The Necessity of Interpretation
Download "How to Study the Bible"
Whether we want to or not we begin to interpret as soon as we begin to read the Bible. Primarily this is due to the fact that twenty centuries or more have elapsed since the events recorded in the Bible took place. While this is of greatest disadvantage to those of us living in what today are termed "highly advanced cultures" it is also a disadvantage to those living in cultures more closely approximating the culture in which the Bible was written. No one alive today has any direct connection with the events recorded in the Bible, lives are simply not lived in the same way today as they were then. This is perhaps the greatest single reason that debate can exist concerning the meaning of various passages of the Bible; what could have been perfectly understandable to the original audience is often meaningless to we who are so far removed from the culture of the times. Picture what the book of Revelation would have meant to you if you were alive in the time in which it was written. You would understand more of the symbolism and the number 666 might actually specify a living person familiar to you (many interpreters believe that the number actually was a code to represent the emperor Nero, but such speculation is beyond the scope of this work, the basic point I am attempting to raise is that it is a very real possibility that the original readers of Revelation knew of whom John was speaking).
Today we have the perspective of distance. We are greatly removed in time and circumstance from those who originally read its words. In one sense this can be a benefit since we have a greater awareness of the flow of the Bible as a whole, and the Old Testament in particular, than did the men and women of Jesus' day who had only the Old Testament and so we are able to understand many of the themes of the Bible because they have actually taken place in human history. In an other sense this is also a tremendous liability since we have no idea of what it was like to walk along the Judean roadways with Jesus, we have not directly interacted with Him as did His first followers. We can speculate at the impact that Jesus had on the lives of those who lived with Him and come to the conclusion that He was a man of incredible personality but we can never directly experience Him in this life in the same way as those who ate with Him, spoke with Him and walked with Him. Jesus Himself acknowledges the limitation of our distance in His words to Thomas after His resurrection:
After eight days again his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the middle, and said, “Peace be to you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.”
Given that interpretation is unavoidable we have the obligation to ensure that our interpretation causes us to understand the message of the Bible as did its original readers. It is for this purpose that this document is being presented, so that the person devoutly seeking to understand what God is saying in the Bible may be given some direction as to what approach to take and what tools are available to make the study as worthwhile as possible.