Five essentials of Biblical Interpretation 1: canon

It is impossible to read the Bible without ‘interpreting’ it, whether we realise it or not. To read is to interpret; to translate is to interpret. This is because we live in a different cultural and historical context from those who wrote the Bible, but also because

The Christ event is an act of interpretation.

So if we are going to interpret, how do we do it well? In these posts I want to offer what I think are five essential elements of a responsible interpretive strategy. These are not so much techniques or methods as dimensions to responsible reading. As a bonus, they all begin with the same sound!

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThe first essential in interpretation is to read the Bible canonically. By this I mean to read whatever particular text we have in front of us in the light of its place in the immediately surrounding texts, within the book of the Bible it occurs, and most broadly within the whole sweep of whole of the Bible.

Our word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek word for ‘reed’, and came to mean the act of measurement for which the reed was used. Applied to the Bible, the term first meant the way in which Scripture functions to ‘measure’ our lives, a standard to live by, but also came to mean the ‘measure’ of what constitutes the books of the Bible. So the ‘formation of the canon’ relates to the process by which Christians discerned what should be included between the covers of the Bible.

If you watch the TV programme Time Team, you will see the archaeologists on the ground exploring the details of a feature. But they only make full sense of it when they pull back, usually in an aerial shot, to see how this detail fits in with the bigger picture. That is what we are doing when we read canonically; we are standing back to see this text in the context of the bigger picture of a passage, a book or the whole of Scripture. To read canonically is to ask the question:

What does this mean here, in this part of the story of Scripture?

Asking this question immediately opens up important issues, deepens our understanding and can transform our interpretation. Here are some examples that spring to mind.

Last Sunday I was preaching on 2 Tim 1.7 ‘For God has not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.’ Reading this canonically meant seeing where the construction ‘not…but’ comes elsewhere in the letter (it comes again in verse 9) and in Paul (Romans 8.15), where power and love are associated with the Spirit in Paul and elsewhere, and the importance and role of power (dunamis) in Jesus’ ministry.

In Luke 4.17, Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61. But Luke’s quotation of the passage misses out an important part. Compare the texts and you will see something significant!

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25.31–46), the sheep are those who have given aid to ‘one of the least of these my brothers.’ Most contemporary interpretations read the ‘brothers’ as the poor in general, and some have even mounted relief campaigns on the basis of this. But Matthew consistently uses the word ‘brother’ (which we might now want to translate ‘brother or sister’) to refer to fellow believers; see Matt 5.23, 5.47, 18.15, 18.21, and especially Matt 12.48-49 and 28.10. Jesus’ brothers are the disciples and anyone else who joins them in following Jesus. We need to read Matthew 25 quite differently!

We need to read the discussion about justification in Romans 3.28 and James 2.14 in the light of each other. There is a long tradition of setting them against one another—but several generations of Christians clearly thought they were both true.

The debates about same-sex unions often founder on the failure to read this issue (and other issues where the church has supposedly ‘changed its mind’) across the whole canon of Scripture. In relation to food laws, all of creation was first declared ‘good’ by God, and the Levitical restrictions were understood by Mark to have been repudiated in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7.19). Slavery was not part of the creation of humanity, who were all equally created in the image of God; God’s central act in the OT (the exodus) was understood as liberation from slavery; and NT teaching such as Gal 3.28 and Eph 6.9, seriously undermine the distinction between slave and master. But the Levitical text prohibiting same-sex unions (Lev 18.22) echoes quite strongly the language of creation in Gen 1.27, and Paul coins a new word in 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.10 as a reference back to the Leviticus text. So there is a consistent canonical connection between these verses—in marked contrast to the other two issues.

How can we develop our skills in seeing the bigger picture?


Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

3 thoughts on “Five essentials of Biblical Interpretation 1: canon”

  1. Thanks Ian
    I’m not sure you wish to deal with this Ian, yet canonicity and ethics bring to my mind the query I raised elsewhere of what to do with the canonical treatment of eunuchs, esp. In the Law, and then in Isaiah 56. I c no reason why the existence of radical development within the canon does not endorse radical and respoonsible development of ethical practice and doctrine after the canon, but perhaps there are other principles to come beginning with ‘can’?

  2. If we looked at the New Testament, although its canon has been settled now, but actually this wasn’t the case among early church fathers. There have been some books as epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas that were accepted by many fathers, now they are not in the NT canon. On the other hand, some of the books accepted now as second epistle of Peter, book of Hebrews and book of Revelations, this link can be a nice list made telling about the disputed books:

  3. Dear ‘Jesus is Muslim’ thanks for your comment and the link.

    If you look at the table carefully, you will see that the response to books which ended up in the canon is quite distinct from the response to books that didn’t. None of the canonical books was ever rejected outright (no Xs in their column) whereas all the non-canonical books are either explicitly rejected or have next to no acceptances. The difference is quite striking.

    More than that, it is important to understand what the formation of the canon does. It changes the status of a text for the reader, but it does not change the text. The certificate that my wife has on her surgery wall does not *make* her qualified, but it allows patients to *recognise* that she is a qualified doctor.

    Canonical status does not *make* the texts of Scripture coherent; it recognises the coherence that is there, and draws readers attention to it.

    Btw, thought your web site was interesting. On your page ‘Was Jesus really crucified?’ you ask whether there is historical evidence for the events in Matthew’s account. Actually there is, and much of it is available online. I can send you links if you are interested. And in terms of harmonising the gospels accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the best book to read is John Wenham ‘Easter Enigma.’


Leave a comment