Reading the Bible from an African Perspective

By Kanyoro, Musimbi | The Ecumenical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Reading the Bible from an African Perspective


Kanyoro, Musimbi, The Ecumenical Review


African Christians are ardent Bible-believers. If a Christian family owns only one or two books, it is likely that these are a hymnal and a Bible.(1) They listen to the Bible being read on church-organized occasions, and those who are literate read it for themselves.

The greatest heritage of Africa is hope. We are a continent of patience and determination, a people who embrace a spirituality of not giving up. This spirituality is best illustrated in the way we read the Bible in Africa: we appropriate the words of the scriptures and assume that we are the intended audience. I remember once reading the end of Paul's letter to the Corinthians in the Turkana community in northern Kenya:

   I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who
   has no hove for the Lord. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be
   with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 16:21-24).

The community, which had been listening silently, responded in unison, "Thank you, Paul." They were thanking Paul for sending them greetings, not the reader for reading the text to them. The discussion which followed was about how to respond to Paul's message so that no one may be accursed in the community. It is this appropriation of the biblical text that I want to illustrate in this presentation on the basis of my own research.(2)

The work of the Bible societies in Africa and other parts of the world influence what I have to say on the question of reading the Bible in Africa. For several years, I worked for the translations department of the United Bible Societies (UBS) in Africa. My main job was to train Bible translators in a collegial group of translation consultants. The UBS translation consultants are schooled in linguistics, theory and practice of translation, biblical exegesis and hermeneutics.

For generations, Bible translators promulgated the idea that it is possible to translate the texts of the Bible in a manner so faithful to the original that the translator's shadow is completely absent from the translation. This is no longer believed to be the case. Bible translators today are content with seeking a certain level of faithful equivalence in meaning. The subject of hermeneutics has thus become very important to Bible translation work. The context of a person affects the meaning attached to any communication event, verbal or otherwise.(3) The semantic value of symbols and words is culturally determined. Every reading of text represents the reality of a particular people situated in a particular time and space. The culture in which a text is created or read plays a very important role in its hermeneutics.

As an employee of the UBS, my hermeneutics education was highly influenced by reading and talking with scholars of the Bible, theologians and linguists. More recently, I have been serving as a Bible study facilitator with church groups in Africa and other regions, as well as with international groups. This has brought me new insights as I have observed communities giving their own interpretations to texts for which translators and biblical scholars have laboured to provide interpretations presumed to be faithful to the meaning of those texts in the original languages. I have noticed that popular Bible readers do not really care what the scholars think. They read the Bible with the eyes of their contexts, and they apply a mirror-image reading. Sometimes the Bible helps to read their context, sometimes their context gives meaning to the texts of the Bible.

Literal reading of the Bible is the most acceptable reading in churches in Africa. Whether in the pews or among theologically trained women and men, only a handful of Africans are comfortable with challenging the biblical text by applying the "hermeneutics of suspicion" to it.(4)

In what follows I shall present some of the findings from research I have just completed.(5) The research was triggered by the discovery that everything in my village is explained through the eyes of culture. …

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