How to interpret the Bible

Many ordinary readers of the Bible feel very nervous when interpretation is mentioned. For some, ‘interpretation’ means ‘making the Bible mean what it doesn’t say.’ For others, it becomes the realm of experts who are schooled in complex issues of language and philosophy and threatens to remove the possibility of reading for themselves. They are offered the priesthood of the commentator, who tells them from expert knowledge what the ‘true’ meaning of the text is.

But interpretation is impossible to avoid, in part because of the nature of language, in part because of the nature of the Bible, and in part because of the nature of Christian faith. That is why I have written the latest Grove Biblical booklet How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions. Like other Grove booklets, it does not claim to be the last word on the subject—how could it be, in such a vast field—but at least a first word, offering some places to start. The material started life as a series of seminars at the New Wine North summer conference in 2009, and some of it was posted as articles here. The contents are as follows:

1 Do we need to Interpret the Bible?

2 What Kind of Writing? Reading for Genre

3 What did it Mean? Reading in Context

4 What does it Say? Attending to Content

5 What Part of the Story? Reading the Canon

6 Conclusion: Bringing it all Together

The material in the booklet has been expanded, reordered and revised from the material in the connected blog posts, with questions for reflection added. Ia m conscious that the issues here are very much starting points—or ‘essentials’ as I style them in the blog posts—but that each of them raises questions for further exploration.

On the question of genre (or ‘kind of writing’), the lingering question is always ‘how do we know?’ How do we know what kind of writing a text really is, and what that means for its reception by its first audience? This is an important question not just for the obscure and bizarre parts of the Bible, but for ones that are pretty central. Some years ago, Joachim Jeremias proposed that Jesus’ parables were a kind of storytelling that had only one point, but this observation has since been disputed. And it is instructive to see how the word ‘parable’ is used in the NT; in Mark 3.23, Mark uses the word ‘parable’ for Jesus’ analogy between Satan and the strong man, something we would not normally include within this kind of speech. And yet genre recognition is an inescapable part of reading; it is something we do all the time; and it is regarded by many as the essential starting point for making sense of any text.

The moment we raise the issue of historical context, large questions arise about how we know things about history at all, and whether we fit what Scripture says into what we ‘know’ about Scripture, or whether we treat Scripture as a historical source (taken on its own terms) alongside other historical information that we have. This question is acute in relation to the New Testament, which appears to be making historical claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but it is chronic in relation to the Old Testament, where questions of history are more complex since our non-biblical sources are more scant and contested. Yet we know that ‘a text without a context is a pre-text’, and no text can be removed from its context without losing or changing meaning. Raising questions of the content of biblical texts and their place within the whole canon of Scripture also opens up debate—but it is debate which we cannot avoid if we are faithfully seek to listen to what Scripture says.

Although the visual has had an important place in Christian devotion, the Judeo-Christian tradition is distinctly verbal in its constitution. It is through words, and in particular the words of Scripture, that God makes himself known. This is undergirded by the central theological importance of God’s words as powerful, effective and creative throughout the narrative of the Old Testament—God’s creates with speech, calls his people, forms them through spoken commands and calls them to holiness to the words that ‘come to’ his prophets. But it is confirmed by the central theological idea of God’s self-expression in Jesus described as ‘the word made flesh’ in John 1, carried through in the canonical summary of Hebrews 1: ‘God has spoken in many and various ways, but in these last days has spoken to us by his Son’. The Christian traditions that focus particularly on the Bible have sometimes been criticised as turning the flesh back into words again, but that is to ignore the theological connection made between the person of Jesus and the apostolic testimony of the New Testament writings. The testimony of the witnessing apostolic community (see Acts 10.41) is that which leads us into personal encounter with Jesus the living word, and it is the source given to us in which can test, shape and form our personal experience.

