Monday, May 09, 2005

Biblical interpretation

Mike the Mad Biologist has a very interesting tidbit on his blog today. It highlights two examples in the Bible in which mistranslations may well have resulted in two of the reigning orthodoxies among modern evangelicals: the end-times/Revelations story and abortion prohibitions. I don't know how historically accurate the information in the post is, but it does bring to mind another topic: statutory and constitutional interpretation.

Conservatives, especially those of the Scalia/Thomas ilk, like to argue that we should rely on one and one thing only in our Nation's laws: the words. What do the words mean and, more importantly, what did they mean when they were written. Since Scalia was appointed to the Court in 1987, in fact, citations of dictionaries in SC opinions have risen something like 400%. Yet, even with dictionaries and historians and the actual source documentations, jurists cannot agree on what the Constitution and what many of our laws mean. Words, it seems, are not quite as simple as they might appear.

Jurists have it easy, though, compared to biblical scholars. We can argue about language that's 200 years old, but atleast its the same language we currently speak and atleast there are source documents. Biblical scholars, though, are trying to interpet documents that are 2000 years old and have been translated and re-translated. The source documentation is lost to history. Thus, even if the Bible does indeed contain the unerring word of God, it's been subject to the vagaries of human history for millennia. If we've got problems deciding what the fuck the Founding Fathers meant, how can we possibly argue that national policy should be based on biblical law? Nobody really knows what biblical law says.