The Bible and Basics of Interpretation
(Explains important facts about the Bible and basic information about interpretation)
Do you ever wonder why we have different versions of the same Bible? Here are some explanations:
A. Primary Source
More technical differences between versions are caused by the translators using different families or groups of Greek manuscripts as their primary source. For instance, differences can be seen in comparisons with the New International Version (NIV) and the King James Version (KJV) of the passage 1 John 5:7-8 and their treatment of the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Variation can be anywhere from extra words in a verse, to the actual meaning of the verse being changed. With the help of proper interpretation, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity will not be negatively impacted.
Language is another factor. Here the scholar translates from Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic to English. Naturally, if you have 10 persons who would translate the Bible from English to Spanish today, none of the 10 translations would be the same word for word. The same goes for the ancient Greek language to modern English which has hundreds of scholars involved.
Another major reason for the differences is that the translators used varying methods or theories of Bible translation. Two major methods are formal and dynamic equivalence.
- Formal translation is also called literal or word-for-word translation. As the name suggests, it tries to keep the same words and word order used by the original manuscripts.
- Dynamic equivalence translation is also called functional or thought for thought translation. This method is more concerned with expressing the meaning of the original text to the modern reader rather than the the exact word that was used in the original.
Example: Genesis 31:35a
NASB (formal translation):
And she said to her father, "Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is upon me."
NIV (dynamic equivalence);
Rachel said to her father, "Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period."
Notice how the NIV changed the wording from the original but tried to show what it should mean to us today. There is no exact line between these two methods of translation, rather we measure the degree of how much a particular version uses the methods.
Paraphrase, such as the Living Bible© is another method of translation, but I can consider this more closer to a commentary than a translation.
First, let me clear the air by saying that no particular version that we use today can claim more inspiration than the other versions. Although, some denominations that are not considered in mainstream Christianity have produced biased versions. You should try to avoid these. Otherwise, all of the well known versions have their own usefulness, strong points and weak points. I advise that you first learn the different theories of translation. (see Different Versions)
Which version is best to use depends on how you are going to use it: For memorization, public reading, devotional reading, or in-depth studying.
For memorization, it would depend on your personal taste. Many Christians favor the King James Version (KJV), but other would prefer another version that uses modern expression. It all depends on you, the important thing is that it helps you to memorize the verse.
For public reading, you should use a version that is easily understood for those who are not familiar with the Bible. I would suggest The New Living Translation (NLT) or maybe even The Living Bible (LB).
Devotional reading would depend on what you want to accomplish. Is it a short reading of a passage or something more of a Bible study? For everyday readings, I would suggest the New International Version (NIV) or New Living Translation (NLT) as a Bible that you could carry around.
For in depth Bible study, it would be helpful to have more than one Bible so that you can have different theories of translations. A combination such as NIV and KJV would be a good example.
"Having rules in Bible Interpretation will take the Bible away from the common or not highly educated Christians."
Some Christians don't believe that there are certain rules that they need to apply in Bible interpretation other than just reading and praying for guidance. They feel that such rules will take their right to be able to understand the Bible on their own, and that they will have to depend on scholars or experts to explain the Bible for them. Quite the contrary. First, proper interpretation only requires more time studying and a little common sense. An average Christian who can read and follow simple instructions can understand and apply the principles and guidelines of proper interpretation.
Second, these guidelines and principles will give everybody the right to question and make an educated criticism on different interpretations of the Bible today, even those made by Bible experts. You will no longer be forced to follow a doctrine or a teaching that you feel is not an accurate interpretation of the Word of God, just because it is being taught by a "teacher" or an "expert". Without standard guidelines of proper interpretation, a person in authority and those with higher education can claim that their interpretation is always better or more accurate than those that have less authority or education.
"All we need is the Holy Spirit who will guide us and will reveal to us the real meaning of the passage in the Bible"
This statement sounds so spiritual that many would not dare to disagree. This attitude can also claim to have some biblical backing:
1 Corinthians 2:11-14 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (NIV)
This was taken to mean that Christian with the Holy Spirit can understand the Word of God, and the unbelievers that doesn't have the Spirit cannot understand the Bible.