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

Human language can never unambiguously convey human meaning; even in conversation with people we know, we often think ‘Now, what did she mean by that?’ This is especially true of writing which, like the Bible, originates in particular times, places and cultures, and these are now at a distance from us. Language functions at a number of different levels. Words have ranges of meanings (often called the ‘semantic range’), but the range of meaning of a word in one language will never exactly match the range of meaning of an equivalent word in another. The English ‘have’ can mean ‘to possess,’ but it can also mean ‘obliged to’ (as in ‘I have to leave now’). The French ‘avoir’ has some overlap with this, but is also used in descriptions of age (‘J’ai trente ans’) which do not carry over into English. It is an act of interpretation to decide which part of the semantic range a word means before we can even translate into another language.

Words also carry meaning by making reference within a particular cultural context, and when read in a different cultural context, that meaning needs interpretation. If Jesus is ‘the good shepherd,’ what does that mean in an agrarian (as opposed to a post-industrial) context? And what does it mean in the context of other biblical language about shepherds? Words and language also communicate by means of their impact, which might shock, startle, surprise or reassure, and discerning this impact is another act of interpretation. Finally, words communicate by their very shape and sound, particularly in poetic writing. This is why some translators choose to focus on the meaning of words (in ‘literal’ or word-for-word translations), others focus on more contextual questions (‘dynamic equivalent’ translations) whilst still others focus on impact (paraphrases like Eugene Peterson’s The Message).

There is a parallel between the vulnerability of God in coming to us in a particular time and place in the incarnation, and the vulnerability of God in speaking through this particular text with its questions and challenges. The test is always: will we allow God to speak to us, to offer a fresh word, to question and challenge us and lead us into new understanding? These are central issues in the life of every disciple.

There are plenty of resources which explores each of these questions further. If you mention your own favourites in the comments below, I will expand this list accordingly.

On genre: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee

On canon: What’s the Bible All About by Ian Paul and Philip Jenson. The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen. A Walk Through the Bible by Lesslie Newbigin.

On context: Exploring the New Testament Volume 1 on the gospels by Steve Walton and David Wenham. Volume 2 on Acts and the Epistles by Stephen Travis, Howard Marshall and Ian Paul.

You can buy How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions from the Grove Books website for £3.95 post free in the UK, or as a PDF e-book.

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

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18 thoughts on “How to interpret the Bible”

  1. Ian,

    I came across your blog recently and have found it helpful and challenging, not least in your refusal to fudge issues and give fresh insights.
    This one on Interpreting the Bible is an excellent introduction to the subject and deserves a wide readership.
    I have one small question and it is why does 3 on meaning come before 4 on content?
    I think many interpretative and applicatory blunders arise from trying to determine meaning without a close study of content.
    We met briefly about 17/18 years ago when I was on the staff at Cranmer Hall.
    Anyway more power to you elbow.

    • Greetings Bob! We did indeed meet—and your contributed early to the Biblical series!

      The chapter headings are carefully worded: the question in chapter 3 is not ‘What does it mean?’ but ‘What did it mean?’. The chapter explores this more fully under the question ‘What did it mean then?’ That is, it is exploring historical context—which I think is the right thing to do in conjunction with looking carefully at content.

      In reality, of course, all these things interact with one another, so the order I have presented them makes sense, but not as an absolute rule.

      If you are able to review the booklet somewhere, I can send you a PDF

  2. This is helpful Ian. I have just one quibble. You counter the common accusation of ‘turning flesh back into words again’ by saying that is to ignore the theological connection made between the person of Jesus and the apostolic testimony of the New Testament writings’. However, the apostolic testimony was not in words only but in ministry such as healing, and in establishing a distinct lifestyle among those they called. So the verbal testimony was given its authenticity and authority by ‘acts of the flesh’ which not only showed the words had real power, but which were themselves part of what attracted people to the new faith. Without this ‘incarnational’ aspect, the apostle’s testimony would just have been empty words to those who had not encountered Jesus in the flesh.

    • Yes, that’s true—but two caveats. First, the apostles appear to see the action and ministry as supporting and endorsing the apostolic message, and in no way supplanting it or making it secondary. Secondly, they never describe such action as ‘incarnational’. The incarnation was about the once-only event of the Word becoming flesh; our action is of quite a different nature.

