The Golden Rule Workshop

Understanding the importance of context and interpretation when reading the Bible.

What you’ll need

Just yourselves.


Presumptions and assumptions (30)

Old or New?

Explain to the participants that one side of the room represents the Old Testament, the other the New Testament.

One by one, read out the Bible quotations below (without saying which testament they belong to). Without conferring, ask everyone to pick which side of the room they think the quote belongs to. If students are divided in opinion, ask them to explain their choices (this should bring out people’s assumptions about the nature and context of the biblical Testaments).

After each quote, reveal which Testament it belongs to. 

Quotes (New Revised Standard Version)

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you

NT = Matthew 7

And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand

NT = Mark 3

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change

OT = Psalm 46

Let love be genuine… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers

NT = Romans 12

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today

NT = Matthew 6

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire

NT = Mark 9

Send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth

NT = Matthew 13

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble

OT = Proverbs 24

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot

OT = Exodus 21

Ask the group: Can anyone think of a later biblical passage where this message in Exodus is directly referenced and rewritten?

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate

NT = Corinthians 14

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope

OT = Jeremiah 29

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord

OT = Leviticus 19

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death

OT = Leviticus 20

Ask: again, can anyone think of another passage in the Bible where this attitude is revised?

We love because he first loved us

NT = John 4

Do to others as you would have them do to you

NT = Luke 6

Care to venture further?

In pairs (or as a group if preferred), ask the participates to discuss which quotes they guessed correctly and which ones they didn’t.

Were you surprised by any of the quotes? When you didn’t recognise the quote, how did you decide where to place it? What assumptions did you make in order to make what you thought was an ‘educated guess’?

Now, as a group, discuss what patterns of assumptions were made during the activity and where you think these assumptions might have come from, i.e. did lots of people assume that the violent/revengeful quotes were all from the Old Testament and that those about love were from the New one?


The incredible importance of context (20)

There are lots of passages from the Old Testament that Jesus, or the New Testament generally, revised. For example, our previous Old Testament quote from Exodus 21 (“eye for an eye”) is revised during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he says “you have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:38-39). The idea of forgiveness is also noticeable in the story of the adulterous woman in which Christ demands “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

This suggests a certain flexibility in morality (contextually and culturally), however, it mustn’t be forgotten that the Old Testament is extremely valuable and filled with messages about love and peace. As (likely) learnt from the activity, this is not always what we assume when making distinctions between both Testaments.

But what do we do when something in the Bible isn’t rewritten, can't be explained away by context, or isn’t (so to speak) contradicted elsewhere?

This is why biblical structure and history is extremely important.

1 Corinthians 14

Get someone to read 1 Corinthians 14:30-37 aloud. In the Bible this section is titled ‘Orderly Worship’:

If someone sitting receives a revelation, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged (and the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace), as in all the churches of the saints.

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is something they want to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

Anyone who claims to be a prophet or spiritual must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. So, my brothers and sisters, strive to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues, but all things should be done decently and in order.

Ask, does anyone notice anything strange about this passage?

“Women should be silent”

“They are not permitted to speak”

“But should be subordinate”

But what was the rest of the passage about?

Some scholars believe these verses about silent subordinate women were a response to a specific situation Paul encountered rather than a doctrinal ruling for the whole Church. While this does not excuse the explicit sexism, it’s worth noting that Paul did not know he was writing the Bible. Given his advocacy for women clergy in the church it seems likely he would have disapproved of this statement about silent and subordinate women being made divine through scripture by somebody else.

Contrastingly, however, many scholars agree that 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 was added by later scribes. Meaning, St Paul didn’t even write that women should be silent. Not only does the comment seem contrary to common attitudes of Paul regarding women in the church as well as its very abrupt placement in a passage about prophecies, St Paul’s native language was Aramaic. Though an excellent writer in Greek, because it was something he learned later in life his linguistic style is easily recognised by scholars for its precision. Linguistically, the paragraph in Corinthians about silent women is noticeably uncharacteristic of Paul.

More information on this can be read in Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted. Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them).

The fallout

This leaves us in a difficult situation. If the input of context can completely derail the ethical stability of the Bible, then how do we go about interpreting it? 

The truth of the matter is that we can’t; not with any certainty anyway.

So, what should we do?...

According to the principle of Occam’s Razor, the simplest answer is often the right one. Thereby, when studying one of the most ethically challenging and complex pieces of writing in history - the Bible - it may be in our best interest to, if in doubt, pick a simple rule, the Golden Rule, and follow it.

Indeed, this rule is subject to personal opinion and interpretation too. Nonetheless, to treat others as you wish to be treated is a rule the complexities of context cannot touch. The Golden Rule is timeless. It summarises the intricate grace, mercy and compassion of God in an approachable way. With it, we can learn to measure each individual verse against who we believe God to be. Only then can the contribution of complicated and sometimes unknown fallible factors begin to lose their power over our vision of God.

Treat others as you wish to be treated.

Treat yourself as you would treat others.

Treat all as Jesus did.

Any questions?

PDF icon Download file (83.23 KB)
Resource type: 
Workshop Outline
Resource theme: 
The Bible
Theology 101
Encountering God
Christian Faith
Doubt and Worry