A Seminar on Bible Interpretation

 Introduction

The accurate knowledge of the Word of God is necessary for the full expression of the Life of God [His Spirit] (Zoe) in the life of a Christian [every facet of his life]. The erroneous interpretations of the Bible has clouded the truth of God’s Word in it, this has led to the lack of many Christians growth, financial incapability, little or no experience of divine healing, lack of the manifestation of God’s power, inability to overcome sin and any other phenomenon that demeans the power or the Life of God. Therefore, it becomes expedient that we all acquire skill and competence in the accurate analysis and interpretation of the Bible; that we may arrive at best truth therein i.e. that which is the closest to or the perfect will of the ultimate and supreme author – God Almighty. This leads us to two questions:

  1. Can anyone arrive at a perfect or almost perfect interpretation of every verse/passage in the bible in order to arrive at the exact thought of the [W]riter.
  2. Who is capable of interpreting the Scriptures accurately/who should interpret it?

 

Perfect Interpretation of  the Scripture

Many persons erroneously think that the scriptures are vague, mysterious and can hardly be comprehended. They say things like “we cannot understand”, “the Bible is mysterious” . But this s not true because God has written the Bible through men, in the language of men, and for men. Therefore, the intention of God is that through every orthographical representation in the bible, we should be able to decipher His exact thoughts. We must understand that God is the Writer of the Bible but there are many writers (men like us) of the books that makes up the Bible, yet God inspired every one of them to write in a way that we can understand. (This will be explained under The History of the Bible)

 

Who can/should Interpret the Bible?

It is the belief of many that interpretation of scriptures is for the pastors or clergy. But the Bible contains the Word of God for all men. It is a book about Jesus, to all who follow Jesus regardless of their positions in the body of Christ. So, every Christian can interpret the Bible and should interpret the Bible rightly. However, only few Christians read their Bibles, much more, very few of them interpret the Bible rightly. Why is it so? We shall look at this in another section – Factors that determine the accurate interpretation of the Bible

 

The History of Bible

Bible, the English form of the Greek name ‎Biblia (gotten from biblos, the inner bark of the papyrus), meaning “books,” the name which in the fifth century began to be given to the entire collection of sacred books, the “Library of Divine Revelation.” The name Bible was adopted by Wickliffe, and came gradually into use in our English language. The Bible consists of sixty-six different books, composed by many different writers, in three different languages, under different circumstances; writers of almost every social rank, statesmen and peasants, kings, herdsmen, fishermen, priests, tax-gatherers, tentmakers; educated and uneducated, Jews and Gentiles; most of them unknown to each other, and writing at various periods during the space of about 1600 years: and yet, after all, it is only one book dealing with only one subject in its numberless aspects and relations, the subject of man’s redemption. The Bible used by Jesus and his disciples is called the Jewish Bible.

 

The Testament

The division of the Bible into Old and New Testaments began in the 2nd Century, there was nothing like New or Old Testament before then.  The word ‘testament’ means the same thing as Covenant. While these two covenants, the old and the new, launched great spiritual movements, Christians believe these movements are actually two phases of one great act through which God has revealed His will to His people and called for their positive response. The second covenant is the fulfillment of what was promised in the first.

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In the form in which it has been handed down among the Jewish people, the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, contains three divisions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Law consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; this section of the Old Testament is also known as the PENTATEUCH. The Prophets fall into two subdivisions: the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings) and the latter prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve Prophets-Hosea through Malachi). The rest of the books are gathered together in the Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra Nehemiah (counted as one book), and First and Second Chronicles.

The arrangement of the Old Testament with which readers today are most familiar has been inherited from the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament (the SEPTUAGINT) – an arrangement which was also followed by the later Latin Bible (the Vulgate). This arrangement has four divisions: the Pentateuch, the historical books, poetry, and prophecy.

The New Testament opens with five narrative books-the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The gospels deal with the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Book of Acts continues the story of the development of the early church across the next 30 years. Acts serves as a sequel to the gospels in general; originally it was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke in particular.

