How Should We Interpret the Bible?
Clues to the original meaning can be found in the style of language, the genre of literature, the original audience, and the historical and cultural context.
Before You Read
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At BioLogos, we believe the Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative word, from Genesis to Revelation. It tells a single, overarching story: how God created the world good and made people in his image; how people rejected God; how God made a covenant with the people of Israel; how, through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, God has graciously redeemed broken and sinful people from every tribe and language and people and nation and has adopted them into his family; and how God’s kingdom is breaking into our world, making all things new.
The Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of this “big story” of the Bible in the hearts and minds of Christian believers. We believe that the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to bring about conviction of sin, repentance, and faith. Everyone who picks up a Bible can read it profitably, regardless of culture and education level.
That said, the Holy Spirit does not provide an unambiguous interpretation of every given text. Every time we read the Bible we have to interpret what we read. Interpreting just means making sense of a text—it is not a special skill reserved for difficult passages. The ways we go about making sense of the Bible will be influenced by our frames of reference and cultural expectations. Sometimes these can interfere with our ability to hear the intended meaning of the biblical authors.
Keeping in mind the origin of the Bible and overall purpose of Scripture can help orient our expectations as we read. When reading a particular text, we should consider the author’s intentions, literary forms and conventions, language, and cultural background of the original audience.
The origin of the Bible
The 66 books of the Protestant Bible contain diverse types of literature and were written in three different languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) by dozens of authors from diverse cultural backgrounds and walks of life over many centuries. The Old Testament writings were penned and compiled over a period of about 1,000 years; the New Testament writings span perhaps 100 years. Hundreds of years passed between the writing of the last book of the Old Testament and the first book of the New Testament.
While many writings were understood to be authoritative by Christians in the first century A.D., it took hundreds of years for the early church to sort through the diverse body of writing related to the Christian movement and finalize the canon of authoritative writings that comprise the Bible today (and there remain differences between the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox canons). The many versions and translations of the Bible available today reflect centuries of scholarship and collaboration among Christians of various traditions.
The purpose of Scripture
Scripture is not intended as a moral guide book or a collection of propositions to believe. Its purpose is to reveal God’s plan and purposes throughout human history. According to the Apostle Paul, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NRSV). (Paul refers here to the Old Testament scriptures, but Christians understand this verse to apply to the New Testament also.) Among the most important objectives, Scripture is “able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (vs. 15).
What is the author trying to do? What literary forms and conventions are they using?
When we interpret a passage, first we have to identify what an author is trying to do. Sometimes authors want to tell what happened or will happen; sometimes they want to explain or describe something; sometimes they want to give instructions about how to do something; and sometimes they want to give an exhortation or command.
All languages and cultures have ways of communicating these kinds of intentions. However, languages and cultures embed these intentions in different literary forms. These literary forms have certain conventions or rules that people within a certain culture and time recognize and easily interpret. But moving from one culture to another, from one time to another, or from one language to another, we may find that both the literary forms and the conventions within the forms are different than what we expect or easily recognize.
The literary forms and conventions associated with the ancient Hebrew psalms, a fifteenth-century Japanese haiku, an eighteenth-century English sonnet, and a twenty-first-century American rap song are very different, even though all could be classified as poetry.
Some literary forms that we find in the Bible, like apocalyptic literature, do not even exist in some other cultures. Some linguistic conventions in the Bible, like the structure of acrostic poems, or wordplay and puns may be obscured or lost in translation. Some literary conventions in the Bible may be unfamiliar, like using numbers symbolically, framing narratives in pericopes (small units), or using doublets for emphasis.
No one should expect to be able to pick up a Bible and perfectly interpret unfamiliar literary forms or immediately recognize the significance of unfamiliar or obscured conventions that contribute to the overall meaning. That is why we turn to the expertise of scholars and translators who have extensively studied the cultures and languages of the Bible. They can also help us identify areas where our own cultural expectations about literary forms and conventions may interfere with our interpretation of the Bible. For example, the Bible definitely records history, but the literary forms and conventions it uses are different than what we may expect from our experience of reading histories in our own language, culture, and time.
What kind of language is being used?
In addition to identifying an author’s purpose and knowing something about the literary form and conventions they are using, part of interpretation is understanding how an author uses language. Some of our human communication is fairly straightforward, but much of it relies on the hearers drawing inferences that are not made explicit by the sum total of the definitions of the words.
