The Basics of Biblical
When my wife attended seminary, one of the teachers had this
saying for explaining why Biblical Interpretation was necessary
and identifying areas of particular concern:
The Bible was written to another
person who lived in a different time, place, culture and
circumstance than you do and spoke a language you don't
Good biblical interpretation takes these things into account. It
seeks to understand what the passages meant to their original
readers. After that, one can consider how circumstances today
might be similar and how the teaching "back then" can apply to
The Bible is not a set of verses that can be removed from their
contexts and given meaning apart from their contexts. Any
biblical interpretation that does not take the original context
and intent into account is very likely to distort the meaning of
the original passage and misapply it to people today.
(Unfortunately, this is a very common practice.)
Even first-century readers of the Old Testament had to carefully
consider the context of the Old Testament, even though they were
far closer in time, place, culture and circumstance than we are
today. How much more do we need to take these things into
So how are we going to be
able to take into account all of these differences? We need to
ask questions of the text and see what the text tells us. Here
are some questions to ask of any biblical text:
discussion of this is beyond the scope of this article. But the
idea of good biblical interpretation is to get to the bottom of
these and other questions to understand how the original
hearers/readers understood what was being said. A
good interpreter keeps asking
questions. Why is this being said? How does it relate to
what else is being said? Why did he say it this way?
- Why is the author
- How did the
original hearers/readers understand what was being said?
- What is going on
that makes what is being said significant? Was there something
wrong going on that needed to be corrected, or was there some
new instruction given?
- What is the point
of what was said?
- What was the
expected behavior or belief based upon what was said?
- How are we
today like those original hearers? How are our circumstances
like theirs? How are they different?
As you keep asking questions and
discovering answers to those questions, you
will gain more and more understanding of what is being
said (and just as importantly, what is not being said).
The Bible often uses figures of speech or references to
things that would be easily understood by the original
hearers, but might be fairly obscure to us. Here are
familiarity with those things
today. Even if
we are somewhat familiar with
these things, technology and
times have changed. The biblical
authors generally felt no
need to explain these things
because they were clearly
understood by the audience.
Since we don't have that
understanding, we have to
investigate to learn how
things were done in the
times of the Bible so that
we can understand how that
relates to the story.
farmers planted crops and processed grain
shepherds managed their flocks
- wedding and marriage customs
- methods of travel
preparation and eating customs
- geographical features of the area
an example. When
Jesus compares himself to a
shepherd, we are missing a
key ingredient of what Jesus
was intending to communicate
if we don't know how first
century shepherds managed
In the same way, knowing the
geography of Bible lands can be of great
importance in certain passages.
The point is that biblical
authors assumed their readers would
understand these things. Since we aren't the
original readers and don't live in those
places and times, we have to make
special effort to understand these things.
Even if we learn something about those thigns,
we may not fully understand it
like the original readers would have.
There are some good books on
geography, Biblical cultures
and customs. Archaologists
and historians have
discovered many things about Bible times. Check
the references section for some good books on these matters.
Not every Christian will have the
opportunity to study and become an expert on
biblical languages, biblical geography,
ancient religious traditions, ancient
lifestyle customs and the like. But to the
extent that Christians can learn about these
things, their ability to interpret the
Scriptures will be improved accordingly.
Topical Studies, Word Studies
Studies about a particular topic are especially important in
churches. However, the Bible is not written as a catalog of
teachings about doctrines and certain topics (as our Western
culture tends to do-- consider our laws and constitution, for
example). The Bible discusses faith and practice in the contexts
of different peoples in different places, times and
circumstances. Topical studies must attempt to understand a
topic by considering the Biblical teaching about it in various
Word studies are often a simple sort of a topical study. Other
times, we will want to understand how a certain term was used by
Bible writers. With the advent of
concordances and now computers, anybody can do "word studies"
fairly easily. Many preachers use this as a basis for teaching. However, doing these studies well
is another matter.
