To understand what the author meant when writing prose, you should focus on four areas: literary context, historical-cultural background, words, and grammar.
1 Literary Context
“The intended meaning of any passage is the meaning that is consistent with the sense of the literary context in which it occurs” (KBH, p. 214). Here are examples:
|paragraph||series of paragraphs before and after it|
|passage||whole book it appears in|
By looking at the context, you are able to determine the autho’ s flow of thought, the correct definition of words used, and the relationship between units of thought. Indeed, “Each statement must be understood according to its natural meaning in the literary context” (KBH, p. 217). Again, it is important to look not just at the words, but how the passage is part of a whole. What is the natural meaning of the passage according to the main theme of the literary context? Here are some steps to follow:
A. Determine the main subject of the immediate context.
Read the preceding paragraph of the passage you are studying and look for the main subject. Write the topic sentence for the preceding paragraph in the box below:
Repeat this process for the paragraph following the passage you are studying:
B. Determine the main subject of the immediate context.
How does the author organize the material? How is your passage related to the paragraphs surrounding it? For example, are they connected chronologically, thematically, or are they connected by a logical structure? Here are some of the logical connections (KBH, p. 221):
|Introduction||preparing for what follows|
|Explanation||clarifying the meaning|
|Illustration||citing an example or instance|
|Causation||showing cause and effect|
|Instrumentation||demonstrating the means to an end|
|Interrogation||giving a question and answer|
|Evidence||proving the stated point|
|Particularization||stating the details|
|Generalization||drawing a general principle from details|
|Cruciality||pivot marking change of direction|
|Climax||indicating progression from lesser to greater|
|Continuation||extending an idea|
|Continuity||restating the same idea|
|Repetition||restating the same words for emphasis|
|Comparison||showing similarity to something else|
|Contrast||showing difference from something else|
|Summarization||reviewing main points briefly|
|Conclusion||drawing inferences or bringing to an end|
C. Try to understand your passage in terms of the entire book in which it is found.
Ideally, read the entire book in one sitting. Determine the following (KBH, p. 223):
The book’s purpose(s) or controlling theme(s)
The basic outline of the book
Parallel passages within the book that deal with the same subject
D. Determine how your passage fits into the unity of the Bible as a whole.
It is important to remember that all that we read was written or told to others who lived at another time and another place. It reflects their way of life. Therefore,
“the correct interpretation of a biblical passage will be consistent with the historical-cultural background of the passage” (KBH, p. 229).
In today’s environment, thankfully, there are many resources available to us (such as Bible dictionaries and the internet) that make it easier to know the historical/cultural background of the passage we are reading. Here are a several questions to ask to explore the text more deeply. Answer any questions you can for your passage (some can be gathered from a close reading of the text itself):
|Who is the author?|
|Who was it written to? What is their community like?|
|What is the relationship between the author and the recipients?|
|When was it written?|
|What were some of the characteristics of that time period?|
|How is the setting different and/or similar to ours?|
|What is the purpose of the book?|
|What is the impact the passage would have had on its original audience? Given our value system, would we have had the same reaction?|
If you are able to gather cultural information (such as the following from KBH, p. 239), it will help in your understanding of the specific passage.
Write any cultural information you have about your text in the space provided:
|Cultural Characteristics||Cultural Information for your Passage|
|WORLDVIEW (values, mindset, or outlook of the writer, recipients, others mentioned, or society)|
|SOCIETAL STRUCTURES (marriage and family, roles of men and women, racial issues)|
|PHYSICAL FEATURES (climate, structures, implements, transportation)|
|ECONOMIC STRUCTURES (ways of making a living, wealth and poverty issues, slavery, economic mobility)|
|POLITICAL CLIMATE (structures, personnel)|
|BEHAVIOR PATTERNS (dress or customs)|
|RELIGIOUS PRACTICES (power, convictions, rituals, or affiliations)
In sum, “the goal of historical-cultural research is to reconstruct, or at least to comprehend, the historical setting and cultural features of the specific passage as clearly as possible.”
(KBH, p. 240)
All authors, including Biblical writers, obviously use words to communicate their ideas. Therefore, it is key that we understand the actual meaning of the words that are used. “The correct interpretation of Scripture is the meaning required by the normal meaning of the words in the context in which they occur” (KBH, p. 240). But how do we go about making sure that we come to the correct understanding of the word, given that it was written at a different time in a different language? Here are several steps to take:
A Determine which words in your passage require special analysis.
This will include words that are crucial to your understanding of the passage, words that are repeated, figures of speech, or words that you do not understand.
B Consult a lexicon to find out the possible meanings, especially at the time the passage was written. How would the original hearers have understood the word?
C Look at how the author uses the same word in other passages. First look within the book. If the meaning is still unclear, then examine other books the author wrote. Finally, look at other places in the entire Bible.
D If further clarification is desired, research how the word is used in nonbiblical literature.
E Evaluate the context to see if it sheds light on the meaning of the word.
F Finally, select the meaning that is the best fit for the passage.
Now apply these steps to a word from your passage:
|Word :||Possible Meanings||Other Uses||Context Clues|
Recognizing the relationship of words in their grammatical structure is key to understanding the Biblical passage. What is the form of the word, and how is it arranged in the sentence to communicate? Here are some steps to take to understand the grammatical features (KBH, pp. 264-272):
A Identify the main statement in the sentence.
B Find the subordinate clauses.
C Determine how the clauses modify the main statement.
D Evaluate the main verbs, looking at what it tells us about the action:
Mood – Is it a statement, question, command, possibility, etc.?
Voice – Is it active or passive?
Time – past, present, or future?
Aspect – is the action complete, still in process or simply an occurrence?
E Look for any connectives (conjunctions and relative pronouns)
F Examine the adjectives and adverbs to see what they tell you about the nouns and verbs.
G Always look for the correct antecedent of the pronoun.
Now try this out on your passage:
|What does the clause tell you about the main statement?|
|Verbs and meaning of verbs|
|Adjectives and Adverbs|
|Pronouns and Antecedents|
Note that if you get stuck on this part, other translations and commentaries can help!