BibelCenter :: Keys to interpreting the Bible BibelCenter :: Keys to interpreting the Bible


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When we want to understand the Scriptures correctly, it is necessary that we first read accurately and notice what the text itself does indeed say; then we must read the statement in its context, because only with the context it becomes clear what the statement really means. Also, often the context or sometimes the passage itself shows if and in which way an author has used figures of speech for emphasis of certain points.

Another important matter to be observed for a correct interpretation and understanding of a text is the historic, linguistic and cultural background of that which is recorded in the text. Sometimes people do speak of "context" when they mean this background, e.g. when they mention a "historic context, cultural context", etc. This point really concerns the surroundings or sphere in which those things happened which are recorded and have been written in the text.

Historic background

As we read the Biblical Scriptures, it is essential that we note the respective historic background of what is said; and there are two important aspects: (a) the historic background of what is recorded in the text and (b) the historic background of when and where the text was written.

To gain a correct understanding of a text we must note the time when the events recorded took place. One must note place something which happened in the days of Abraham into the time of Moses, or events of the times of Jesus back into the times of king David. That would lead undoubtedly to a wrong understanding because recorded events would be historically misplaced and interpreted on the basis of a wrong historic background. References to time in the text will only be understood correctly when the historic background is understood correctly: For example, something which is said to be in the future in records about an event at the time of Abraham may already have come to pass and be in the past in the days of king David; something which a prophet on the OT prophesied as happening in the future may be present or even past during the times of Jesus, etc. Obviously one would gain a wrong understanding if historic background information is not properly noted.

Equally important is to note the time when a book was written, so that one may correctly interpret from the perspective of the author and writer any time references made in the text. What was past at the time of writing of the book will certainly still be past at the time we today are reading the text. However, what was in the present time at the time of writing is also already past at the time we now are reading the text, even though it could but does not have to be present nowadays. Even that which was in the future at the time of writing may perhaps already now at the time when we read it be in the past. We can see that it is absolutely necessary to carefully note these aspects of the historic background of a text in order to arrive at a correct understanding of what we read.

Cultural backgrund

When we are dealing with the books of the Bible, we not only must observe that we have texts before our eyes which were written about 2000 years ago (and some even a lot earlier), but we must also carefully observe that the things which are recorded for the most part happened in an entirely different cultural setting from what we have today, for example in central Europe.

It may well be that a lot of what we read in the Scriptures in the Bible, in paticular in the OT Scriptures, may be totally foreign to us today. Thus we must be careful to understand the recorded actions and conduct of people and the circumstances of their lives in light of the cultural background of the eastern or oeriental world of that time. Even in the OT Scriptures quite different cultural backgrounds have effect, for example if we read about a nomadic people or about the kingdom of the pharaoh in Egypt. The cultural background of records about the days of king David is a different one from what we read in records in the NT Scriptures 1000 years laer at the times of the Roman Empire.

Linguistic background

The linguistic background of a text also is of great importance. The Biblical Scriptures were not written in our modern day languages with which we are familiar, but rather were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Also, these languages have undergone changes in the course of the centuries, Aramaic perhaps very little. Thus we need to note that we are reading translations into our languages when we read our Bibles today, and it is clear that a translation is not necessarily always entirely correct. When we read some things which appear "awkward" or "strange" to us, it oculd be because an expression which was rather "normal" in the original language does not have a true equivalent in our language of today, etc.

The manner in which people express and describe certain things in their language may be quite different from one language to another. On the one hand, this could be due to simple linguistic reasons because the vocabulary or grammar is different in the languages involved; on the other hand, the respective cultural background may have influence on the use of language. We must be careful with the Scriptures in the Bible that we observe and endeavor to understand what we read in light of the languages used in biblical times and lands.