A Word From the Author: A Brief Summary of This Interpretive Method
Biblical interpretation is a rational and spiritual process that attempts to understand an ancient inspired writer in such a way that the message from God may be understood and applied in our day.
The spiritual process is crucial but difficult to define. It does involve a yieldedness and openness to God. There must be a hunger (1) for Him, (2) to know Him, and (3) to serve Him. This process involves prayer, confession, and the willingness for lifestyle change. The Spirit is crucial in the interpretive process, but why sincere, godly Christians understand the Bible differently is a mystery.
The rational process is easier to describe. We must be consistent and fair to the text and not be influenced by our personal, cultural, or denominational biases. We are all historically conditioned. None of us are objective, neutral interpreters. This commentary offers a careful rational process containing three interpretive principles structured to help us attempt to overcome our biases.
The first principle is to note the historical setting in which a biblical book was written and the particular historical occasion for its authorship (or when it was edited). The original author had a purpose and a message to communicate. The text cannot mean something to us that it never meant to the original, ancient, inspired author. His intent—not our historical, emotional, cultural, personal, or denominational need—is the key. Application is an integral partner to interpretation, but proper interpretation must always precede application. It must be reiterated that every biblical text has one and only one meaning. This meaning is what the original biblical author intended through the Spirit's leadership to communicate to his day. This one meaning may have many possible applications to different cultures and situations. These applications must be linked to the central truth of the original author. For this reason, this study guide commentary is designed to provide a brief introduction to each book of the Bible.
The second principle is to identify the literary units. Every biblical book is a unified document. Interpreters have no right to isolate one aspect of truth by excluding others. Therefore, we must strive to understand the purpose of the whole biblical book before we interpret the individual literary units. The individual parts—chapters, paragraphs, or verses—cannot mean what the whole unit does not mean. Interpretation must move from a deductive approach of the whole to an inductive approach to the parts. Therefore, this study guide commentary is designed to help the student analyze the structure of each literary unit by paragraphs. Paragraph and chapter divisions are not inspired, but they do aid us in identifying thought units.
Interpreting at a paragraph level—not sentence, clause, phrase, or word level—is the key in following the biblical author’s intended meaning. Paragraphs are based on a unified topic, often called the theme or topical sentence. Every word, phrase, clause, and sentence in the paragraph relates somehow to this unified theme. They limit it, expand it, explain it, and/or question it. A real key to proper interpretation is to follow the original author’s thought on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis through the individual literary units that make up the biblical book. This study guide commentary is designed to help the student do that by comparing the paragraphing of modern English translations. These translations have been selected because they employ different translation theories:
1. The New King James Version (NKJV) is a word-for-word literal translation based on the Greek manuscript tradition known as the Textus Receptus. Its paragraph divisions are longer than the other translations. These longer units help the student to see the unified topics.
2. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is a modified word-for-word translation. It forms a midpoint between the following two modern versions. Its paragraph divisions are quite helpful in identifying subjects.
3. The Today’s English Version (TEV) is a dynamic equivalent translation published by the United Bible Society. It attempts to translate the Bible in such a way that a modern English reader or speaker can understand the meaning of the original text.
4. The Jerusalem Bible (JB) is a dynamic equivalent translation based on a French Catholic translation. It is very helpful in comparing the paragraphing from a European perspective.
5. The printed text is the 1995 Updated New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is a word for word translation. The verse by verse comments follow this paragraphing.
The third principle is to read the Bible in different translations in order to grasp the widest possible range of meaning (semantic field) that biblical words or phrases may have. Often a phrase or word can be understood in several ways. These different translations bring out these options and help to identify and explain the manuscript variations. These do not affect doctrine, but they do help us to try to get back to the original text penned by an inspired ancient writer.
The fourth principle is to note the literary genre. Original inspired authors chose to record their messages in different forms (e.g., historical narrative, historical drama, poetry, prophecy, gospel [parable], letter, apocalyptic). These different forms have special keys to interpretation (see Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., Cracking Old Testament Codes, or Robert Stein, Playing by the Rules).
This Textbook offers a quick way for the student to check his interpretations. It is not meant to be definitive, but rather informative and thought-provoking. Often, other possible interpretations help us not be so parochial, dogmatic, and denominational. Interpreters need to have a larger range of interpretive options to recognize how ambiguous the ancient text can be. It is shocking how little agreement there is among Christians who claim the Bible as their source of truth.
These principles have helped me to overcome much of my historical conditioning by forcing me to struggle with the ancient text. My hope is that it will be a blessing to you as well.
East Texas Baptist University
June 27, 1996
Abbreviations Used in this Commentary
AB Anchor Bible Commentaries, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman
ABD Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols.), ed. David Noel Freedman
AKOT Analytical Key to the Old Testament by John Joseph Owens
ANET Ancient Near Eastern Texts, James B. Pritchard
BDB A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by F. Brown, S. R. Driver and
C. A. Briggs
BHS Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, GBS, 1997
IDB The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (4 vols.), ed. George A. Buttrick
ISBE International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (5 vols.), ed. James Orr
JB Jerusalem Bible
JPSOA The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation (The
Jewish Publication Society of America)
KB The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner
LAM The Holy Bible From Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (the Peshitta) by George M. Lamsa
LXX Septuagint (Greek-English) by Zondervan, 1970
MOF A New Translation of the Bible by James Moffatt
MT Masoretic Hebrew Text
NAB New American Bible Text
NASB New American Standard Bible
NEB New English Bible
NET NET Bible: New English Translation, Second Beta Edition
NRSV New Revised Standard Bible
NIDOTTE New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 vols.), ed. Willem A. VanGemeren
NIV New International Version
NJB New Jerusalem Bible
OTPG Old Testament Parsing Guide by Todd S. Beall, William A. Banks, and Colin Smith
REB Revised English Bible
RSV Revised Standard Version
SEPT The Septuagint (Greek-English) by Zondervan, 1970
TEV Today’s English Version from United Bible Societies
YLT Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible by Robert Young
ZPBE Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia (5 vols), ed. Merrill C. Tenney