Three Fundamental Questions
HOW Readest Thou?
Jesus once asked an Old Testament scholar that very question. The
story is in Luke 10:25-37. It begins with the scholar (Literally
a "lawyer" - that is an expert in the law of Moses, someone who
devoted his life to the study and interpretation of the
Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible), testing Jesus'
own scholarship to see what He would say.
The scholar's test question was "Teacher, what shall I do to
inherit eternal life?" Jesus responded with a counter-question:
"What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?"' In
essence, Jesus turned the table on the scholar by implying,
"You're the scholar; you tell me. How do you interpret what the
"What is your reading of it?" That question continues to echo
across time and down to us. In Lesson 1 we attempted to answer it
by defining the guiding principles of hermeneutics and exegesis
by which we interpret, explain, and bring out what the Scripture
says. In Lesson 2 we went a step further by identifying the gaps
that often get in our way of fully understanding the Bible's
We also pointed out that the process of bridging the gaps and
interpreting the text involves the two basic steps of listening
and applying. In this lesson, we will add a little more depth to
those steps, especially the listening step. How can we be better
listeners of the Word?
Think of the task of listening to the Bible as a dialogue, a
conversation or, better yet, an interview with the text. We must
allow the text to communicate its information to us by asking the
right questions - exegetical questions - and then step out of the
way to listen objectively for its answers (Otherwise, we
interject our presuppositions and agenda into the conversation.
We engage in monologue, rather than a dialogue with the text. We
slant the interview to make the Bible say what we want it to say)
This listening type of dialogue or interview begins with three
fundamental questions we must ask of every text: 1) What does the
text say? 2) What did the text mean to the original audience? 3)
What does the text mean for us today?
What does the text say?
This question involves content - the five W's of the text: who,
what, when, where, and why.
1. Who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and who else is
present? 2. What is happening, what's the situation, what's the
issue? 3. When is it happening? 4. Where is it happening? 5. Why
is it happening?
To answer these questions, you will often need to read the verses
or chapters BEFORE and AFTER a passage for the complete context.
Determining what the text says also involves paying attention to
its composition - the sentence structure and wording of the text
syntactically. How is it being said grammatically? What is the
subject of the sentence? What is the tense of the verb? What are
the definitions of the words?
What did the text mean to the original audience?
This question involves putting yourself in the sandals of the
biblical characters and the original audience of the text. What
impact did the words have on them? How did they understand and
respond to what was said?
Here again, you must be careful not to read your modern-day
presuppositions into the text. Try to think historically. Pay
attention to the overall context for clues concerning the
historical, religious, cultural, and philosophical backgrounds.
If you let the text be your first source of information about
these matters, then much of the Bible's message will come
through. Although it would be nice, it's not necessary to become
an expert on the ancient world in order to make sense of the
text. Just the awareness that the Bible is speaking from a
life-setting different from your own is half the battle. If you
need more help, consult a good Bible dictionary or commentary.
Keep in mind, however, that the main objective is not to focus on
the historical background, per se, but on the intention of the
text within that background. It is the message the biblical
writer conveyed to the people of his day that is important.
What does the text mean for us today?
This question involves applying the truth of the text to modem
life. But be careful not to put the cart before the horse. You
should ask this third question only after you have adequately
answered the first two.
Don't be like most people who skip questions 1 and 2 and go
straight to question 3. You must first listen to the text - hear
what it says and what it meant to the original audience - before
drawing any conclusions. Otherwise, you run the risk of reading
into the text ideas that were never there. Try to get an
objective handle on the text before subjecting it to your
More mistakes are made here than anywhere else, precisely because
each of us brings his own emotional, cultural, and religious
baggage to the text. This is why there are so many different
opinions about what the Bible teaches. Yet, the proper
application of Scripture need not be a matter of guesswork. Let
the text establish its own parameters of application. A text
cannot mean something today that would have been entirely foreign
to the original author and his readers. This principle may not
always lead you to what the text means, but it will help set
limits on what it cannot mean.
With these basic questions in mind, let's return to the story of
Jesus and the scholar and apply them to the text. The following
exercises will help us practice our listening skills.
The story of Jesus and the scholar in Luke 10:25-37 also contains
the well known parable of the Good Samaritan, which many see as
the focal point of the story. Let's ask the text the three basic
questions to hear what it has to say and to see what role the
parable plays in conveying Jesus' message. Read Luke 10:25-37 and
answer the following:
1. What does the text say? This question has two basic
components: content (summarized in the five W's) and composition
(revealed in the structure).
a. Content - the five W's: Who is present? What is happening?
