The Trouble with Assumptions
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Assumptions aren't all bad. Of course, they sometimes draw their energy from unfair stereotypes or unexamined beliefs we unconsciously inherit from our families or culture. No one knows the origin of this particular assumption, but many Korean senior citizens refuse to use an electric fan while sleeping for fear that it will negatively affect the oxygen level or temperature of the sleeper.
Tragically, children can absorb racist or classist opinions from their formative communities: families, siblings or other role models. But when faced with a snap decision, assumptions can be helpful.
Our brains can only process a limited amount of information per moment and making an assumption can provide a shortcut to appropriate action. If I see a roaring, slobbering bear charging in my general direction, it would not behoove me to set aside my assumptions about bloodthirsty bears and offer him a scratch behind the ears instead of finding the best way to avoid being eaten.
An assumption is a mini-belief that we've absorbed as being true, and can safely and uncritically apply that belief to the world around us. Most of the time assumptions work well enough so that we don't need to question them. When a baby is clothed in a cute little blue outfit, it's probably safe to refer to the infant as he or him (in our culture- not in some others!). When we read a novel or watch a TV drama, we have certain expectations such as a coherent story arc, characters interacting, and maybe vivid descriptions of the settings and circumstances of the story.
We're talking about unexamined beliefs or expectations, accepting a "truth" without pausing to gather evidence to support it; agreeing that everyone "just knows" that's the way things are. In the case of mad bears, a quick assumption is life-saving, but not so much when you encounter the sayings of people who don't share your culture, language, social and economic status, political realities or worldview, and whose own assumptions are radically different than ours.
How can we dig out the assumptions we unwittingly map onto our Bibles? It's normal to be oblivious to the mental constructs we bring with us when we head into the scriptures to find meaning. One way to change that is to listen to a wide range of scholars who spend their careers discerning the mindsets of the ancients who wrote from perspectives that are completely alien to ours. One of the first assumptions you'll bump into on the way is the common belief that the Bible is a fully divine product and therefore free from error. Since God is perfect, the argument goes, the reader can expect no contradictions or errors of any kind. Apparent discrepancies can be explained and solved with a bit of creative interpretation. Is that a fair assumption? Does it stand up to scrutiny?
James Kugel in his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now outlines four well-worn common assumptions about how the Bible should be read. These four categories of expectations of biblical texts are not unique to us, they've been around since the misty origins of the Torah. Ancient interpreters saw no reason to examine their inherited standpoints; As you'll see, creative interpretation beyond any context was not only allowed, but expected. Here we have summarized Kugel's four assumptions:
Biblical texts are essentially cryptic. The plain sense of the text is not necessarily the only meaning that can be found there. Even transitional phrases like "And after all this came to pass…" challenges the interpreter to figure out what could possibly have taken place. Literal words and phrases could be full of hidden meanings that when puzzled out reveal a moral lesson or solve a contradiction with another text. This expectation forms the basis of more than a few modern sermons and Bible studies, for example, when we read the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, we immediately assign meanings to the forbidden fruit, the serpent and God's response to the chastened couple that go beyond the plain written text. Ever hear a sermon or read a book on Revelation or biblical eschatology (end times)? Even if we're not a fan of "Bible Codes" or biblical numerology, we are still impressed when a Bible teacher comes up with a hidden meaning, connection or application we never saw before. This can lead one to suppose that the Bible could be full of obscure meanings that can be brought to light by an expert reader.
Biblical texts are universal. God's message, embedded in ancient narratives, prophecies, laws, poems and so on, possess ready application to every culture, time and place. When a biblical source records a request for protection from certain enemies, we feel free to insert the names of our own enemies in spite of the fact that we aren't looking out our window to see Egyptian or Assyrian armies massed outside the walls of our town. This assumption leads to the conclusion that the contents of the Bible are mainly pedagogical, meant to instruct the reader in practical, everyday ways. The value of biblical texts can be personal to the modern reader despite their emergence in circumstances radically different from our own. We run into trouble when topics like marriage or social status are mentioned in the scriptures and we map our own interpretive certainties onto first century Hellenized Jewish notions. We can end up with conclusions that are completely foreign to the original intent of the text.
