Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (8): Safeguards for Apocalyptic Scholars II

2) Use a Variety of Translations

A second safeguard against the misuse of apocalyptic texts is the use of a variety of translations in the course of our study. While some translations are better than others, it is still safer for those who have no access to the original languages to consult a variety of translations of the Bible when doing serious study. Every translation has its limitations and weaknesses and to some degree reflects the biases of the translator(s). These limitations can be minimized by comparing several translations against each other. Where most translators agree, the meaning of the underlying Greek or Hebrew text is probably fairly clear and the translation can be safely followed. The authority that you as an interpreter give to a particular reading of a text, will depend on how certain it is that the reading is founded on the clear meaning of the original. When most or all translators agree you can be reasonably confident that the meaning of the original is being fairly represented.

But what do you do when the translators disagree, and disagree widely? When there is wide disagreement among most or all of the translations available to you, the original and its meaning is probably difficult or ambiguous. This is not the kind of text that can be safely used as a basis of one’s belief system. Apocalyptic texts often fall in this category. It is as dangerous to base one’s theology on unclear biblical texts as it is to ignore the clear texts of the Bible. The work of David Koresh on the seals is an excellent example of that danger.

How can one become aware of the biases in a translation without a knowledge of the biblical languages? Compare four or give good translations on a particular text. What if three or four of them all agree, but one of them is way off in some other direction? That is usually a reflection of the translator’s bias. When you compare translations long enough by this method, you can gain a sense of each translations biases. This is a very important safeguard against misreading the Bible on the basis of mistranslation or translational bias. Where translation patterns indicate that the original text is clear, on the other hand, we can safely find authoritative meaning in the translated text.

3) Focus on the Clear Texts

A third major safeguard against the misinterpretation of apocalyptic texts is to spend the majority of one’s study time in the clear texts of Scripture. If you want to really let the Scriptures speak for themselves, spend the majority of your time in the sections of Scripture that are reasonably clear. There are many parts of the Bible regarding which there is little disagreement among Christians, while other texts vex even the Greek and Hebrew scholars. So an extremely important safeguard in the study of Scripture is to spend the majority of your time in the sections that are reasonably clear. The clear texts of Scripture ground the reader in the great central themes of the biblical message, safeguarding the interpreter against the misuse of texts that are more ambiguous.

On the other hand, if you spend the majority of your time in texts like the seals and trumpets of Revelation or Daniel 11, you will go crazy. One of the major tactics of people who misuse the Bible is to take ambiguous texts, develop creative solutions to the problems they find there, and then use those solutions as the basis for their theology. Such interpreters often end up having to distort clear texts of Scripture because the message there doesn’t fit the theology that they have developed from the difficult texts.

An important safeguard for the study of books like Daniel and Revelation, then, is not to make them the sole or primary focus of one’s study of the Bible. These books are very important to us as Seventh-day Adventists. They are at the heart of our self-identity, of what we believe about ourselves and about God. But apocalyptic texts can also be the breeding ground of dangerous speculations. They are best understood by interpreters who are thoroughly grounded in the clear, central teachings of the Bible. The clear texts of Scripture ground the reader in the big picture of the Bible and the great verities of its message. Such an interpreter will be much less prone to the speculative excesses that sometimes plague the interpretation of books like Daniel and Revelation.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (8): Safeguards for Apocalyptic Scholars II

  1. George

    Re. They are best understood by interpreters who are thoroughly grounded in the clear, central teachings of the Bible.

    Doesn’t this support the old Catholic teaching that only the priests could understand scripture. Although I agree with you the seals and trumpets, and perhaps much of revelation comes across as confusing and overly repetitive. The one thing clear in revelation is that Christ triumphs over sin and evil. It ends well.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Thanks for bringing this up, George, in a way you are making my point. Without a foundation in the clear texts of the Bible much of Revelation will either be a mystery to the reader or the basis for wild speculation. You don’t need to be a priest to do that, just someone who follows the five simple procedures I outlined for that very purpose. Those who do that will be more and more confirmed in the clear teachings of the Bible and will not need a priest or be impressed with the wild speculations.


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