Five essentials of Biblical Interpretation no. 4: content

I previously wrote about the first three ‘essentials’ of biblical interpretation in 2013, reposted in 2016—but never finished this series on reading scripture well and wisely. The first related to reading in canonical context, that is, attending to the place a text comes within a passage, a chapter, a book, a testament and the whole canon of Scripture. The second explored what difference it makes reading texts in their historical context, and the third looked at the question of genre—how does recognising the kind of writing we are reading change the way we interpret it? You will notice my attempt at alliteration: canon; context; kind—and to this I now add content.

It might seem an odd thing to say in the context of interpreting the Bible, but as we read we do need to actually attend to what the text says, and not what we think it says. The reason for this is the phenomenon of ‘confirmation bias’; it is well documented, as part of psychological research, that people will see what they want to see in a situation, even if it is not actually there. This is especially the case when looking at something familiar—and many Christians do think that they are looking at something familiar when they are reading the Bible.

A few years ago, I was speaking with an older Christian about the nature of baptism, and this person had for many years been happy with baptism by sprinkling because of the use of the word in 1 Peter 1.2. But Peter is hearing talking about being ‘sprinkled with his blood’, using a metaphor from the temple sacrifices, and connected with the temple language he then uses in chapter 2. It is clear from Jesus’ baptism when he ‘comes up out of the water’ (Matt 3.16) and from Paul’s metaphorical imagery of death and resurrection through the waters of baptism (Romans 6.4) that the assumption is that baptism is about immersion in water, not sprinkling with it—but that was something this devoted, Bible-reading Christian just had not noticed.[1]

Asking the question about content is simply to post the question:

What does this text actually say?

This is a fruitful question to ask every time we read, even of passages with which we are familiar. To give two examples from my own reading in the last 24 hours: I had never previously noticed in Acts 1.2 that the risen Jesus ‘gave commands through the Holy Spirit’, which characteristically associates Jesus’ ministry with the action of the Spirit and contradicts our assumptions about how the Spirit operates. And in 1 Cor 15.5 and 7, Paul lists ‘The Twelve’ separately from ‘all the apostles’, showing that ‘apostles’ is a wider group when referenced in Romans 16.7. Looking carefully at what the text says will always offer new insights.

Texts about ‘The End’

It is particularly easy to succumb to confirmation bias in discussing complex and contested issues, such as eschatology, the study of ‘the end times’. In Matt 24.29, most ordinary readers (and quite a few commentators) understand the language of ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light’ (from Is 13.10 and 34.4) as referring to Jesus’ return at the end of time. The difficulty with this is that, five verses later, Jesus says with solemn emphasis (‘Amen I tell you…’ verse 34) that all this will happen in the lifetime of his hearers.[2] Some scholars have argued that Jesus thought the end of the world would come immediately—but Matthew records his words, perhaps 40 years later, clearly believing that Jesus was not mistaken. Peter quotes similar language about the sun and moon (this time from Joel 2) at the day of Pentecost, and claims that what is happening right there is the fulfilment of such prophecy. So Jesus’ language about ‘the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Matt 24.30) refers to his coming to God as it is in Dan 7.13, not his return to earth, and this must also be his meaning when speaking to the High Priest at his trial in Mark 14.62.[3] Jesus actually states (in Matt 24.26–27) that all the events he is describing are not a sign of his parousia, his royal return at The End.

A similar misreading occurs in the second half of this chapter. Jesus’ description of ‘one will be taken and the other left’ (Matt 24.40–41) has for the last 100 years or so been widely read as describing the ‘secret rapture’ when believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving behind a world of unbelief. But that is not what Jesus actually says! He draws a parallel between the time of Noah and the flood and the time of his return in verse 37: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.’ He then highlights the division that comes at the moment of judgement: those who ignored Noah’s warning from God and simply continued with the ordinary things of life ‘knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away.’ And, he says, it will be just the same at the coming of the Son of Man. So those who are ‘taken away’ are the ones who have ignored God’s warning and are snatched away in judgement, leaving behind those who have trusted God. In other words, we should want to be ‘left behind’![4]

Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

Texts about gender relations[5]

Another area where it is easy to succumb to ‘confirmation bias’ is in texts that comment on gender relations, since these are also disputed, and many of us come to the biblical texts with strong views already formed. In each of the key texts, we will not be able to solve all the issues immediately—but we are greatly helped by noticing carefully what the text does and does not say.

