Biblical Interpretation

Why is biblical interpretation necessary? Can't we just read the Bible to know what is says? Shouldn't we take the Bible literally and face value? Isn't the plain sense of the Bible the most accurate way to understand what the biblical authors meant?

Any reading of any text is interpretation. Those who claim not to need methods of interpreting the bible or who say biblical interpretation is making the Bible say something it doesn't are still interpreting the Bible, they are just not aware of the way that they are reading their own assumptions into the text.

Those who stress the importance of the various methods of interpreting the Bible are being self-critical and systematic about the way they are reading the Bible. This kind of systematic reflection of the ways people understand texts is called hermeneutics by scholars. Biblical Exegesis is the critical interpretation and explanation of the meaning of the biblical texts. The word critical in critical interpretation involves critical thinking (i.e. considering all the evidence and different arguments, not criticizing something or putting something down).

What the plain sense of a biblical passage is or what taking the bible at face value means is different for different people. Usually what people mean when they say they follow the plain sense of scripture or take the Bible literally and at face value is that they believe that the biblical narratives are all reports of actual events and they believe that all the miracles in the Bible actually happened. Nobody takes obvious symbols or metaphors literally. Jesus is not literally a lamb, but he is the Lamb of God.

Biblical interpretation is necessary for a number of reasons. First, the Bible needs to translated into the language of the reader or hearer. Translation from one language to another is necessarily interpretation. It is the taking of the meaning from the words of one language and putting it in the words of another language. There are never words which are exactly equivalent in two different languages.

Second, biblical interpretation is necessary to convey the meaning of ancient texts to contemporary readers or hearers. One can understand the Bible better if one has some basic knowledge of the historical, cultural, and social contexts of the Bible.

There are a number of different approaches to interpreting the Bible. These methods for biblical interpretation can be grouped according to whether they focus on the world of the author, the world of the text, or the world of the reader.

Approaches to biblical interpretation that focus on the world of the author include methods that focus on the historical, cultural, social, and religious contexts of biblical texts and their authors. These methods make up what scholars call the Historical-Critical Method or Historical Criticism.

Historical Criticism is the study of the Bible in the same kind of way any other historical text is studied. Historical Criticism can be divided into the following methods:
  • Philological study is the study of the original biblical languages.
  • Textual Criticism is the collecting of all the different biblical manuscripts and comparing them in order to reconstruct the original wording of a biblical text as accurately as possible.
  • Form Criticism involves the identification of units of oral material that were used in a biblical writing and theorizing about the situation which produced and/or used this oral material.
  • Source Criticism is the study of written sources which were used in a biblical text.
  • Redaction Criticism examines the way an author of a biblical text edits oral or written sources and adds new material in the process of writing a biblical book.
  • Tradition Criticism looks at the way the oral and written traditions behind biblical writings have changed over time and how these traditions have been incorporated into biblical writings.

Social-Scientific Criticism is another method of interpreting the Bible that focuses on the world of the author and is related to Historical Criticism. Social-Scientific Criticism uses cultural anthropology and other Social Science methods in order to get an idea of how biblical worldviews are different from contemporary worldviews.

Historical Criticism can also include history of religions study of the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman religious context of the biblical texts.

Approaches to biblical interpretation that focus on the world of the text focus on the world created by just the biblical text itself.
  • Genre Analysis looks at what kind of literature a biblical text or part of a biblical text is.  For example: Is this text narrative, poetry, a letter, a sermon, a prayer, a hymn, a miracle story, a household code, a parable?
  • Narrative Criticism focuses on how an author uses the elements of story to create meaning. These elements include plot, characters, time, setting, point of view, and symbolism.
  • Rhetorical Criticism examines how a biblical writer makes an argument, and the kind of language the author uses in order to persuade readers.

Approaches to biblical interpretation that focus on the world of the reader explore the way in which the presuppositions and bias of the reader effect how they understand a text.
  • Reader Response Criticism focuses on how meaning of a biblical text is created in a dialog between the text and the reader.
  • Feminist Criticism looks at the patriarchal bias in a biblical text and in the interpretive process itself. It's aim is to identify texts that marginalize women and texts which are empowering for women.
  • Post-colonial/Global Perspectives on Biblical Interpretation are the approaches to biblical interpretation which are based on the interpreter's social and cultural background. Asian, Latin American, and African biblical interpretation fall into this catagory. Biblical interpretation in Liberation Theology, which focuses on the biblical writer's concern for the oppressed and marginalized, would also fall into this category.

Canonical Criticism looks at the meaning of a biblical text in relation to the other texts in the Bible. It also studies how these writings came to be included in the Bible. (The word canon means standard or measure, so biblical canon is the list of writings considered authoritative as scripture.)

A complete interpretation of a biblical text would ideally include methods which look at the world of the author, the world of the text, and the world of the reader. However, interpreters of the bible often have a type of biblical interpretation that they focus on and specialize in. The methods an interpreter uses in understanding the Bible are usually based on his or her interests.

The types of questions asked of a text determines what type of answer one finds in the text. For example, if an interpreter wants to study the origins of Christianity they would use Historical Criticism in their reading of the New Testament. Someone wanting to focus on the theology of a biblical text would use methods that look at the world of the text. If someone wanted to apply a biblical text to their life then an approach that focused on the world of the reader would be relevant.

For Further Reading

Michael Joseph Brown, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies

  • A concise guide to biblical scholarship which explains the principles of biblical criticism in simple, down-to-earth language without being superficial. 

W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach
  • Explains the major forms of biblical criticism and how to integrate them into a complete approach.

John H. Hayes & Carl R. Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner's Handbook
  • Describes the major types of biblical criticism.

Steven L. McKenzie & Stephen L. Haynes, To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application
  • Each of the major types of biblical criticism is explained by a biblical scholar who practices that approach.

Richard N. Soulen & R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded
  • A complete guide to biblical criticism including technical terms, concepts, abbreviations, and people.
David Tracey & Robert M. Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible
  • Gives a concise overview of the history of biblical interpretation.

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