How to Think about the Body’s Hermeneutic Role

Reading time: 2 minutes

The fact of the body’s influence on reading isn’t an excuse either for inattention toward ourselves or for criticism of others.1 Instead, it’s a basis for further inquiry and improvement. If you want to become a better reader, it makes sense to consider how your body reads best.

There are more and less supportive ways to read. And when you choose a less supportive way to read or when the way you’re reading becomes less supportive, your reading will inevitably become less attentive. And as your reading becomes less attentive, the more likely you are to offer more problematic interpretations from that reading.

Understanding as the Point

So, the question of the reading body is inevitably hermeneutical. And it is no less hermeneutical because its outcomes are less direct and immediate. Diffuse and indirect as the outcomes are, they are still there—not least because they so frequently lie unexamined.

In addition, as the reading body is more or less well adapted to its task, that task becomes less or more onerous. In a less ideal situation, twenty pages of relatively easy prose can feel like comparatively heavy work. By contrast, working through a heavy tome of more difficult text can be quite enjoyable in the proper circumstances.

The Reading Body’s Two-fold Relevance

So, the relevance of the reading body to biblical scholarship is two-fold:

  1. Outwardly, attention to the reading body is more likely to produce more attentive interpretations.
  2. Inwardly, it contributes to simple enjoyment of biblical scholarship as play.

As always, rigorous biblical scholarship remains hard work. It is “hard” in the sense that it challenges each biblical scholar’s abilities. But such challenge is far from requiring that the discipline lack enjoyment. And in fact, the challenge of it all is part of what creates the fun, what animates the discipline with the exuberance of play.2


Given these observations, the reading body is clearly pertinent to the craft of biblical scholarship. Consequently, it’s worth carefully considering some ways you might become a better reader by giving attention to your own reading body.—And that’s a topic I’ll discuss a bit more next week.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. On this theme, see Greg McKeown, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (New York: Currency, 2021), 3–52. 

You Need to Avoid Dismissiveness with the Body’s Hermeneutic Role

Reading time: 5 minutes

Accounts of hermeneutics in biblical studies frequently don’t consider the reading body’s relevance to the interpretive task.1

Even so, the body has hermeneutic effects. And these effects are very real even if they might not manifest the same way as they can in a law court when a hungry judge might be less likely to grant parole.

At the same time, “Bulverism” isn’t the point. Understanding is.

1. Bulverism dismisses without reasons.

In a delightfully vivid essay worth quoting at some length, C. S. Lewis describes how

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found [a] vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father— who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third —’Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.…

Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long.… But … it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion [or anything else] is true or false.…

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning—never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.…

[O]ur thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called ‘a reason’. Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless.2

2. The body’s effects on reading aren’t invitations to Bulverize.

Looking from the outside at someone else’s work, it would be entirely unfair and ad hominem to say someone interprets a text a given way or makes a specific argument because that person

  • became uncomfortable while reading,
  • needed to remoisten a pair of dry eyes,
  • heard a loud noise,
  • smelled coffee, or
  • had a cramped hand and so wrote insufficient notes.

All of these kinds of Bulverism are fairly silly and innocuous. But the logical structure of Bulverism lends itself also to more offensive dismissals of viewpoints from individuals who might have a given

  • gender,
  • racial or ethnic background,
  • age,
  • disability, or
  • other medical condition.

None of these bodily qualities should insulate from critique. But also, none of them can inherently render a viewpoint wrong.

As Lewis helpfully illustrates again,

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds.3

And depending on the specific case, further speculation about psychological or other bodily causes for a wrong idea may be unnecessary or inappropriate.


So, how the body shapes interpretation and, therefore, reading as a kind of interpretive act can’t be an excuse to Bulverize. Bulverism is thoroughly problematic, and one of its problems is that it represents shoddy scholarship. Scholarship precisely as such requires reasons and evidence—not mere pronouncements that pretend to authority and dismissals of others’ arguments without demonstration.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma. For helping me frame the posts in this series, I’m indebted to the suggestive comments of Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  2. C. S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 273–75. 

  3. Lewis, “Bulverism,” 272–73; italics added except on the word “after.” 

The Simple Ways Your Body Shapes Your Reading

Reading time: 3 minutes

The body frequently gets left out of accounts of reading in biblical studies.1 But even so, it continues to have hermeneutic effects. These effects aren’t the same as they can be in a law court when a hungry judge might be less likely to grant parole. But they’re real nonetheless.