Also, much of our language use is figurative in some way, or is not meant to be taken “literally.” Think back to high school English class and all those vocabulary words you had to learn: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, euphemism, synecdoche, litote, idiomatic expression. The Bible has examples of all of these kinds of figures of speech.
To further complicate things, words themselves can have figurative senses. In Greek the primary sense of poimen is shepherd, “someone who cares for sheep”. The secondary, figurative sense is “the leader of a church”. When Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10:14, he is using the primary sense (“literal” meaning) of shepherd in a metaphor that speaks figuratively about his love for his people. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul lists some roles in the church that include shepherd (the secondary or figurative sense, “pastor”), but using that word does not mean we should interpret the passage figuratively; it is a very straightforward list.
Figurative language can show up anywhere; it is not confined to certain literary forms. A poem can use very straightforward language, and a history can use lots of imagery and figures of speech. We cannot make pronouncements about whether language is being used figuratively or not simply based on the literary form of a text. Obviously, the process of interpretation can be complex and multi-faceted.
What was the cultural background of the original audience?
To take the Bible seriously, we also need to consider whom the author was writing to: the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Cultural norms, symbolism, and the audience’s familiarity with Scripture may all contribute to the way in which Scripture has been written and understood. For example, the long lifespans of the patriarchs in the Old Testament likely had greater symbolic significance to the ancient Hebrews than we currently understand. The ages are all multiples of five with seven or fourteen added occasionally, suggesting a rhetorical meaning.
An example of cultural significance in the New Testament is found in the story of the prodigal son as described in Luke 15. A straightforward reading of the parable—disregarding the context—teaches us about the love and forgiveness of a father toward his son, and consequently about God’s love toward his children. However, when the story is considered in its cultural framework, the reading is much more profound.
According to New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, the Jewish son not only acted disgracefully by asking for his inheritance, but he further debased himself by squandering it. The son’s behavior warranted a Kezazah, or cutting off ceremony, upon his return.1 This ceremony would have included rejection by the village and an angry confrontation by his father. Furthermore the son would have had to beg for permission to train for a job in the next village.
Instead of this harsh and inhospitable reception, a loving and merciful homecoming awaited the son. As soon as the father saw his son returning, he raced to see him. This is also a significant detail since men of the father’s age and distinction in Middle Eastern culture always walked in a slow, dignified manner. By running, the father took on the shame and humiliation due his prodigal son. He then kissed his son, gave him his best robe, and called to have the fatted calf slaughtered for a feast.
When Jesus originally told this story to a Middle Eastern audience, it is likely that they would have understood the father’s love in a deeper way than modern-day readers. As this example shows, filtering a Scripture passage through an awareness of the original audience and its culture can greatly expand our understanding of the passage.
How then should we interpret Genesis?
Christians today are strongly divided on how to read the early chapters of Genesis. For that reason, perhaps here more than almost anywhere else in the Bible, we need to become aware of our tendencies to interpret with twenty-first century ideas and questions in mind.
Scholars in the BioLogos community interpret the early chapters in Genesis in a variety of ways, and there are many articles on our website revealing this diversity of thought. Yet all share a commitment to the authority and inspiration of Genesis and a method of interpreting Genesis that tries to recover what the original audience would have understood.
BioLogos understands the early chapters of Genesis as describing real events through largely figurative language, consistent with the way other ancient Near Eastern literature described events. By faith we believe Genesis is true, though its purpose is to reveal God and his plan for humanity, not to communicate bare facts about science or history as we think of them today.
Christians believe the Old and New Testament Scriptures are divinely inspired and authoritative. The Bible is not simply a work of literature, but for readers of faith it is living and active. It is the most important way in which God speaks to his people.
Advanced training is not necessary to profit from Bible reading—God speaks to all of us through Scripture—but the body of Christ includes experts who can help us understand it better.
While disagreements abound about how best to interpret various Scripture passages, we can rest in the fact that our salvation does not depend on attaining perfect knowledge. As Christians our faith is grounded in Jesus Christ—not in the perfect interpretation of Scripture. Yet salvation is not the end of the Christian experience, but the beginning: delving deep into Scripture can help us see God’s larger plans and purposes for restoring creation and dwelling among his people.
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