the Lord was an obedient walk. On those very rare occasions when they stumbled, they brought the proper sacrifice for their sins to the Temple.

   We can have the same sort of walk. An important difference is that under the better new covenant, we have a better sacrifice, that of the Messiah, and instead of bringing the blood of bulls or goats to an earthly Temple, we trust in the sin-cleansing blood of Messiah (“the blood of Yeshua Messiah His Son cleanseth us from all sin,” 1 John 1:7), and our fellowship with God is thereby restored. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

   People theorize not only about the Old Testament law in general, but also about specific commandments in the law. Even pro-Torah Messianic disciples sometimes theorize about the reasons for certain commandments. “God gave the dietary laws because it’s unhealthy to eat pork and shellfish and other unclean animals,” some say.

   It’s theoretically possible that this is one reason God gave the dietary laws. However, it’s just a theory to say that this was the reason God gave the dietary laws, because the Bible does not say this. As a matter of fact, the Bible says that the reason for following the dietary laws has to do with holiness, not health. (See the concluding verses of Leviticus 11.)

   Christians theorize a lot about New Testament passages, especially in Paul’s Epistles. They theorize that Paul is talking about the Sabbath in Romans 14 when he writes about “esteeming” or “not esteeming” one day above another. But this conclusion is based on an erroneous assumption that the only possible way to “esteem” a day is by keeping it as a sabbath. From the immediate context (“not eating” versus “eating”), we can infer that Paul is not talking about the Sabbath but about esteeming or not esteeming certain extra-Biblical traditional fast days. You can “esteem” the day by “not eating,” or you can “not esteem” the day by “eating” on that day.

   Christians theorize that in Galatians 4:10, Paul is scolding Christians for observing God’s Sabbath day and other appointed times commanded in Leviticus 23. But from the immediate context we can infer that Paul is not talking about God’s appointed times, but rather about the observance of pagan superstitions about certain times on the calendar, superstitions which the Galatians formerly observed in their pre-Christian lives, “when ye knew not God” and “did service to them which by nature are no gods” (vs. 8). It was these pre-Christian pagan observances which were “the weak and beggarly elements” whereunto the Galatians “desire[d] again to be in bondage” (vs. 9).

   Christians theorize that in Colossians 2:16 Paul is scolding Christians for keeping the Sabbath, new moons, holy days, and dietary laws which God commanded in the Old Testament. But from the immediate context, which contains the words man and men six times, we can infer that Paul was simply telling them to not let outsiders condemn them for not adhering to all the traditions and doctrines and commandments of men. Paul was not minimizing the importance of obedience to God-given commandments; he was liberating the Colossians (and us) from bondage to man-made philosophies, traditions, doctrines, and commandments. The Biblical Sabbath, new moon, holy days, and dietary laws are not doctrines and commandments of men. They are the commandments of God, and are still to be obeyed, in the right way and for the right reasons.

   People especially theorize a lot about Paul’s Epistles when it comes to Paul’s statements about the role of women. Many people do not want to accept Paul’s plain statements of fact at face value. So they look for some historical information to use as a basis for a theory that will render Paul’s Divinely-inspired Apostolic commandments irrelevant for Christians in today’s world. In effect, they are castrating Paul by cutting off his Divinely-inspired Apostolic commandments from the body of Holy Scripture. They cast away these commandments the way a cattle breeder tosses away the testicles of a castrated bull.

   People who do this usually quote first-century extra-Biblical historical writings about pagan priestesses, Dionysian cults of female frenzy, goddess worship, first-century customs in the Jewish, Roman, and Greek cultures, etc. Extra-Biblical writings about the first-century world can provide some helpful historical background for our study of the New Testament. The problem is not the use of these sources; the problem is the misuse of these sources.

   People misuse these extra-Biblical writings by using them to invent theories to explain the reason Paul wrote those things about the role of women. If the theoretical reason is no longer relevant in today’s world (“Christian women today were not raised as pagan priestesses who worshipped goddesses in cults of female frenzy, and 21st-century American culture does not disapprove of things that were frowned on in the first century”), then Paul’s Divinely-inspired Apostolic commandments are irrelevant in today’s world. Those commandments can be castrated from the canon of Holy Scripture and tossed to the dogs.

