Pay Attention to the Context

As discussed, the first rule of hermeneutics is “pay attention to the text.” The second is like unto it, “pay attention to the context.” (Because if you take the text without the context, you have a prooftext for a subtext.)

Context is the surrounding pieces of text and taking into account the time it was written in and the problem Scripture seeks to address. If you are working with a particularly hard word to determine meaning, then the words in the verse around it can help. From there, the words in the passage impact the meaning of the word in question. And go outward to the chapter, the book, other books by the same author, other books in the same same genre by a different author, different author in the same testament, and then how words are used in the other testament. Finally, events from outside the Bible may impact the passage. It might help to line them up differently. Let’s work with the word “kill” in Luke 12:4.

Other books by the same author
Other books in the same genre by different authors
A Different author in the same testament
The other testament
Events from outside the Bible

A good presentation on using circles of context in light of John’s statements regarding Jesus’ divinity can be found here.

A phrase I have used before regarding context is “right sermon, wrong text.” Just the other night, I was reading to my children from their devotional. The devotion was about children keeping their rooms neat and orderly. I thought this was a good thing but remained curious as to how the author was going to bring it to the Bible as the focal verse is always at the end. That focal verse was 1 Corinthians 14:40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.” That was certainly to the point, but what? I checked the surrounding verses (you know, for context). Verse 40 ends the paragraph. The paragraph is about how prophets at a church service should be eager for the gift and it should be conducted in an orderly manner. The devotional had used the verse out of context.

So how can you ensure you are working from the right context? Doing so is fundamental to doing good interpretation. You will find everyone thinks they are working in the context. Many aren’t, but with some studying, you can be.

As the two testaments were originally written in different languages, for most people, this step of the study will involve working from English translations or other translation. Personally, one of the best tools for this step is the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated within centuries of the New Testament being written. It was also heavily used by Jews outside of the Land during the time of Jesus and immediately following. The words and phrases used in the New Testament are often filtered through the Septuagint. Often, when the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, they will quote the Septuagint. An odd Greek phrase may turn out to be worded that way because it is coming from the Septuagint. For example, in Romans 3:4, Paul uses “and prevail when thou dost enter into judgment.” That phrase comes from the Septuagint of Psalm 51:4 where the Hebrew has “and blameless when thou judgest.”

The absolute minimum context you should work with is that of the book. To that end, I suggest that every student of the Bible have at hand a fact sheet about the book of the Bible they are studying. It might look like the below.

Book: Daniel
Author: Daniel
Date Written: Done by 536 BC
Major Events: The Babylonian Captivity Begins, prophecies of the future
Major Themes: Standing with God through it all. The coming future.
Famous Passages: The Daniel “fast.” Daniel interprets the dream. The fiery furnace.
Summary: Daniel and three friends are taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon. through several trials and tests, they prove that even though they are captive, they are still loyal to the “God of Heaven.”

A useful book for this would be Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible, Book by Book. You can also make your own sheet for each book by studying different commentaries and Bible survey or introductions. As you can see, doing this yourself will help gets the items in your mind. I suggest conservative authors as they are more likely to be taking the Bible as both divine and human. Also, good conservative authors will address the criticisms made by liberal writers whereas liberal authors rarely address the arguments raised by conservatives.

One thing that knowing the context helps with is the charge of contradictions. While finding verses that appear to be contrary to one another is easy, examining the verses for context shows they are not. For example, I once heard an atheist point out that Matthew 10:10 records Jesus telling the Disciples to take nothing extra when they go on their missionary journey. However, he pointed out, Luke 22:36 has Jesus telling them to take extras when they travel. “So which is it?” he asked, thinking he had an unsolvable contradiction.

Honestly, this is a laugh out loud contradiction. This is, in fact, quote mining of the highest order. The two are not the same event. In fact, Luke 22:35 says, “When I sent you out before without purse…”

Using context keeps us from isolating verses for a proof text and keeps them in line with the rest of Scripture. Some might argue for polytheism, incorrectly, from 1 Corinthians 8:5 “…as indeed there are many gods and many lords.” However, Scripture clearly teaches elsewhere that there is only one God who is Lord. Paul refers to these as “so-called gods” in 1 Corinthians 8:5 and repeats in 8:4 and 8:6 that there is but one God. Using context brings in another rule of hermeneutics: the unclear is interpreted in light of the clear. Individual phrases and verses must be interpreted in light of the whole of Scripture.

