The Short Answer
- Remember why you want to study.
- Set aside time; make it a habit.
- Pray for understanding.
- Start with Jesus; he’s how we know what’s from God.
- Read through the passage, section, or chapter first.
- Ask questions. This is how we find the context:
- Who wrote this?
- To whom?
- In what language or dialect?
- In what culture and time?
- What were their figures of speech?
- Make use of reference material.
The Long Answer
Before reading and interpreting any text, a person must first understand what the rules should be for analysis, and to consistently apply those rules, regardless of what the result might be. Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and methods of textual analysis and interpretation, and Exegesis is when a given hermeneutic is applied to a text.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized: People with differing hermeneutics will never agree on the meaning of a text. So if one person believes a text to be all allegory (fiction) before even beginning to read it, and another person believes one must read the text to see what it claims for itself, those two people will be unable to discuss its meaning. The debate over which hermeneutic is better is never going to be solved by us; all any of us has is our personal conviction, and no one opinion is superior to another. Every topic in the Bible will depend on this, since the Bible is literature and should be analyzed as such, using one hermeneutic consistently.
The Literal / Historical / Grammatical Hermeneutic
This method (abbreviated here as LHG) is the opposite of cherry-picking. To put it another way, “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” (quote from D.A. Carson). By definition, the allegory hermeneutic disregards context because it’s founded on the principle that the words on the page don’t mean what they say. One source says this:
An allegory is a symbolic story. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery defines a symbol as an image that stands for something in addition to its literal meaning. It further observes that it is more laden with meaning than simply the connotations of the straight image. An allegory, seen as a symbolic story, uses human characters and animals or other concepts as images that refers [sic] to something other than what they are. They have secondary meaning or reference beyond their natural sense or meaning. (emphasis added)
To clarify, this is not saying that the Bible contains no allegories. But some insist that the Bible is all allegory. Rather than secondary meanings, the allegorists claim there is no literal meaning at all. An example of an allegorical book would be Orwell’s Animal Farm, a story about rebellious farm animals that’s really about the Bolshevik Revolution. But to say the Bible is never to be taken literally but rather always about some spiritual principle, is to reduce the Bible to fiction, whether there’s a “real” meaning behind it or not.
By literal, we mean that unless there is a compelling reason to allegorize or spiritualize a passage, it should be taken as written. This is the opposite of interpretation according to preconceived beliefs. For example, if one wishes to see whether the Bible treats miracles as actual events or simply as moral lessons, one examines the text to see whether the writer is teaching or simply reporting. On the other hand, if one has already decided that miracles are impossible, then that person would be forced to interpret accounts of miracles as moral lessons, without regard for the context. And when we consider the fact that the Christian faith hinges upon a colossal miracle— the resurrection of Jesus from the dead— disbelief in miracles is completely incompatible with the Christian faith.
What literal does not mean is to ignore figures of speech, analogies, or genre. If, for example, we read that we are to be salt and light, the literal hermeneutic does not teach that we must become pillars of salt or oil lamps. Yet when we read that Jesus rose physically from the dead, we take it as stated since it is in the context of eyewitness testimony rather than analogy or a spiritual teaching. This distinction becomes critical at such points as when Jesus told his disciples that the bread and cup were his body and blood. It is equally critical when we read prophecy.
By historical, we mean that a passage must be considered in its context, which includes not only the writer and subject, but also the language, culture, era, and particular circumstances. We must also establish the fact that the Bible is not to be dismissed as historical record, simply because it’s the Bible. All historical accounts are subject to the prejudices and cultures of the historians, who are all fallible human beings. A historian writing about science can be every bit as mistaken or agenda-driven as any theistic writer. So the prudent student of history will consult many historians, many records, and take them as a whole. The character of the historian is of the utmost importance, because even the most erudite prose is worthless as historical record if it omits pertinent data or twists facts.
By grammatical, we mean that one must have a good grasp of the language of a writing. In ancient times, there were far fewer people writing at all, so there was a greater degree of consistency in a given era. But languages are always in flux, so the style of writing or use of grammar is one of the clues used by analysts to determine the approximate date of a document. So we must consider the meanings of words as they relate to other words around them, the style of the writer, the general style of the time, and of course the topic; words are not written in a vacuum.
The LHG hermeneutic is simply reading comprehension. In fact, every instance of competent translation applies this method. So if someone agrees that translation must consider context, then to abandon context in interpretation of the translated result is inconsistent at best. It would be like reading Animal Farm and only guessing at the meaning behind it, since we ignore the context in history that influenced its writing.
Figures of Speech and Genre
Some may say that the LHG method simply picks and chooses when to take things literally, but we could more easily say that the allegory method does the same, for example when it takes Jesus’ resurrection literally while making everything he said an allegory. But as explained earlier, the LHG method takes figures of speech into consideration. You can see some examples here.
It should also be pointed out that many figures of speech have been mistaken for doctrine or narrative. There are some examples here of what are called idioms. We use idioms all the time, such as “cough up the money” to mean “pay grudgingly”, and the ancients were no exception. Another misunderstood figure of speech is the idiom of permission.
