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John 5:33, 39

You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth...You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf.

Looking further at John 1, we find that those who were sent to John the Baptist were priests, Levites, and Pharisees. These were the educated classes who, unlike the "people of the land" had the time and training to search the scriptures. For most of the Christian era, "searching the scriptures" was reserved for clerics and a small number of wealthy elites fortunate enough to have reading skills and possess copies of biblical books. That changed with the Reformation, as the scriptures became more widely available and literacy increased dramatically. Catholic and Protestant scholars and laypeople searched the scriptures for themselves. New hermeneutical tools evolved through source criticism and textual criticism in the 19th century. In the 20th century, scholars often spoke of Literal Interpretation, Moral Interpretation, Allegorical Interpretation, and Anagogical Interpretation. Today, not only can virtually anyone "search the scriptures" but they can also publish their views on the Internet and engage in debates/discussions about the Bible on social media.

How has the democratization of scriptural access affected biblical hermeneutics? (I am particularly interested in recent trends but would also be grateful for insights into previous developments.)


Note: this post is a reworking of What are the benefits and/or disadvantages of democratization of interpretative space of the scriptures?, which was closed as off-topic. As I understand the rules, neither of the tags I've used here requires a biblical reference to avoid being closed, but I did include a relevant quote as insurance against close votes.

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  • There's no rule that there must be a Bible reference. The verse is irrelevant anyway about the question of historical hermeneutics development
    – Michael16
    Dec 1, 2023 at 6:02
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    Democratization can be the action of making something accessible to everyone: e.g., "the democratization of information through technology". Is this is the meaning of the noun as implied in your question?
    – Lesley
    Dec 1, 2023 at 13:11
  • Does 'democratization' here mean more than simple rendition from Aramaic or Greek, Latin or Hebrew to vernacular tongues, or something more? Either way, can you first set aside 'You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth...' and then say whether 'You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf…' could ever have a clear meaning in English and after that, what that meaning might be? Or just accept Michael16's Comment, above? Dec 2, 2023 at 20:04

6 Answers 6

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The making available of sundry tools and helps and vast amounts of information has had no effect whatsoever in regard to the verse referenced which quotes the words of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus' point was that though certain 'searched' (not just read or heard, they worked hard at this) yet, nevertheless, their hard labour, in the flesh, was wasted. For they imagined that the letter on the page had some power to it and , having assimilated it, they felt that they must, therefore, possess eternal life.

But they, as Jesus makes clear, had utterly missed the point of the scriptures themselves. Jesus said in another place that 'Moses wrote of me'. Studying hard at the Hebrew scriptures, yet not perceiving Christ, the Rock that followed in the wilderness, they achieved nothing.

And so it is today, with all the so-called advantages of electronics, data transfer, artificial intelligence : it gains nothing if Christ himself is not perceived, laid hold of, believed in and received into the soul.

Absolutely not at all, therefore, is my answer.


I have answered in the context of the scripture quoted. But the header question seems disconnected to the text quoted.

The verse referenced does not speak of hermeneutical analysis of the text : Jesus speaks of searching the text and yet missing the raison d'etre of the text itself.

So I have to suggest that the question itself has fallen into the very trap that Jesus speaks of. For the question has focussed on searching the text and has not focussed on Christ himself . . . of whom the scriptures testify.

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  • You're right about the text being someone disconnected from the main question. Sorry about that... it was kind of an insurance policy against close-votes. Dec 1, 2023 at 19:19
  • Well, @DanFefferman it has demonstrated an important point, whether ink on parchment or vellum ; whether print on india paper ; whether pixels on a screen ; the letter is that which killeth - it is the Spirit which giveth Life and that Life, in Jesus Christ, is eternal Life to the glory of God and the Father.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 1, 2023 at 20:55
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One would be hard-pressed to be able to prove that the * democratization* of access to scripture really changed much at all.

Dottard's point is valid: that, on the one hand, with more access to scripture, more weirdness had arisen. But also, there has been more access to the truth of scripture.

Nigel's point is also valid: The Jewish leaders had so very much access to scripture. It didn't help them. A person can have as much scripture piled up in front of them, what Paul says is true: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV11-GKE)

My thoughts coincide with these ones. But, in my own research, I don't really find that the early church was that lacking in scripture as we might think. The libraries (both personal and more public) that early church fathers had access to were staggering in their scope. But even more than that, we shouldn't discount the role of the "people in the pew"—their role in making sure their teachers stayed on track. Hurtado writes:

The regular liturgical reading of the four canonical Gospels also helps to account for the abundance of harmonizing variants, especially frequent in Mark.

