What is interpretation?
The main aim of interpretation is to determine what the book or passage meant to the author and his original readers. Interpretation should only be attempted after reading the book as a whole, and doing thorough observation of the text using the observation questions. Effective interpretation of the text is built on a solid foundation of thorough observation.
It is also important to remember that the process of interpretation is not aiming to determine what the text means today. That is the process of application which should follow interpretation.
Interpretation involves coming to an understanding of the viewpoint of the original author, as well as his audience.
The basic question that is asked during the process of observation is 'What does it say?', while the essential questions in the process of interpretation are, 'What did it mean to the original readers?' and 'Why did the author write this to them?'. When reading or studying the Bible, and particularly when preaching from the Bible, it is essential to keep a strong distinction between what is observed and the interpretation. We can be firm in our statements of observation with no danger of being accused of being dogmatic. However with interpretation a higher level of humility is required, as our interpretation may or may not be correct.
Principles of interpretation
There are some basic guidelines or principles that should be followed.
Scripture interprets Scripture
There is an overall consistent message running through the whole Bible. Because the Bible is inspired by God, we should not find any contradictions. If our interpretation clearly contracts other passages of Scripture or the overall message of the Bible, then we need to reconsider that interpretation.
Start with the easy bits
We should always use passages of Scripture which are clearer and easier to understand to help us interpret the more difficult or controversial passages, and not the other way round. This is particularly a danger when seeking to interpret prophetic literature or passages about end-times.
The New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament
The Bible gives what is known as a progressive revelation of God and his way of salvation. That means that the revelation given in the NT is greater than the revelation in the OT. Also, through his ministry, Jesus brought a new covenant, which superceded the old covenant. Because of this, the New Testament should always be used to shed light on the Old Testament.
Natural or mystical interpretation?
The Word of God should always be interpreted in a natural normal sense, as any other written document, while still making allowances for the different types of literature, figures of speech or symbolic language. It is important to avoid seeking to find some obscure mystical meaning from the text, or over-spiritualising the passages being studied. This is particularly important when studying the Old Testament.
Three essential questions
These are three of the most important questions that need to be asked in order to interpret the Scriptures.
1. What type of literature?
There are two main types of literature in the Bible. One is poetry, the language of the heart and feelings. The other is prose, the language of the head and thoughts.
These are the main styles of writing found in the Bible. For each of these their purpose is different and the method of interpretation needs to take the type of literature into account. An explanation of each is given via the links below.
Make sure you are taking into account the type of literature the book is written in. Sometimes the passage you are studying may employ a different type of literature from the rest of the book. For example, the parables of Jesus are a particular literary type, different from gospel literature.
2. What is the structure
The structure of the book is the way the author has organised his material in order to convey his message most effectively. Each individual word, sentence and paragraph needs to be seen in relation to the whole book. Understanding the structure of the book is essential for good interpretation and
application. The structure in some books is more obvious than in others. The structure is based on sentences, paragraphs, segments and divisions, rather than verses and chapters which were added many hundreds of years later.
The page describing the structure of books gives more information about the types of structure found in books, as well as the laws of composition that are used by the writers.
3. What is the historical background?
In order to determine the meaning of each book in the Bible for the original readers, it is essential to build an understanding of the historical setting of the book. This is described in more detail in the historical background page.
The 'Why' question
Probably the most important question to ask when interpreting is 'Why'? For example, 'Why did the author write this?', 'Why was this passage included?', 'Why was this important to the original readers?'. Interpretation is the time to think deeply about the passage.
We need to understand the author's intention and purpose in writing. What are the concerns, convictions and emotions of the author? Why is he writing this to his readers?
What are the characteristics of the original readers? What are their concerns, questions, emotions, convictions, strengths and weaknesses?
What is the meaning?
What is the meaning of this word, phrase or theological concept? What did it mean to the author and to his readers?
Develop the meaning question by studying the way the word, phrase or concept is used in a wider context. Start with the meaning in the passage you are studying, before moving to the rest of the book, then to other books written by the same author.
Other resources can also be helpful here, including Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament words, concordances, other word study books, and even a secular dictionary.
Sometimes the author gives his own interpretation. This can be in a statement of why he wrote the book, or giving his interpretation of his use of symbols.
Literal or symbolic?
Try and determine whether the passage is intended to be taken literally (physically) or symbolically (figuratively). This can often be determined by the style of language being used.
Determine the significance of the passage, idea, word or statement.
When the author quotes from the Old Testament, look up the passage quoted and observe its original context. Determine why the author used this particular passage. Does it prove his point, illustrate a truth, support the author's argument, or contribute to the emotion of the passage. You can also ask whether the author is noting its original context.
Context is one of the most important things to consider with interpreting the Scriptures. It shows the connection of thought that runs through a passage, linking the passage together, and joining the passage into the overall context of the book. Note the way the passage being studied fits into the overall message and structure of the book. What is its relationship to the surrounding paragraphs? Try and identify the way things fit together. The individual points made by the author are often woven together around a particular theme, event, character, time period or logic in the author's argument.
Context needs to be considered on various levels, starting with the immediate context of the surrounding verses and paragraphs, then looking at the context of the passage within the structure of the book, as well as the overall message of the Bible as a whole.
There is great danger of taking verses or passages of the Bible out of their literary context. When this is done, it is almost possible to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say.
This is another important question. It is essential to fit the passage being studied into its original wider historical context. We need to ask questions like: Who is being addressed? What cultural issues need consideration? When did the events occur? We also need to determine whether the issues being address apply to the readers local situation, or whether they are to be applied universally to all believers. Are they temporal or timeless?
In New Testament letters we need to determine from the text what questions the believers are asking, and what struggles they were encountering. Where there false teachers, the following questions are helpful: Why were they? What were they teaching? and What effect was their teaching having in the church?
Figures of speech
Interpret the figures of speech which have already been observed. Why does the author use this figure of speech? and What is he wanting to communicate to his readers through it?
It can be helpful to read the passage in a different translation, either more literal, or more of a paraphrase, or in another language.
Laws of composition
Notice the laws of composition or structure that are used in the book or passage. Ask why the author used these and the way their use helps his communication.
Write a summary
It can be helpful to write a summary in your own words to summarise the passage or paragraph you studying.
It is important to think about and reflect on the text you have observed and interpreted. You need to ensure that your proposed interpretation agrees with the rest of Scripture. The New Testament should interpret the Old Testament, and passages which are clear and simple to understand should shed light on the more obscure or unclear passages. Not the other way round.
One the most helpful resources is the Bible dictionary (one volume) or Bible encyclopedia (multi-volume). This can provide abundant historical information about people, places, historical events, books of the Bible, cultural elements, and other topics, which you will not be able to determine from the text of the Bible.
When studying a passage it can be very helpful to consult a variety of commentaries. These will often give ideas and suggestions and bring up issues that you may not be aware of. However a commentary should only be used after doing your own study. This will enable to to dialogue with what is written, and critique the author's content.
A poor quality commentary will only give the author's opinion about a passage, which may or may not be correct. The author of a good quality commentary will describe a variety of different opinions held by biblical scholars about a difficult passage. They will then critique those opinions, noting their strengths and weaknesses, before coming to a conclusion.