One of the most commonly debated is Paul’s injunction in 1 Tim 2.11–12 that women ‘learn in silence’ and ‘be quiet’. There are two important things to note here in terms of the content of what is being said. The first is that the phrase en hesuchia, used in both places, does not mean ‘absolute silence’ but has the sense of not being argumentative. It is a favourite term of Luke (in his gospel and Acts) and describes the inability of the Pharisees to contest with Jesus in Luke 14.4, the failure to find an answer to Jesus in Luke 20.26, and even the quietness of Sabbath rest in Luke 23.56. In Acts 11.18, those listening to Peter’s testimony are ‘silent and praised God’—so it can hardly imply lack of speaking! When Luke wants to tell us that people are actually saying nothing, he uses a word with a different root, sigao, as the disciples following the Transfiguration in Luke 9.36, and those telling Bartimaeus to shut up in Luke 18.39.

The second thing to note is that this injunction for women to learn in quietness parallels Paul’s command to the men in the earlier verses of the chapter: men are to pray ‘without anger or disputing’ in 1 Tim 2.8, and in fact the ‘quiet life’ (hesuchios bios) should be the hallmark of the whole Christian community (1 Tim 2.2). This observation does not answer all our questions about the passage—but without noticing this theme of quietness throughout the passage, we are very likely to misinterpret it.

1 Cor 11.1–16 is another complex and contested passage, and again we will be helped by reading carefully what the text actually says. Older translations often render verse 10 as ‘A woman ought to have a sign of authority over her own head’ (for example, in the American Standard Version), in order to fit this verse with what the translators supposed was Paul’s argument: women operate under the authority of men (or their husbands) and wearing a head-covering was a sign of this. But in fact the text simply says ‘A woman ought to have authority over her own head’ (TNIV) which rather suggests the opposite—that she has the right to exercise the authoritative ministry of prophecy in the worshipping community. At the end of Paul’s somewhat tortuous (to us) argument, it is also worth noting the conclusion he comes to in 11.15: ‘Long hair is given to her as [or ‘in place of’] a covering.’ In other words, says Paul, if you Corinthians insist on women having a covering, fine—God has already provided one in the form of naturally long hair. So women can indeed pray and prophesy in their own right—and exercise all the other gifts of the Spirit which the Spirit gives to whoever he chooses![6]

A third text that is commonly referred to is Eph 5.21–24 with its emphasis on ‘wives submitting to your husbands’. Most English translations start verses 21 and 22 as new sentences; most include a definite verb in verse 22 (‘wives submit…’); and some even have a paragraph break perhaps with a heading between the two verses. In fact, the last finite verb comes in verse 18, with the negative and positive commands not to get drunk but to be filled with the Spirit; all the following verbs are participles which depend on this double commandment:

18 Do not get drunk on wine…but (continually) be filled with the Spirit
19      speaking to one another…singing and praising
20     giving thanks always for everything…
21      submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,
22   wives to their own husbands as to the Lord,
23 for the husband is head of the wife
as Christ is head of the church,
he the saviour of his body;
24 but as the church submits to Christ, so also women to (their) husbands in all things

This suggests that the ‘submission’ of wives to husbands is one part of the submission of all members of the community to one another, and is one aspect of working out what it means to be ‘filled with the Spirit’. This observation is supported by the inclusion of the emphatic word idiois in verse 22: wives are to submit to their own husbands. In other words, the distinctive egalitarian nature of the relations in the community of the new covenant does not obliterate natural family and household relationships.