Twenty-one letters, or epistles, follow the historical narratives. Thirteen of these letters bear the name of the apostle Paul as writer, while the remaining eight are the work of other apostles or of authors associated with apostles. The last book in the New Testament, the Revelation of John, portrays through visions and symbolic language the accomplishment of God’s purpose in the world and the ultimate triumph of Christ.

 

The Original Languages

The Old Testament is mostly written in Hebrew, while the New Testament is written in Greek.  Some parts of the Old Testament in Ezra, Jeremiah, and Daniel are written in Aramaic (formerly called Chaldean).

 

The Septuagint

          This is the most widely used Greek version of the Old Testament used in antiquity. It is believed to have been translated by 70 persons in about 70 days.

 

The Apocrypha

This is the name given to certain ancient books which found a place in the LXX. and Latin Vulgate versions of the Old Testament, and were appended to all the great translations made from them in the sixteenth century, but which have no claim to be regarded as in any sense parts of the inspired Word.

(1.) They are not once quoted by the New Testament writers, who frequently quote from the LXX. Our Lord and his apostles confirmed by their authority the ordinary Jewish canon, which was the same in all respects as we now have it.

(2.) These books were written not in Hebrew but in Greek, and during the “period of silence,” from the time of Malachi, after which oracles and direct revelations from God ceased till the Christian era.

(3.) The contents of the books themselves show that they were no part of Scripture. The Old Testament Apocrypha consists of fourteen books, the chief of which are the Books of the Maccabees (q.v.), the Books of Esdras, the Book of Wisdom, the Book of Baruch, the Book of Esther, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, etc.

The New Testament Apocrypha consists of a very extensive literature, which bears distinct evidences of its non-apostolic origin, and is utterly unworthy of regard.

The arrangement of the Old Testament with which readers today are most familiar has been inherited from the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament (the SEPTUAGINT) – an arrangement which was also followed by the later Latin Bible (the Vulgate). This arrangement has four divisions: the Pentateuch, the historical books, poetry, and prophecy.

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The New Testament opens with five narrative books-the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The gospels deal with the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Book of Acts continues the story of the development of the early church across the next 30 years. Acts serves as a sequel to the gospels in general; originally it was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke in particular.

Twenty-one letters, or epistles, follow the historical narratives. Thirteen of these letters bear the name of the apostle Paul as writer, while the remaining eight are the work of other apostles or of authors associated with apostles. The last book in the New Testament, the Revelation of John, portrays through visions and symbolic language the accomplishment of God’s purpose in the world and the ultimate triumph of Christ.

 

Canonicity of the Bible

The word canon means a “rod”-specifically, a rod with graduated marks used for measuring length. This word refers to the list of individual books that were eventually judged as authoritative and included as a part of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The early formation of the canon of the Old Testament is not easy to trace. Its threefold division in its early history-the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings-may reflect the three stages of its formation. From the beginning, the Law was accepted, even if it was not always obeyed. Evidence of its acceptance would include Moses’ reading of “the Book of the Covenant” to the people at Mount Sinai and the people’s response, “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient” (Ex 24:7).

Further evidence of acceptance of the Law includes the discovery of the “Book of the Law,” probably the Book of Deuteronomy, in the Temple of Jerusalem during King Josiah’s reign and the religious reform which followed (2 Kings 22:8-23:25). Also, following the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian Captivity, “the Book of the Law of Moses” was read to the people of Jerusalem under Ezra’s direction. This book became the constitution of their new nation (Neh 8).

The second division of the Old Testament accepted by the Jewish people was the Prophets. The prophets’ words were preserved from the beginning by their disciples, or by others who recognized the prophets as messengers of God. In general, their words were probably written shortly after they were spoken, for their authority as God’s messengers came before their widespread acceptance by the Jewish people. The words of the prophets were not regarded as authoritative because they were included in the Old Testament; they were included because they were considered to be authoritative.