   There are at least three major problems with inventing a theory to explain the reasons Paul wrote what he wrote about women or about any other subject. The first and most obvious problem is that it is a mere theory and is unprovable.

   Second, it casts doubt on the inspiration of the New Testament writings. Did the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to write these things, or did Paul just state his own personal preferences? Paul wrote "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant" (1 Cor. 14:37f). We can either be spiritual and acknowledge Paul's instructions as commandments from the Lord, or we can be carnal and ignorant and not accept Paul's instructions as commandments from the Lord.

  Third, and most importantly, Paul himself states the reasons for his instructions, and these reasons have absolutely nothing to do with first-century cultural customs or with pagan goddess worship.

   For example, when Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:11f that the woman is to “learn in silence with all subjection” and she is not to teach nor usurp authority over the man, Paul states two reasons for this in the very next two verses. Why, Paul?  “For [gar, ‘for this reason; because’] Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (vs. 13f).

   You can object and say this seems unfair, or you can say that you do not understand the connection between the prohibition and the stated reason for the prohibition. But that does not alter the fact that these were the two reasons Paul gave for these instructions. To invent a theory and hypothesize about the reasons Paul wrote this is to ignore the reasons that Paul himself stated by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

   People theorize in the same way about Paul’s instructions for women to wear a head covering in 1 Corinthians 11. People theorize that the reason for the woman’s head covering was because of first-century cultural customs, or to distinguish Christian prophetesses from the pagan prophetesses who shook their loose locks when they prophesied in the Dionysiac frenzy, or for some other cultural reason.

   But just as Paul himself stated two reasons for the instructions in 1 Timothy 2, so he states two reasons for his instructions about the woman’s head covering in 1 Corinthians 11. And just as the two stated reasons in 1 Timothy 2 have absolutely nothing to do with first-century cultural customs or pagan priestesses, so the two stated reasons for the woman’s head covering have nothing to do with those things. Here are the reasons Paul gives for the woman’s head covering:  “For [gar, ‘for this reason; because’] the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head [i.e., a covering on her head as a sign] because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:8-10).

   Some people ignore the Apostolic instructions about the head covering because there is no Torah commandment that specifically commands a woman to cover her head. However, we can infer from Numbers 5 (and Jewish history confirms this) that it was customary for a married woman to wear a head covering, and that an uncovered head marked her as a woman suspected of adultery. We can infer this because when a suspected woman was brought to the priest, he was commanded to “uncover the woman’s head” (Num. 5:18). A priest can only uncover a head that is covered, so we can therefore infer that a married woman normally wore a head covering, unless she was suspected of adultery - which would explain Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head [i.e., her husband, for ‘the head of the woman is the man,’ vs. 3]” and his rhetorical question in verse 13, “Judge for yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”

   Here again, you can object and say this seems unfair, or you can say that you do not see the connection between the commandment and the stated reasons. But that does not alter the fact that these were the reasons that Paul stated for his instructions. And here again, to invent a theory and hypothesize about the reasons Paul wrote this is to ignore the reasons that Paul himself stated by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

   Theorizing about the unstated and the unknown can be harmless fun if you are discussing unimportant questions like where Cain got his wife. But if you theorize in an attempt to deny or contradict that which is stated in the Holy Scriptures, especially in regards to Divinely-inspired instruction, you are already headed down the path of deception. Turn around. Quit basing your conclusions about Biblical truth on unprovable theories, wild speculation, mere guesswork, fanciful feelings, wishful thinking, hypotheses and hunches. Base your conclusions on those things which the Bible plainly states and on those things which can be plainly inferred from facts embedded in the Biblical text.

 

| DB

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Image (Top): Searching the Scriptures by Daniel Botkin from his Pistachio Shell Art  Gallery. Visit DanielBotkin.com to view this and all his artwork.

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