      • I certainly didn’t mean to suggest the verbal testimony was in any way secondary – in fact I make exactly your first point, that it supported and endorsed the apostolic message. As for using the word ‘incarnational’, it would be obtuse to expect the Bible to use it since it is not a biblical term, but a later theological one. I don’t think our action is of that different a nature, since Paul describes the church as ‘the body of Christ’, and what is that if it is not another form of the Word made flesh?

        • I am glad to hear that—because most people do make this observation to suggest that a focus on the message is somehow ‘Pharisaical’ (even though that was not actually Jesus’ primary criticism of the Pharisees.

          The reason why our ministry cannot be described as ‘incarnational’ is that Jesus was divine prior to being incarnated; we are not. We have always been human and continue to be so. I suppose there is a case for saying that God’s action through us is incarnational, but in using this phrase most people are focussing on the action of Christians, not the action of God.

    • Yes. But how unfortunate that Steve and his colleagues characterised questioning and undermining central Christian approaches to the Bible as ‘mature, whilst those who hold historic positions are ‘juvenile’. So you can ask questions of the Bible, but not of Steve himself. Hmmm…

      • Like Jesus, Steve has put aside his reputation and sided with the poor and oppressed. Steve is always open to questions – he even makes it clear in most sermons that these are his views and open to debate. In our evening service the format every week is we listen to a sermon, then split into groups and discuss, then put our questions to the speaker.

        • Sorry, Adam, to puncture your hagiography: Steve has played to the cultural grandstand and departed from apostolic teaching. His comments on scripture not being ‘infallible’ are incoherent, contradictory, and quite often insulting. He dismisses criticism but refuses to actually engage in debate. It is really a sorry tale.

          • The reason the poor and oppressed loved Jesus is because he stood up for them against the religious teachers of his day. I appreciate Steve in the same way. Jesus also went against the teaching of his day: Moses had a man killed for gathering firewood on the Sabbath whereas Jesus picked grain and ate it on the Sabbath.

            Steve has initiated the debate as you can see from the link I posted originally. And you were one of a whole spectrum of people invited to one of the conferences we held on sexuality – I know you met up with Gareth but as far as I remember you declined the invitation.

        • It’s great to invite questions of speakers and have discussion. The main question to ask is: if the NT writers are not trustworthy, then how do we know what Jesus is like so that we have something against which we can measure the trustworthiness or otherwise of the gospel writers who tell us about him?

          • One of the great things about our church is that everyone has differing views on most things but we unite in Christian service: we help run a foodbank, a debt advice centre, a farm, two schools, and all the activities that these bring about. So I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, being a Christian is not about having the ‘correct’ thoughts it’s more about doing the ‘correct’ thing. Will believing in the virgin birth make you a good Christian – probably not, but feeding the hungry at the foodbank will.

            Many people have been inspired by Jesus’ teachings – but only by some of them. Most people pick and choose the ones they live by. I’m not sure it’s possible to say whether the NT writers are trustworthy or not – I prefer to have faith in God rather than them. Why do you think the Bible is infallible?

  3. I am in the southern part of the USA. Your blog is fantastic I also emailed you a couple of years ago and you were very helpful. Learning not to read the Bible as a southern fundamentalist has been liberating. Coming to understand a scholarly method has changed me. God is not to be feared. His plan is to continue creating a perfect world, not to punish and destroy. You have been a HUGE help in answering questions I have had since my youth. God Bless

  4. In reply to another correspondent you say: “The main question to ask is: if the NT writers are not trustworthy, then how do we know what Jesus is like so that we have something against which we can measure the trustworthiness or otherwise of the gospel writers who tell us about him?”