The Body’s Two-fold Influence on Reading

Particularly if you’ve ever taken an extended amount of time to worked through a text of any length or complexity, you’ve experienced these kinds of effects firsthand. They could be negative or render reading more difficult—as in the case of the “hungry judges.” But your body’s effects on your reading efforts can also be quite positive and productive.

Negative Effects

For instance, in terms of the challenges that reading places on the body, maybe

  • After you’ve bent over a text too long, your body says you need to straighten up, so you do.
  • The day grows late, and your eyes start to feel dry, so you take a pause to rub and remoisten them.
  • You hear an unexpectedly loud noise, so you look around to it and instantly—if only instantaneously—forget about the text you were reading.
  • You smell the coffee a colleague started brewing and realize how your own “Joe” needs to stand a bit taller in your mug to be an adequate companion for the next section of text.
  • Your hand cramps as you try to write yet another complex note in an overly small margin. So, you decide to abbreviate the comment and hope that your future self will still understand the thought you had while reading.

Positive Effects

On the other hand, your body can express a kind of cognition that you’re not consciously aware of but that aids your reading efforts.2

Perhaps the print you’re trying to read is too small. You make no conscious effort to account for this fact. But you suddenly find you’ve leaned forward to the text or brought it closer to you.

Reading in one position grows uncomfortable, so you adjust how you’re sitting or standing without perhaps being aware of particularly choosing a new position.

The daylight by which you’ve been reading starts to grow dim, so you instinctively find yourself adjusting the lighting so you can better see your material.

You’re unable to make a note on the text as you would like, so you reorient yourself in relation to the text so that you can express your thoughts about it.


In short, many or all of the ways your body reads overcome the challenges presented by that task. They are, for all their uniqueness and oddity, ways of reading. They’re ways of continuing to encounter the text before you as a biological organism and not a rigid automaton. And continuation in that demanding task can be no small feat, one that ultimately requires and not just tolerates readerly bodies.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. E.g., see Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 25–26, 56, 72. 

11 Reasons You Need to Read Your Bible

Reading time: 17 minutes

Academic biblical studies requires a lot of time in an array of primary and secondary sources.1 And among these sources, the Bible itself is the most primary. So, it’s important to maintain a regular habit of reading it for at least 11 reasons—namely, to

  1. Remind yourself that biblical studies is about the Bible.
  2. Remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.
  3. Encounter the word of God.
  4. Understand the biblical authors’ worldviews.
  5. See things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
  6. Correct your reading of one passage against another.
  7. Focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.
  8. Sharpen your languages.
  9. Find things you won’t in translation.
  10. Notice scribal errors.
  11. Learn vocabulary.

Of these, the first 7 apply whatever language you’re reading in. The last 4 are special benefits if you’re reading the Bible in its primary languages.

1. Remind yourself that biblical studies is about the Bible.

A lot of academic biblical studies has to do with thinking critically about the biblical text. It has to do with bringing preconceptions into question and making judgments like historians. It has to do with looking closely at the text again and again.

This work is good and important. Nothing can substitute for detailed, careful attention to a particular book, a given passage, or even a single verse.

But with this kind of close attention also comes the danger of paying so much attention to the individual trees that the forest fades from view.

There’s a risk of increasing knowledge of a small slice of the biblical literature at the cost of increasing unfamiliarity with other parts.

To counteract this tendency toward unfamiliarity, it’s helpful to cultivate a regular habit of Bible reading.

2. Remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.

Not all biblical scholars claim membership in a particular faith community—especially one they see as relevant to their scholarship. But biblical scholarship is a coherent discipline only because of the faith communities within which biblical texts emerged.

In practice, “Bible” might mean quite a lot of different things. It might be

  • A “Hebrew Bible” without a New Testament,
  • A “New American Standard Bible” with a New Testament but no apocrypha, or
  • A “New Jerusalem Bible” with both a New Testament and apocrypha.2

But whatever its specific content, speaking of a “Bible” as such inevitably requires reckoning with a text that has been deeply embedded in the faith and practice of the communities that have cherished it.

Ignoring this history is then precisely a historical oversight. And critical biblical scholarship undertakes precisely the task of avoiding historical oversights.