1 John 2:27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him. (NIV)
This was taken to mean that as Christian we don't need a teacher or rules of interpretation, because our anointing will be the one that will reveal and teach us all the truth.
I will not elaborate here in giving my own understanding of these verses, since we are doing examples of Bible interpretation in Chapter 3. But I will just point you to some weaknesses with the interpretation mentioned above. In Corinthians, What is Paul really saying? Is he suggesting that all Christians with the Holy Spirit should not have a problem understanding the Bible and that unbelievers without the Holy Spirit will not be able to understand the Bible at all? I don't think so. Exodus 20:15-Thou shall not steal. (NIV), is such a simple verse that we know both unbelievers without the Holy Spirit and Christians with the Holy Spirit can understand. While the book of Revelation is so difficult to understand for many Christians that are filled with the Holy Spirit, and those that claimed to understand have different interpretations of what it really means.
In 1 John, does John really means that Christian don't need teachers because their "anointing" teaches them all things? If that is the case, how come John needed to teach them about this truth that they don't need a teacher? Why has God given the church teachers if we don't really need them (Eph.4:11)?
Also, if two persons filled with the Spirit had a differing interpretation of a certain passage in the Bible, how can we tell who is right or wrong? Can we measure who has more of the Holy Spirit than the other? Therefore, rules and guidelines of proper interpretation is necessary so we can have a standard to distinguish from the right, possible, and erroneous interpretation.
The Bible is both natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal, human and divine.
The Bible is divine because it is the Word of God. It is God's message for all human beings for all times. Through the Bible, God speaks to all people of all ages in all cultures. The message of the Bible is eternal. It transcends time and cultures. It is relevant and speaks during the time of Moses, the time of Paul and to all of us today.
The Bible is human because God chose to speak through human beings who lived in a certain time and culture in history with an specific language. It is temporal because some of its elements such as the original language used in its original writing is not being used today. So God's eternal Word and message is conditioned and contained in a specific time in history with its own culture and language, and is recorded by means of 'human style' of literature. It is these two natures of God's Word that requires us to apply basic principles of interpretation to understand God's message for us today.
The Bible should be interpreted like any other literature. This does not mean that the Bible is just like any other book. The Bible is unique in many ways and no other book is like the Bible. But the Bible uniqueness and inspiration doesn't change its literary form. The Holy Spirit will convict us of the truthfulness and significance of His Word in our lives. But to understand the literary style or genre, historical background, and the meaning of words should be our task in studying the Bible. Our claim of the Holy Spirit's guidance shouldn't be an excuse for laziness in studying. (see objection)
Example: Matthew 25:1-13 (The Parable of the Ten Virgins)
In order for us to fully understand the message of this parable, we need to know background information about first century Jewish customs of marriage and wedding. Otherwise, we wouldn't understand some of the events that occurred in the parable and their significance in the Parable. In this parable, there is an eternal message from God for us to learn, but we must see it in the human elements that contained it.
Adapted from Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, pp. 17-19 (see Bibliography)
This lesson is a continuation of the objection of learning proper Bible interpretation.
First, I want it to be clear that I believe any Christian who doesn't know the rules of Bible Interpretation will still benefit on reading the Bible. Many Bible verses are so simple and clear that our bigger problem today is not interpreting the difficult verses but obeying those parts of the Bible that we clearly understand.
Careful reading and common sense would have been enough for us to get the message of 1John 4:11 "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (NIV) But for many of us, we will have various interpretations to understand the exact meaning of 1 John 3:9 "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." (NIV) It is at this point that we will need to learn various rules and guidelines on Bible interpretation.