But repeated public reading of New Testament writings would also have set real limits on how much a writing could be changed, at least in a given circle, without people noticing (and probably objecting), as anyone familiar with what happens when liturgical changes are introduced can attest.

(Transmission and Reception; New Testament in the Second Century. p. 13)

Hurtado's article is a fascinating read. For it dispels the notion that, in the context of the possession of scripture, the leity were helpless pawns in a misguided struggle that was out of their reach.

  • First, it is amazing (and somewhat shocking when you think it through) how much circulation of texts there was in the very early stages of the NT. The assumption of the existence of so-called 'text types' is dead today because there was this real and ongoing transporting of scripture from one part of the Roman Empire to another.

  • Second, It is amazing to see the role that liturgy plays. And this is a point that is, for the most part, lost on American society that has large chunks of its Christian grouping that are non-denominational. And even those that are Denominational are not liturgical. In the early church, the Lector was a big deal. The one who went up and read scripture publicly, up in front of the people, was trained for the position. And every word he said was held up to scrutiny precisely for the reason that so many of the people could not read. So they memorized large chunks of scripture. And if the lector deviated, he was called to account.

So the thesis that, in the early NT, there wasn't much democratization of access to texts is offset by the actual history in the early stages of the NT itself.

We also add to this the fact, that in the early stages of the church, there was a massive democratization of access to scripture. The proof of this is found in John's epistles: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1 NIV11-GKE)

All of the apostles aren't even dead yet, and, seemingly, every heretic that can get his hands on a portion of the NT, comes out of the woodwork to promote their own brand of Christianity. That sound very much like today. Today, there are so many 'instant experts' who, without guidance from either scripture itself or from studying the struggles that happened in the past, promote their own ideas. And for a time, they have a following. But what Paul writes is true:

“<11> For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. <12> If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, <13> their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:11–13 NIV11-GKE)

At the end of the day, What Solomon wrote so long ago is true: ”וְאֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ“ (Ecclesiastes 1:9 HMT-W4) ("There's nothing at all new under the sun.")

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    Excellent treatment. +1 Dec 1, 2023 at 17:08
  • Don't you think that democratization of scripture led to various new hermeneutical approaches? For example the Reformers saw Christ at the center of the OT, while later theologians treat the Hebrew Bible as distinct from the Christian dispensation. There may be nothing new under the sun in one sense, but textual criticism and source criticism are new hermeneutical tools, and approaches like feminist theology challenge once firmly held interpretative assumptions. Dec 1, 2023 at 19:08
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    @DanFefferman I stand by what I have written. 1) TC has been around as far back as Origen. Demonstrably nothing new. 2) Prove that later theologians treat the Heb. Bible as distinct from Christian (don't just say it). 3) Feminist theology does a far more effective job of challenging its own existence than challenging previous "interpretive assumptions." 4) I'm not a fan of leading questions. 5) I'm not sure you're using "hermeneutical" in the same sense as I am. You seem to be using it in a sort of panacea, silver bullet way.
    – Epimanes
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:56
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In a nutshell, it leaves all who think they are making diligent search without excuse.

The text in question is John 5:33-40 (so as not to truncate the last sentence.) The relevant parts quoted below actually demonstrate one effect of us now having different translations, and therefore, different understandings of what the ancient texts actually meant. Jesus said to those scholars of scripture that they had heard John's testimony about himself. They were also now hearing the words of Christ, face to face, the one sent by the Father. That is the context. Now, consider:

"But these things I say, that ye might be saved... And ye have not [God's] word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and these are they which testify of me, and ye will not come to me, that ye might have life." John 5:34, 38-40 A.V.

Most modern translations do not have Jesus stating an imperative - "Search the scriptures" - but make it seem as if those scholars were searching the scriptures. If they truly were searching the scriptures, and believing the testimony of them, and of John the Baptist, and of Jesus, they would come to Jesus for life eternal. But they rejected the One to whom the scriptures were pointing. They'd missed the whole point.