    I have a problem with this because the simple, objective fact is that the NT writers, more especially the gospel writers with whom Jesus’ reputation, character and personality lie almost whole and entire, ARE NOT trustworthy. Some examples off the top of my head: Did Jesus’ parents already come from the Bethlehem area and only subsequently move to Galilee (Matthew) or were they from Galilee and went to Bethlehem due to some census otherwise unattested in general, public history (Luke)? Which day was Jesus crucified on, the one the synoptics say it was or the different day John says it was? Did Jesus tell parables (the synoptics) or make long speeches (John)? Did the risen Jesus appear to 500 people at once in public (1 Corinthians) and, if so, why does no other source, Christian or otherwise, nor any of the 500 of whom Paul says some are still alive, make mention of it when it would be irrefutable proof no one could deny of the resurrection? Did Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” (Luke) or “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew) – which are different things? Did tombs open and the dead walk about Jerusalem (Matthew) and, if so, how did Mark, Luke and John miss it (not to mention the Romans and the Jewish culture in general)? Why, in the gospels, do we find that, when we read them in parallel, accounts of the seeming same events have been moved around and presented in different orders thus suggesting that strict, historical chronology was not their abiding concern? (This also suggests the narrative frameworks are entirely fictional, of course.) Did Jesus cleanse the Temple twice, as a reading of the synoptics and John would suggest, or only once? Does this issue of chronology make the stories of the gospels essentially free-floating material subject to a writer’s whim? (One might almost say fictions not histories.) Where was Jesus buried and from where did he rise? This would be the most portentous religious site in world history if the Christian story were true and yet it seems to me we do not know precisely where this site was. How could the Christian witnesses have forgotten if the gospel narratives are true in a world where people revere statues that they claim are weeping? The New Testament attests to a Jewish church led by James the brother of Jesus, would he not know, would this miraculous site not be remembered? (This is to leave aside the incompatible and contradictory post-resurrection accounts which cannot reasonably be harmonized however hard you try or however apologetic you become.)

    In short, if your argument be that the Christian bible (I note that Judaism interprets differently to Christians in general), a priori, MUST be trustworthy (true) otherwise you find yourself on sandy ground (to quote the parable), then I submit that you are very much in the sand. It is my belief that you will struggle in vain to find all your readerly presuppositions about the text in the bible itself. And this is always the issue. The bible doesn’t tell you how to read it and the many, many ways it has been read and interpreted over the centuries, in Jewish and Christian places, is a record of ways many of which I’m sure you would find inadmissible. Certain Jewish interpreters find that in the Torah is the whole of creation. People such as yourself insist the whole bible must point to Jesus. Matthew says Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah. John says Jesus is superior to it, even to being “I AM”.

    So to come to my own biblical interest, Jesus, you ask how we can know about him. Well if you want history I suggest that you can’t know much about him aside from the use of a dogmatic and unprovable insistence that the New Testament is true which not even all the Christian biblical scholars believe anymore. (And, no, I don’t believe Jesus was an evangelical either. How unhistorical!) There are no independent records confirming its story even if you believe all its books are telling the same story (and Christian interpreters love a good bit of harmonization – but only when it suits!). The non-Christian evidence for Jesus is amazingly small and amounts to a few statements. So we are left to agree with the believers – or not. Is this any kind of basis for saying we know things about Jesus? Would we accept as evidence about any other historical character, on sight and without a great deal of skepticism, the testimony of avowed worshippers and swallow it whole? Should we believe the gospels are true, even where they contradict themselves, just because someone sincerely wrote them? Might we not as well believe that Odysseus killed a Cyclops and Heracles a Hydra? To me that just seems like saying “I am invested in this so I’m going to justify it no matter what.” That may convince saps in pews but it seems to me to be rather better characterized as nigh on self-deception because it feels better in its effects than a proper critical approach.

    If Jesus existed he is a public, historical figure who should be judged by public, historical means. You are free to cherish your own private fantasies about his meaning in your own time, of course, but let’s not be in any doubt that that is what they are. If you want to cast gospel writers in some holy aura of trustworthiness that’s a scheme of your making rather than a demonstration from their writing.

    Yours in a spirit of honest inquiry.


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