Topical and word studies have some pitfalls:
- Translations sometimes do not
translate words consistently from the Biblical language into
English. So studying out a particular word can be misleading.
Depending upon the translation you are using, this can be a
- When a topic is referred to
within an individual passages, rarely does it seek to speak
comprehensively on the topic. More often, it is just enough to
address the question at hand.
- Just because a word is not used,
it does not mean that the topic is not being discussed or
demonstrated. (For example, the word "love" never appears in
the book of Acts, but that does not mean that the topic is
never discussed or demonstrated.)
The point is that when doing a
topical or word study, take special care to consider the
context. Be careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions. Think in terms of ideas and concepts,
not just simple words.
making a good effort to understand the individual passages
first, you can attempt to harmonize teachings of
various passages into something resembling an outline or summary
of what those passages teaches.
One of the ways in which the Bible
communicates to us is through actions of its characters in
various places and times and circumstances. But what we do
with those examples is important.
- Is the example intended to
be imitated by all?
- Is the
example only relevant for certain people
in certain times?
- Is the
example representative of what we may do (as opposed to
what we must do)?
- Is the
example simply what was done, being neither good nor bad?
- Is the example intended to communicate
something wrong that was done?
Usually, the context can help us
out with these questions. We may speak of "approved" and
"unapproved" examples. This is a good place to start.
But it is often difficult to discern
between what we MUST do compared to what we MAY do, or what he
had to do that has little or no bearing upon us. Just because we
do the same thing a Biblical character did, does not mean we are
following the example as intended. For example,
the early church met in temple courts. It later met mostly in
homes. Do these examples mean we MUST meet in one of
those places where the early church met, or do
they mean we MAY meet on one of those places, or do they just
mean that's what the early church did and there
is no additional intended meaning by the author beyond that?
Similarly, just because we do what a Bible
character did, it does not mean it has the same meaning or
impact for us. As an analogy, consider a
good musician who wears a tuxedo and performs in a large
concert hall. But if somebody else wears a tuxedo, it
does not make him a good musician.
In the end, examples
are a good way for us to understand how Bible writers and
readers understood things. For example, the early
church did not practice severing limbs or gouging out eyeballs
in response to certain sins (ref. Matthew 5:29-30). They early church understood and put these
passages into practice as intended.
Sooner or later, you will get to the
point of considering "how does this
passage apply to my life? How does it apply to my
family, my church, or other people
I know? Or, in the case of
a topical study, you may want to put
together some organized statement of
facts about that topic so you can
put them into practice somehow.
They key to making
good applications of Scripture is
to realize that when you are in
the same situation as a Bible
character, God's message to that person is
God's message to you.
are you in the exact
same circumstance as a
Bible character. So you have to do
the best you can, and consider
how the differences might
impact how the text applies to
you. Let's consider some
Confidence and Certainty
- If you are reading a passage
written to Jews living under the Law of Moses, you have to
realize that you are no longer under the Law of Moses and
consider how the text applies to you.
- If God has made a promise
specifically to someone (for example, Abraham), that promise doesn't really apply to
Confidence in a biblical
teaching or application ought to be based upon
the certainty of the understanding and the
applicability of the teaching. To the extent
that there is uncertainty or ambiguity about something, there should be
reluctance to make such an
item a cornerstone of belief or practice, or
to rely upon it in one's faith. In my
experience, there are usually a lot more questions
than answers on just about any topic. So it is
important to consider what the Bible teaches and
what it does not address.
Learn to Interpret Well!
The basic rule of biblical interpretation is
"understand the context." Scriptures taken out
of context have no meaning, as they can be
twisted to "say" whatever somebody wants to make
them mean. Understanding context defines what
something can and cannot mean.
When a particular understanding of a passage is rooted in the context, it builds
a solid foundation of truth for what teachings
or practices may follow from it.
Good biblical interpretation
isn't always easy, nor is it always obvious.
But it is a skill that can be learned and
developed. In the end, it supports a faith that is solid and based upon
the Scriptures as they were intended to be