The Rorschach Bible

Considering that everyone agrees on what the Bible contains (give or take a few disagreements around the margins), it’s amazing how much disagreement there is about how to interpret it, and the overall message of the book. That’s not just down to a small lunatic fringe – whole denominations have entirely different understandings of what passages mean and what to do about it, and are convinced that they’re right. Even literalists who would argue that every word is God’s unambiguous holy writ are capable of disagreeing with each other, and I’ve yet to meet one who treats Matthew 26:26 as the unambiguously literal text he/she claims the Bible is.

All over the world, people seem to be reading very different things in the Bible. Conservatives see a stern, vengeful God. Liberals see a fluffy, cuddly, inclusive God. Both either explain away or simply ignore passages which disagree with their basic interpretation. Politically, it’s claimed as support for left-wing and right-wing policies. Famously, the basic message Margaret Thatcher took from the parable of the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritan was only good and helpful because he had money.

And then there are all those people with books to sell, who are convinced (quite genuinely, I’m sure) that there’s clear evidence in the Bible of previously concealed gnostic revelations, from the Bible Code and various numerologists to Jesus having an affair with John (the disciple whom he loved). Given a bit of work, it seems that you can make a case for almost any interpretation of the text, even if you’re the only one who’s convinced. (See my post on Genesis for an example)

I’ve got a theory that how you interpret the Bible, like what you see in a Rorschach inkblot, says a lot about you. Now that the standard inkblots and common interpretations have been published, creating fears that it may be possible to “cheat” in a test, maybe the Bible could be used instead.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “The Rorschach Bible”

  1. Paul Sunstone says :

    I think what you’ve said goes for most religions, not just Biblical ones. Perhaps some of the Far Eastern religions are a bit better about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not much better.

    As Richard Francis Burton said, “The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.”

  2. unkleE says :

    G’day RA,

    I’ve enjoyed reading a few of your posts, and as a christian I found this interesting. You are surely right that there are so many different interpretations of the Bible that it should make us think. I think there are three obvious possibilities:

    1. It’s all rubbish.
    2. People are terribly devious and twist it beyond recognition.
    3. God never intended it to be the only source of information about him.
    4. God wanted it to do something other than, or in addition to, giving information.

    Obviously I don’t agree with #1, and I think there will always be some truth in #2, but I think #3 & #4 are most likely. Once I come to that conclusion, it makes the whole thing less of a mystery. The bits where we need to know accurate information, I think we have it, and most readers can get this information easily – the life of Jesus is the obvious example. But a lot of the bits people argue so much over aren’t really essential.

    Just my ideas ….


    • Recovering Agnostic says :


      I’d add at least one more possibility, which is that it’s an interesting text, in some ways fairly profound, but not divinely inspired, and people read it honestly through a filter of their own experience and worldview. Jesus is obviously the point about which the whole Bible revolves, but even then, there are some huge differences in how people view his character. At various times and in various cultures, Jesus has been a teacher, liberator, socialist, revolutionary, and much more besides.

      I think your points 3 and 4 are interesting, especially as they’re the only ones to explicitly mention God. They seem to be moving away from traditional Christian belief, in emphasis if not in detail, but that just makes them all the more interesting to me. I think the question that remains (apart from the begged question of God’s existence) is what to do with a text which is incomplete, or has unspecified other purposes.

      • unkleE says :

        Yes, I agree, there are other ways of viewing the Bible, I just tried to sum up some of the extremes.

        I agree that people interpret Jesus differently – the experts more than most, probably – but I think that is not so much getting it wrong as emphasising one aspect of Jesus and downplaying others. I have no problems seeing Jesus as “teacher, liberator, socialist, revolutionary, and much more besides”.

        I don’t think I have moved much away from christian belief, except maybe in my views on truth, knowing and certainty. I think people assume that the Bible is all about precise, accurate and certain knowledge, when all the evidence points to it being something a little different – still accurate enough where it matters, but much more human and dynamic, painting pictures and giving nuances that are more than mere fact sometimes. It’s more like a letter than a textbook.

        As to what to do with it, I have few problems (with the New Testament, at any rate). We get by with every other piece of information in life being less than inerrant, so why not here? And for christians, we have the Holy Spirit as a guide to truth. Doesn’t mean we get it right all the time, but we get there in the end.

        So that’s how I see it. Best wishes.

  3. unkleE says :

    Oops, I should have change ‘three’ to ‘four’!

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