Mike, what you are missing is that all of these are VALID ways to communicate. Without getting into the technicalities of distinguishing specific linguistic features by their academic labels, the general public calls them all “figures of speech”. And in a very real and figurative sense, Martin Luther DID “nail the 95 theses to the door of the Church”. A set of words does not have to be understood literally to communicate valid meanings which people understand. In this case the details of HOW Luther went about launching his objection to various practices in the church is not the purpose of the clause.
I know that I’m repeating what many other people have explained to you, but it really is important that you allow the language and the culture to establish the meanings of groups of words. You clearly are impassioned about how you WANT the rules of communication to operate—but it doesn’t work that way! Yes, it can be a radical concept to grasp and even feel deeply and dangerously “wrong”. But as the old saying goes “It is what it is.” Reality is reality.
Suppose that some professional meteorologist comes into work and dashes from his car into the entrance to his office and exclaims to the staff, “Wow! It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” Hopefully nobody will say, “You are a very irresponsible meteorologist! You should know better than to be so sloppy in describing a real event.” (Of course, it would be even worse if somebody on the staff said, “How dare you lie about what is happening! You are scientifically trained. You should be telling the truth about the rain.”)
Does everyone in that office understand that “raining cats and dogs” is idiomatic? Yes. Does every speaker of American English understand the meaning? The vast majority probably do. How about a visiting New Zealander or South African? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. And a Chinese exchange student learning English in America may completely miss the meaning and imagine domestic animals falling from the sky. Was the professional meteorologist “sloppy”? Not really.
Now, if anybody thinks that the Bible avoids literary structures, idioms, and vocabulary that are extremely difficult for people from other languages and cultures to understand, I hate to share the stark reality but it is what teachers do. I’ve had many Young Earth Creationists tell me “The perspicuity of the scriptures disagrees with you. The meaning of the Bible is available to everyone young and old. God wouldn’t obscure the meanings of the text!” Of course, in the first place, that is a misunderstanding of the concept of perspicuity. Secondly, that was a doctrine promoted during the Reformation that is not easy to support in the scriptures without a lot of very careful and cautious qualifications of what it does and doesn’t claim. Thirdly, obscuring the meaning of his teaching was a major component of Jesus’ ministry and that is why his disciples complained about Jesus saying things which were very hard to understand. Some of the people who major on perspicuity are arguing with Jesus. (Yes, that was meant to sound a little snarky to make a good-humored point.)
Wow! Your choice of words (likewise a little bit of good-humored snarky-ness) reminds me of a student who is trying to convince me to give him at least partial credit for an answer on a test. (Yes, I’m responding in kind—just for a little fun!) I do understand that these things are difficult for our western minds to accept. But, again, we don’t get to make the rules that govern the language and culture of an ancient people. This reminds me a bit of a student who was very outraged at hearing that some statements recorded in the Bible are basically paraphrased and not the exact words of the speaker. Other people have insisted that because the Pentateuch was called “the Books of Moses”, then Moses wrote every word—except Joshua added the Moses death addendum. There’s really not much I can do to convince them otherwise if that is their decision. Tradition is a very strong force.
Seriously, these concepts are not easy ones! Indeed, it took me many years of experience with both ancient and modern languages as well as working with much smarter linguistics professors and exegetes than I will ever be before I was at all willing to accept these ideas. So I entirely empathize with where you are coming from. (I used to vehemently argue against some of these ideas in public debates, and I am totally embarrassed to admit that that was despite having a lot of my linguistics training already under my belt at the time.)
It is also worth mentioning that one of the factors that challenged my traditional thinking was working with SIL/Wycliffe translators who were describing the kinds of translation problems they faced in cultures and languages. (They often absolutely blew my mind.) I’ll bet Christy could share similar anecdotes from personal experience. I am still sometimes tempted to think that some cultures communicate “wrongly” and surely “very inaccurately”. One of my favorites is when you visit a village and the leader tells you he is 40 but you see him again two years later and he tells you he is 50. In his culture, he is telling the truth, but one has to interpret the incongruities on their terms, not ours. His numeric age is a reflection of his status and the size and significance of his family tree, not just the tally of his birthdays. (I give such examples when I shock people with my analysis of the genealogies of the Patriarchs in Genesis. No, I don’t consider the 900+ years to be actual literal lifespans. Yet, within their cultures, those genealogies would be considered legitimate and truthful.)