3. Encounter the word of God.

In addition, if you come to the biblical text from one of the communities that hears in this text the divine word, reading the text for its own sake can help remind you to cherish it—whatever else you also then do with it, either analytically or critically.

When reflecting on the question of “what are the fundamental characteristics of evangelical faith,” Ernst Käsemann suggested

The answer seems to me a simple one: in the evangelical conception, the community is the flock under the Word as it listens to the Word. All its other identifying marks must be subordinate to this ultimate and decisive criterion. A community which is not created by the Word is for us no longer the community of Jesus.… Concretely expressed, the relationship of the community and the Word of God is not reversible; there is no dialectical process by which the community created by the Word becomes at the same time for all practical purposes an authority set over the Word …. [T]he community remains the handmaid of the Word. If it makes the Word into a means to itself as an end, if it becomes the suzerain of the Word instead of its handmaid, the community loses its own life. The community is the kingdom of Christ because it is built up by the Word. But it remains so only while it is content not to assume control over the Word ….3

So much of biblical scholarship involves attempts to “interpret [the Word], to administer it, to possess it.”4 Such activity is important and indispensable.

But confessional biblical scholars cannot afford to have only a posture over the Word as an object of study but must also sit under its authority, hear its instruction, and receive the patience, encouragement, and hope that it communicates (cf. Rom 15:4).

To be over the Word as an object of academic study involves being bent over it. And any number of forces can routinely create pressure that will bend you over even more (e.g., unavoidable but distracting demands).

Being bent over and bowed down that far can easily lead you to “collapse and fall” in overwhelm, exhaustion, and spiritual and emotional malformation. But being under the Word is a key way of finding encouragement to “rise and stand upright” (cf. Ps 20:7–8).

It gives you the chance to look up to the (metaphoric or physical) hills and contemplate where help to do what you can’t now see how you’ll do really comes from (Ps 121:1–2). It brings you back to considering the reality for yourself of Jesus’s claim to provide rest for the weary and burdened as no other can (Matt 11:28–30).

4. Understand the biblical authors’ worldviews.

H.-G. Gadamer helpfully reflects on what it means really to understand a text, saying,

We can set aside Schleiermacher’s ideas on subjective interpretation. When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author’s mind [in die seelische Verfassung des Authors] but, if one wants to use this terminology, we try to transpose ourselves into the perspective within which he has formed his views [in die Perspective, unter der der andere seine Meinung gewonnen hat]. But this simply means that we try to understand how what he is saying could be right. If we want to understand, we will try to make his arguments even stronger.5

Understanding “how what [another person] is saying could be right” can be a tall order even toward those who share our same cultural contexts, or our own homes. Understanding the “perspective within which [another person] has formed his[ or her] views” can take consistent time and effort, even if that person is present. So, it’s certainly to be expected that similarly sustained effort will be required to understand the biblical authors.

5. See things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.

Specialization can be logical. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of not knowing other primary literature that might also prove relevant. And specialists in any given book or corpus have a real tendency toward functional ignorance of other books and corpora.

For instance, Luke and Paul shouldn’t be confused. Yet they’re both very early witnesses to the memory, faith, and practice of the Jesus movement.

So, these texts might, in principle, have just as much to say about each other as would Josephus or Philo. Readings of Luke might then feasibly enrich readings of Paul, at least as much as would readings of Josephus or Philo, and vice versa.

But literature you don’t know the contents of can’t help you. So, it’s helpful to read widely across the biblical text, as also in other primary literature outside it.

6. Correct your reading of one passage against another.

Related to the prior benefit is the fact that seeing things you won’t by reading only isolated passages can help you correct your interpretation of one passage against another.

Everyone understands some things better than others. And the more widely and carefully you read, the more the text has a chance to “push back” against interpretations you may have that are less than fully adequate.

Insight from Gadamer

Gadamer usefully reflects on this dynamic as well, asking,

How do we discover that there is a difference between our own customary usage and that of the text?

I think we must say that generally we do so in the experience of being pulled up short by the text. Either it does not yield any meaning at all or its meaning is not compatible with what we had expected. This is what brings us up short and alerts us to a possible difference in usage.

A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither “neutrality” with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.6

A Personal Example

A personal example of this would be in my reading of 1 Cor 15:3a. There, Paul says he communicated to the Corinthians “ὃ … παρέλαβ[ε]ν” (“what [he] received”), but the text doesn’t specify from whom he received it.