The Challenge of Paying Attention

In some of these examples, we are able to pay better attention to the text simply by reading carefully the English translation that we have in front of us, particularly if it is a more word-for-word version. This is true of the two passages from Matt 24, the importance of ‘silence’ in 1 Tim 2, and Paul’s conclusion in 1 Cor 11.15. In other cases, we can only know what the text actually says with the help of other commentators—an inevitable consequence of reading in translation. Most of the time, reading carefully lies in the interaction between the two—our own attention to the text and insights that others can bring.

A good example of this is found in what must be the best known verse in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible: John 3.16. You can probably recite it from memory—but you will most likely recite it incorrectly. Most people remember it as ‘God so loved the world…’ meaning ‘God loved the world so much…’ But the word translated ‘so’ most commonly means ‘in this way’; it primarily indicates the manner of God’s love, rather than its degree. Some recent translations now reflect this, but many still follow the ‘traditional’ rendering of the Authorised Version. In 1611, ‘so’ was commonly used to mean ‘in this way’. In Matt 5.12 AV Jesus says ‘…for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you’. Modern versions translate this ‘…for in this way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ The meaning of the English word has changed—but so many know it by heart that translators shied away from updating the language.

Most of my examples touch on contested and contentious issues in interpretation, and this is not an accident. Particular readings become associated with particular theological outlooks, and we often invest much emotional and intellectual energy in defending particular positions. Changing our understanding of key texts might be very threatening, and be seen to undermine our convictions, and it is in these moments we need to be most disciplined in focusing on what the text says, not what we want it to say—allowing God, through his word in Scripture, to challenge afresh our understanding and assumptions.

There are several things we can do to develop our attention to the text. The first is simply to read more slowly, in contrast to the way we process so much textual information in our information-saturated culture. We need to take time with a verse or a passage, to listen carefully and reflect deeply—and learning it by heart can help this. Another approach is to express it in our own words, which demands that we inhabit the text in detail first. When we look to those more expert for help, in books and commentaries, we should seek those who help us understand the text and what is says before they give their own view or move too quickly to application. And there is always the option of learning biblical languages for ourselves; one of the main advantages of this is forcing us to slow down and attend to the text in detail. In fact, reading in any other language will help us slow down and attend; I noticed the first example above (Jesus giving instructions ‘through the Holy Spirit’) when I was reading the passage in French, a second language for me.

Questions for Reflection

When have you had the experience of reading something and realising that it does not say what you thought it said? How did that feel? How did you manage the sense of disorientation that this led to?

How easy do you find it to read slowly and carefully?

What assistance might you need to help you attend more carefully to the text of Scripture?

This and the other three related posts, in a revised form, will be published as the next Grove Biblical booklet. The material originated in a series of seminars on how to read the Bible at New Wine North in 2009.

[1] Not many are aware the baptism by immersion, even for infants, is the historic norm for the Church of England as set out in the Book of Common Prayer; sprinkling should only be administered if the child is of ill-health. This is why so many mediaeval baptism fonts are the size of baby baths.

[2] Some have argued that ‘this generation’ that will not pass away is a reference to the Jewish race, rather than the temporal generation of Jesus’ listeners. But that is not what the word means (compare Matt 1.17), and this argument is an attempt to avoid the straightforward meaning of Jesus’ saying.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of these passages, see my earlier Grove booklet B 82 Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World and the online article

[4] For more details on this, see my online article The other ‘rapture’ text is 1 Thess 4.17, discussed in the previous chapter.

[5] For more detail on all these passages, see my Grove booklet B 59 Women and Authority: The Key Biblical Texts and my online articles on gender under

[6] In his NIGTC, Anthony Thiselton notes how earlier commentators simply discount the clear logic of what Paul is saying here, and concludes that ‘The custom to which Paul alludes [in verse 16]…is the acceptance of an equality of status according to which women may lead in public prayer or preaching…side by side with a recognition and appreciation of gender differences’ (pp 846–847).