We should also understand that what separates the Bible from the rest of literature is the fact that it is God's Word. God is the ultimate author of the Bible. But He has chosen to reveal his message to us in human ways, by written words of a certain language in a certain culture. Because of this, we need to use rules of interpreting ancient literature on the Bible so we can understand its original message. (see Nature of the Bible)
Without common rules or principles of interpretation, it is difficult to evaluate various interpretation, even those that are between two respected Christians who have opposing interpretations of a passages in the Bible (e.g. Calvinism and Armenianism). We cannot depend on feelings since that would be subjective. We cannot say that both is right since the Bible has only the meaning that the original author intended it to mean. We cannot say that the Bible can mean something to you and then can mean something different to me. This would be saying that the Bible doesn't really mean anything at all. What we need is a standard to evaluate everybody's interpretation of the Bible.
Terms used in Bible Interpretation
The process of interpreting the Bible. This is what we are learning in this website. It includes all the rules, principles, theory, and methods of interpreting the Bible. It covers the process from trying to understand the original meaning of the verses to what it means to us today.
This is the process of interpretation where you are trying to find the original meaning of the verse. It is finding out what was the message that was heard by the original recipient of the Bible. Example: Paul told Timothy "stop drinking only water, and use a little wine...(1 Tim. 4:23 NIV). Exegesis would attempt to find out what it really meant to Timothy (not to us today). The original message was given to Timothy under a specific circumstance. The background may involve issues that are evident to both Paul and Timothy but are not mentioned in the Bible.
Application of the Bible passages to modern times. This is the process that most of us do will do with the verses of the Bible. It is trying to find the application or relevance of the Bible message for us today. It is the process that follows exegesis.
So here is the relationship of the terms with each other: To understand the Bible properly we practice hermeneutics by first applying exegesis because we want to find out the original meaning of the Bible. Secondly, we do an exposition of the text because we want to apply the message to our lives today.
Notice that exegesis is very important because that is how we learn and understand the original meaning of the Bible. If you misunderstand the original meaning, I doubt that you will have the proper application of the Bible in your life today.
People assume that the Bible is a mysterious book and you need some extra ordinary abilities to be able to understand it. They assume that it has a lot of hidden meaning or secret codes that can only be revealed and understood by those who are chosen. Well its true that it takes more than just a casual reading to understand the meaning of Bible passages but not because of some mysterious or secret code but because of its nature. (see Nature of the Bible)
We must always remember that the Bible was written for common people. Many of the New Testaments epistles were written for a young Christian church, so they are simple instructions and teaching to be understood by every Christians on that day.
The goal of proper interpretation is not to find new revelations unrevealed to anyone before, but rather to understand its plain and simple message. Using proper guidelines of interpretation we should be able to distinguished between the right, the possible, and the erroneous interpretation.
The correct or right meaning of many Bible verses can be understood by using proper guidelines of interpretation. Does this mean proper interpretation would eliminate disagreement of interpretation among Christians? Of course not. Some difficult verses, by its very, nature could have more than one possible interpretation.
Possible meaning is the result of using the guidelines of interpretation on difficult verses and still coming out with more than one possible meaning. Does this mean that the Bible can mean anything? Or can anybody interpret the Bible on his own opinion? Absolute not. Guidelines for interpretation puts a limitation on meanings that can be derive from a passage, and only one of those possible interpretation is correct, although none of us is absolute sure which one it is.
Erroneous interpretations are those interpretation that were given to the Bible verses in violation of the guidelines of proper interpretation.
Although there are difficult verses where it is impossible to have a consensus of interpretation among Christians, the basic doctrines of Christianity are all based on clear teachings from the Bible. All possible interpretation of a passage should not contradict the basic doctrine of Christianity. It should remind us also that we should be slow in calling other teachings that differs from our own denomination heretical. We should analyze all interpretation on the basis of the basic guidelines of interpretation and the basic doctrine of Christianity.
There are three components in Bible interpretation that we can use to determine the meaning of certain passages. They are the text, the reader (you), and the author (e.g. Paul). Since interpretation is finding the meaning of the verse, it is important to know which one we going to use to find the meaning of Bible passages.