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If it’s so hard, why do it?

I originally intended to start writing about the second rule of hermeneutics: Pay Attention to the Context. However, after writing the last one, I realized I needed to explain something else first. A question many of you probably have is “If it’s so hard, why do it?” That’s right, last time I wrote about some of the things to remember when interpreting the Bible such as “The Bible is divine and human,” “the Bible is inspired,” “remember the unity and diversity of the Bible,” “different genres have different rules,” and “remember that it is translated from three different languages.”

If there are so many things to remember, who can hope to interpret it correctly? Why should we even try if we don’t have specialized training? There are several reasons we should interpret the Bible.

The Bible is Authoritative

As discussed in part 1 of the first rule, Christians do agree that the Bible is from God (of divine origin) and inspired. Even though we may not be able to give a detailed definition of inspired that all Christians will agree on that does not in any way reduce the fact that it is inspired and of divine origin.

As an inspired work from God, it has an authority over our lives. This is the same for both Jews and Christians, though the Jewish believer will view only the Tanak as inspired and authoritative. For the Christian, both Testaments are authoritative. Jesus taught from the Old Testament and referred to it positively quite often. He taught His disciples from it and taught them how to apply it. He has rules and techniques, and in a future essay, we will examine them.

The early Christians followed His example and made it authoritative in their lives. Of important note is that at first they had only the Old Testament. They understood it to be authoritative because Jesus did, and so should we. It is sheer arrogance and folly to say the Christian has no need of the Old Testament. Not only did Jesus preach from it, but every book in the New Testament contains numerous references to the Old Testament.

As Christians, we are to follow the example of Jesus. Since He viewed the Scripture as authoritative, so should we. Jewish readers will have similar reasoning: namely, that their leaders and prophets have viewed the Tanak as from HaShem and authoritative.

One very important rule of Jesus bears discussing here. Jesus did not view the Tanak as a set of rules to be followed blindly. Indeed, He taught against that (Matthew 23:23). We will have to do the same.

This brings us back to where we started. We dare not treat the Bible lightly when attempting to interpret it. What we teach will have great impact on those who listen to us. We must not stop until we have a good reading of the Bible. God expects no less than our best.

Our Responsibility

God gave humanity the Bible with the express purpose that people would read it, interpret it, and apply it to their lives. Remember we talked briefly about how it is inspired. God would not give it and then make it impossible to understand. With work, the whole things opens to you. Anything important is worth putting work into. The more important it is, the more work you should be willing to put into it.

There is nothing more important than understanding the Bible and applying it to your life. Understanding it properly is absolutely necessary to your walk with God. Likewise, when you tell the meaning to others, it is absolutely vital that you have the correct interpretation. You are teaching another person and those who teach are held to a higher standard than those who do not (James 3:1).

Failure to study the authoritative Word of God when available to you is a failure of stewardship. We are to be ready at all times for the hope within us when people ask (1 Peter 3:15). However, if you have not studied the Word of God, you cannot be ready. You would be like a farmer who at planting time goes to the field but has not just left the seed in the barn but forgotten to buy it beforehand!

In the days when few people could read and fewer had access to a Bible, ignorance of Scripture was a valid excuse. Those had to take their priests word for it. That is not the situation today.

You may think that you can just avoid teaching the Bible, but every action you take shows your interpretation. People will see it and know how you interpret. My mother used to say that you may be the only Bible some people ever read. Think about that. Your faith and actions determine not only where and how you will spend eternity, but where and how others will spend eternity.

That’s a heavy responsibility, but there is also great reward! How you interpret the Bible leads directly to how you apply each verse. That application determines how you will lead your life. Those actions will show other people.

Knowing how to interpret the Bible properly should never be a source of pride. Proper interpretation and application should lead to humility.

The Opportunities of Study

Not only are there responsibilities for studying Scripture, there are great rewards.

First, we grow spiritually when we read and study the Bible. Doing so wrongly leads to malformed growth or even stunted growth. Only when we have studied can we help others grow when talking to them.

Secondly, those in ministry, whether pulpit, Sunday school, or cell group have an opportunity to lead corporate growth on a regular basis. Pastors and teachers who see their congregation go from babes in Christ to mature spiritual beings know the feeling that comes from seeing that. It is a great blessing and joy. One thing it should never be is prideful. With this reason and the first reason, it is obvious that others rely on you for their spiritual growth. Taking them to a deeper understanding of God blesses you.

