May 26, 2022

Some Guiding Principles for the Correct Interpretation of the Bible (Hermeneutics)

Some Guiding Principles for the 
Correct Interpretation of the Bible 

1) Accounting for inspiration.

Since the Bible was written under the inspiration of God by men filled with the Holy Spirit, it should be trusted. If any biblical fragment seems incomprehensible or inconsistent with natural scientific knowledge, this does not mean that it is false. The Bible contains science and history, but it is not a scientific or a historical text, since in these areas it is bound by the knowledge of its time and uses them to convey a deeper purpose. It would be a scientific and historical text only if that was its primary message and aim. However, the primary message and aim of the Bible is the salvation of the human race and how this salvation is achieved, with the ultimate goal of human beings uniting with God. 
Comprehending sacred texts should be based on the interpretations of the holy fathers, who are the successors of the holy apostles and who combined the height of their theological thoughts with the holiness of their life. At the same time, it should be taken into account that the fathers could focus on different facets of understanding this or that passage.

2) Accounting for the entire text.

Taking quotes out of context is considered bad form in any area of human knowledge. An example of incorrect quoting from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles: "Great Artemis of Ephesus" (Acts 19:28), or from the Psalter: "There is no God" (Ps. 13:1; Ps. 52:2). Obviously, Holy Scripture does not glorify a pagan deity and does not preach atheism. Or the episode of the trial of the Savior (Mt. 26:63-66), where the high priest bases the verdict on a fragment of the Mosaic law on blasphemy, not wanting to see any other quotes, or the fact that Christ is obviously the Messiah (fulfilled prophecies, miracles, etc.). Those who take quotes out of context and distort the meaning of Scripture are to some extent likened to this high priest.

Text always suggests context. It is impossible to consider this or that expression of the Bible (especially this or that thought, quotation) as an intrinsically valuable unit. It must be considered in conjunction with the context and with all of Scripture. Then any quotation gets its "place" and meaning as an element of the grandiose and beautiful mosaic of the word of God.

3) The criterion for considering any quote: who, when and where (historical setting), to whom, for what reason and for what purpose he said it.

Over the hundreds of years since the Bible was written, the historical and cultural background has changed significantly. The psychology of people is changing, and their way of knowing and describing the world. Ancient texts are often difficult to understand without knowledge of historical realities. A common mistake is to judge the actions of people and historical events only from the vantage point of our time.

For example, the episode of the healing by the Savior of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician (Mark 7:25-30) may confuse the modern reader. It helps to resolve this confusion by knowing that the Jews called the Gentiles "dogs" because of their idolatry (which included sacrificing children to an idol) and depraved life. The purpose of Christ's refusal was both to test the love of this woman for her daughter, and to confess the true faith.

4) Knowledge of literary genres.

The Bible contains many genres: epistles, parables, hymns, riddles, prayers, apocalyptic literature, love lyrics. Accounting for the genre is the basis for the interpretation of a particular fragment.

Let us recall the words of the Apostle Paul: "Everything is permissible to me, but not everything is useful; everything is permissible to me, but nothing should possess me" (1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23). Did the Apostle really hold such liberal views as "everything is lawful to me"? Most likely, this is a method of ancient writing - a diatribe - a conversation with an imaginary opponent.

5) Linguistic aspect.

Often in discussions of amateurs concerning biblical verses, only the English text is considered. English is not the original language. Translation cannot always fully and accurately convey the content of the original.


a) All the evangelists speak of the brothers and sisters of the Savior (Mark 6:2-4). In Hebrew, the meanings of the words "brothers and sisters" are much broader than in English and include all relatives of a person, more or less equal in age, those whom we call distant relatives, for example, cousins. These could be the children of Joseph the Betrothed from his first marriage and Jacob, the son of Mary, who was a relative of the Virgin Mary.

b) The Virgin Mary "gave birth to her firstborn Son" (Mt. 1:25) and (Lk. 2:7). As for the word "firstborn", this is how the Greek word (prototokos) is translated, literally meaning "firstborn". This concept is not genealogical, but legal (the first-born had priority rights among children). All this is confirmed by the fact that on the 40th day the parents brought the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem (we celebrate this event on the feast of the Reception on February 2nd), because only the first-born male infant was brought to the temple.

c) “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and, moreover, his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:25-27). There are no degrees of comparison in Semitic languages. Here, as often in the Bible, the verb "hate" has the comparative meaning of "love less".

6) Accounting for literary devices.

The Bible uses types, prophecies, comparisons, metaphors, sayings, parables, allegories, so not all of its text should be taken literally.