What I’ve Suggested Previously

I’ve previously suggested in passing that this reception is “from others who also preached” the same message as Paul.7 In particular, I’ve noted that “part of what Paul likely received is a summary of the key components of the message that he rehearses in 1 Corinthians 15:3b–5.”8

This kind of interpretation is reasonably common for 1 Cor 15:3a.9 And it allows a few options for how one might understand 1 Cor 15:3 as consistent with Gal 1:12 and 2:1–10.

Options for Integrating 1 Corinthians 15:3 with Galatians 1:12 and 2:1–10

Among these are that,

  1. Both passages refer to the same core gospel, but they speak about Paul’s reception of it in different ways and at different times. Galatians stresses his initial reception of the gospel from Jesus; 1 Corinthians mentions how Paul later had this same message echoed back to him by others besides Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:3, 11; Gal 2:2, 6–10).
  2. Galatians refers to the essential content of the gospel, which Paul received from Jesus. But 1 Corinthians is concerned with the specific form of the condensation of this gospel that appears in 15:3b–5, which Paul may have received from others besides Jesus.
  3. Galatians refers to the essential content of the gospel, which Paul received from Jesus. But 1 Corinthians is concerned with additional information about Jesus (e.g., details of his post-resurrection appearances in 15:6–7) that Paul might not have been privy to the details of previously but that also didn’t pertain to the core message he preached.

What I’m Now Pondering

That said, Paul also says that he “παρέλαβ[ε]ν ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου” (“received from the Lord”) information specific to the Eucharist’s institution (see 1 Cor 11:23–25). That specificity makes me wonder afresh about the source Paul implies for “what [he] received” in 1 Cor 15:3a.10

Resolving this reopened loop will take some more work. But it’s good that it’s reopened. And at least in the interim, that reopening will cause me to downgrade the “receiving from others besides Jesus” interpretation of 1 Cor 15:3a from “likely” to merely possible or to re-entertain the idea that both Jesus and others are included.

7. Focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.

When you think of Bible reading, you might tend to think of silent reading. But reading the text aloud can be beneficial too.

In a group, reading aloud helps everyone follow along at the same place. If you’re reading aloud to yourself, that’s not such an upside. You always know where you are.

But if you read the text aloud—even by yourself—you engage another sense in the reading experience. By doing so, you push yourself that much more into the experience of reading.

Do you ever get distracted when “reading” a page silently? You then suddenly realize you have no idea what you’ve supposedly just seen while your mind was wandering.

By contrast, if you’re reading aloud, you’ll probably realize much quicker that your mind has started to wander when you run out of words coming out of your mouth.

Engaging another sense also gives you another chance to make connections in the text that you might read right over on paper but pick up when hearing yourself repeat the same phrase.

8. Sharpen your languages.

When you read the biblical text in its primary languages, you can hone your ability to work with these languages. You’ll get a better feel for the languages by experiencing them first hand rather than only reading about them in a grammar.

Of course, grammars make very profitable reading on their own. 🙂 But they can’t substitute for deep, first-hand familiarity with the literature they try to describe.

If you’re reading in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, you can even take the opportunity to read the text aloud too. That way, you can practice your pronunciation and develop your “ear” for the language.

Don’t worry too much about your choice of a pronunciation system. And don’t worry if it sounds bad or halting. As a child, that roughness was part of your learning process for your first language. It will be here too.

But gradually, you’ll find yourself making progress. You might even see things in the text that you’ve previously missed because you heard yourself saying the text aloud.

9. Find things you won’t in translation.

To communicate some things in whatever language, translators inevitably have to obscure others. This fact is wonderfully encapsulated in the Italian proverb “traduttore traditore​”—”a translator is a traitor.”11

From an English translation, you might well learn about a time when a ruler of Egypt dreamed about cows. But English simply isn’t able to communicate the humorous irony involved in having פרעה (paroh) dream about פרות (paroth; Gen 41:1–2).

Many translations do a great job with rendering the core of what a passage communicates. But for the fine details both within and across passages, there’s no substitute for reading the original text.

Here also, your lack of familiarity with a biblical text’s primary language can be an asset in some ways. In translation, you might tend to read the text too quickly. As you do, you might gloss over important elements within it. But by reading the text in a primary language, you might pause long enough to consider it more deeply.