Thirdly, finding more of God’s will for your life can only happen when seeking Him. Yes, He speaks to us through prayer, but He has given wisdom to those who came before us.

Fourthly, the blessings of a job well done are its own reward. However, you cannot attain that blessing without preparation beforehand. The task seems daunting at first, but once you start, it becomes easier and more fun. Personally, I have never found Bible study to be boring. Like any other skill, the more you work at it, the better you become.

Fifth, as you study and work, God will expand your ministry opportunities. As you study to show yourself approved (2 Timothy 2:15), God will reward you with more people to teach and influence. Those who grow in Christ are more enthusiastic.

Finally, the reward of good interpretation is that it shows the folly of bad interpretation. For years, pastors have complained that their congregations are still babes in Christ and do not grow. This is because the congregations do not study for whatever reason. Failure to study allows unsound doctrine to enter the church. Without proper methods, a person remains spiritually immature. Applying proper methods they grow and can stop problems in the church before they take root.

Good interpretation is demanding but also rewarding beyond measure.

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Pay Attention to the Text (Part 2)

Note: This is the third in my series on Biblical Hermeneutics. Please read the first one before reading this one.

I’ve written about how Christians must interpret the Bible as a divine book. One should also remember that it is a human book. The writers, inspired as they were, were human beings. As such, they would communicate in ways that are normal for them. This will include genres, vocabulary, point of view, and spiritual insight.


The first and most obvious piece of written communication is genre. Different genres have different ways of expressing the thoughts of the writer. In the modern world, one would hardly expect a college term paper in economics to be constructed the same as a love poem, even if they were written by the same person.

The Bible is no different in this regard. There are many genres within both testaments and they should be handled with this thought in mind.

The Hebrews divided their Scriptures into three sections: The Law (Torah), The Prophets (Nebhi’im), and the Writings (Kethubim). When written in Hebrew, they form the acronym Tanak. Most English readers will be familiar with a different breakdown. Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. Scholars typically divide them into two groups: books that are primarily prose and books that are primarily poetry. They then subdivide the two groups into genres.

Major Genres of the Old Testament
·    Historical Narrative-Books like Genesis, Exodus, and 1 and 2 Samuel present their teachings as the way events happened. It should be remembered that these are sacred history. The parts that get recorded are important to the story of redemption with less regard for the outside world. For example, the reign of King Omri is covered in a handful of verses. On the other hand, King Ahab has several chapters devoted to his reign.
·    Legal-Leviticus and Deuteronomy state the way that God’s people are to act.
·    Poetry-Psalms and the Song of Solomon teach their lessons through sweeping emotional passages. There are several different kinds of poetry, a topic to be examined in detail later.
·    Wisdom Literature-Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs do three things. 1) Show mainly in quick couplets how the godly person lives (Proverbs), 2) shows the consequences of departing from God (Ecclesiastes), or 3) demonstrates the reward from God for standing with him in the face of adversity (Job).
·    Prophecy-the works of those called specifically to confront and teach in their days. Five books make up the Major Prophets while 12 make up the Minor Prophets. The difference in major and minor has nothing to do with importance but only of length.
·    Apocalyptic-Parts of Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah use imagery to tell what God is doing or planning to do in the future. Most of these books are symbolic and must be interpreted with that in mind.

As you can imagine, a legal statement will be different from a narrative. It is easy to see the difference in form between “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and the story of Jacob burying his wife’s stolen idols. Both teach the same lesson in the end, but the way of getting there is very different.

Major Genres of the New Testament
·    Gospel-these 4 books are sacred history. They are neither simple biography nor history. Each author selected events from the life and ministry of Jesus to preserve His teachings and His ministry. Only 2 tell of His miraculous birth, only 1 tells of His family fleeing to Egypt, only 1 tells of His visit to the Temple at age 12. But all detail the final week of His ministry and all tell of His resurrection.
·    History-the book of Acts is also sacred history. It tells the story of the Apostles and how the early Church started in Jerusalem and turned the world upside down. It focuses mainly on the ministries of Peter and Paul. The most important part to remember for the interpreter is that these are the events God chose to have recorded. The book makes the theological statements God wanted to make.
·    Letters-Most books of the New Testament, 21 to be precise, are in this category. They must be read in light of what they were addressed to do. Personal letters to friends, such as Titus, are different from letters written to address problems in the church (Corinthians) or the theological essay that is Hebrews.
·    Apocalypse-The final division has only one book-the Revelation to John (though brief snatches can be found in the other books). Like the Old Testament genre, this is highly symbolic and contains much strange imagery. It would be folly to read it the same way one reads a letter or Gospel.