Given that Jesus told them that, to their faces, in their hearing, and that everyone who has read that written account in the scriptures also have that witness to Christ, then those who study the texts as an academic exercise, in order to pick it to shreds before reconstructing them, may also have missed the point. First, students must come in faith to Christ as the only-begotten Son of God, the Messiah, in whom alone is life eternal. They then must abide in Christ, as he stated, and only then will they bear much good fruit, to God's glory (John 15:1-8). Then their study of scripture and relationship with the living Christ will enable them to bear witness to Christ to others - to point them to Christ, that they might be saved.

Finally, "the democratizing of access to the scriptures" is not the problem with understanding what they mean. There was no democracy at work back then, nor does democracy enable people all over the world to come to saving faith in Jesus. Even people who are denied access to the scriptures, or who cannot read, still come to saving faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. They still 'see' just who the Christ of scripture is, because others proclaim the gospel of Christ - God's chosen means of saving souls:

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." Romans 1:16 A.V.

This means that we are all without excuse. Whether we are academics or illiterate, and thus have no access to scripture; the scriptures show that the gospel of Christ saves all who believe - believe Christ, not what others say by way of textual criticism. And democracy has nothing to do with that. Democracy won't save anybody. Only by turning in faith to the living Christ can anybody be saved.

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    Yes, excellent, I had missed that point, that they 'had not the word of God abiding in them. It was only on the page, ink on parchment, print on India paper, pixels on screens, not the word written on the fleshy tables of the heart. Yes, agreed. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 1, 2023 at 16:07
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    I can't agree with " If they truly were searching the scriptures... and believing the testimony of John the Baptist... they would come to Jesus." John denied that he was Elijah and Mal 4.4 says that Elijah has to come first. Jesus acknowledged that this was a serious stumbling block when he said in Matthew 11:14... "you are willing to bear it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come." Dec 1, 2023 at 16:30
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    Jn.3:23-36 The Baptist's disciples were concerned that he had borne witness to Jesus, who now had a greater following. The Baptist reminded them that "I said I am not the Christ, but I am sent before him." He had been sent ahead of Christ to prepare the Jews to turn to Christ; "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life." Malachi 3:1, also confirmed by the angel to John's father, see Lk.1:17. John would go in the spirit and power of Elijah. Mt.3:11, repentance was key to receiving Christ. Those baptized by John were prepared, and then received Christ. Stumbling happened at not repenting.
    – Anne
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:00
  • This makes me wonder: If God intended that those who received these witnesses should accept Jesus, how could it be His will that he go to the Cross, which would not have happened if they had accepted him. (not really expecting an answer here... I'll check to see if that has been asked formally yet or not) Dec 1, 2023 at 21:05
  • @DanFefferman It is what Christ accomplished on the cross and by the resurrection that has to be accepted by faith. Thus, his sacrifice had to take place even if (theoretically) only 1 sinner was saved. But Revelation ch. 7 speaks of a great crowd in heaven, that no man can number, acclaiming their salvation to Christ. Without the cross, nobody would be saved as that was the only way for righteous judgment on sin to be dispensed. I don't know if this deals with your point, though. Post a Q if you need more clarity and I'll do my best!
    – Anne
    Dec 2, 2023 at 19:11
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Great question that I am not qualified to answer, So let me offer some general remarks on the basis of considerable experience with extremists - overly enthusiastic people, with what they believe is "new light", who often quickly pass away.

Very few modern theological ideas are original - most are reworked older ideas that have either been revived, or more commonly, have been re-invented by modern micro-extremists not well enough informed to know that many were anciently condemned already. Thus, theological democratization has created confusion because such historically untrained extremists do not realize the consequences (logical destination) of their reasoning.

For example, I have read dozens (possibly hundreds?) of different Christologies, but I have yet to find one that has not had its roots at least 500 years ago, most are more than 1000 years old; many unintentionally re-invented by the historically uninformed.

Another consequence of theological democratization is the new plethora of two sets of ideas:

  1. conspiracy theories that pretend to offer the "true reasons" for the latest political development or war. This approach is not new and still popular among those who take a "cafeteria" approach to history - choose only the facts they like and ignore most of the rest. In such circles the following a very popular, Freemasonry, the Illuminati, The Knights of Malta, etc. All these shadowy organizations are deemed to be still active and somehow directing events that only the initiated cognoscenti have the keys to understand.
  2. ego-centric (ie, now-centered) prophetic interpretations. Most are truly fantastic (used in its technical sense). This has become especially true, in some circles, of time prophecies and second advent prophecies. Somehow, such imaginative exegetes manage to make the fulfilment of such prophecies center on themselves, their little movement, or in just a year's time.
  3. A modern fascination with gnostic mysticism. Thus, there has been a revival of interest in the Nag-Hamadi documents and numerous other pseudepigrapha. These are touted as information to "correct" and "clarify" the Bible message when it is often diametrically opposed to it.
  4. A rising tide of cults whose narcissistic teachers must teach ever-more extreme and esoteric ideas to overcome the general education of their followers. This occurs on both the far left (extreme libertarianism and Gnosticism) and the far right (extreme legalism, etc).

