Professor Emphasizes Role of Perspective in Bible Interpretation

In the most straightforward sense, Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve's betrayal of God and loss of paradise in Eden.

But the story doesn't end there, religious studies professor Michael Barram told a Bible Speaker Series audience of more than 100 students and faculty in the Soda Center on Sept. 23. The ultimate meaning of the story depends on whom you ask.

"Interpretation of the Bible depends on who you identify with when you read the text," Barram explained, something he says hinges on the reader's "social location" within his or her surrounding culture.

A traditional reading of the Genesis story - offered by scholars who were essentially educated elite men, Barram noted - portrays Eve as a subordinate creation to Adam who leads him into temptation.

"More recently, women scholars who've interpreted the story point out that the text doesn't say that Eve was subordinate because she was created from Adam's rib," Barram noted. "In this reading, Eve is the endpoint, not the subordinate."

Nor does Genesis dwell on blaming Eve in the fateful choice to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, Barram argued. That's more a function of commentators bringing their own cultural context and preconceptions to bear on the text.

Several alternate readings are possible.

"The text highlights Eve's deliberation - she disobeys God, but at least she uses her brain," Barram said. "Adam neither thinks nor obeys, he just eats."

A text as vast and varied as the Bible, Barram explained, can offer different meanings to individuals on opposite sides of a social divide. He indicated slavery in the 19th-century United States as a situation where the Bible was cited to both justify and challenge the prevailing social order.

"White slave owners pointed to Genesis 9 and viewed black slaves as the descendants of Ham who sinned against Noah and were therefore deserving of slavery," Barram said. "But the slaves themselves read the Bible with different eyes and looked to Exodus as the fundamental freedom text."

Barram warned against using the concept of social location as the basis for moral relativism in interpreting the Bible, where every interpretation is equally valid. The presence of slaves in ancient societies and some Bible stories, Barram said, should not outweigh the consistent calls for compassion, equity and justice.

"A single passage pointing in one direction should not override multiple passages pointing in another," Barram argued.

In the contemporary American context, Barram said the highly individualistic and materialistic nature of society makes it challenging for middle- and upper-class Americans to reconcile Jesus' teaching about money.

The messages in Mark 10:25 ("It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God") and Matthew 5:42 ("Give to everyone who begs from you") contrast with lessons learned in other parts of society.

"I've been trained by my culture to look out for number one and that I bear no responsibility for those around me," Barram noted, saying that one of his first reactions to Matthew 5:42 is to urge Jesus to take an intro course in economics.

But for Barram, contemporary readers' unease with the radical nature of Jesus' message - a Jesus for President campaign, he noted, would be accused of fomenting class warfare - underscores the importance of accounting for the role one's own cultural conditioning and biases play in interpretations of the Bible.

"If we are honest with ourselves, we are never neutral and value-free in our interpretation," Barram concluded. "We interpret text in terms that make sense to us based on our social location."

The Bible Speaker series resumes on Nov. 5 with a talk by Father Eric Hollas on "Saint John's Bible" and concludes with a Nov. 12 talk by professor Tom Poundstone on the "Parable of the Sheep and Goats."

--John Grennan

Office of College Communications