You may note that poetry is not on the list for New Testament genres. There is very little poetry in the New Testament and all of it is embedded in larger genres.

As you can imagine, these genres often overlap and few books contain only one genre. Gospels are a form of history. The Gospel of Matthew has a section called “The Little Apocalypse” though the book as a whole is clearly a Gospel. Likewise, Luke contains many parables in his Gospel. Once subgenres are included, the list can become unwieldly very quickly.

What this means is that the interpreter must first and foremost approach each book depending on its major genre. Then each passage must be examined for its subgenre. Any other way simply will not do. Those who attempt to read legal material the same way they read poetry may arrive at the correct interpretation only by the grace of God.


The modern student of Scripture must at all times remember that the Old Testament dates back from 1,500 BC to 400 BC. However, the Book of Genesis contains records that are even older, dating back to the creation of the cosmos. The times were very different then. Most jobs were agricultural and most farming was subsistence. Life was rural, not urban.

The enemies of the people, those who hounded them and attacked them, are unfamiliar to us. Their leaders have names we find funny at best or difficult to pronounce and remember at worst. Throw in their geography, weights, measures, and different customs, and the size of the gap should humble the reader.

The New Testament is better in this sense. The first and last books here were written within decades of each other not centuries. The predominantly Greco-Roman culture portrayed is one that we are somewhat familiar with. However, even so, the daily customs of then are not the same as we might expect them to be.

Moreover, the student of the Old Testament must not assume that knowledge there will suffice for the New Testament. During the time between the Testaments, the land changed drastically. The Sanhedrin did not exist in the time of Malachi, but in the New Testament, they presided over Judea. The role of the High Priest had shifted from religious power to much more political power.

I say this not to discourage you from Bible study. I say this to encourage you in doing the right kind of Bible study. It is better to spend the time beforehand and interpret correctly than it is to jump in and misinterpret.


The Bible was first written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The vast majority of the Old Testament comes to us in Hebrew. There are about 200 verses in Aramaic, most of them in Daniel and Ezra. The New Testament was written in Greek* with Matthew being written in Mishnaic Hebrew.**

*The arguments against the Nestorian theory of Aramaic Primacy are legion, and I have already dealt with them here and here. Though if requested, I might rework those answers for this blog also.

**There are Greek words that make better sense when translated back into Hebrew. Also, the church fathers who spoke on the matter explicitly name Matthew as being first in Hebrew and then translated. This includes Papius, Origen, Iraneus, the church historian Eusebius, and the scholar and translator Jerome. It should be noted that no early writer states that Matthew was written in Greek. The unanimous testimony should not be ignored.

Regarding the languages themselves, to deal with the Bible properly, the student must first try to think like a Hebrew. It is a language that emphasizes action. It does not focus on theological statements. To put it another way, the Hebrew language prefers description over prescription. Instead of talking about election, they show how God has repeatedly rescued the people in spite of their sins.

The Greek of the New Testament also is not the classical Greek of Homer or the playwrights. It is the Greek used by the common people and had changed significantly over the centuries. These things must be taken into account by the student.

Most students of the Bible will not have the time or inclination to learn even one of the languages. That is fine. Many modern translations are fine works and will get the reader where he or she needs to go. What the reader needs to be aware of is that these different translations exist because even knowing the languages does not make the translators agree. If it did, there would only be one translation for each recipient language.

Keeping in mind the differences between English and Hebrew and Aramaic and between English and Greek will help the reader interpret. Where this knowledge and modern translations still leave gaps can be bridged with a good commentary or two.

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Pay Attention to the Text (Part 1)

Note: This is the second in my series on Biblical Hermeneutics. Please read the first one before reading this one.

The first thing to address in this series on Biblical Hermeneutics is what are hermeneutics and why is Biblical Hermeneutics so special? As discussed before, hermeneutics is the science of interpreting communication be it written, oral, or nonverbal. The rules for interpreting both biblical matter and nonbiblical matter are the same at the core. There are certain specifics that will be different. For example, when working with context, Shakespeare’s use of a word in the Scottish play may shed light on his use of the same word in Hamlet while the same word being used in the King James Bible would be of lesser importance to the Shakespearean scholar. However, at the last step of hermeneutics, the Shakespearean scholar might examine the KJV since Shakespeare was active at the same time it was being translated.