Some say that the text should be used to find the meaning. But once you separate the text from the person who authored it, the text would no longer have the message that the author originally wish to convey. The result would be the same in making the reader (you) determine the meaning of the text. The passage can produce a meaning that is totally different from the one intended by the author.
Example: John 20:23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (NIV) If we will use either the text or ourselves (the reader) to determine the meaning of this verse, we end up with Christians having the authority just like God to literally forgive and not to forgive other people sins. But is that what Jesus meant by these statement?
Therefore we should see the meaning of the Bible passage as being controlled by the original author. The text means what it meant when it was first written. It is our job to find out the meaning that was understood by the original hearers from the author. We should note that today we can have various applications of the meaning of Bible verses, but the original meaning of the verse as intended by the author never changes. Our application should not contradict the original meaning of the verse. Again, it is back to the process of proper exegesis first before exposition. (see Definition)
Example: Ephesians 5:18 "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit" (KJV) Today, we can say "be not drunk with beer or whiskey" or "be not overdose with drugs" as a proper application since we can argue that the effect in our body of both substances are close enough to wine in Paul's day. But to suggest that we can also say "don't drink to much coffee" or "don't eat to much fattening food" as an application of the verse is going out of the meaning intended by the author. Remember, application should be in harmony with the original meaning of the verse.
Adapted from Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide To Interpreting the Bible, chapter 1 (see Bibliography)
Although, this term had been defined in an earlier page, I feel that I need to reiterate what has already been said. Again, exegesis is very important since this is the process that will help us find out the original meaning of the verse. The original meaning is very important because that is the true and only meaning of the verse. Although from that one meaning, we can have a lot of applications for different situation in our daily lives. Applications or "lessons" that we can derive from the verse must not conflict the original meaning intended by the original author for the original hearer(s).
1Corinthians as with every passage, Paul message to the Corinthian church in a particular context. If our present interpretation of a passage in 1 Corinthians produced a meaning that made sense today in our church but doesn't make sense if its being told to the Corinthians church, then the interpretation is incorrect.
To do an exegesis requires expertise in a lot of areas, but because of the availability of expert tools such as commentaries, dictionaries, handbooks, etc. Everybody who has access and knows how to use such tools can exegete. But the truth is, even with just minimal access to these tools, anyone can do good exegesis of the Bible.
Your most important tools in understanding the message of the Bible is reading. You must read and reread the passage that you are studying. You must pay attention to all the details and ask questions as you go along. You must read with an open mind to learn. This means that you should not assume that an interpretation you have heard before is the correct interpretation. By reading alone, you should be able to know the context and identify the theme or main point of the passage.
With good reading habits and proper use of available tools we can all do good exegesis.
Understand the Context
A word on its own doesn't really mean anything. A word can only have a sensible meaning in a sentence. Further, the sentences before and after will clear up the meaning of a particular sentence. This is the reason we are encouraged to study a passage (several verses) not a single verse if we intend to get the real message the original author intended. This is also known as reading in context.
Generally speaking, when the author wrote the book he had a particular theme or message in mind. As the reader, it is important to follow the authors flow of thought. You first must see the main theme of the book, then the theme found within each chapters. Lastly, you must decipher the theme of each passage. The smaller section's theme must compliment the bigger section's theme. To understand the context you must first read the whole book that you are studying and find the units of thought that make up the book. This is not really hard to do since most of the Bible has titles for each passage and an outline at the beginning of the book. But it is a good habit to make a simple outline of your own after you have read the book.
Example: The Book of Hebrews was written to a group of people that were being pressured to either keep going with their Christianity or to go back to Judaism. In order to address the issue, the author started by establishing the completeness of Jesus Christ and His ministry and how he is much better than the angels, Moses and Aaron the high priest. You can also trace warnings about falling away. As you can see, if you began to gain this kind of information after reading the book of Hebrews, it would be so much easier to get in the author's flow of thought as you focus in on studying the book in smaller sections.