The LHG method also recognizes genre. It seems self-evident that if we’re looking for historical narrative, we wouldn’t go to wisdom literature or poetry. Or if we’re reading poetry we wouldn’t interpret it as doctrine. Genre is a vital part of context, and to ignore or dismiss it is to misinterpret the writing. While a historical narrative might have a section of poetry, or poetry might contain some prophecy, this hardly means that the interpretation of the entire writing is determined by its exceptions.
Context, Context, Context
That expression is an obvious twist on the real estate adage, “Location, location, location”. Context is everything; it’s where we get the semantic range of words and how we interpret the words in relation to other words in sentences. A classic illustration of cherry-picking is in the combination of snippets from Mat. 27:5 and Luke 10:37; though this example is very clearly wrong, many make the same error by porting statements from one context to another and then building a theology from it.
On a larger scale, and of critical importance, is the issue of whether or not the Bible draws a clear distinction between Israel and the Body of Christ. Yet even among those using the LHG hermeneutic, debate rages over whether any such distinction exists. Context has many layers, and we need to be careful to consider them all, if we have any hope of resolving that particular point of debate.
Context also is the foundational issue on topics such as free will (Calvinism), prophecy, and salvation itself. We should know from our own inability to communicate clearly with people in our own culture, speaking the same language, to see why this is such an important principle in Bible interpretation. Figures of speech are especially problematic, particularly when someone is joking. Communication is complex, so we need every possible element of context to be sure we understand accurately. And since we can’t transport ourselves back into the times of Biblical writings, we have to work even harder to find as much of the context as possible.
Reckoning Time in the New Testament
One great source of confusion and controversy in NT studies is the precision, or lack thereof, in stating times of day. This becomes a critical issue when studying the matter of exactly what day of the week Jesus died and how long he was in the grave. But it can be fairly easily resolved by knowing what the writers meant by “hours”.
A 24-hour day in Israel began at sundown and was divided into segments called “hours” or “watches” (as relates to guard duty). Each “hour” was really a three-hour span, but it was known by its beginning; that is, the “third hour” lasted from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock, counting from either 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. Going by the position of the sun or moon in the sky made greater precision impractical. But more importantly, expressions “the third hour” and “almost/about the sixth hour” refer to the same three-hour span, with the latter meaning it was close to the end of that span. According to David Lipscomb (1831-1917), in A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 295-296:
The whole time from the third hour to the sixth, that is, from nine to twelve, was called the third hour; and the whole intervening time from the sixth to the ninth, that is, from twelve to three, is called the sixth hour. John does not say it was the sixth hour, but about or near the sixth hour. So when he says about the sixth hour, and Mark the third hour, we are to understand that Mark takes the whole time of the third hour, from nine to twelve, and that John puts it near twelve. So in either case our Lord was sentenced between the hours of nine and twelve.
Thus we see that there is no need to speculate whether this writer used Roman reckoning and that one used Hebrew, and no basis for the skeptics’ charge of contradiction. With this knowledge we can then determine that Jesus was sentenced around 11 am, crucified by noon, darkness came till about 3 pm, and his death near 6 p.m. Combined with an understanding of the pertinent religious festivals, we can reach a more plausible conclusion as to the details of Jesus’ final week as a mortal.
Hebrew Festivals and the Calendar
Israel used a lunar calendar, meaning the beginning of a month was marked by the first sighting of the waxing (increasing) crescent moon. Thus the full moon occurred approximately in the middle of the month. The first month of the year was the beginning of spring (our March/April) and was called Nisan (or Aviv/Abib, after the ripening of the barley harvest). This was stipulated by God in the instructions concerning the Passover Festival in Exodus 12.
That passage, which is about commemorating the passing over of the death angel when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, states that a flawless year-old male lamb (or goat) was to be selected for each family on the 10th. It was to be cared for until the 14th, when at twilight all the lambs were to be slaughtered and then eaten. This marked the start of a 7-day period beginning and ending with a “sacred assembly” (a.k.a. a special or “high” Sabbath), and all yeast had to be purged from every house for the entire 7 days. The 14th became known as Preparation Day, and the 15th was the actual Passover, though the whole festival was also called the Passover. So regardless of the Gregorian calendar dates, the Preparation was the 14th and the Passover was the 15th.
No work was to be done on any Sabbath except for certain types of food preparation (e.g., Ex. 20:9-10), and people were not to travel (Ex. 16:29). By the time of Jesus the rabbis allowed people to walk less than a mile. So if anyone is said to have worked, done business, or traveled more than a mile at some point in the Gospels, we can be sure that it was not a Sabbath day.
The Feast of Firstfruits (the first day of the week following Passover per Lev. 23:9-16), began a seven-week festival called the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15-22). Firstfruits was known as “one/first of the Sabbaths”, and this phrase in Greek is imprecisely rendered “the first day of the week” in most Bibles. The Day of Pentecost was a feast marking the final day of the final week.
Are many Christians willing to do the work needed for accurate Bible interpretation? Sadly, no. This is partially why there are so many denominations, translations, variations in theology, and bitter feuds. Sincere, studied, dedicated people can disagree strongly, because we’re all flawed, and the day we all humble ourselves enough to admit that, is the day communication can improve. Even so, there will always be strong differences in Bible interpretation, until Jesus Himself returns to set us all straight. It may well be that God’s purpose in allowing us to disagree is not to see who gets it right, but to see who behaves with grace and humility with those we believe to be wrong.