The third division of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Writings, may have remained “open” longer than the first two. Scholars know less about the formation of this division than the first two.

The “Bible” which Jesus used was the Hebrew Old Testament. He left no instructions about forming a new collection of authoritative writings to stand beside the books which He and His disciples accepted as God’s Word. The Old Testament was also the Bible of the early church, but it was the Old Testament as fulfilled by Jesus. Early Christians interpreted the Old Testament in the light of His person and work. This new perspective controlled the early church’s interpretation to such a degree that, while Jews and Christians shared the same Bible, they understood it so differently that they might almost have been using two different Bibles.

 

The works and words of Jesus were first communicated in spoken form. The apostles and their associates proclaimed the gospel by word of mouth. Paul taught the believers orally in the churches which he founded when he was present. But when he was absent, he communicated through his letters.

Quite early in its history, the church felt a need for a written account of the teachings of Jesus. His teachings did provide the basis for the new Christian way of life. But the church grew so large that many converts were unable to rely on the instructions of those who had heard and memorized the teachings of Jesus. From about  A.D. 50 onward, probably more than one written collection of sayings of Jesus circulated in the churches. The earliest written gospel appears to have been the Gospel of Mark, written about  A.D. 64.

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An individual gospel, a letter from an apostle, or even several works circulating independently, would not amount to a canon, or an authoritative list of books. A canon implies a collection of writings. There is evidence that two collections of Christian writings circulated among the churches at the beginning of the second century. One of these was the gospel collection-the four writings which are commonly called the four gospels. The other collection was the Pauline collection, or the letters of the apostle Paul. The anonymous letter to the Hebrews was added to this second collection at an early date.

Early Christians continued to accept the Old Testament as authoritative. But they could interpret the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ deeds and words only if they had a reliable record of them. So, alongside Moses and the prophets, they had these early writings about Jesus and letters from the apostles, who had known Jesus in the flesh.

When officials of the early church sought to make a list of books about Jesus and the early church which they considered authoritative, they retained the Old Testament, on the authority of Jesus and His apostles. Along with these books they recognized as authoritative the writings of the new age-four gospels, or biographies on the life and ministry of Jesus; the 13 letters of Paul; and letters of other apostles and their companions. The gospel collection and the apostolic collection were joined together by the Book of Acts, which served as a sequel to the gospel story, as well as a narrative background for the earlier epistles.

The primary standard applied to a book was that it must be written either by an apostle or by someone close to the apostles. This guaranteed that their writing about Jesus and the early church would have the authenticity of an eyewitness account. As in the earliest phase of the church’s existence, “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42) was the basis of its life and thought. The apostolic writings formed the charter, or foundation documents, of the church.

None of the books written after the death of the apostles were included in the New Testament, although early church officials recognized they did have some value as inspirational documents. The fact that they were written later ruled them out for consideration among the church’s foundation documents. These other writings might be suitable for reading aloud in church because of their edifying character, but only the apostolic writings carried ultimate authority. They alone could be used as the basis of the church’s belief and practice.

Behind the Bible is a thrilling story of how God revealed Himself and His will to human spokesmen and then acted throughout history to preserve His Word and pass it along to future generations. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa 40:8).

 

 Is the Bible Sacred?

The Bible in itself is as good as any literature book, it becomes a Holy Book when we talk about the Word of God in it. We must also understand that not every passage in the bible is the Word of God, but all passages in the Bible contribute to the Word of God. Some books in the Bible are philosophies of men, but allowed them to be in the Bible so that we can compare the philosophies of men with his perfect infallible wisdom.

 

The Exact Thought of an Author

The intention of every author of a book is to clearly express a thought to a reader. This thought is subject to different interpretation, but there is one perfect interpretation to every passage.

 

Principles of Interpretation

  1. Right contextualization
  2. Accurate division of the testament
  3. Coherence of interpretation
  4. First mention

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