Guide to Biblical Interpretation

“rightly dividing the Word of Truth”

By James White

I. Background of the passage

A. Main theme of the book?
B. Author’s purposes?
C. Author’s background?
D. Historical setting?
E. What kind of literature is this? Parable, poetry, apocalyptic, teaching?
F. Reader’s Understanding/Context - To Whom Written?
G. Usage of Other Scriptural Concepts - Quotations?

II. Immediate Context

A. Read passage in at least three different translations.
B. What immediately precedes and follows the passage?
C. Are any definitions provided by the immediate context?
D. What is the main argument of the entire chapter?
E. What is the main point of the passage itself?
F. What is the consistent understanding of the passage in this context?

III. Broad Context

A. Does my interpretation make this passage contradictory with

1. the author himself?
2. other Biblical passages?
3. common sense?

B. What other passages in Scripture bear directly on the issues raised in this passage?

The above steps are normally sufficient for most purposes of interpretation. However, should further study be needed, the following steps are helpful:

I. Identification of Key Terms

A. List the “key” words in the passage.
B. Are their meanings clear? How do the translations differ at this point?
C. Consult a concordance for the meaning of the words in the original languages.
D. Examine the usage of the word (in original language) by the author, then in other books.
E. If a NT passage, see how terms were used in OT. If OT, see how concept is picked up by NT.
F. Determine if the phrase is an idiom of the language.

II. Word Studies/Syntactical Studies

A. Consult linguistic dictionary on usage of term in Scripture/secular literature.
B. Study occurrence of each word in context each time it is used in Scripture.
C. Study possible cognate terms (Greek-> Hebrew/Hebrew->Greek) and relationships.
D. Examine the grammatical form of the word in the context, and determine syntactical relationships.

III. Textual Studies

A. Consult a critical text of the passage in the original languages.
B. Examine any textual variants that effect meaning.
C. Determine possible effect of acceptance of various readings.

There are numerous resources available for the performance of all of the above steps - the trick is finding them and learning how to use them. An exhaustive concordance is a must, a good Bible dictionary is very helpful. Always try to work through the passage on your own before turning to the commentaries. Many good commentaries are available, but they are never infallible. They are meant as aids only. The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself, particularly the Bible as it was originally written. If Greek and Hebrew are unavailable to you, invest in at least three different translations for comparative purposes

Taken from: Alpha and Omega Ministries