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22 thoughts on “Five essentials of Biblical Interpretation no. 4: content”

  1. I find it easiest to read slowly and examine the text when I’m with others particularly one to ones with new Christians or seekers. I tend to use a Discovery Bible study method 1. What do we learn about God. 2. What do we learn about others? 3. Are there any commands to obey or any good or bad examples for us. 4. How could you put something into action this week. 5. Who could you share this with this week?…. q1-3 force you to engage with the text as it is.

    Last year we did the whole of Mark over 4 months and during many weeks I’d do a study like above 3, 4 or even 5 times in a week on the same passage – it really forced me to look closely at the text and was a real gift.

  2. Many thanks for this. It is timely in the context of what has gone before. How about reading in the context of the whole of scripture, or scripture fulfilled in Christ, or in the phrase of Richard Hays, Reading Backwards with patterns, alluding, echoes, shadows, types, anti types, figures, so ably demonstrated by Alastair Roberts, when he is on song and others. Once again, thanks for the much needed balm. From my phone

  3. I appreciate and agree with this post. But I wonder who you are referring to concerning Matthew 24:40-41. Many if not most interpreters who hold to a pre-trib rapture position see this text as a Second Coming text and not a rapture text.

  4. Ian, I want to offer a pedantic correction. To the best of my knowledge, sprinkling is not an officially recognised form of administration in the Church of England. Most commonly one hears the word used carelessly, or else pejoratively by anabaptists caricaturing catholic practice. Following custom going back to the Didache, the BCP allows pouring as an alternative to dipping. As Common Worship states (Note 12 on Baptism): “The use of a substantial amount of water is desirable; water must at least flow on the skin of the candidate.”

    • Thanks Doug. Yes, I agree that sprinkling is not an official form of administration—but it is very common, and it is the common perception on all sides.

      The rubric about ‘substantial amount of water’ in CW is the direct result of David Stancliffe’s love for extravagant dramatic action, rather than driven particularly by theological interests; if it had been the latter, we would have seen the restoration of the BCP instruction on immersion.

        • I am not surprised. Evangelicals are often not very good at thinking through the implications of symbolism.

          But on the other hand, have you witnessed many baptisms by full immersion in an anglo-catholic or liberal Church?

          • Well I’ve presided at one, but I doubt that it’s ever been the only method – it would be quite possible to understand Ananias using the bowl and jug in Paul’s room!! 🙂

          • yes, but my point is that it’s all very well criticising evangelicals for sprinkling—but they are most keen on taking the symbolism with full seriousness by immersing.

            If anglo-catholics and others are so good on symbolism, why don’t they do the same?!

          • I’m not sure where to pop this comment but on baptism…immersion/pouring. Has anybody looked at early baptistries? Some of them seem to me (eg at Ephesus) to be designed for pouring over a standing figure. There’s certainly no space to immerse as we define it.

  5. Yes confirmation bias is a problem. To give an example from my own field of study, most will say that Jesus in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12 gives grounds for divorce to a husband/wife for the other’s adultery. But he does not. The text is clear. Divorce is for porneia (sexual immorality, I suggest)—the adultery is on remarriage after an invalid divorce (or more probably, as per Craig Blomberg, the adultery is the invalid divorce).

    Secondly, but perhaps more interestingly, Jesus speaks in both passages only to husbands—a point he makes several times. The only reference to wives is in Mark 10:12, confirming that he was only addressing husbands—in fact, answering the question he was asked. OT legislation (Exod 21:10-11), contemporary documents (Judaean Desert Documents), and the Mishnah, all indicate that divorce grounds in contemporary Jewish society were asymmetrical, as is often demonstrated in the wider ANE.

    • Thanks, Colin, that is interesting. But in speaking against the asymmetry, I still think it is a misreading to infer that Jesus was prohibiting all divorce; the contemporary question was whether divorce was allowed ‘for any [and every] reason by the man’. Are you disagreeing with David Instone-Brewer’s interpretation?

