A Short Guide to Biblical Interpretation

by Andrew S. Kulikovsky, B.App.Sc (Hons)

Why is interpretation necessary?

Often you hear people say: “Just read the Bible and do what it says!” The problem with this attitude is that different people, even though they read the same Bible, come to very different conclusions about what it actually says!

Many people also tend to think of the Bible as “God’s little instruction book for life.” While this statement has a kernel of truth – the Bible certainly does contain much teaching on how to live – it is far more than just an instruction manual. It is the written record of God revealing in history who He is, what He is like, who we are, what we are like, and what He expects of us. This is the overall message of the Bible in a nutshell, and it should always be kept in our minds as we read the Bible.

The Bible was originally written to people who lived in a different place, in a very different culture, at a different time and period of history, and who spoke different languages. It also contains several different types of literature (called genres).

Because the Bible is God’s word in history revealed to people in history, it means that each passage has an historical context – an particular author, audience, purpose and occasion. On the other hand, since the Bible is also the word of God, its contents are also eternally relevant.

Therefore, the goal of interpretation is not to come up with the most unique interpretation (unique interpretations are usually wrong), but to discover the original intended meaning of a passage – the way the original audience understood it. The task of discovering the original intended meaning is called exegesis.

The key to doing good exegesis is reading the text very carefully, paying close attention to the details it describes, and asking the text the right questions. This is critical to finding the correct interpretation. Bad interpretation results directly from bad exegesis.  

Basic Tools

One of the easiest and most effective ways of identifying ambiguities and differences of opinion in interpretation is to read different translations – preferably as many as possible. There are three basic types of translations: literal (word-for-word translation), dynamic (thought-for-thought), and paraphrase (rephrasing of an existing translation). Here is a list (not exhaustive) of useful translations:

One of the easiest and most effective ways of identifying ambiguities and differences of opinion in interpretation is to read different translations – preferably as many as possible. Here is a brief annotated list (not exhaustive) of useful translations:

Although all the above translations are useful you should choose one to be your first or working translation. I would suggest that the NIV, NLT, NRSV or NET be used for such a purpose. These translations are in modern English, are generally very accurate, and format the text in paragraphs and stanzas, showing the text’s logical divisions and making it easy to read and follow the author’s train of thought. I would also suggest that the KJV, Amplified Bible and The Message be only used as a last option, and certainly not chosen as a primary translation.

Bible Dictionaries are also a must. The New Bible Dictionary or Illustrated Bible Dictionary is probably the best value. The very best (but also the most expensive) is the six volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, which is almost an encyclopedia. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) is also an outstanding work.

Commentary sets are also necessary in order to check your interpretation and gain help on difficult passages. Commentaries vary greatly in quality depending on the series it belongs to and the particular author. The most useful and accessible sets for the layman are the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC), the NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC), the Bible Speaks Today (BST), and the Tyndale Commentary (TOTC and TNTC). The more advanced interpreter may also wish to consult the New International Commentary (NICOT and NICNT), New International Greek Testament Commentary and International Critical Commentary. For help on evaluating and selecting commentaries see Fee & Stuart, pp. 246-254.  

The Interpretive Process

Presuppositions & Pre-understandings

No-one is ever completely unbiased. Everyone approaches the Bible with presuppositions and pre-understandings or preconceived ideas about what the text means. However, this is not necessarily a problem, provided you are conscious of them and aware of how they may influence the way you read and interpret the text. Indeed, many interpreters come unstuck at this point because their presuppositions and pre-understandings often rule out a priori various interpretive options.

The Interpretive Cycle

The process of reading and interpreting the Bible should be cyclic. A reader approaches a passage of scripture with presuppositions (e.g. the Bible is the inerrant word of God) and usually has a pre-understanding about what the particular passage can or cannot mean. These presuppositions and pre-understandings, along with the context, influence the reader’s understanding of the passage, and help them derive their interpretation. This interpretation then effects the reader’s presuppositions, and becomes part of their pre-understandings the next time they read this passage. If our exegetical information, reasoning and judgements are thought through again and reassessed each time we go through the cycle then the accuracy and correctness of our interpretation will improve.

Phases of Interpretation

1. Identification

Different literary genres (kinds of literature) are interpreted in different ways, so the first question to ask is: “To which category of literature does the text you are interpreting belong? Below are brief descriptions of the different genres found in the Bible:

Historical Narratives. These describe actual historical events from God’s perspective. They tell us what God is like (His character and nature), what God likes/dislikes, how He deals with people who obey and honour Him, and how he deals with those who disobey and hate Him. Narratives give us principles and lessons, not commands, patterns or laws. Historical Narratives are found in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. In the New Testament, they can be found in parts of the Gospels, and the book of Acts.

Poetry and Songs. These are expressions of emotion to God. They allow us to express to God our feelings of happiness, joy, trust, hope, security, as well as feelings of discouragement, guilt, suffering, fear, anger, despair and repentance. They also assist us in expressing our love and appreciation for God or our need for forgiveness. Poetry and Songs allow us to relate to God on our own level. They show us how to communicate with God and how to honour and worship Him. In the Old Testament, these writings are found primarily in the Psalms and Song of Songs.

