*Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from God’s Word: The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture.
Since the Bible is an ancient document, there are distances we need to try to close in order to have a proper understanding of the original meaning. It is much like crossing a bridge to another world so as to understand its historical context. Thankfully, many scholars have been diligent to build bridges across these divides so modern Christians are not without resources. What are the interpretive distances that students of Scripture continue to travel in order to arrive at the meaning of a text? Let me explain five.
#1 – Closing the Time Distance
Time distance simply indicates the time between our culture today and the era in which these events happened. A significant amount of time has elapsed between current believers and the original audience. We have no access to the author nor the recipients in order to have conversations about the meaning of what they wrote or how they intended it to be received. At the very least, acknowledging this distance should give us humility to avoid impulsive, gut-level interpretations as well as curiosity to learn as much about ancient biblical history as we can.
Like other “distances” we will read about here, much of the time distance can be bridged using solid resources such as Bible encyclopedias and study Bibles, which provide relevant background information for understanding the text.
#2 – Closing the Linguistic Distance
Long before our translations, such as the New American Standard Bible or the English Standard Version, the Bible was written in three ancient languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. The Old Testament was predominantly written in the Hebrew language (with some Aramaic), and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. In an ideal world, everyone would have the ability to read such languages so this distance would be removed, but even someone who reads or speaks modern Greek and Hebrew today is still worlds apart from biblical Koine Greek and the Hebrew of the Bible.
While it is certainly true that we have a plethora of reliable English translations that allow us to gain a solid understanding of biblical texts, we can still face times when some meaning is lost in the process of professional translation. To this end, it is important for serious students of the Bible, when possible and especially for teachers of the Word, to gain a basic understanding of how to use proper linguistic tools to engage with the languages of the Bible. For example, it is helpful to become familiar with lexical books to interface with these ancient languages.
#3 – Closing the Geographical Distance
The geographical distance is significant because many believers today are unfamiliar with the geographical landscape in which the events of the Bible took place. Some of the geographical terms of the Bible may be difficult to locate inasmuch as we do not have a mental picture of the landscape. Learning them, though, can aid proper interpretation.
For instance, when Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan, he mentions a certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. What is Jesus referring to when he speaks of going down to Jericho from Jerusalem? And why would this man get robbed during the journey?
A look into the geography reveals that Jericho sat about 1,500 feet below sea level, which made it a much lower in elevation than Jerusalem, which was around 2,500 feet above sea level. Additionally, a look at the history of the region shows that the road from Jericho to Jerusalem was often crawling with robbers who would wait to prey upon somebody in order to steal their possessions. When Jesus spoke this parable, it would have been very plausible for the audience to picture someone traveling “down” to Jericho and getting robbed. By understanding the geography, it informs a proper understanding of the passage.
#4 – Closing the Cultural Distance
In the days of the Bible, there were various norms, customs, and ways of living that can inform a proper interpretation of Scripture. Becoming culturally informed of the norms of the biblical world can help us answer questions such as: What was so surprising about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in John 13? Why would the apostle Paul say we should salute one another with a holy kiss in Romans 16:16?
Part of understanding the cultural context of their day requires understanding their occupational world. A great many of Jesus’ parables are agricultural, while others highlight the activity of fishing. Both of these were dominant occupations within the Palestinian world.
#5 – Closing the Spiritual Distance
We have just looked at some of the prominent distances that the interpreter seeks to cross in order to arrive at a proper interpretation and fuller understanding of the text. One that I have not mentioned, however, but is the most influential divide of all, is the spiritual distance people naturally have with the Bible and the God who inspired it.
If we do not humble ourselves before God and approach his Word with a willing and obedient heart, we will miss its point, even if we score A’s on all the hermeneutical tests. If the Bible is the Word of God, then to study it merely out of academic pursuit or pure intellectual curiosity would be akin to taking the Lord’s Supper merely for its nutritional value.
Studying the Bible with no intention of letting it bridge the spiritual distance between you and God is to prove the proverb, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Whether spoken or written, the words of God are meant to be loved (Psalm 119:97), internalized (Psalm 119:11), and obeyed (John 14:15).
For this reason, it is important to read the Bible prayerfully, acknowledging that our study of God’s Word can give rise to legalism (Luke 18:11–12) or even sinful cravings (Romans 7:7–8) if not grounded in humility before God. And a delightful surprise we experience when we do trust God enough to obey his word is that obedience leads to understanding in a richness that study alone can never yield.
If we do not humble ourselves before God and approach his Word with a willing and obedient heart, we will miss its point, even if we score A’s on all the hermeneutical tests.