Biblical Interpretation in the Global-Indian Context

In the globalized context of the early 21st century, with a world characterized by integration and convergence, new modes of biblical interpretation are needed.1 Interpreting Christian Scripture in the Indian and South Asian contexts is a very different task when compared with Euro-American ways of interpretation. In a context such as India, in which various linguistic, religious, cultural, ideological, and symbolical diversities exist, a locally oriented interpretation that is a uned to global perspectives has the potential to strengthen the narrative voice of the text. This essay attempts to highlight ways in which biblical worldviews and pluralistic Indian worldviews interact in the process of interpretation. Yet this interaction raises a number of challenging questions. Are existing interpretive methodologies suficient to address global readers? How would a “local” to “global” development help interpreters draw the attention of a global audience? And how might a “gnomic” interpretative process2 (in relation to descriptive processes) help an interpreter achieve her/his goal?

In the following sections, I discuss an interpretative framework suited to globalized India. A model of interpretation that takes into account people of other faith traditions, religious scriptures, and socioreligious contexts will also be considered in the process. With that in mind, I discuss the following: the necessity of crossing traditional boundaries, the importance of creating ideological constellations, the value of building dialogical relationships, and the goal of leading the discourse toward a “third space.” The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42 will be considered as a paradigm for developing such an interpretative framework.

In the contemporary global context of India, crossing traditional boundaries is one of the foremost necessities in biblical interpretation. The interpretive task should begin with an attempt to understand differences based on prevalent casteistic, religious, linguistic, and ethnic identities. Part of a ending to contextual realities in India involves understanding the “otherness” of different readers and their interpretive sensibilities. If an interpreter attends exclusively to his or her own contextual realities, a wider impact is impossible in today’s global-Indian context.

In the story of the Samaritan woman as narrated in John 4, Jesus crosses traditional boundaries based on gender, race, and culture in order to engage in a conversation with the woman. The dialogue develops in a threefold fashion: the metaphor of water is discussed both in the material and spiritual sense in the beginning (4:7-15), the identity and the morality of the woman are highlighted in the middle (4:16-18), and the theme of worship is brought to the fore toward the end of the conversation (4:19-26). Though Jesus engages with the woman in a local context where she comes to carry water from Jacob’s well, the dialogue as a whole develops, first, with the help of a universal metaphor (that is, water), and, second, with a spiritual connotation attributed to that universal metaphor for gnomic significance. Jesus thus uses a strategy of dynamic localization rather than pure localization.3 This can be seen as a rhetorical strategy directing readers from particulars to universals.

In today’s global-Indian context, an interpretive strategy of dynamic localization, wherein both the centrifugal and centripetal aspects of a text are brought to the foreground, is to be preferred over a purely local approach. That is, Christian Scripture should be interpreted as a source that develops from local to universal realities, and vice versa. In this way, the text can find its meaning in a wider global context. In the technologically advanced and postmodern context of India, an interpreter can adopt innovative methodologies to advance the scope of her or his initiative, aiming at a global audience. A majority of the hermeneutical questions raised in India today are inadequate to catch the a ention of a wider, non-Indian audience. Pure localization methods and exclusively contextual hermeneutical strategies may not make adequate sense for a wider audience. Those who interpret the text from Dalit, Tribal, and Adivasi perspectives mostly adopt pure localization methods and thus limit the scope of their hermeneutical engagement. As interpreters consider methods that focus primarily upon a reader’s or a reading community’s particular context, they mostly serve the interests of a limited group of people.4

It is the biblical textnot the reader or the reader’s contextthat is a universal reality. An interpreter who advances from universals to contextuals can persuade the reader for wider efficacy. Similarly, an interpreter who brings out contextual aspects in closer relationship with the textual horizons can develop situational aspects through the framework of the text. Thus, both centrifugal and centripetal movements can facilitate a dynamic localization rather than a pure localization. Contextual methodologies, with their parochial perspectives, perhaps overlook the global aspects of the text. In the process of contextualization, it would be more appropriate to begin with the universal metaphors of the text and connect them with the local aspects. Just as the Johannine Jesus and the narrator adopt this methodology in narrating the story of the Samaritan woman, an Indian interpreter can facilitate an inclusive and universal strategy where the universals are emphasized in relation to the particulars, and vice versa. In that sense, contextual interpretation in India should take a different stance by deemphasizing methodologies of pure localization.

Creating contextual and ideological constellations between biblical worldviews and contemporary Indian worldviews should play an important role in the process of interpreting the Bible. In John 4, Jesus interweaves the realities of the Samaritan context with that of Jewish religious aspirations, and then leads his interlocutor toward a new perspective on eternal life. In the story, the contextual reality of drawing material water is aligned with the spiritual levels of every human. Since Jacob appears as a common figure both in the Samaritan and Jewish scriptures (4:12), Jesus links Samaritan religiosity with that of Jewish religiosity.5 Furthermore, the Messianic hope of Judaism has striking parallels with the figure of Taheb in the Samaritan religion.6 These major connecting links are supported with the help of other themes in the narrative framework.7 In this conversation, Jesus develops an ideological constellation to lead the woman toward a new level of understanding. This approach can be quite significant in the multireligious and pluralistic context of India.