An example of a prophecy (from Matthew 1:21-23): “... and you will call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. And all this happened, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would come true, who said: Behold, the Virgin will give birth to a Son, and they will call His name Emmanuel, which means: God is with us” (Is. 7:14). The evangelist uses this prophecy, in particular, because the inner meaning of these names coincides (Jesus - "The Lord saves", Emmanuel - "God is with us"). In the Bible, sometimes a name not only defines, but also characterizes a person. This is confirmed by another quote from the same Prophet Isaiah through one verse: “For a child is born to us ... and His name will be called: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (Is. 9:6).

An example of hyperbole (poetic exaggeration): “If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away from you, for it is better for you that one of your members perish, and not your whole body be cast into hell. And if your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it away from you, for it is better for you that one of your members perish, and not your whole body be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).

Interpreting the Bible

One Saint wrote about the Bible: “There is found depth, there is found inexhaustible meaning. Just as you can remove one scale from an onion, then another, then a third, etc. - it is the same in Holy Scripture: a person understands one meaning, behind this meaning there is another deeper one, then a second one, a third one, etc."

Holy Scripture speaks a human language, but we must not forget that we have before us a sacred text: along with historical and everyday information, it contains doctrinal information that is "not of this world." The latter are only gradually revealed to man based on following guided principles and listening to experienced exegetes, as well as allowing for divine grace to inform us when we have attained the purification of our hearts and subsequent illumination.

The depth of the Bible makes possible (at least) five levels of its reading: literal, allegorical, moral, representative and spiritual.

The need for interpretation is related to:

- changes in the linguistic, cultural and historical environment. The language of the Bible is highly figurative. Figurative language sometimes has the purpose of conveying theological thought more clearly and more precisely, and in other places, on the contrary, it is used to make the truth hidden.

- the fact that events sometimes do not only have a literal meaning. For example, in the episode of the healing of the blind man by the Savior, who “received his sight and followed Jesus” (Mark 10:51-52), blindness is understood not only as physical, but also as spiritual.

These are the following branches of scientific study of Holy Scripture:

- hermeneutics - a science that develops rules, principles and methods of interpretation;

- textual criticism - an attempt to clarify the edition of the original text;

- isagogy - a branch of theology that is preliminary to actual exegesis and deals with the literary and external history of the Bible;

- exegesis - extracting the exact meaning, the interpreter tries to extract understanding from the text, and does not bring his own meaning to the text.

Are there errors and contradictions in the Bible?

Opponents of Christianity speak of so-called "biblical contradictions". Clearly, educated Christians know the Bible as well as educated skeptics. And they recognize that the understanding of the same passage from the Bible can be different. One and the same passage can have several quite legitimate interpretations: literal meaning and allegorical meaning. For example, there are many poetic pages in the Bible that no one would ever think of taking literally. It is easier to accuse the Bible of contradictions than to accuse oneself of not knowing the principles of its understanding or ignoring the Holy Tradition of the Church.

For example, in the Gospel according to John, Christ says things that seem to be opposite: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “My Father is greater than Me” (John 14:28). One of these expressions can be understood through the prism of the other: since Jesus Christ is both God and Man, the first speaks of the consubstantiality of God the Son and God the Father, and the second speaks of the economy of the Son in the incarnation .

“If we are confused by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, then this does not allow us to say that the Author of this book was mistaken. But either the manuscript is corrupted, or the translation is wrong, or you just didn’t understand,” said Saint Augustine.

Some rules for reading the Bible.

- For a Christian it is equally important to know the Gospels and to live according to them; reading by itself, apart from the Church, is not beneficial.

- The Bible is not just read, but studied. Christ says: "Search the Scriptures" (John 5:39). It cannot be read from beginning to end and put on the shelf like a historical novel.

- It should be read after praying, with reverence, thoughtfully, using, first of all, the interpretations of the holy fathers. Only with discretion should one treat the interpretations of authors who are outside the Church. They can be interesting, informative, but a different spirit reigns in them. In addition, one must have a certain amount of experience in order to discern the lies contained in the interpretations of heretics.

- In Orthodoxy, a student's correct understanding of the Bible comes through a teacher and a preacher - "faith comes by hearing" (Rom. 10:17), and not from one's own opinion.

- The Bible mainly talks about key characters and principle episodes. An example (from Gen. 4), when Cain says to God: "the first comer will kill me", although earlier in the same chapter only two children of Adam and Eve were mentioned, Cain and Abel. Only the essentials have been said about Christ's childhood. Or the killing of a thousand Philistines by Samson's donkey jaw (Judges 15:15) should be understood in the same vein as the phrase "Marshal Zhukov occupied Berlin."

- The truths of the Gospels are extremely concentrated, indicating that Christ gives us a perfect model, an ideal of Christian life ("Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" - Matt. 5:48). For example, He calls us not to worry about the future, or only adultery is established as a valid reason for divorce. This is why personal guidance with an experienced and trusted guide in the spiritual life is essential.

Source: Translation by John Sanidopoulos.