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Interpretation Questions

Julian Spriggs M.A.

II. Observation Questions IV. Structure of books

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.

Narrative OT Law OT Wisdom OT Prophets
Gospels Parables Letters Revelation (apocalyptic)

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.

Interpretation questions

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.

Author's intention

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?

Readers's concerns

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?

Wider meanings

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.

Author's interpretation

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.

Quoting Scripture

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.

Literary 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.

Historical context

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?

Another translation

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.

Other resources

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.

Using commentaries

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.

II. Observation Questions IV. Structure of books

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.