Mike, based on your negative reaction to the church historian using the expression referring to the nailing of the 95 theses merely to establish context, I want to know how you react to this analog: Suppose there is a European village which is the traditional site where some Nordic or Saxon legend claims the god Woden was born. Let’s suppose the people who live there have always called their village “Wodenborn”. Does a professional historian commit malpractice when he refers to the village of Wodenborn while lecturing on some ancient Runic document he discovered in that town? And when future readers from another culture read his peer-reviewed journal article about Codex Wodenborn, a label he himself coined, will they be shocked that he would lend legitimacy to a “historical claim” that a real deity by the name of Woden was born in that village? After all, the ancient codex could be real while Woden never was. (Of course, if Woden existed in mythical respects and was widely venerated, we have to consider what we would mean by “real”. After all, Zeus is a “real” subject of legends. And some might say that Zeus is just a “corruption” in name and concept with Deus/Theos, one of the many names for God. So, by that standard, Zeus is real in a very general way because Zeus is a kind of synonym for Theos, God.)
So, Mike is any historian who speaks of Wodenborn guilty of “sloppy” professional standards? The place name Wodenborn establishes a geographical context just as “When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door…” establishes a chronological and cultural context. Neither a reference to Woden’s birth nor to Luther defiantly nailing theses has to have happened for real for these choices in wording to be valid. After all, both Woden’s birth and Luther’s nailing a document to a church door are events which never literally happened! Should historians never make such references when establishing context with an audience?
And yes, whether we happen to like it or not, the Bible contains many similar phenomena. And yes, if I could take a time machine back to a much younger me as a dogmatic (even downright cocky) young Assistant Professor and explain my interpretations of Genesis 1, my younger self would certainly call me a “liberal”. He would say that I’m guilty of “laughably complex excuses” and loads of special pleading logical fallacies, surely meant to diminish the absolute authority of the scriptures! My objections would probably be similar to many of yours.
I have often asked myself how I could convince my younger self of all sorts of things. Frankly, I doubt that shortcuts are possible. I think it was inevitable that I had to spend many arduous years learning about unfamiliar cultures—and their strange ways of looking at the world and expressing those perspectives in their complex languages—before I could change from that 26 year old know-it-all to my present self who realizes that I know a lot less than I used to.
It is difficult to write about these topics without sounding like a condescending academic. And that is probably because we have a long tradition within the American evangelical and fundamentalist community (a tradition with roots in the Reformation itself) of giving the impression that everyone’s personal interpretation of the Bible is equally (or almost sorta kinda equally) valid. How many of us grew up in Sunday School and home Bible studies where everyone in turn read the next verse of a passage and explained “this is what it means to me” or even “When I read this, God revealed to me that…” How dare any smug Bible scholar—and probably a Bible-denying liberal at that— declare some of those interpretations valid and others invalid! Yet, in linguistics as well as in many aspects of hermeneutics, some opinions are correct and others are incorrect, just as applies to a biology exam or a music theory test. And some people’s positions remain incorrect not necessarily because the Bible student is defiantly misinformed but because there is a mass of fundamental concepts and volumes of evidence unknown to them. It is the Kruger-Dunning Effect that tends to plague us all at some point in our lives. While accepting that only well-trained engineers should design our bridges and only intensively trained physicians should remove our diseased spleens, we nevertheless pull out a Strong’s Concordance and defy the professional Bible translators by declaring (even preaching from pulpits and on the radio!) “Listen closely as I tell you how your Bibles should have translated this passage.” Even PhD professors who should have known better can fall into this trap, as far too many of the leaders of the anti-gender-inclusive Bible movement illustrated when they casually but confidently drafted “procedures for properly preserving gender distinctions in Bible translations.” (It got absolutely crazy and almost silly. I saw eye-rolling and face-palms from almost every linguist and missionary Bible translator I knew.)
Nobody learns quantum physics in an afternoon. And nobody can bridge cross-cultural hermeneutical and exegetical obstacles in a few paragraphs. Most of all we have to put aside our western assumptions of how an ancient people must go about expressing themselves.