When you are trying to make sense of a passage of Scripture – that is, a full scene or paragraph – you often need to decide between two competing interpretations. The following are notes from a lecture I give on how to deal with interpretational problems.
Identify potential ambiguities in the text.*
The first step is to notice when there might be more than one way to interpret some facet of the passage. If you don’t know there is some ambiguity or difficulty, you will just assume one of the possible interpretations without even being aware that you made a decision. Some interpretational problems are obvious on first reading. Others may arise as you read several different Bible translations, talk with others about the passage or read different commentaries on the passage.
What is the significance of the problem?
How will your decision on this interpretational problem affect your interpretation of the whole paragraph or larger literary unit? Is this interpretational problem central to the meaning of the text, or is it peripheral? Is the difficulty actually within the text, or is it a problem of harmonizing with other passages, with science or with history?
Consider biases that may make you lean toward one solution.
Check yourself to see if you are actually following the evidence, or if you are allowing one of these biases to control your decision.
One solution may seem to be a better fit to your theology. But consider the following before you bend an interpretation of a passage to match your theology: a) Your theology may need reshaping or nuancing; b) It’s possible that both interpretations of the passage ultimately fit with your theology, after careful consideration; c) It’s possible that the passage is not really concerned with the theological issue you are thinking about; d) Interpretation should drive theology, not vice versa.
There may be a standard interpretation of a passage that circulates in your tradition or group of churches. See above!
One solution to the interpretational problem may preach better, or make a better slogan. That doesn’t mean it is right! The right solution isn’t necessarily the flashy one. Be aware of your tendency to favor interpretational solutions that are least offensive, most edgy, most against the conventional wisdom, most popular, coolest, etc.
We are often tempted to pick the solution that allows us to divert the passage toward one of our favorite topics. Don’t do it!
A common tendency is to want both competing interpretations to be correct, so we may favor a mediating position. Don’t pick the middle position just because it’s middle. The mediating position is not necessarily better than either of the two opposing positions.
Avoid automatically categorizing interpretational options into liberal vs. conservative, or Calvinist vs. Arminian, or any number of other categories. Such categories may keep you from considering each option on its own merits.
Your own personal background (socio-economic class, race, culture) may affect the interpretational choices you make. It’s true that some people overstate the influence of such factors, but we should also avoid understating them.
What sort of evidence will help solve the problem?
The best interpretation is the one that makes the best sense in the paragraph and the whole book (but “best” is tricky…)
Historical or Cultural Context
The best interpretation is sometimes the one that makes the best use of historical / cultural elements. Good historical / cultural arguments are based on historical data that can reliably be demonstrated to be true (i.e., based on ancient sources), and was likely to have been known by ancient readers. Good historical / cultural analysis considers whether the passage is presuming, enforcing, or countering ancient cultural standards or beliefs.
The problem may hinge on the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. In this case, the best interpretation is the one that a) relies on meanings that can be found in authoritative Greek or Hebrew dictionaries (not Strong’s!); b) considers the usage of the word in the same book first, then its usage in other books from the same author, then by other authors; and c) doesn’t rely on word-study fallacies. (Word-study fallacies include deriving the meaning of a word from its component syllables, using meanings from a much earlier or much later time, insisting on sharp or precise differences between synonyms, and deriving the meaning of Greek words from their related English words).
The problem may hinge on a particular feature of Greek or Hebrew grammar. This can be difficult to evaluate unless you have studied the language for at least two or three years. The best grammar solutions are those that are based on established grammatical principles found in standard Greek or Hebrew grammar texts. Good grammar solutions are also nuanced enough to recognize that there are exceptions and variations to grammatical rules. Avoid making sweeping interpretational decisions solely on the basis of flexible grammatical categories such as the meanings of prepositions or noun cases.
See what the experts think.
Consult several sources, including some from scholars of different backgrounds. Observe how they weigh the different kinds of evidence. Does everyone dismiss one or more of the interpretations? Why?
Teaching or preaching a text that has an interpretational problem.
Focus most of your teaching on the main idea of the passage (the whole paragraph), not on any interpretational problems. The most difficult problem in a paragraph is not necessarily the most important aspect of that paragraph. Decide whether (and how much) you need to explain the problem, its various solutions, or the evidence. I am more likely to explain the problem, or spend significant time on it, if: a) the main point of the paragraph (and therefore the sermon) hinges heavily on the solution to the interpretational problem; b) I am presenting a view that the audience is unfamiliar with or that they are likely to reject; or c) the problem is apparent because it shows up in differences among standard Bible translations.
*Thanks to Alan Hultberg for this way of phrasing this step.