Thus, there has developed an explosion of weird ideas which are only vaguely related to the message of the Bible. Further, all these affects were still present when theology was fully professionalized and "protected" by wide-spread illiteracy. One does not need to look far among the church fathers to discover truly fantastic ideas.

The difference in modern times is the sheer quantity/volume of such material, facilitated by the internet and social media that creates large followings and gives a fig-leaf of credibility.

However, democratization has not been all bad; on balance, I believe it has done great good. The main reasons for this are,

  • is that it has enabled the common person, untrained in theology, the become a Berean (Acts 17:11) - all can now test the Scriptures for themselves (Matt 21:42, John 7:42, Acts 18:28, Mark 12:24, etc) and this has provided a bulwark against misleading preachers and leaders.
  • it has largely banished the superstition and unwarranted influence of the medieval church
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  • It seems to me that hermeneutical approaches such as feminist theology and Black theology do not have their roots in ancient times. (let alone Queer theology, which certainly had no ancient proponents I known of) Dec 1, 2023 at 19:14
  • @DanFefferman - that is clearly true. However, nationalistic and racist eschatologies have always existed - the British Israelite theory is another modern example. However, these British Israelite theories are an out-growth of the holy blood theories that began with the Carolingan kings. Some of David Barton's ideas fall into the same category. rawstory.com/2012/08/…
    – Dottard
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:19
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    @DanFefferman - I put all these theocracy, holy blood, Black theology, Queer theology, etc, in a category of "Ego-centric" theologies - those that attempt to place individuals or their communities at the center of theology or soteriology (or even Christology). Anything that detracts from the central message of true theology (as opposed to anthropology) contradicts Rom 3:25 - Christ is the sum and substance of the Bible's message - truth is a person by the name of Jesus, John 1:1-18.
    – Dottard
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:46
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Before answering the title question, it may be more important to address a prerequisite question: "Does the Lord want us to read His words ourselves?" If the answer is 'Yes', then it is essential to have the freedom of access to the scripture, regardless of the consequences of its universality.

In Psalm 119:105, the poet wrote 'Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path'. While this was true in ancient time when books were rare, it did not restrict the general public's access to scripture, because the law did not restrict people's access to the priest. Reading Scripture was a general practice on the Sabbath (e.g. Jesus in Nazareth Luke 4:16) and in early churches (1 Timonthy 4:13).

In Jeremiah 31:34, the Lord said, "No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, 'Know the Lord', because they will all know me." Jesus said in John 14:26, that the Advocate would be send in His name to teach His disciples all things. All these words are aimed at the personal level. Therefore, printing technology fulfills the will of the Lord by allowing everyone to have convenient access to scripture. Similarly, network technology further enhances it.

As the OP indicated, while it is true that everyone can publish their views on the Internet and engage in debates/discussions about the Bible on social media, it is essential to remember the Lord said, "No longer will they teach their neighbor", and "the Advocate will tell us the truth". It is important to analyze these words carefully. It is not equivalent to 'Liberal Interpretation'. We do need to hear from others, but pray to the Advocate to teach us whether it is true.

In John 5:39, Jesus rebuked the teachers of the law, who studied the Scriptures diligently, but did not know Jesus. This can be true for us today as well. Therefore it doesn't have to worry about 'the democratization of access to the scriptures'. What matters is whether the heart of the reader carries a 'heart of stone' or 'heart of flesh' (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26)

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I will add my own answer since I asked this question mainly because a similar previous one, which I had started to answer, was closed as off topic.