An adequate study of the Bible, as Paul Ricoeur has argued, must be thoroughly hermeneutical.8 This principle has to be placed at the forefront of all interpretative ventures. The “meaning” of a text cannot be reduced to a single and literal sense, but the polyvalence of words and the semantic richness of larger linguistic units generate new meanings.9 This polyvalence is a reality in all interpretation, but it is especially significant in relation to the Indian context. Interpretation should emerge out of a premise that biblical texts are paradigms with local implications and universal significance. Indian interpreters must strive to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony in the multireligious context by building bridges between the Bible and non-Christian cultures. Biblical texts should be interpreted with the help of other religious expressions and cultural phenomena. Rather than imposing Christian ideologies upon others, interpreters can endeavor to create ideological constellations that help transfer the biblical message to people of other faith traditions.

In that process, some of the challenging contextual realities of the country, such as caste-consciousness, multireligious identities, and multicultural dimensions, require careful a ention. Every interpretative task should be actualized through connecting the universals with the contextuals, and vice versa.

In the process of interpretation, the text should be linked to Indian realities, but at the same time, Indian realities should be connected to a universal worldview. Hindu names and concepts such as Brahman, Isvara, Moksha, Atman, and others can find meaning in the interpretative task and their implications explored in relation to universal readers. Similarly, the experiences of the Dalits, Tribals, Adivasis, and other marginalized groups should be dynamically placed and interpreted with a gnomic intent. Jesus’ employment of a constellation of words and ideas from the Samaritan context to lead his interlocutor toward a new perspective on eternal life can serve as a model for Christian interpreters of the Bible in India.

In the process of interpreting Scripture in a pluralistic context, an interpreter should consider building dialogical relationships with people of other religious and cultural backgrounds. The dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman reveals a universalistic, interreligious, and cross-cultural mission initiative as he breaks down gender, ethnic, and religious boundaries to be engaged in the missio Dei. The interreligious nature of the dialogue sharpens the woman’s existent views and directs her to the Savior of the world. John’s narrative techniques develop an unusual method of interpretation in order to accommodate the feelings and aspirations of the woman. Jesus as the protagonist communicates the message of eternal life in relation to the contextual realities of his interlocutor.

The message of the Bible should be communicated distinctively from people to people and culture to culture. The Johannine narrator uses his literary skill at its best in the story of the Samaritan woman. When an ancient text is introduced to the global-Indian reader, it has to be interpreted with the help of a narrator and a modern reader who interact with one another. While the dialogue within the text (between Jesus and the Samaritan woman) functions at the micro-level, the dialogue between the narrator and the modern reader functions at the macro-level. When the text is introduced to the modern reader through the perspective of an ever-continuing narrator, the text can accommodate existent realities and the reader can gain a new identity in relation to the textual horizon. In this way, the text can deal with existential realities such as gender discrimination, economic problems, caste hierarchy, and others. A dialogue of the narrator with the global-Indian reader through the mediation of the Samaritan woman and her experiences would facilitate a dialogue that leads to liberation and transformation.

An interpreter is expected to lead readers toward the global-Indian context. Neither an interpreter who simply engages in a descriptive analysis of the text nor one who emphasizes only the pure localized aspects of the Indian society can direct the a ention of the reader toward a gnomic “third space.” In John’s discourse, the personal and moral realities concerning the Samaritan woman are sandwiched between divine realities as follows: first, the dialogue begins with a discussion about the difference between “the gift of Jacob” and “the gift of God” (that is, between the “water of this world” and the “living water”) in relation to eternal life (vv. 7-15); second, the woman’s moral and personal situation is subsequently discussed (vv. 16-18); and third, there is an emphasis on the need to adhere to the existent Jerusalem-centric worship in order to continue with the “already…but…not yet” worship in spirit and truth (vv. 19-26). The dialogue reveals a central truth toward the end of the conversation, that is, the revelation of the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. This development of the dialogue rhetorically persuades the reader to aspire to an eternal life experience. Ultimately, Jesus leads the woman toward “eternal life” perspectives. Thus, a “third space” (eternal life experience) emerges in relation to but distinct from the first and second spaces (the Jerusalem-centric spirituality and the Samaritan-centric spirituality).10