      • No. David was my external examiner and commented that my PhD was “a significant contribution without precedent in the literature … a perfect PhD.” My study has been subsequently endorsed by Craig Blomberg and others. William A. Heth described it as “brilliant” in his 1,500 word Foreword to the published study. Jesus is plainly saying that a man can divorce his wife for sexual immorality, but he did not address the wife’s much wider grounds (Exod 21:10-11) as they were not in dispute by either the Hillelites or the Shammaites. Jesus in effect endorsed the asymmetrical divorce grounds that the Shammaites (correctly) understood to be the Hebrew Bible’s teaching when Exod 21 (for wives) and Deut 24 (for husbands) are compared – the Hillelites were trying to harmonise the husband’s with the wife’s grounds for divorce.

        • That’s really interesting. So what do you say to people who argue: ‘Jesus clearly prohibited divorce, and the Church changed its mind away from the clear teaching of the Bible’?

  6. David does argue in his published work for gender symmetry in divorce grounds—but there is slender evidence for that either in the cultural context or in the biblical text itself. I suggest in my study that such has been read into 1 Cor 7. But a pastoral approach adopting symmetry might be valid? Was the asymmetry to protect women in primitive cultures? I address that issue in my more recent published work.

  7. But gender symmetry in divorce grounds is not found in Jesus’s teaching. And such a concept is contradicted by all the Jewish marriage and divorce documents contemporary to NT times discovered in 1951/52 – the most recent only published in 1995.

  8. I seem to have run out of reply options above- but essentially I simply disagree that the only thing symbolised in the rite of baptism is death and resurrection, as well as disagreeing that immersion is the only way of symbolising it. But this is somewhat of a tangent to your main post, where I was offering a purely factual if pedantic and rubrical correction to your choice of the word “sprinkling “ 😉

    • I am intrigued by this. Whence do you get your understanding of baptism, and in what way would it allow alternative symbolic expression?

      (If you want to continue to reply, just click on the last reply button you can see..)

  9. As an illustration of the importance in the approach to the text, might I quote something which Eddy Arthur himself quoted over 10 years ago, when discussing the dispute between John Piper and Tom Wright over the new perspectives on Paul. Eddy quoted Doug Chaplin (one reason I think the quotation is apposite!), who had blogged:

    “But on these points where Piper chooses to engage him – issues perhaps especially significant for the evangelical constituency – it is fairly clear to me that it is Wright who engages the text, for better or worse, and Piper who reads his tradition into it.”

  10. I would like to push back a bit on the following statement you make.
    “A good example of this is found in what must be the best known verse in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible: John 3.16. You can probably recite it from memory—but you will most likely recite it incorrectly. Most people remember it as ‘God so loved the world…’ meaning ‘God loved the world so much…’ But the word translated ‘so’ most commonly means ‘in this way’; it primarily indicates the manner of God’s love, rather than its degree.”
    Still most translations have “so” suggesting a “how much” sense rather than “in this way” sense. Carson,normally a careful exegete sticks with the “so much sense”.
    If one consults the lumina recourse, we read the following.
    “Or “this is how much”; or “in this way.” The Greek adverb ????? (Joutws) can refer (1) to the degree to which God loved the world, that is, to such an extent or so much that he gave his own Son (see R. E. Brown, John [AB], 1:133-34; D. A. Carson, John, 204) or (2) simply to the manner in which God loved the world, i.e., by sending his own son (see R. H. Gundry and R. W. Howell, “The Sense and Syntax of John 3:14-17 with Special Reference to the Use of ?????…???? in John 3:16,” NovT 41 [1999]: 24-39). Though the term more frequently refers to the manner in which something is done (see BDAG 741-42 s.v. ????/?????), the following clause involving ???? (Jwste) plus the indicative (which stresses actual, but [usually] unexpected result) emphasizes the greatness of the gift God has given. With this in mind, then, it is likely (3) that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.”
    If this holds water, then it is not so much an either/or but a both/and. And I would argue that if you assume a “in this way” sense, one quickly feels the “so much” sense anyway.


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