During the Reformation scholars such as Calvin and Luther pioneered hermeneutical approaches that challenged the former monopoly of the Catholic church on the study of scriptures and emphasized the principle of "sola scriptura" versus clerical tradition. No longer was it presumed that the Church's magisterium was infallible in its scriptural interpretation. Luther and Calvin both downplayed allegorical approaches to hermeneutics. They emphasized letting the scripture "interpret itself" and criticized approaches that failed to deal with the literal sense of the the text. On the other hand, the demise of the doctrine of ecclesiastical infallibility led Luther to question whether biblical books such as James and Revelation should be considered authoritative, opening the way for Christians to give greater weight to some books than others. Indeed, the entire corpus of the Apocrypha, considered as Scripture by the Catholic Church, was now excluded from the Protestant canon and thus largely ignored for purposes of biblical hermeneutics.

William D. Dennison identifies four principles of Reformist hermeneutics:

  • The Bible is the blueprint of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Bible is to be understood literally, meaning that the words are to be understood within the domain of its historical con­text.
  • The Spirit intends us to re­ceive one meaning from a given text.
  • Christ is the focus of the entire Bible.

As the Bible was read and interpreted by increasing numbers of people, the hope that the Spirit would lead Protestants to derive "one meaning" for a given text could not be sustained. Various hermeneutical emphases contributed to a proliferation of sects and denominations. Wesley, though he did not disagree the Reformers’ principles, developed a more subjective hermeneutical approach, with added an emphasis on "cleansing and a new birth, and a continuing relationship with God after salvation." According to Robert A. Love, for Wesley and the Methodists "hermeneutics includes the application of Scripture to Christian experience (sanctification) and conduct (morality)." Baptists, meanwhile, diverged dramatically from the Reformed churches in their understanding of the Church and God's dispensation of his Word. While the Reformers saw the church as existing since the earliest days of the Old Testament, Baptists insisted that the church has existed only since the Pentecost and is consists only of believers. In Jewish tradition, the kabbalists developed a special type on anagogical hermeneutics as they interpreted the Hebrew Bible based on the principle Tikkun Olam.

In the 19th century the Stone-Campbell movement developed a hermeneutical approach that downplayed the effects of original sin, which it considered to be non-biblical result of medieval pessimism . Meanwhile, the widespread availability of previously unknown ancient biblical manuscripts led to the quest to uncover the original text of the Bible - textual criticism - especially important for those who held the this text to be inerrant. At the same time, source criticism questioned issues of authorship, audience and agenda. The Reformers' hermeneutical principle that Christ is the focus of the entire Bible was no longer universally recognized; and the door was opened for Christians to doubt biblical inerrancy. In the late 1800s liberal theologians, stressing practice over creeds, developed the Social Gospel and pursued a hermeneutics of ecumenism, while conservatives insisted on sticking to the basic principles of the Reformers and promulgated Christian Fundamentalism.

Such proliferating trends continued in the 20th century, leading to literally hundreds of denominations in the United States alone. Many of these use hermeneutical approaches similar to those of the Reformers, while others, such as Pentecostalism, are open to prophetic inspiration and continuing Revelation. In the secular world, both Freud and Jung applied anagogical hermeneutical principles to interpret the Bible. Freud's Moses and Monotheism is a striking example, while Jung analyzed biblical books in a more mystical and personal way, e.g. Answer to Job. Some, such as feminist theology and liberation theology, approach the text with special emphasis on their particular ideological concerns.

With the advent of the Internet and social media, non-experts as well as trained scholars have been able to publish their hermeneutical work online. While this has led to a proliferation of esoteric exegeses, it has also enabled amateurs and experts alike to benefit from reading a wide variety approaches and engaging in hermeneutical cross fertilization.

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    Luther and Calvin were certainly not doing something new by downplaying allegory. Theodore of Mopsuestia, as part of the Antiochene school, was "downplaying allegory" ~1000 years before Luther (karozota.com/2009/05/23/theodore-of-mopsuestia). Also, as much diversity as you mention here, there was just as much, if not more, in the earlier years of the NT age. Your answer is not helpful at all in answering your own question.
    – Epimanes
    Dec 1, 2023 at 20:04
  • Point taken from you first sentence. I did not mean to imply that Luther and Calvin did something new, but their emphasis set the standard for the Reformation as the Bible became more available and literacy increase. Disagree about the early church. Yes, there was diversity, but I don't think enough is known about hermeneutical methods of various schools of thought. Certainly very little was based on textual criticism and source criticism. Dec 1, 2023 at 21:10
  • I added some additional trends such as kabbalistic and psychoanalytical approaches to understanding the Bible Dec 2, 2023 at 2:00

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