I want to apologize for neglecting this space and series for so long! When my life gets crazy, busy, or full this blog is the first thing that gets neglected. I was actually sick for several weeks at the end of the summer. I had all of the symptoms of West Nile except the rash and ended up getting tested for that, among other things. It all came back negative except that my white blood count was off so I was definitely fighting something at the time. At the end of my sickness I ended up running a couple of races that I had trained all summer for, and we are now a couple of months into our home-school year, though I feel like we are still settling in. Anyway, I’ve been feeling convicted that the “31 Days” series title is probably misleading (which was obviously never my intent) and instead should be something like “31 weeks” or just “31 posts”. So I’m sorry friends, but I’m hoping to push through these last posts more quickly to finish out the series. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Here we go…
So what is interpretation? Interpretation is determining what the book or passage meant when it was first written. (That is why the BRI I shared in the last post is a useful tool— we need to figure out things like who the author and/or audience was if we want to understand why a particular book was written.) Interpretation involves understanding the author’s viewpoint, as well as the viewpoint of his audience.
Interpretation BUILDS on the foundation of observation, and thorough observation results in better interpretation. While observation focuses on “what does the text say?”, interpretation builds on that and asks “why is this said?” The bridge between observation and interpretation is the question “why?”
In inductive Bible study, interpretation is NOT what it means to the 21st century reader (that is the last step of inductive Bible study— application). “The reason you must not begin with the here and now is that the only proper control for hermeneutics (the interpretation of Biblical texts) is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text…. Otherwise biblical texts can be made to mean whatever they mean to any given reader. But such hermeneutics becomes total subjectivity, and who then is to say that one person’s interpretation is right and another’s is wrong? Anything goes. In contrast to such subjectivity, we insist that the original meaning of the text— as much as it is in our power to discern it— is the objective point of control.” (from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth).
With interpretation we need to consider:
- The author.
- Original reader— the people to whom the book was written. (For example, the book of Matthew was written to Jews, Mark was written to persecuted Christians in Rome, Luke was written to Gentiles, and John was written to Greeks.)
- Original hearer— the people who were present when the actual events took place and heard the words that were spoken. (For example— the people who heard Jesus teach). There will not be an Original Hearer for each book.
- Historical and cultural background. What is the situation of the reader/hearer? What events took place that are relevant to the reader’s situation (for example, persecution). What political/geographical/cultural factors need to be considered?
- Literary context.
Here is a list of interpretation questions. (If you want to print these out click here.) You can use these questions in an overview fashion to the whole book or to specific passages or sections. You can also develop your own questions that are more specific to your passage. The key to interpretation is this: get curious!
- What are the author’s concerns, convictions, and emotions? Put yourself in the shoes of the author. Think of questions to ask that help identify why he is writing as he does.
- What are the original reader’s/hearer’s concerns, questions, struggles, problems, emotions, strengths, and weaknesses? Put yourself in the shoes of the original reader. Think of questions to ask that help identify what the original reader or hearer may be feeling or experiencing.
- Ask what is implied? For example, if you’re reading one of Paul’s letters, look at what he is trying to address in his letter— like in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul teaches on and defines love. This implies that the original readers didn’t know what it looked like to love one another (which reinforces what Paul had stated earlier in 1:10-11). This also shows us one of the reasons Paul was writing the letter.
- Ask meaning questions. What does this mean? Meaning to original reader/hearer? Meaning of figure of speech? Meaning of a word, term or concept? (This can be a good time to do a word study. I’ll do a separate post on that.)
- Bombard the text with why questions. Why is this said? Why was this Old Testament quote used? Why are these words repeated? Why was this significant? Why are these people mentioned? Why was this command given?
Some other questions/tips:
- Does the author give his own interpretation? Does he interpret his use of symbols? Does he state why he wrote the book?
- When the author quotes scripture, look up the quoted passages and observe their context. Why does he use this passage? Does it prove a point, illustrate a truth, support the author’s argument, or contribute to the emotion of the passage?
- Take into account the type of literature and how it should be interpreted. Is it literal or figurative? Interpret accordingly.
- Interpret the scripture in a simple fashion. Do not treat the scripture in a mystical fashion. Interpret the Word of God in a natural, normal sense as you would any other book. This means that you make allowances for different types of literature, figures of speech, and elements of composition (the style and structure of the writing).
- Read the book or passage in a different translation to expand your observations and understanding.
- It is very important to do thorough observation first. You must gather facts before making conclusions. Use material gained in observation to back up your interpretation. If you’re having difficulty with interpretation, go back and do more observations.
- Consult Bible dictionaries, atlases, and historical background resource material for unanswered questions or more information.
- Consult a commentary. Do this last. Use the commentary as a tool, not a crutch. Dialogue with the commentary. What did you learn from the commentary? Do you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusion?
Practically speaking, it might be helpful to get a notebook or journal that you use only for inductive Bible study. You can write down (and even color code to match your Bible) your observations and then follow that up with your interpretation questions. When I do this I switch between a few colors of pen. I write my observations in black, interpretation questions in blue, application (the 3rd step which I will cover soon), in purple. Using different colors helps me to easily see the steps and keep them distinct for easy reference.
I pray that your reading and studying is drawing you closer to Him! I love to hear from readers regarding what you are studying or learning— so do share!