The first rule is simple: Pay attention to the text. You can’t do good hermeneutics unless you pay attention to what you are working on. It does no good to read between the lines when you haven’t read the lines themselves first. This applies to hermeneutics of anything written, not just the Bible. But there are considerations when interpreting the Bible that do not apply to other books.

What is the Bible?
But what is the Bible? If it has special rules, that is the first question to be addressed. The Bible is a collection of books, held sacred by Christians. It is viewed as the inspired word of God. This collection is called the canon, and only the canon is seen as inspired and binding on believers for all times.

While true that different sets of believers have different collections, the core books within them are the same. The Catholic Bible has more books in the Old Testament than does the Protestant Bible. These books, Tobit, Judith, additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ben Sirach, Baruch, Additions to Daniel, First Maccabees, and Second Maccabees, were not seen as canonical as early as the other books of the Bible. They are called the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. The Protestant Old Testament is the same as the Jewish canon. While the books are counted differently (for example, the Jewish Bible combines all the minor prophets into “The Book of the Twelve”), the content is the same.
The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes the same books as the Catholic Church does along with Third Maccabees and First Esdras.
For this series, since I am a protestant and I expect most of the readers will be protestant, we will be using the protestant canon. That is the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 of the New Testament. At times, the books from the other canons may be consulted to shed light on the use of a word or to see how a custom is portrayed. For example, the New Testament shows a conflict between Greek-speaking Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews. Where did this conflict come from? The answer is actually found in First Maccabees. In the opening chapter, we read that the Greeks had conquered Jerusalem and tried to make it a Greek city. To that end, they introduced Greek customs, philosophy, art, and entertainment. Some Jews saw this (correctly) as an attempt to destroy Judaism slowly by absorbing its distinctives into the empire. They waged a war against the Greeks, resulting in varying levels of independence for the nation for the next decades. The same story can be found in the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born Joseph ben Matityahu) known as “Wars of the Jews.”
The books that are not of the canon may be used to help our interpretation of the canon, but they are not held as binding upon our actions or in the construction of our doctrine.

The Bible is a Divine Book
The first thing that any serious student of Scripture has to recognize is that the Bible is inspired of God. God moved upon the writers of the Bible so that they gave the message that He wanted them to give. While the exact details of inspiration are not explained in the Bible, a simple definition is given. 2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”
The word translated “inspired” is literally “God-breathed.” It means that Scripture came from God into the minds of the writers. Also from the Bible, we know that the writers were inspired (2 Peter 1:20-21). And from Job 32:7-9, we know that those who interpret Scripture can be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
A discussion and exploration of inspiration will have to wait as the topic is large and has had much discussion throughout Christian history. Some have held to a dictation theory of inspiration (that God himself chose the words the writers wrote), others to a dynamic inspiration (that God impressed feelings upon the writers). In my opinion, the truth is between those two extremes, verbal plenary, that God chose the writers because their life experiences and passions would move them to chose the words God wanted them to choose.

A final factor to consider with the divine nature of the Bible is the unity and diversity it shows. In the 66 books, there are many topics discussed. They were written over the course of at least 1,600 years. The writers were from three different continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) and came from a variety of backgrounds (shepherds, poets, kings, courtiers, fishermen, tax collectors, priests, religious leaders, and more). Some of them were poor. Others were wealthy.

However, for all of this diversity, it shows an amazing unity. The Bible holds forth, from beginning to end, on the redemption of man. I have at times summarized the purpose of the Bible as “God redeems penitent humanity.”

Either the unity or diversity of Scripture would be no problem. It is both together that require special awareness as we interpret. If the Bible had been written by one person, even over the course of decades, the unity would not be a surprise. Had there been such diversity with no unity, we would still not be surprised. That both exist point to the Bible being more than just words penned on a page. It shows the work is divine and has meaning for all time.

Any interpretation of Scripture that does not take into account the divine nature of the Bible is not doing justice to the work that it seeks to explain. As such, any interpretation by someone who does not hold the Bible to be divine should not be given high weight. Their insights into culture and history may be helpful, but their interpretation should be taken with a grain of salt.

However, the Bible is not just a divine book. It is a human book. That subject will be addressed in the next essay, part 2 of The First Rule of Hermeneutics.

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