A distinguishing mark of Indian ethos is its profound spiritual outlook. But at the same time there exist polarities of religious ideology, economic disparity, and political conflict. An interpreter of biblical texts in the Indian context should emphasize the ideological convergence between the biblical thought-world and the Indian socioreligious thought-world. Here, an interpreter must search for a “third space” emerging out of the biblical ideology intended for original readers and Indian religious insights at the local level in order to transcend boundaries. Such a paradigm has the potential to enhance mutual respect among different religions and undo religious hatred. As Jesus directs the acumen of the Samaritan woman to eternal life perspectives and moves away from temple-centric religiosity, interpreters may also lead communities toward a third space. This hermeneutical interplay would take into consideration a “life-sustaining pluralistic perspective” that distances existing categorizations and discriminations.11

In the global-Indian context, an interpreter must dwell on flesh-and-blood existence. The Bible has such a rich store of images it employs to expand our understanding of God. A life-sustaining interpretation should emphasize people’s existential needs, but this should not be done apart from the spiritual and universal aspirations of the text. Any religious tradition, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and others, can be studied from a life-sustaining pluralistic perspective. Those elements from other scriptures can be used to enhance the biblical message so that it speaks grace and truth to the Indian audience.

In conclusion, prevailing biblical interpretations in India, with their pure localization strategies, do not have the potential to make a wider impact in the global context. Interpreters should employ dynamic localization strategies in order to make scriptural texts relevant in both local and global contexts. A gnomic interpretative strategy in relation to descriptive aspects should be adopted in the global-Indian context for wider efficacy. In that process, the text should be considered as a paradigm to include the feelings and aspirations of diverse people, irrespective of their racial and national identities.

In order to achieve this goal, an interpreter, first of all, should cross traditional hermeneutical boundaries, moving from pure localization to dynamic localization. Creating constellations of ideas between the biblical worldview and the Indian worldview might help interpretation in particular contexts, but such a strategy should not ignore a global audience. In a pluralistic context like India, building dialogical engagements with other religious and cultural forces both is necessary and has the potential to enhance the scope of the interpretative task. Furthermore, by crossing traditional boundaries, creating ideological constellations, and building dialogical relationships, the interpreter should aim to direct global-Indians toward a “third space.” Through these means an interpreter can lead an interpretative discourse in contexts both “here and now” and “everywhere and ever.”

1. My attempt here is not to deal with aspects of globalization that indicate growing interdependence of countries and provinces through communication, nances, and governance. Rather, I intend to explore the possibilities of a renewed framework for New Testament interpretation. For more details, see Johnson Thomaskutty, “A Dialogue between ‘the Eastern’ and ‘the Western’ in New Testament Scholarship: A Proposal,” in Bible Darshan: Post-Western Interpretation of the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2017).
2. In the English language, “gnomic” often refers to a general maxim or a proverbial saying. With reference to a
grammatical category in his analysis of Koine Greek, Daniel B. Wallace states that “the gnomic present refers to a general, timeless fact” (Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 523). In speaking of a “gnomic present interpretation of the text,” I am referring to the timeless dimensions of Scripture. But such gnomic interpretation must also always be done in relation to a descriptive presentation of the text.
3. In pure localization/pure contextualization, the interpreter attempts to emphasize the local/contextual aspects over against the global/universal. But in dynamic localization/ dynamic contextualization, the interpreter emphasizes the local in relation to the universal.
4. P. S. Jacob states, “The New Testament is the word of God and it cannot be con ned to doctrinal interpretations alone. Word of God has ‘in nite’ possibilities of understanding and those possibilities should be explored as much as the interpreters can. Scholarship comes from understanding a wide range of possibilities while one holds on to one’s belief and above all unfailing faith in Jesus.” Johnson Thomaskutty, “‘Fifty Years as an Educator, Leader, and Theologian’: A Friendly Conversation with Dr. P. S. Jacob,” New Testament Worldwide (blog), January 10, 2012.
5. Kevin Quast states that “Jacob’s well was a symbolic stage setting for talk of more than living water. Being at the foot of Mount Gerizim, it also invited dialogue about worship.” Kevin Quast, Reading the Gospel of John: An Introduction (New York/New Jersey: Paulist, 1991/1996), 35. Also see Johnson Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19–12:50 (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015), 141, 147–48.
6. Craig Blomberg comments, “The Samaritans actually looked for a ‘teacher,’ ‘restorer’ and ‘converter’ gure called the Taheb, but John has provided the dynamic equivalent translations in both Hebrew (transliterated) and Greek.” C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 101.
7. Other major themes in the story are eternal life, hour, salvation, spirit and truth, belief, worship, spiritual food, and “God is Spirit.”
8. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Christian University Press,
1976), 25–54.
9. See Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 26.
10. See Edward W. Soja, Third Space: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Malden, MA: Wiley, 1996).
11. See S. Robertson, Approaching Religion in a Pluralistic Context (Bangalore: BTESSC/SATHRI, 2009), 128–34.