Legal Writings. These writings indicate God’s high moral standard, His idea of justice, principles of common sense government, principles of common sense health and safety, and His pattern and order for acceptable worship. These laws are NOT directly applicable to Christians today i.e. they are not meant to be legalistic instructions and commands to Christians. Such legal writings can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Wisdom/Wise Sayings. These writings indicate God’s view of wisdom as opposed to man’s view of wisdom. They contain wise sayings, and practical advice on how to live life and avoid trouble and hardship. Wisdom literature can be found primarily in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job.

Prophecy. Prophecy is God’s message to a particular person, a particular group of people and sometimes to all humanity. It is not necessarily foretelling the future – in fact the vast majority of prophecy in the Bible speaks of the present. Prophecy is found primarily in the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi.

Teachings of Jesus. These are direct statements of truth from Jesus concerning the nature and character of God the kingdom of God/Heaven, what God expects of us, principles of righteous living, and the ways in which Jesus fulfils the OT prophecies. They are not exhaustive ‘DOs and DON’Ts,’ but rather, serve as examples and paradigms (patterns) from which we can derive underlying principles to apply in other situations. These teachings are found in parts of the Gospels i.e. Matthew – John.

Parables. Parables are stories with a punch-line. Parables are not so much illustrative, but rather, provocative. They are designed to draw people in and hit them with something unexpected, in the same way a joke does. Most parables have only one message or central idea, and even if multiple messages are present, one of them will be the chief idea. Note also that they are not perfect analogies! Parables are also found in parts of the Gospels.

Letters. These are generally occasional documents i.e. they were written with a clear purpose to a well identified audience. However, some letters (called epistles) were written to a larger people group. The letter/epistle writer presents arguments to correct, rebuke, defend, instruct, praise and encourage their readers. Letters/epistles form the vast majority of the New Testament from  Romans to Jude.

Apocalypse. This includes the book of Revelation, and also large parts of Ezekiel and Daniel. Revelation is a vision of warning and encouragement to the early church as it was going through immense persecution.

2. Observation

In the same way that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location and location, the three most important factors in exegesis are context,  context and context. Understanding the context is the key to understanding what you are reading. Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart also point out “[t]he only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text.”

There are two aspects of the context of a passage: the historical context and the literary context.

Historical Context. The Bible was written over a period of time dating from approximately 2000 BC (Job) to 95 AD (Revelation). It was set in a different country/continent and a vastly different culture and society from our own, therefore we must be careful not to make 20th century “western world” assumptions about the situation. Consult Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks in order to find out about the manners and customs of the various nations at that time in history. Use your imagination and try to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved. Make observations about who? what? when? where? and how?

Literary Context. This is the position of the text you are reading in relation to other texts. What verses come before? What verses come after? What situation, event, statement or argument led up to this passage? What situation, event, statement or argument followed or resulted from this passage? What book is the text in? Whereabouts in the book? What testament is it in? Why is the text in this position? Why is it in the Bible at all? What difference would it make if it was left out?

Following are some suggestions on making observations depending on the genre of the passage you are interpreting:

Historical Narratives. Choose a complete narrative and read it in a single sitting. Make (mental) notes as you are reading, and ask: What is happening? To who? When? Where? WHY? (The most important question!) What can I learn about God?
What can I learn about the other characters involved?

Poetry and Songs. Read a complete Psalm or Song in one sitting, taking (mental) notes as you are reading. What is being said about God? What is being said about humanity? Is the writer pleading for something? Are they pouring their heart out? If so, about what? Are they praising God? Are they angry with God? What mood does the writer seem to be in? Joyful? Happy? Angry? Fearful? Anxious? Distraught? Discouraged? Does the writer’s mood change?

Legal Writings. Read a collection of related rules/regulations in one sitting. What rules/regulations are being put in place? Why? What situations/circumstances do they cover? Are they for moral reasons or are they concerned with administration/ government and personal hygiene? Can you see any pattern being established? Is a feast, offering or ceremony being described? If so, what seems to be its purpose or significance? Never stop asking WHY?

Wisdom. Read as much of Proverbs/Job/Ecclesiastes as you can in one go, taking (mental) notes as you read. Consider what you think the central message of the text is.
What advice is given? What warnings are given? What comparisons are made? Compare the proverb you are reading with other similar or related proverbs (similar or related proverbs could be anywhere in the book of Proverbs). If there are similar/related proverbs, how do the proverbs differ? Do they relate to slightly different situations? Do they address different aspects of a problem or situation? If two proverbs say the opposite thing (and there are several) why would this be? Do you think the statement made or the advice given is good? Why or why not? You must also remember that proverbs are not always globally applicable to every person and every situation. They are guidelines and “rules of thumb,” not absolute rules, statements of fact or direct promises.

Prophecy. Read a single prophecy (called an “oracle”) in one sitting. Try and establish the historical setting. What circumstances in history provoked this prophetic word from God? What does it say about God? Is the prophecy positive or negative? Is it a warning? About what? Is it a condemnation? For what? Is it an encouragement or a message of hope? About what? Is it a promise? To do what? Prophecy is some of the hardest literature to read. Knowing the historical context is essential to really to appreciate what is being said. It may be necessary to consult a commentary or Bible handbook if you are struggling.

