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Ockham’s Razor and Biblical Hermeneutics

[Update at the end of post]

Ockham’s razor states that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” which means that so long as a given solution does not contradict the facts, the simplest answer is usually best.

I was reminded of Ockham’s famous razor while re-reading a March 2003 JETS article by Robert Stein entitled “Is Our Reading the Bible the Same As the Original Audience’s Hearing It? A Case Study in the Gospel of Mark.” Stein’s thesis is pretty straightforward. Like most of the author biblical books, Mark was written to be read publicly and heard by a corporate audience. As a consequence, we should be reluctant to offer complicated interpretations that would have been completely missed by an average hearer listening to the book for the first time.

We don’t think about it much, but it makes sense that the NT writers would understand their audience to be corporate hearers and not so much individual readers. After all, only 3-10% of the Christians could read in the first century, scrolls were scarce, and most of the NT books were addressed to plural audiences. Add in a lot of other clues that Stein lists and it seems a pretty safe bet that the NT authors wrote primarily for hearers not readers.

The consequences of this thesis are worth pondering. For example, are we really to expect that complex chiasms–the ones NT scholars are so quick to find–would have been employed in teaching to a first-time listening audience? And what about obscure rabbinincal or Qumran allusions? Or subtle shades of meaning gleaned from exhaustive word studies? Too often in contemporary biblical scholarship possible meanings and possible reconstructions are given more weight than they deserve when simpler more straightforward explanations are available, explanations that don’t require us to imagine the illiterate original hearers of the New Testament possessing multiple degrees in almost every subject under the sun.

Here’s part of Stein’s concluding paragraph:

“Let me repeat one of these consequences in closing. It is one that biblical scholars, like I, may be uncomfortable with. I argued that the meaning of Mark is probably one that a first-time hearer of the text would have been able to understand. As a result complicated and obscure interpretations most probably miss the more simple meaning that Mark intended his hearers to understand….Mark and the other NT authors did not intend to write secret, Gnostic works that only scholars in the twenty-first century would be able to understand.”

In a world where every dissertation is supposed to unearth a new discovery and in a church culture where sparkling new insights and dubious parallels always jazz the crowd, it’s good to remember that simpler is usually better.

*****
UPDATE

Some have suggested that while the spirit of this post is commendable, the argument lacks sufficient nuance. So let me be clear that I am not anti-scholarship and I do believe with the Apostle Peter that some New Testament texts are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Dr. Stein points out in his article that although the listeners of the NT were not scholars, they did have certain advantages that we have to make up for. They spoke Greek; they understood their own culture; in most cases they possessed knowledge of the Jesus traditions; in many cases they had a good understanding of the Old Testament; they were more attuned to listening well; they were more proficient at memorization. Dr. Stein makes all these points, and I agree with them. In fact, he talks about a couple of these points in the paragraph I quoted above. I didn’t include the whole paragraph (hence the ellipsis) so as to make a tighter post, but the nuance is there in the article.

Even with these qualifications I think the argument about simplicity is still helpful. If the goal of interpretation is to understand what the author meant to communicate, we would do well to consider the limits of his original audience.

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