The Bible is error-free. Contradictions and mistakes cannot be found in the texts making up the scriptures, and every word is in perfect accord with the beliefs and practices contemporary to the interpreter. Whether you find yourself living in the period surrounding Israel and Judah's diaspora and captivity, in Luther's German academic halls or in a twenty-first century evangelical congregation, the Bible a priori does not deviate from consistency with our "correct" views. If there is a whiff of contradiction, anachronism, geographical or historical error, exaggeration or bias, we interpreters must puzzle it out until it fits into place. If God appears to change his mind, or punish people for relatively minor offenses, an explanation that best keeps the Bible together as a single-minded, inerrant unit always wins. It's why we have books entitled Today's Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties.
One example is the gospel resurrection accounts. Luke's Jesus is portrayed as commanding the stunned disciples to "...stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (a reach forward to Luke's second volume, Acts), while Matthew's Jesus reminds the two Marys that he would see them in Galilee, where they later meet to receive a commission as apostles. John's gospel includes both traditions and Mark sides with Matthew. The fact that Matthew jumps to Galilee in order to maintain his mountaintop symbolism should tell us that reading with a binary inerrant / errant mindset may not always fit the texts we have.
Overarching the other assumptions is the firm belief that the unitary work of the Bible is primarily a divine product, a book that was essentially produced by God and given to humans as a gift. Inerrantists (those who are especially convinced of assumption three) phrase it this way: "when the Bible speaks, God speaks." This includes texts that don't contain any direct quotes from God, like most of the material in the Psalms that record the words of a human worshipper addressing God, or narratives that simply record what happened. This assumption leads to a belief in the doctrine of inspiration- the idea that God did something mysterious in the composition of the original texts that resulted in an exact representation of what he wanted to say. Not only that, but the same enigmatic process was in play every time a scribe put pen to parchment to copy a text in Greek or translate it into English. The divine product assumption elevates what might have originated as ordinary human-produced documents to a special category of unassailable authority as the exact words of God. This puts a great deal of pressure on the texts of scripture to be absolutely correct!
Are these assumptions valid? Are there other legitimate assumptions that make more sense? Is it possible that past editors and redactors who were a bit less convinced of assumption four might have "adjusted" some biblical content in order to better harmonize with other documents they knew of? What if we made an attempt to see the Bible without these four assumptions? When they first originated, it's entirely likely that these works of literature weren't immediately received as scripture from the mouth of God. It probably took awhile for the mystique to develop as people discussed them, started using them in liturgy and re-understanding them as special.
The Bible is an anthology of ancient documents processed through multiple centuries, languages, cultures and theological persuasions. Most of us aren't accustomed to reading and interpreting ancient literature, but when it comes to our Bibles, we like to think that we are pretty good at deciphering texts that are up to three thousand years old! Simply acknowledging that should render our certainty suspect. Unfortunately it also complicates things for the Christ-follower who takes the Bible seriously.
Because we bring many subtle, detailed assumptions to the texts of the Bible, some diligence is called for. There are underlying rhetorical structures many of us have never heard of, but should have a tremendous impact on interpretation. Simply knowing a bit of Greco-Roman rhetoric or letter-writing conventions can help us avoid misinterpreting a text because our unexamined, unconscious assumptions will lead us to a biased and possibly wrong certainty about a text's meaning and application.
Taking a deeper look at our assumptions frees the text to speak for itself and encourages us to look at other reasonable, coherent and possibly superior interpretations. Historians and others who study ancient texts like those in the Bible live in probabilities and plausibilities, not certainties, and perhaps we would do well to write our certainties in pencil with a good supply of erasers handy.
Kugel, James, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
Schniedewind, William M., How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel