The Basic Questions

Last post we said that Bible interpretation is simply reading the Bible and asking the right questions as we read.  Today we’ll look at what questions we should ask when reading.

A word about Genre:

Most of us would have come across the word ‘genre’ being used to describe different types of music (if you haven’t, flick through your iTunes library and check it out). Genre can be used of different types of written works as well. One of the great features of the Bible is that it is made up of many different genres (i.e. poetry, gospels, prophecy, proverbs, law, narratives, epistles etc). The beauty of this is that God’s word comes to us in a wide variety of forms, and each one is suited for different uses! However, this does require some extra thought when we study the Bible because each of these genres has its own quirks or ‘rules’ to remember when we read it.

In this post we’ll go through the general principles of Bible interpretation – the basic questions we should ask whenever we read any part of the Bible. The posts after this will all focus on different genres, showing how to apply these principles to each genre and also any other tips to think of when reading that genre.

The Original Meaning (‘then and there’):

As we said in our last post, Bible interpretation starts with trying to hear God’s word as the original hearers would have heard it (the technical term for this is ‘exegesis’).

We actually do this all the time although we may not realise it, because it’s quite common sense. For example, when you hear someone say: ‘What they used to do back then…’, or ‘What Jesus mean by that was…’ – that’s exegesis, because we’re trying to understand what it meant to the first hearers. However, often we only do this when we notice an obvious problem between what we read and our modern culture. It is important to use it then but we shouldn’t just leave it for problem passages, exegesis should be the first step in reading any passage. There’s a good reason for this, what if the problem’s not obvious and we don’t notice it; what if, let’s say, the Bible says something that seems to mean something fairly straightforward, but in actual fact meant something completely different to the original audience, but because we thought we understood it, we skipped trying to find out what it really meant and ended up taking it to mean something it never meant!!

That last bit could have been rather confusing, so let’s look at an example. How many times have you heard people being cautioned not to do something because of ‘avoiding all appearance of evil’? If we simply read 1 Thessalonians 5:22, we might decide that yes, its message is to be careful doing things that might look wrong (this is a valid principle found in other places in the Bible btw). However, if we do our exegesis first and look at things like context we see that 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is part of a paragraph, see below:

“Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything: hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 NRSV)

In context we can see that Paul is saying to not write all the prophecies off, instead to test them and keep what is good but avoid any prophecies that appear evil. But if we had skipped exegesis and tried to go straight to the ‘here and now’ we’d have completely missed the point! This is why exegesis must always be the first step in study.

So what questions should we ask when we do exegesis?

Questions for Exegesis

So what questions do we ask when we do exegesis? They can be broken down into questions of context and questions of content.

Context

There are two kinds of context: historical and literary.

Historical Context

Historical context refers to what was happening at the time the letter/book was written
Some questions to ask as you read that help you think about historical context are:

  1. What was the purpose or reason for the book being written? The most important part of historical context is the ‘occasion’ or reason why the book was written. We are trying to figure out what was happening in Israel so we can understand why the prophet wrote what he did; or what the ecclesia’s concerns were so that we can understand why Paul answered them as he did.
  2. When was the book was written?
  3. Where was it written?
  4. Who was it written by and to whom?
  5. What the culture and practices of the day were like?
  6. What was happening politically at the time?

For example:

  • It makes a difference when reading Malachi to know that he was a prophet after the return of Judah from exile (post-exilic).
  • Or, when reading the gospels, to appreciate the messianic expectations of Israel at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus.
  • Or, to know the differences between the cities of Philippi and Corinth, and how these differences affected the believers in each city.
  • Or, when we read Jeremiah or the life of Josiah, it makes a huge difference to understand the massive power shifts on the political scene as the Medes and Babylonions replaced Assyria and Egypt as the superpowers of the Ancient Near East.

In short the aim of the historical context is to reconstruct the reason for writing the work so that we can then better understand the answers that the work gives.

Literary Context

This is what most people mean when they talk about ‘reading something in context’. In fact this is the core part of Bible study.

The basic idea is that ‘words only have meanings in sentences and that a sentence can often only be clearly understood by looking at the sentences before and after’. So if you want to know what a word means you have to look at what the sentence is saying. And if you want to know what a sentence means, look at the sentences around it.

For literary context there is only one question, ‘what is the point?’. You have to ask it over and over again for every sentence and every paragraph. We’re trying to follow the author’s thought flow. So you read a sentence and then ask ‘What is the author saying? Why is he/she saying that now, having made that point what is he/she saying next, and why?’

If historical context is about understanding the questions/issues that made an author write a work, then the literary context is about understanding what his answer was.

Content

These are the ‘what’ and ‘who’ questions, for example: ‘what does this word mean?’, ‘what was a …?’, or ‘who was…?’

For these questions you often need to seek help in a good Bible dictionary or commentary, but remember the quality of your answers depends on the quality of the sources you use.

Applying the Meaning Today (“here and now”):

Having understood what the message originally was, how does this fit in our lives?

