Pinnocio and Pre-Understanding:
One of the more interesting things I’ve learned about Biblical interpretation while preparing Hermeneutics notes is how we bring pre-conceived notions to a passage.
Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays in their book Grasping God’s Word describe this as preunderstanding
Preunderstanding refers to all of our preconceived notions and understandings that we bring to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before we actually study the text in detail.
Our preunderstandings can come from many different places
- Family background
- Experiences growing up
- and even media!
One fascinating illustration Duvall and Hays use for preunderstanding points out how we subconsciously bring our own views to the story of Jonah
A good illustration of culture’s subconscious influence on our understanding occurs when we read the book of Jonah and then try to visualize Jonah inside the great fish. Try to imagine this scene yourself. What do you see? Do you see Jonah squashed-up inside of the tight stomach of a whale, with no space between him and the stomach walls? Most people do not see that image. Many people, including ourselves, see Jonah inside a circular-shaped stomach, about six to eight feet in diameter, with a little bit of water at the bottom. Obviously this is not really what the inside of a whale (or fish) looks like.
To be honest I’ve always imagined a whales belly to be quite large, and never really thought of Jonah being cramped….however when you think about it a whales belly wouldn’t be able to accommodate a grown man that way!
In a way this is strengthened from the pictures we see like the one below from the Jesus Calling Bible Storybook
However the authors have a much more interesting idea about where that image originally came from
So why do we see this? Where might this image come from? We suggest it comes from the movie (or book) Pinocchio. In this Walt Disney movie a whale swallows the main character, Pinocchio. The movie then presents us with a scene that portrays Pinocchio sitting inside the whale (a barrel-shaped room on its side, six to eight feet in diameter, etc.). This movie thus leaves us with a subconscious image of a person sitting inside a whale.
In a way when reading Scripture our mind often “searches its data banks to find a picture that visualizes the event.” There’s nothing wrong with contextualizing Scripture of course, but preunderstanding limits who a passage can be interpreted BEFORE observing the text.
This is VERY dangerous.
More than anything the idea of preunderstanding has challenged me to make sure I’m allowing Scripture to speak for itself instead of bringing my own interpretations to it.