10. Notice scribal errors.

One way to notice scribal errors is, of course, to read the apparatus in your critical biblical text. But by reading the biblical text itself, you can also notice scribal errors—namely, your own scribal errors.

For me, reading aloud particularly helps in this regard. I’ll hear myself say something. I’ll then realize what I just read aloud is related to what’s in the text but isn’t exactly the same.

These differences often fall into well-known patterns of error that copyists might make during their work. And making them for myself gives me a more first-hand appreciation for when and how these errors might arise.

That better appreciation for possible pitfalls in reading a given text can prove helpful making text-critical decisions. It also proves helpful in making me a more aware reader the next time around.

11. Learn vocabulary.

When you learn biblical languages, you learn a certain amount of vocabulary that occurs frequently. But even with this under your belt, there is still a huge amount of vocabulary you don’t know.

Continuing to drill larger sets of vocabulary cards might have a place. On the other hand, you may well remember the language better by seeing and learning new words in context.

You’ll also learn new usages, meanings, and functions for the vocabulary you thought you knew. You may have learned a small handful of glosses for a word. But you’ll start seeing how a given term might have a much wider range of possible meanings than the glosses you memorized.

Don’t Settle for the Cliché

Unfortunately, biblical scholars who don’t have a regular discipline of Bible reading are common enough to be cliché.

Whether you find yourself in this boat or whether you’d just like to join others who are actively in the text, I’d like to invite you to join my students and me this term in our readings of the biblical text.

Every term, my students and I do a daily Bible reading exercise together. If you’re working in the original languages, I’ve scaled the readings to be short enough to complete without taking too much time out of your day. But the reading plan will work whether you’re using a translation or working from the biblical text in its original languages.

It would be wonderful to have you join us. To get started, just drop your name and email in the form below. You’ll then get an email delivering this term’s readings. And you’ll be ready to pick up in the biblical text right where my students and I are.

Looking forward to reading with you!

  1. Header image provided by Kelly Sikkema

  2. For further discussion, see my “Rewriting Prophets in the Corinthian Correspondence: A Window on Paul’s Hermeneutic,” BBR 22.2 (2012): 226–27. 

  3. Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today, trans. W. J. Montague and Wilfred F. Bunge (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 261–62. 

  4. Käsemann, New Testament Questions, 261. 

  5. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1989; repr., London: Continuum, 2006), 292; Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 303; italics added. The German insertions are drawn from Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960), 297. 

  6. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 280, 282; italics added. 

  7. J. David Stark, “Understanding Scripture through Apostolic Proclamation,” in Scripture First: Biblical Interpretation That Fosters Christian Unity, ed. Daniel B. Oden and J. David Stark (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2020), 56. For more about Scripture First, see “6 Ways to Make Scripture First.” For more about my essay, see “Behind the Scenes of ‘Understanding Scripture through Apostolic Proclamation’.” 

  8. Stark, “Apostolic Proclamation,” 56. 

  9. E.g., Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PilNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 745; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 32 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 545–46; Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 254–55; Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians, ed. William P. Dickson, trans. D. Douglas Bannerman and David Hunter, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1879), 2:42; cf. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 88–89; A. T. Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2nd ed., ICC (1914; repr., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1929), 333. 

  10. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, BNTC (London: Continuum, 1968), 337; John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, 2 vols., Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1848–1849), 2:9. 

  11. For making me aware of this proverb, I’m grateful to Moisés Silva. 

How the Body Actually Influences the Most Impartial Decision Makers

Reading time: 4 minutes

Reading is a basic skill requirement for biblical scholars.1 Despite this fact, the reading body is regularly absent from discussions of this key skill. This absence can have some immediate, practical advantages. But in a larger picture, it ultimately proves problematic. Your body shapes how you read.

Because of the practical advantages of forgetting the reading body, it might be tempting to do just that. Surely, any difference that accounting for the reading body makes actually meaningful? Is the juice worth the squeeze?

