Pictographic Interpretation of the Bible

Hi everyone,

Recently, a new friend invited me to explore pictographic interpretations of the Bible. This discussion led me to research the topic again.

Ultimately, I think there are several sound reasons not to employ this methodology:

First, consistently attempting to interpret the Bible with pictographic interpretations would lead to wildly divergent explanations. While this process might work for one word here or there, applying the same pictographic meanings to every other word in the same sentence would generate confusion. Further, the plain meaning of each sentence, paragraph, or chapter would increasingly be at odds with the pictographic interpretation.

Second, the Leningrad Codex is the most complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretic community wrote it with vowels and accent marks to ensure the accurate pronunciation of each word. There is no usage of pictographic interpretation to find meaning in this text.

Third, scribes stopped using Paleo-Hebrew many centuries before the Leningrad (and Aleppo) codices. As the Biblical Archaeology Society notes, “…the Paleo-Hebrew script [] was used by the Israelites until the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. When the Judean exiles returned from Babylon, they brought back the square Aramaic script, which ultimately replaced the Paleo-Hebrew script. Both the Paleo-Hebrew and the square Aramaic scripts, however, were used together for hundreds of years.”

Fourth, our understanding of this language is limited because the square Aramaic script replaced Paleo-Hebrew so long ago. It is challenging for scholars to determine this language’s vocabulary, grammar, and cultural connotations. With limited data, there is an extensive range of potential interpretations.

It’s also the case that “Paleo Hebrew” was a language that changed and developed over time. Though we are using one term for it, a more precise discussion of the language would need to account for the variations in this language over the centuries. The result should be a more tentative and speculative approach to any meanings derived from this language. Because we need more information to work carefully with this language, we are more susceptible to confirmation bias.

Fifth, since the scribes did not write our Biblical texts in Paleo Hebrew, any use of Paleo Hebrew language goes beyond the Bible. Strictly speaking, to interpret the Hebrew Bible in light of a hypothetical reconstruction of the text in a prior language is to go beyond the Bible. It is a higher regard for God and how he revealed his word to us to work with what we have in the texts that God has preserved for us to read and study.

Sixth, the Bible itself is sufficient to interpret the Bible. For instance, we have no examples of Biblical authors explaining a passage in pictographic ways. The New Testament regularly references Old Testament passages to establish their points. Still, each author does so according to other interpretive principles.

Seventh, this approach falls outside the scholarly consensus. Reading through hundreds of academic commentaries for a couple of decades, I have never seen a reference to pictographs to provide insight into any passage. While it is essential to learn from scholars, the esoteric nature of Paleo-Hebrew would mean the “true” meaning of the Bible is only available to those with secret knowledge from God. However, it appears that God intended to make his identity and love known to everyone without the need for recourse to finding hidden meanings in the Bible.

For these reasons, I recommend avoiding this interpretive method in the Uncommon Pursuit community.

I look forward to hearing from other perspectives.

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This sounds fascinating! I don’t have any idea what a pictographic interpretation of the Bible is. I’ve just been looking up a few bits to try and understand what this methodology is that you’ve mentioned. Could you describe it a bit further to help me understand the debate please?

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Good question!

The idea is that the shape of each letter is a picture representing something concrete.

For instance, in one example I’ve seen, one kind of pictographic Hebrew letter is described as a picture of an outstretched arm and a hand.

This letter picture is said to be a direct reference to God the Father, who reaches out to us with an outstretched arm.

It’s true that God the Father reaches out to us with love, and his right hand is often described in glorious and caring ways. However, I think we find that truth in the meaning of the words, rather than by decoding the picture-shapes of each letter.

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I’ve just come back to this topic. I’m still to research some more on it, but the main thing that struck me from another article (Computer Program Learning to Read Paleo-Hebrew Letters) linked to the one that you shared - and your points above are similar - is the necessity for individual interpretive methodology in reading Paleo-Hebrew script:

Normally, an epigrapher, a specialist in deciphering and analyzing inscriptions, would transcribe an inscription to the best of his or her ability in drawings done by hand. These drawings are based on what the epigrapher sees and therefore hinge on an interpretive process.

Whilst being a highly skilled task, the fact remains that the epigrapher’s own interpretative processes will affect their interpretation of the letters. This is further demonstrated in the article you shared by the fact that there are

at least seven different readings have been proposed by as many eminent epigraphers.

Also, the main reason to understand Paleo-Hebrew letters seems to be so that scholars

can illuminate the scope of literacy during the time of David and Solomon.

To measure the scope of literacy is a very different purpose in understanding the meaning behind the texts of scripture and it seems a more objective task than to find hidden meanings in scripture which we can see is somewhat subjective, no matter how scientific the processes are.

When I think of the Bereans who searched the scriptures (Acts 17:11), or David who constantly admonished others to ‘meditate on the law of the LORD’ in the Psalms, all this would take on a whole new meaning if it meant to “interpret pictographic images for a hidden meaning”. This is just as you say:

Finally, this got me thinking:

There are already enough attempts by some to find ‘hidden meanings’ in the text of scripture that is at our fingertips. Imagine the plethora of ‘new light’ that might arise if pictographic interpretation became a validated methodology for understanding scripture.

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Yes, I think the reason it “works” is the methodology is confined to a single word. But if the same principle continued through the rest of the sentence, the meaning would quickly become incredibly confusing.

Imagine if we took the start of the sentence I just wrote and turned each letter into a pictographic meaning:

Y: A fork in the road, representing the decision to follow God
e : An eye, representing God’s omniscience
s: An hourglass, symbolizing that our lives have an ending

I: A standing person, representing how God loves each individual

t: A cross, signifying Jesus’ death for our sins
h: A ladder, denoting Jacob’s ladder
i: A candle, symbolizing Jesus, the light of the world
n: A mountain, representing the mountain of God’s revelation
k: A key, showing us the true interpretation

Then that part of my sentence would mean:

We all have to choose to follow God, because God sees everything about our lives, and there’s only so much time for each of us. As we stand in God’s love, it is because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, the one who bridges heaven and earth, the light of the world, revealing God’s character to us. This is the true interpretation.

That’s a beautiful (if a bit disjointed) message. But it isn’t what I was talking about in the sentence above.

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