Teachings of Jesus. Read a complete section of teaching (called a “pericope”) in a single sitting, taking (mental) notes about what is being taught. What message is He communicating? What subject is He talking about? What is He actually saying about it? Is it a command? Is it a warning? Is it an exhortation/encouragement? Is it a promise? Does it give us a better understanding of who God is? Does it give us a better understanding of what we are like?

Parables. Read a single parable and the surrounding dialogue in one sitting. Try to determine the central thought of the parable. What message is it communicating? Keep in mind the CONTEXT! This is a big clue to identifying the central thought. What events prompted Jesus to tell this parable? How did the hearers react to it? Did they understand it? Focus on the central thought – don’t  focus on all the minute details – they are not meant to be important. Read ahead – some parables are interpreted for you by Christ later on in the gospel.

Letters. Read them like any other letter. Start at the beginning – stop at the end. If possible, read a letter right through in one sitting. Identify the major issues/arguments of the letter. Focus on one of the major issues/arguments. What is the point of each paragraph? What does each paragraph contribute to the current issue/argument? Why did the writer include a particular paragraph? What difference would it make if it were not included? Don’t pay too much attention to the chapter and verse divisions or the chapter headings – they’re NOT inspired! Words/phrases such as “Now about”, “Concerning” and “Finally” often indicate a change of argument/subject.

Apocalypse. Read the books of Daniel and Ezekiel first. Revelation uses lots of imagery from these books. Identify as much as possible, the use of imagery (by comparing Revelation with Daniel and Ezekiel). What is the imagery used to communicate in Revelation? What kind of message is being communicated? Hope? Encouragement? Warning? What does the text say about God and about Jesus Christ? What does it say about Satan? What does it say about the Church (New Jerusalem)? You will definitely want to consult some good commentaries in these matters. Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to read and understand.

3. Prayer, Meditation & Wresting

Pray, meditation and wresting are things the reader should do throughout the entire interpretive cycle, not just before you begin or when you are about to deliver your talk/sermon/speech.

Meditation does not mean emptying your head of everything – quite the opposite in fact. It means filling your mind with all the information required to make decisions about what the text says, how significant it is and how it should be applied today. When looking at a difficult passage, you may need to really pray about, and wrestle with, the various alternatives.

4. Determining Meaning

What do the particular key words or phrases mean? Pay attention to those elements that are repeated in the current passage or used elsewhere by the same author.

What is the significance of a particular key word, phrase or sentence? Does the element carry any special significance given the historical and social context? What does it contribute to the overall meaning of the text? How would the meaning of the text be effected if this particular element was left out?

Determine the relationships between the key words and phrases. Especially look for  the following connecting words: 
 Contrast  but, however, even though, much more, nevertheless, yet, although, then, otherwise 
 Condition  if, whoever, whatever
 Comparison  too, also, as, just as, so also, likewise, like, in the same way
 Correlatives  as...so also, for...as, so...as
 Reason  because, for this reason, for this purpose, for, since
 Result  so then, therefore, as a result, thus, then
 Purpose  that, so that, in order that
 Temporal/Time   now, immediately, just then, until, when, before, after, while, during, since
 Geographical  where, from

Is there a progression in the story, account or argument? Is there a climax?

What is implied by the use of particular terms, phrases, or sentences? Any implications must be clear and reasonable – be careful not to exaggerate or over extend what the text says in order to support a preconceived idea (see section on Presuppositions and Pre-understandings).

Note also Gordon Fee’s and Doug Stuart’s warning: “A text cannot mean what it never meant.”

Ultimately, the test of a good interpretation is whether it makes good sense of the text and its context.

5. Application

Is there a command to obey? Is there an error to avoid? Does the passage point out sinful behaviour or attitudes that may be present in your own life? Is there an example to follow? Is there a promise to claim? Does the passage highlight an aspect of God’s nature and character which you had not seen before?  

Further Reading:

M. J. Adler, How to Read a Book (Rev Ed) Simon & Schuster, 1972.

G. W. Bromiley (editor), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.

D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo & L. Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992.

G. D. Fee & D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (2nd Ed), Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993.

D. N. Freedman (editor), Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 1992.

J. M. Freeman, Manners and Customs of the Bible, Whitaker House, Springdale, PA, 1996.

W. M. Klein, C. L. Blomberg & R. L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Word, Dallas, 1993.

D. Kuske, Biblical Interpretation: The Only Right Way, Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1995.

W. S. LaSor, D. A. Hubbard & F. W. Bush, Old Testament Survey (2nd Ed), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996.

The Lion Handbook to the Bible (2nd Ed), Tring, Hertfordshire, 1983.

G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1991.

I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer & D. J. Wiseman (editors), New Bible Dictionary (3rd Ed), InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1996.

Authors usage statement: Any of my articles may be freely downloaded, printed, copied, quoted and distributed to whoever you like as long as they are not sold or changed without my permission and credit is given where credit is due.