Interpreting the Bible

Why Columbo is Better

Detective Columbo is one of my TV heroes. First impression, he seems like an Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther—out of his league, bumbling, clueless. On the contrary, Lt Columbo is a master sleuth. This is revealed at the end of each episode when Coloumbo tells the second story—the sequence of events that shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, who-done-it. The clock on the wall in the ransom photo, the off-hand comment of the hotel clerk, the make and model of the camera—they all seemed like inconsequential details at the time. But, when Columbo tells the second story, he gathers them into a simple narrative that puts everything in the proper light.

Experiencing a classic mystery narrative is comparable to putting together a thousand-piece puzzle. The plotline meanders like the Mississippi river, turning and looping here, pooling up there. Even the brilliant Sherlock Holmes must back-paddle out of a dead-end deduction at least once per episode. Then Dr. Watson discovers a corner-piece. But the puzzle remains an empty frame until Sherlock tells the second story.

To rightly interpret a mystery narrative, you need to re-read it with the end in mind.

This is how the early church interpreted the Bible—they read it with the end in mind. David Steinmetz, who taught early church history at Duke for 35 years, made this point in an essay about methods of exegesis.*

Exegesis is the process for deciding the likely meaning(s) of a text.

The text, in this case, is the Bible.


Under the influence of The History Channel, many modern Bible readers approach the Bible missing this second story. Not seeing how everything fits together in a simple narrative, they’re left with the pieces. Imagine watching every single Columbo episode, but always stopping before the reveal at the end. You could become fascinated in what the choice in camera model might imply about the director’s troubled home life, the rhetorical structure of the clerk’s comments, or the poetic appeal of the clock on the wall. But you would never know what the story is about.

This is the historical-critical method of exegesis—reading the Bible without the second story.

Wait. Is there even a book we could identify as the Bible without the second story? Arguably, no. Sociologically speaking, the Bible is the Church’s book. She brought together these disparate narratives, poems, and epistles because she believed that she had met, in the crucified and risen Jesus, the man on whom the second story centered.

Without the risen Jesus, there is no Bible for The History Channel (and its driving influence, 18th Century Western European Scholarship) to dissect. There is no reason to say any more about the meandering, dead-end narrative of David’s descendant who would right the world and rule forever. There would be no justification for bringing together a baker’s dozen of letters written by a half-baked Pharisee (see Philippians 3:3-11). Without the risen Jesus, Paul wouldn’t have written those letters.

To be fair, the historical-critical method had some fruits. For one, it helped rein in an over-run allegorical or existential method of exegesis.

Allegorical or existential exegesis reads the Bible with a spiritualized or individualized second story.

Exegesis of this sort is like watching an episode of Columbo and insisting that the clerk’s comments about the condition of the room are really about cleansing the human soul or that the clock on the wall stands for the universal quest for meaning against the inexorable roll of time.

But the true second story isn’t something foreign, pressed on the original narrative from above. Instead, it’s what that meandering, seemingly dead-end narrative had been about all along. The true second story doesn’t obscure or ignore the scattered historical and grammatical details. It illuminates them, making the more important ones stand out from the less important.

This is what all Facebook posters and re-tellers of histories do. Even in a single day, there are too many events to narrate. If I want to make a shareable video for my timeline—one that people might pause to watch—I need to be selective. I can’t use every photo and video clip. I have to pick. When I pick, I say, implicitly, “These are the most important. The rest is just details.”

I make these choices on the basis of some second story I want to tell. Historians do the same. They discover a cache of written texts. They select some as spurious and unreliable, others as important and representative (the History Channel loves the Gnostic Gospels). Focusing on their favorite texts, they summarize and comment: Jesus had a love affair with Mary Magdalene—BAM—Bible Secret revealed … now watch this commercial and buy something from our sponsors (for another perspective on the Gnostic Gospels, see this video from N. T. Wright).

Historians always make their selections on the basis of some second story.

The second story used by many adherents of the historical-critical exegetical method goes something like this:

Once people thought the universe was frightening and mysterious. They comforted themselves with religious myths and superstitions. Then Science helped us grow up and realize there’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s no “God” to threaten us with lightening bolts here or Hell in the hereafter. We were scared of our own shadows.

If I bring a version of this second story to the Bible, I’m likely to see it as a hodgepodge of ancient near-eastern legendary propaganda, Greek mysticism, and revisionist history. I will be critical of it. Because my second story tells me, in advance, it can’t be a reliable report of actual events, I will always be looking behind the text for the “real” story … one that fits with my preferred second story.

The writers of the New Testament read the Old Testament with a different second story. They believed that the sprawling, seemingly dead-end narrative of Abraham’s family and David’s promised kingdom had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, who had been publicly crucified under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Bible secret revealed: Jesus is the Last Adam, the answer to God’s promise to Abraham; the fulfillment of exodus from slavery and return from exile; the final sacrifice, the permanent high priest, the new temple in person; the King who will put the world right; God’s people rolled up into one; God’s Son by nature, elder brother to an ever-expanding, adopted family.

They looked to Jesus for the second story, not because they thought it would be poetically satisfying, politically persuasive, or historically sensible, but because they saw him bodily resurrected from the dead. Confronted with this who-done-it, they concluded that the Creator God, who made covenantal promises to Abraham and David, made this Jesus Lord and King by raising him from the dead (see this video from N. T. Wright on the historical sensibility of this claim).

David Steinmetz noted the limits of the analogy between a classic detective narrative and the Bible. In a detective narrative, the episode ends soon after the sleuth recites the second story. Columbo explains what happened, then the credits roll. In contrast, the second story centered on Jesus looks to the past and the future. It claims to be the story of everything, the true ending of every story.

Paul’s letters are full of “second story moments.”* Some of these became the basis for the brief narrative espoused in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. “I delivered to you as of first importance,” Paul wrote, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).

What does this have to do with us two thousand years later? Paul believed that everyone baptized in the name of Jesus the King has a share in this story by faith. “We were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as the King was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in new life” (Romans 6:4).

The narrative centered on crucified, risen, ruling, and returning Jesus puts the mysteries of the Bible in the proper light. It also shines light on my own little life. What’s most important? Where do I fit in the sprawling, sometimes hopeful, but often depressing, seemingly dead-end story of the world?

The story does lead to death. Either we die without Jesus or we die with Jesus. And if we have died with him, we shall also live in him. The rest is just details.

*See David Steinmetz, “Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction and the Construction of Historical Method,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.

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