The following tips are taken from Fee, Gordon D. and Stuart, Douglas “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,” Zondervan, ©1981. Read the Stuart and Fee’s book for more information.
The goal of interpretation is to understand the author’s intended meaning and that must be done in light of the language, time and culture in which a document was written. The difficulty is that our interpretation is affected by our experiences, culture, education, etc. Biblical interpretation is also impacted by understanding the document in its original context while trying to discern how to apply that understanding in a universal way. The Bible also is a complex document written in many genres: history, law, poetry, wisdom, parables, sermons, etc. and each genre must be taken into consideration.
The process of interpretation, hermeneutics (the process of interpreting the text and applying its meaning) begins with the process of exegesis (the process of figuring out the original meaning of the text).
The process of exegesis involves asking the right questions of the text and figuring:
- Context –
- historical context– time and culture of the author and audience, occasion of the text, geographical, topographical and political factors
- literary – relation of each sentence to the preceding and succeeding sentences, units of thought (paragraphs of sections)
- Content – meanings of words grammatical relationships
- Use of tools such as: good translation, Bible dictionary, commentary
Some types of exegesis are:
- historical – find what text meant back when it was written or when it happened),
- canonical – looking at entire text of Bible as a whole document designed to be what a specific community shapes its life by
- symbolic/allegorical – figuring out the symbolism of each story, character, and event,
- literary – considering the context in light of the literary form used and examining word choices, editing work, main themes or narratives, etc.
- rational – using logic and deductive techniques
Hermeneutics – Ask questions about Bible’s meaning in reference to here and now: A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or readers but when our current particulars match the original particulars, the principles (morals) could apply to us now.
- One general problem is historical distance: the original text was written with little historical distance and was therefore a high context situation where things could be left unstated because they were assumed. We are reading the Bible in a low context situation where we have to try to discover what were those high context assumptions that were left out of the text.
- Techniques include reading the entire document out loud in order to hear the text, outlining the text, dividing it into sections, make notes about people being referred to, attitudes, problems being discussed
- Our questions or problems about the text may not be the questions the original hearers were asking.
- We need to be aware of the types of literature being used: parables, hyperbole, poetry, questions, irony, etc. so that we can interpret them appropriately
Problems of historical context
- determining the situation being written about
- determining if the problems/questions we see are the problems/questions that would have been asked in those situations
- determining when a problem being addressed should be seen as just a historic particularity/culture or transcends the particular issue/culture and can be applied to more general situations.
Type of Bible translations.
- Formal – adheres to structure of original language (NASB, HCSB, RSV, NRSV, ESV). In extreme, a literal translation (KJV, NKJV)
- Functional – translates idioms in context of receptor language (NIV, NAB, GNB, NLT).
- Free/paraphrase – translates ideas more than words or phrases (NEB, LB)
Types of considerations:
- External evidence – quality and age of the manuscripts;
- Internal evidence – copyists and authors;
- Human variables – original language of manuscript, receptor language (language) being translated to.
- Problem areas include translating weights, measures and money, euphemisms, wordplays, grammatical structures such as Greek use of genitive construction (my book vs. book of me, God’s grace vs grace of God), use of masculine language where women are included.
- For these considerations it can be useful to have one of each type of translation.
Narratives are stories about particular historic events with three basic parts: characters, plot and plot resolution. The narratives in the Bible are parts of the larger metanarrative which is the story of God and his working in the world and of his universal plan for creation and for his people. Old Testament Narratives are not meant to be allegories or teach moral lessons directly (unless they illustrate what is explicitly taught elsewhere). Narratives are descriptions of events and are not meant to establish norms unless there is explicit teachings elsewhere.
There are three categories of doctrinal statements derived from Scripture: Christian theology, Christian ethics and Christian experience/practices. Some of these statements are explicit (and are considered to be primary) and some are derived (are considered to be secondary).
My own comments: There is sometimes a question about what translation will be best; there is no “best” translation. In fact, it might be best to have one of each kind of translation: formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence and paraphrase. A Bible dictionary and a concordance are useful, and all of these are available online as well as in hard copy. The depth of your study will depend on your education, your effort and your available time and resources. The average person will have limited time and education to use all the information presented above. But none of these study methods are meant to be a substitute for the simple living of the gospel, a way of life that is available to all of us.