This is the hardest part but it is the most important, really it’s the whole point of doing Bible study. However, because this varies so much for different genres we will focus more on this in our posts for each genre and instead leave you with this simple rule to form the basis: ‘a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author and original hearers’. I.e. When we try to find the meaning of a passage for us we have to start with what God originally intended it to mean. This rule isn’t great at telling us what a passage means for us today, but it does set some useful boundaries around what it cannot mean. The original meaning is the only meaning that we know for sure God intended. In some areas, like prophecy, there is occasionally a second, deeper meaning but we have to be very careful that the passage allows us to make this meaning and that we are not putting words in God’s mouth because we wish them to be true.

Summary

“Bible study is learning to read and ask the right questions of a passage”

Bible study is learning to read and ask the right questions of a passage
Bible study is learning to read and ask the right questions of a passage

To Read or To Interpret?

Let’s start out with a fairly basic question:
“Do we need to interpret or study the Bible?”
Some of you may be asking this or have asked it before, because we often have felt or heard someone say, “we don’t need to study the Bible, we just need to read it and do what it says”, or that “people tend to make things overcomplicated”.

And there’s a lot of truth in this.

We do need to aim for the simple meaning of the Bible when we read it and above all the reason for reading the Bible is so that we can put what we learn into practice. The difficulty we face with a passage like Phil 2:3 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (NRSV) is not understanding it but living it!

Also there is a real danger in digging so deep when we’re studying that we muddy the clear simple message of the Bible. It’s probably important to say right here that the aim of Bible study is NOT “uniqueness”. We’re not trying to find something that no one else has ever found before and “out-clever” the world.

As we said, the aim of Bible study is simply to get at the plain meaning of the passage. This does come from reading, but at the same time we can’t simply read the Bible at face-value for 2 reasons:

  1. Nature of the reader (because of who we are):
    Whether we like it or not whenever we read something we interpret as we read. By that I mean, when we read something we imagine what’s going on –we try to make sense of it. However, when we try to understand/interpret the Bible we are influenced by all our past experiences, culture and associations. For example: when we read that people prayed we often view them either standing or sitting with their heads bowed and eyes closed (because that’s what we do!), whilst often prayers were done with eyes open, hands outstretched and head lifted back. When we hear the word ‘flesh’ in our language today we think of our physical body, whilst Paul often uses it of our sinful nature. Choosing to not interpret is just not an option, we can only choose whether to do it well (and try to make our understanding closer to God’s intent) or do it poorly.
  2. Nature of the Bible (because of what the Bible is)
    Just take a moment to think about what the Bible is… It’s the Word of God written by humans throughout history. It’s amazing, because there’s an awesome balance here! Because the Bible is God’s word it is eternally relevant – its message speaks to us throughout all time. But because it was written by humans for humans, God’s words were expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of the people of the time and was written to address their problems/questions.Because of this we have to realise that the Bible isn’t always speaking directly to us. Now wait a second, what do I mean by that, because didn’t we just say that the Bible is eternally relevant? Well 1 Corinthians is a letter written to people who lived in 1st Century Corinth right? So while the Bible is God’s word to us, it was first God’s word to them! 1 Corinthians was a letter to them, written in their language, in words they would understand, in a way they would understand, about their questions/problems. For example read 1 Cor 13:4-6. We commonly use these beautiful words to describe what love is and you’ll often hear them in weddings (I used them for mine!). They do describe love, but what we have to remember is that they are the aspects of love that the Corinthians needed to hear. A read through 1Corinthians shows us that the 1Cor 13:4-6 matches up with the issues the Corinthians had. It is not a complete description of love, if these verses were in Philippians for example, they might look quite different (but still be true).

    So for Corinthians to have any meaning for us we have to learn to read it as they would have read it (not try to read it as if it was Paul’s letter to the Adelaidians!). And because we are so far removed from them in time, plus we have a different language, different ways of thinking and aren’t familiar with their problems, we have to study the Bible so that we can hear it as they heard it. Once we know what it said to them we can work out what it is saying to us.

How to Study:

So there are two tasks in Bible study: we have to first understand the ‘then and there’ – what it meant to the original hearers, and then we have to hear God’s word ‘here and now’ – hearing that same message in our lives today.

This does NOT mean that we’re making Bible study so complicated that it’s out of reach for most of us. Bible study is simply reading the Bible but also asking the right questions as we read so that we properly understand ‘then and there’ and ‘here and now’. The questions we have to ask are pretty common sense and we’ll go through them in our next post.

Summary:

  • The aim of Bible study: to understand the simple meaning of a passage
  • The 2 tasks in Bible study: understand the ‘then and there’, and then discern the ‘here and now’
  • Bible study is reading the Bible and asking the right questions as you read
  • What questions do I ask? Wait till next week!!

References:

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.

The Need to Understand Genre

Continuing our exploration of Bible study methods, we’ll be looking at genre next. Here’s a quote that explains the need to understand genre.

One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that, in order to communicate his word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.

To interpret properly the “then and there” of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one also needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres). The way God communicates the divine word to us in the “here and now” will often differ from one form to another. For example, we need to know how a psalm, a form often addressed to God, functions as God’s word to us, and how certain psalms differ from others, and how all of them differ from “the laws,” which were often addressed to people in cultural situations no longer in existence. How do such “laws” speak to us, and how do they differ from the moral “laws,” which are always valid in all circumstances? Such are the questions the dual nature of the Bible forces on us.

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fourth Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 26–27.