A Study of Professional Deciders

To begin answering this question, it may be helpful to cite a now widely noted study about practitioners of that ideally most impartial of professions—the lawcourt judge. In particular, as reported by researchers from Ben Gurion University and Columbia University,

We test the common caricature … that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.2

Options for Interpreting the Findings

These findings basically suggest either one or the other two conclusions. The system for scheduling the parole requests that these judges heard

  1. successfully—if inexplicably—tended to schedule intrinsically more meritorious requests for first thing in the morning or immediately after the judges’ snack breaks. In this interpretation, the judges could have decided all the cases with equal equity. It just so happened that the more meritorious ones tended to be grouped in the scheduling.
  2. distributed cases in the judges’ queues relatively equally with no grouping—intentional or otherwise—of those with greater merit. In this interpretation, despite their best efforts at impartiality, the judges’ bodies did influence their decisions about the parole requests (e.g., via hunger or fatigue).

Why There Really Is a “Hungry Judge Effect”

Unfortunately for the first interpretation, however, several factors make this understanding of the data infeasible. Among these are how

  • The judges determine when their two mid-day food breaks occur. When they decide to take each of these breaks, they have no knowledge of what cases they will hear next.3
  • The researchers observed significant variation in when the judges decide to take their breaks. This randomness would complicate any attempt to orchestrate a judge’s schedule to include certain requests in a certain sequence relative to the judges’ on-the-spot-selected food break times.4
  • The order in which cases appear before the judge is, “with rare exception, determined by the arrival time of the prisoner’s attorney.”5 But on arrival, attorneys are sequestered and have no knowledge of what cases the judge has heard that day or whether the judge has had a food break.6

So, the second interpretation seems genuinely to be supported. And to the extent that it is, it demonstrates how the body shapes decisions that are made even when impartiality is a key element of how one is attempting to make those decisions.


Biblical studies isn’t jurisprudence. But the kind of interpretive effort required by both shares a number of similarities.7 And biblical scholarship constantly calls upon you to decide—one way or another—about the meaning of this or that text. So, just as the judges in this study show how their bodies shape how they “read” the situations of the parole petitioners before them, your body also shapes how you read material pertinent to biblical studies.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma. For helping me to frame the posts in this series, I’m indebted to the suggestive comments of Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  2. Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.17 (2011): 6889. 

  3. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  4. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  5. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  6. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  7. E.g., see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 334–50. 

Why You Need to Think about How Your Body Reads

Reading time: 3 minutes

Reading is a required core competency for biblical scholars.1 When thinking about reading, biblical scholars tend to focus on the question of mental activity.

This focus is understandable and far from unique to biblical scholars. But forgetting the reading body creates a constellation of challenges that keep your reading and, therefore, your scholarship from as good as it can be.

The Problem with Forgetting the Reading Body

One way of stating the problem is that

if we allow ourselves to forget the “absent” body, we cannot fully understand ourselves and our interactions with the world, including the semiotic world of the text and the socially constructed but deeply embodied conventions of reading.2

In short, biblical scholarship isn’t as much about understanding ourselves as it is understanding the text. But it’s also not as though those two things are entirely separable. To the extent that we fail to reckon with the realities of our whole selves—including our bodies, we’re more liable to be pushed or pulled unawares into one interpretation or another.

Interpretation is indeed about understanding what you see. But before you can understand what you see, you must first see. And—to adapt a Pauline metaphor—it is not as though you who sees is entirely an eye (1 Cor 12:17). Nor indeed, is it possible to read if the eye says to the hand “I don’t need you” (1 Cor 12:21). Without manipulation by hands, there isn’t going to be a text in front of the eye to read.

So, the body shouldn’t be forgotten in reading because

it is not that the mind of the reader is embodied, but that the body reads—the whole body, muscle and bone, nerves and brain—and that the operations of mind, socially constructed, historically conditioned, in all their subtle interactions with the complexity of texts, are the works of the body.3

The Solution with Balancing Practice and Play

That said, attending to the reading body needn’t always require conscious attention. It may and should sometimes involve this, much as an athlete may consciously practice a specific technique outside the context of a game.4

Similarly, for the “game” of biblical scholarship where reading is so central, you do need to give conscious attention to your body’s involvement in your reading. But just as not all times are training times for the athlete, so it is for the reader in biblical studies.

You need to think regularly about how to hone your craft. But that thought needs to give way in its right time and place to the “embodied cognition” or “muscle memory” that takes over at “game time.”5 That is to say, you need to have a balance between thinking and working on how you read and actually focusing on the content of what you’re “upping your game” to be able to read.6

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma

  2. Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 10. 

  3. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 13. 

  4. Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 26–27. 

  5. E.g., see Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body, 25–26, 56, 72. 

  6. Cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15.