Multiple Interpretations of Bible
John Milton has a very distinct way of interpreting the Bible; he molds the story of the Bible into a rich and imaginative narrative story. The story reads like a legend or fairytale but rather than provoking the mind of the reader, it actually has fewer interpretive opportunities than the Bible itself. Through various interpretive claims and strategies, Milton writes his own story of the Bible and shares it with the world to make of it what they will. The differences between the interpretive leeway the Bible gives the reader versus Milton’s Paradise Lost allows the reader to examine the patterns of thought Milton considered when developing his ideas.
Milton lived in a time that was tumultuous in terms of religion; England turned over its monarchy from the Tudors to the Stuarts to Cromwell. The amount of religious freedom varied during this time, so Milton and all of Great Britain’s society probably had to develop fairly strong individual opinions on the matter so they would not fall subject to the wavering public ideology that came with Christianity. Milton interprets the Bible in a very specific way that correlates well with the idea of time period views. In fact, he adds on to the Bible, giving it a backstory unique to anything ever written before. The fall of Lucifer and the war in Heaven are not mentioned at all in Genesis; these are additions of Milton’s imagination. Satan laments, “The happier Eden, shall enjoy thir fill/ Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust” (290). The exclusion of Satan, not explicitly mentioned in original Christian texts, is only implicitly described through the Christian tradition. However, these additions do relate to important themes in the Bible. The fall of Lucifer proves that God rules over all and is more powerful than anything else. It warns readers against the temptation of sin and Satan, giving very believable and enticing motives for Satan’s actions. While the Bible generally gives a single perspective, depending on the book, Milton stretches the perspectives to include those of Satan and Raphael and encourages his readers to consider them and their motives seriously (Raphael describes the story of creation in lines 109-275). Even Adam and Eve are portrayed very realistically through their dialogue as they retell the events of the story. Eve trustingly comprehends God’s command, saying of the infamous tree, “This one, this easy charge, of all the Trees/ In Paradise that bear delicious fruit/ So various, not to taste that only Tree/ Of Knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life,/ So near grows Death to Life, whate’er Death is,/ Some dreadful thing no doubt […]” (421-426). Milton seems to be telling his readers that the Bible’s singular point of view is not enough to comprehend the vastness that God’s relationships with others embodies and the mutual trust that should be involved. This interpretation allows for modern readers, or readers of his time, to relate to characters perhaps not as deeply portrayed in the Bible, thus understanding Milton’s description of a multifaceted Christian life enabled for all of society.
Interestingly enough, in the selections read from Paradise Lost, emphasis on God was not highly pronounced. Rather, emphasis on other characters was prevalent, especially Satan. Milton takes liberty in telling the story of the downfall of Satan, probably because he was entitled to do so; the fact that it is not in the sections of the Bible he references allows him great imaginative freedom for the character of Satan. The complicated relationship between God and Satan that Milton depicts creates a rich understanding of the motives of both Satan and God. Satan, feeling that he can never have true happiness again after having turned away from God’s kingdom, seeks out the only pleasure he can find in vengeance and torment. God acts as a merciful creator and Milton portrays him as entirely merciful, despite Satan’s doubt.
Milton takes a very traditionally Christian approach in his interpretation of the sly serpent that convinces Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; Milton ascribes this deed to Satan himself, though the Bible makes no mention of Satan being involved in the event. Milton seems to attribute all evildoings and sin to Satan; this is a strong theme in his epic poem. Another strong theme that reoccurs in Paradise Lost is the subjective meaning of many ideas brought up in the Bible. From Satan’s perspective, the will of God is something to question, which is something that many other readers might find questionable as well. “One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge call’d,/ Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidd’n?/ Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir Lord/ Envy them that? can it be sin to know,/ Can it be death? and do they only stand/ By Ignorance, is that this happy state,/ The proof of their obedience and thir faith” (514-520)? Milton, as an intellectual, possibly holds views about the values of knowledge, so putting this interpretive question in the perspective of Satan allows him and all readers with this same view to squelch their desires that apparently contradict the will of God.
Milton seems to assume that readers understand the Bible metaphorically rather than literally; he does this by posing interpretive questions that allow for multiple interpretations of the Bible from Lucifer’s perspective, as opposed to a literal meaning. To contrast this, however, Milton writes in a very literal narrative style, posing a singular good, Godly meaning. This implies that Christianity dictates lack of curiosity unless provoked by evil; Milton seems to claim that Eve, and women in general, are too curious and vain in their own opinions and lead to the downfall of men. However, Milton makes clear that knowledge can be good as long as its source comes from God.
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