Another way of reading in context is to understand the historical background of the passage or the book that you are studying. Knowing the background of the book should be done before you start reading. You should try to acquire reliable information about the author and the original recipient of the book, the date and the reason why it was written, and the cultural or life setting when it was written. With this information the modern reader will have an easier task to hear the same message that was originally heard by the recipient.
Remember, exegesis seeks to know the original message intended by the author. A modern reader must somehow transfer himself to the time when the author wrote the letter to be able to hear that original message. Not knowing the Historical background will cause us to read things in the passage according to our modern cultural background or custom. This, of course, is totally different from the author's own cultural background and thus causes many erroneous interpretations and applications.
If you have a Study Bible, reading the introduction page of every book that you study is a good start to find historical background. Bible tools such as a Bible Handbook or a good commentary is where you would find a lot of information in this matter.
Example: 1 Corinthians 11:4-5,16 "Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head- it is just as though her head were shaved...If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice- nor do the churches of God." (NIV) This is considered a difficult passage in the Bible to interpret. A good interpreter should start by gathering reliable background information before attempting any interpretation of the passage.
Some words have more than one meaning, while some we don't know the meaning at all. Understanding the true meaning of the words used in a passage is very important in proper interpretation or exegesis. The first thing we do to know what a word means is to read in its context. This, however, is sometimes not enough, for a context can sometimes take on different meanings for a particular word. This has caused varying interpretations among Christians. Remember, the real meaning of a word is the one intended by the author.
Many teachers will find the intended meaning of a certain word by studying its roots or original meaning. This process can give us new insight to the meaning, but at the same time it can lead us to misunderstanding. Understanding the word's origin and original meaning doesn't necessarily lead us to the meaning of a word as used by the author.
A better way of understanding a word's meaning is to understand what it means at the time it was written. Words change meaning as time goes by, and we cannot always put the same meaning we have today on a same word that was used centuries ago. By reading other older writings of the same period that uses the same word will give us ideas on the meaning of the word.
Some word we just don't have definitions because we don't use them such as the words shekels, ephahs, talents, etc.
Finding word meaning using an outside tool is often necessary. A reliable commentary or Bible Dictionary would be helpful.
As mention earlier, many are fascinated with "mysterious" interpretation. Like finding deep secrets hidden inside the letters of the Bible. This has caused many erroneous interpretations because these interpretation are subjective. Subjective interpretation has no standard to evaluate its validity. It is interpreting the Bible in a way that others won't be able to find at all no matter how they study the verse itself. It is putting the meaning into the verse rather than finding the true meaning of the verse.
Therefore one of the most important guidelines to interpretation is to interpret literally. Literal interpretation doesn't mean reading the words and just doing what it says. Literal interpretation is taking the Bible at face value and reading it as a literature. Literal interpretation recognizes the differences between a historical narrative and a parable, or the difference between written laws and poetry. In another word, literal interpretation is not just reading and doing, it is reading with common sense, because it takes in consideration the real form or style of the passage. Literal interpretation is what we do everyday, we differentiate between an instruction from our boss and a joke we hear from him, and we interpret them accordingly.
Literal interpretation also requires analyzing the literary genre of the passage in the Bible. This topic will be covered in Chapter 2.
* Note: I have received several comments concerning the phrase "literal Interpretation" should be changed to "literary Interpretation". I was thinking about doing so, but the point of this simple article is to actually redefine the meaning of the connotation "literal interpretation" into something that is acceptable as proper interpretation.
How Did We Get Our English Bible (New Testament)
None of the original manuscripts of the New Testament have survived to this day.
Jesus died and went to heaven around A.D. 30. Autographs were written: A.D. 40-100.
The original manuscripts (copy of the Bible) written in Greek by the original authors. e.g. Paul, Peter, etc.
Canon of the Bible
This process was from 1st to 4th Century.
Confirmed by Church Fathers & Church Councils
Complete or partial copies of the original
A science that seeks to discover the original texts of ancient documents.
Critical Text (Greek New Testament)
English Bible Versions
(NIV, KJV, NASB, etc., possibly you have at least one of these)