How should we interpret the bible? Should we understand it in its simplest yet sometimes superficial sense or are there ‘deeper’ meanings embedded in its text?
Different denominations, groups, and theologians have different ways of interpreting the bible. Among Pentecostal groups, for instance, Hyper-literal or Allegorical approaches are much in vogue. On the other hand, more traditionally conservative scholars favour a Historical-grammatical Approach.
Before attempting an answer, I need to comment briefly on what constituted ‘Jesus’ bible’. What we know as the New Testament had not been written when Jesus walked this earth as a man and so the only bible available to him would have been the Old Testament (Law, Prophets, and Writings). More specifically, the most widely used version of these scriptures was a Greek translation produced sometime in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The Septuagint, what we call that early Greek translation, follows the same order of books as our modern Old Testament.
It is useful to know this because most of Jesus’ Old Testament quotes cited in the Gospels have been transcribed from the Septuagint whereas modern versions of the Old Testament root their translation in early Hebrew documents. As a result, when we compare Gospel quotes to their Old Testament equivalents we sometimes find differences in word choice and order.
Jesus’ View of Scripture
Jesus’ approach to scripture was consistently one of respect for its inspiration, authority, reliability, and sufficiency.
For instance, in arguing with the Pharisees who accused him of blasphemously equating himself with Jehovah (John 10:35), Jesus reminded them that “the Scripture cannot be broken”. In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, he stated that “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). In addition to statements like this, he also validated the historical reliability of the Old Testament by referring to Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah’s experience, and so on. Moreover, Jesus invariably grounded his interactions with the religious scholars of his day in an understanding of particular scriptural texts.
Jesus also made his relationship with scripture clear. In Matthew 5:17 he stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them”. Then having said that, he repeatedly used phrases like, “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago… but I tell you…” (Matthew 5:33-34). In this, he was indicating that he was the authoritative interpreter of the traditional Hebrew verbal teachings. Here Jesus was referring to the work of the renowned Jewish scholars of the past and not the scriptures themselves. However, he also made it clear that his interpretations of the actual scriptures were authoritative. For instance, in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus gave the true meaning of the 6th and 7th commandments.
Examples of How Jesus Applied the Scriptures
Matthew Chapter Nine records the account of what happened as Jesus was having a meal at the home of Matthew the tax collector. The Pharisees’ asked some of the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” As part of his response, Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). The Pharisees question implied that Jesus was revealing himself to be a sinner because he broke bread with sinners – a sinner by association. Jesus retorted that a doctor ministered to the sick and not to the healthy, thus letting his critics know why he was with sinners. Then he quoted Hosea 6:6 which was a stern rebuke. The context of the Hosea text was God’s chastisement of the Jews of his day for adhering to the sacrificial ceremonial law while violating the covenant with God and acting without mercy to others.
Jesus often applied scriptures in a way familiar to the scholars of his day but quite strange to those among us who like to take texts simply at their face value without any embellishment or amplification.
For instance, Matthew 13 records Jesus as explaining why he spoke to the people in parables. In verse 13 he says “This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’.” This statement is a composite of three separate Old Testament texts – Deuteronomy 29:4, Jeremiah 5:21, and Ezekiel 12:2. He then goes on to quote directly from Isaiah 6:9-10: “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them’.” (Matthew 13:14-15) The context of the Isaiah passage is God’s call upon the prophet to speak his word to the people even though they would neither understand nor receive it.
The parallel account of this quote in Mark 4:11-12 implies that Jesus was once again the voice of God speaking to the people of Israel and that they too would not understand or receive. So, the idea was that to speak in parables served to veil the truth from those who were not seeking truth and might well be antagonistic to the revealed words of God. However, in the context of Matthew 13, a better understanding of why Jesus spoke in parables is that this form of speech would at least allow the superficial to hear some life lessons whilst hopefully encouraging genuine seekers to probe the deeper meaning behind the simple stories.
A Pause for Reflection
I want to expound upon a passage in Matthew 22 that gives some wonderful insights into Jesus’ method of biblical interpretation, but first, we need to pause and reflect a little on the examples I have already cited.
If we have no knowledge of Hosea 6 and its context then how will we understand the answer Jesus gave to the accusation that he was a sinner eating with other sinners? If we fail to research the full origins of Matthew 13:13 then we might wrongly conclude that Jesus was quoting something that is not in the Old Testament. If we do not appreciate the Old Testament background to why Jesus spoke in parables we might erroneously conclude that his primary purpose was to obscure the truth rather than reveal it.
Matthew 22: 23-33
Here is the example I want to expound on a little. The Sadducees, who did not believe in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead, were trying to trap Jesus. The nature of the trap was that
- if Jesus was not able to answer their question then they would have made their point and Jesus would have offended the Pharisees, who did believe in the resurrection of the dead; and
- any answer that Jesus was likely to give would no doubt violate one or other of the scriptures regarding marriage.
To set this trap the Sadducees concocted a complex hypothetical based on the Deuteronomy 25:5-6 injunction which says that in the event of a man dying without a male heir then an available relative was to preserve his family line by marrying the widow.
Jesus’ rebuttal of the first ‘piece of cheese’ in the trap was that the Sadducees did not understand the meaning and application of the scripture they were referencing. There was nothing in the Deuteronomy 25:5-6 text that had any bearing on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead or any afterlife. This alone was a stinging rebuke because it pointed out that they did not understand the specific scripture and had failed to take into account the texts such as Psalm 16:9-11 and Daniel 12:2 that did teach a resurrection of the dead. He then quoted Exodus 3:6 and explained that the present tense used there indicates that the patriarchs are still alive in the presence of God. He countered the second part of their trap by simply stating that they had no concept of what God was capable of doing and of how he had arranged things in the life hereafter. He told them that angels do not marry and that in the afterlife there is no need for the ordinance of marriage or the act of reproduction.
Jesus pointed out that to understand one part of scripture we need to know all of scripture – the Exhaustive Reference principle. He demonstrated the Context principle by correctly identifying the context of Deuteronomy 25:5-6 as applying to an earthly succession of lineage and not the life hereafter. The Christocentric principle is obvious in that the understanding of the issue is squarely based on Jesus’ interpretation and revelation.
By way of summary and conclusion, here is the Matthew 22 passage written in the first person taken from the book ‘Jesus, In His Own Words’ by R.H.Mounce
That same day some Sadducees (who contend there is no resurrection) came to me with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote that if a married man dies, leaving no children, his brother is to marry the widow to provide him with descendants. Now there was a family with seven sons. The oldest son married a woman but died without children, so the second son married the widow, but he too died childless. Then the third son married her, and so on through all seven sons. They all died without children. Finally, the woman herself died. Now here is the question: Whose wife will she be in the resurrection when all seven sons are raised? After all, each one had been her husband.” I replied, “Your question reveals that you don’t understand the Scriptures or the power of God. In this age men and women marry, but in the age to come, following the resurrection, people will not marry. They will be like the angels in heaven and can never die. They are children of God, children of the resurrection. “And in the passage about the burning bush, Moses implied that the dead do rise. He refers to the Lord as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’—patriarchs who had died long before. God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for he has taken the righteous ‘dead’ into his realm of life.”
Jesus is the Final Word
So, instead of committing to any purely man-made system of biblical interpretation, I recommend that we draw our hermeneutical principles and methods directly from the Master, the Lord Jesus Christ: In him is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).