Scripture is God’s self-communication to us in written form. It is his message to us concerning himself and his plans for the world. As such, it matters that we interpret Scripture rightly. To hear God well is crucial for how we relate with him. Given this, how should we study Scripture? What things can we consider?
If you have resolved to study Scripture soundly, if you desire to grow in your biblical interpretation this year, you are not alone. In this article, I seek to condense a few ideas that you may find helpful as you grow in your understanding of God’s Word. And as we know God’s Word more, we know the God of Scripture more.
I will say from the onset that a faithful Bible student lives in three worlds. There are three ‘worlds’ we must be aware of as we open God’s Word. The first is the world behind the text. The second is the world of the text, and the third is the world in front of the text. Below I expound on why the Bible student must live in these three worlds.
The World Behind the Text
Imagine entering a theatre with actors on the stage. You missed the memo that before attending the show, every spectator should read the background information provided. Without this, the whole play will not make much sense. Why are the actors named thus? What of their mannerisms? And why is the stage set up this way? What do the codes actors use mean?
But here you are, in the theatre. And somehow, the audience, except you, is laughing. They all know what’s happening-except you. You missed the memo.
The reader of the New Testament will immediately encounter groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, Zealots, and Greeks. We meet Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Acts 17:18 without much information about their origins or beliefs. The authors assume, rightly, that their audience knows these people. They are familiar with their policies and philosophies.
This world behind the text forms the interpretive framework, a common denominator, a way of understanding what the text as written means. Without it, the play does not make sense. And without it, the reader is a spectator who missed the memo.
The world behind the text includes cultural norms, idioms, and the whole social-political and economic context. For example, why was it a trick question for Pharisees to ask Jesus whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not (Matt. 22:15-22)? What made the Sadducees’ story of the woman with seven husbands a supposed trap for Jesus (Matt. 22:23-33)? What was it like for Simon the Zealot to belong with Matthew, the tax collector, as a fellow disciple of Jesus? And by the way, why were tax collectors grouped with sinners (Mark 2:16-17)?
We cannot answer all these and many more questions until we discipline ourselves to live in the world behind the text. To live there is to see Scripture glow and shine. To not live there is not to get confused by the play. It is to stare at the laughing audience puzzlingly.
Without the Bible’s background, we read Scripture in a vacuum, cut off from the real people who wrote it and the audience to whom it was written, people with real problems and questions that the authors sought to address.
To ignore the biblical background is to seek the fruit of a flowering tree whose branches we cut off from the roots and stem. It is to eat dry wood as food.
The World of the Text
Imagine picking up a Newspaper. It has different sections. There is the national news written in narrative form. Then the seriousness of the obituary as opposed to the lightheartedness of the comedy section. And then, for the sports lovers, the Sports page. Each of these sections is different in its form or genre. As such, we interpret them differently. We refuse to approach comedy with the seriousness of an obituary. We do so because we live in a world with different interpretive approaches to diverse text genres.
The world of the text is the second world in which the student of Scripture must live. It brings with it the dynamics of human language, sentence structure, phraseology, etc. The Bible contains different genres. There are narratives or stories like Genesis, Exodus, Numbers etc. Then lyrical poetry with parallelisms and chiasms as we see in the Psalms. We meet prophecy and apocalyptic revelations in Daniel, Ezekiel, or Revelation. The New Testament offers us letters or epistles that are more straightforward and logical. It also gives us the Gospels which are both historical and biographical. How we approach each book will depend on what kind it is, in what genre the authors wrote it.
After determining the genre, we ask linguistic questions. We consider what language the author used and why. Why did the author use this word and not that? Why use this construction and not the other? Why did he use a series of participles, or prepositions, or infinitives? Why did he bring this word first when naturally it should be second or last? Did the author use this word or phrase before? Again? Did he quote another biblical author or allude to or echo them? What is the flow of his thought? Why did he put this paragraph here, not before, not after this section? These and more questions affect textual interpretation.
The world of the text is rich if we were to live there. But like mining, it requires patience and gladness to bring to the surface the gold therein. Like living in another world, it takes time to know how they speak and what natives mean by what they say. Without this, we cannot understand what the author is saying. We shall be reading the Newspaper’s comedy section with the seriousness of an obituary.
The World Before the Text
We have explored the world behind the text and that of the text. We must now take seriously the world before the text or, the world of the reader. To be sure, most times, this is the only world we take seriously, most times, subconsciously.
But the reader must be aware of their cultural biases and presuppositions they bring to the text. Without this, we will read our ideas into the text and claim that Scripture teaches so.
The world before the text also speaks of application. As those who live in the world behind and of the text, we must bring what we learn to our world. It is no use building permanent structures in Babylon or ancient Jerusalem or Egypt. We surely do well to pitch our tents and place our pillows in the pages of Scripture. We should frequent there and be very familiar with the terrain and streets and foods and customs. We should be natives there. But we should not slumber in their lodges. We are citizens of three worlds.
It is in this world God calls us to serve him, and we must bridge that gap between the world of the Bible and the contemporary world. That is what faithful biblical interpretation entails.
We should beware of our cultural biases and be aware of the biblical audience’s cultural and historical context, grasping the textual terrain. But then, we should apply the eternal truth revealed in Scripture to actual people and situations we face, in this world. That is the task of a Bible teacher, and of every Bible student.
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