When is it happening? Where is it happening? Why is it happening?
When we read a text, we normally focus on content - what is being
said. However, to fully listen, we also need to notice the
composition - how things are being said. This includes not only
the grammatical structure in each verse but also the overall
structural flow of the passage - the sequence in which the author
has put the passage together. We will refer to this sequence as
the structural outline.
A partial structural outline is given below. Notice that it
follows the flow of conversation between Jesus and the scholar
(lawyer). For each speaker, identify the kind of statement he
makes. In other words, grammatically, what kind of sentence is
it? To help you get started, the first one has already been
identified. Fill in the rest.
Part 1 - First Exchange
* Scholar (v.25) - Question
* Jesus (v.26) -
* Scholar (v.27) -
* Jesus (v.28) -
Part 2 - Second Exchange
* Scholar (v. 29) -
* Jesus (vs. 30-36) Notice
that Jesus' statement here has two parts:
1) vs.30-35 2) v.36
* Scholar (v.37a)
* Jesus (v. 37b)
c. Now take a few moments to analyze the above structure.
1) Structurally, how do parts one and two compare with each
other? What's the pattern?
2) With what kind of statement does each part end? Spoken by
whom? What is the essence of each ending-statement? How would you
paraphrase it in your own words?
3) Based on the structure, why does Jesus tell the parable of the
4) How does Jesus' question at the end of the parable (v.36) turn
the table on the scholar's question in verse 29?
5) Based on the structure, is the scholar struggling with knowing
what's right (information and knowledge) or with doing what's
right (will and attitude)?
Based on the structure, what is Jesus' solution for the scholar?
2. What did the text mean to the original audience? To illustrate
the importance of this question, let's take a look at a famous
interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan by the early
church theologian, Augustine (A.D. 354-430). During his day, the
allegorical model of interpretation reigned supreme, and
Augustine was its king. All parables were treated as allegories
in which each term stood as cryptogram, so that the whole had to
be decoded term by term. For Augustine, the real meaning of a
text was not the obvious surface meaning but the way in which the
text revealed the plan of salvation. Notice how the plan of
salvation, from the fall of Adam to redemption in Christ and
nurture by the church, unfolds in Augustine's interpretation
given below. The underlined words come from the parable, followed
by his interpretation.
"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself
is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose
blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signified our
mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, and dies. Thieves
are the devil and his angles. Who stripped him, namely, of his
immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him
half-dead, because insofar as man can understand and know God, he
lives, but insofar as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is
dead; he is therefore called half-dead. The priest and Levite who
saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the
Old Testament, which could profit nothing for salvation.
Samaritan means Guardian and therefore the Lord himself is
signified by this name. [In other words, the Samaritan is Jesus.]
The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the
comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent
spirit. The beast is the flesh in which [Christ condescended] to
come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the
incarnation of Christ. The inn is the church, where travellers
returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after
pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The
two coins are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of
this life and of that which is to come. The innkeeper is the
(Adapted from Augustine's Quaestiones Euangeliorum, 11, 19)
a. Although Augustine's outline of the plan of salvation may
represent the overall teaching of Scripture, is this the message
Jesus intended to communicate to the scholar? Did the scholar say
to himself, "Oh, now I see. The man who was beaten is Adam, the
Samaritan is Jesus, and the innkeeper is the Apostle Paul."
Would Augustine's interpretation have been familiar or foreign to
the scholar and to those who first heard this parable? Explain
b. As clever and well intentioned as Augustine's interpretation
may have been, did he, in your opinion, engage in a "dialogue"
with the text or did he impose his own fourth-century theological
perspective on it?
c. Based on this exercise, what conclusions do you draw about the
role of the original audience's understanding on the interpretive
3. What does the text mean for us today?
After "interviewing" the text with the first two questions -
i.e., "What is it saying in terms of content (the five W's) and
composition (the structural outline)?" and "What did it mean to
the original audience?" - we are ready for the question of
In light of the above, what central message or application does
Luke 10:25-37 have for us today? How readest thou?
Lesson 1 briefly mentioned the Grammatico-Historical Method of
Interpretation and promised more information later. In this third
lesson, we have examined the three questions we should ask of
every text. They are, in essence, the Grammatico-Historical
Method in action. The grammatico portion is concerned with
Question 1: What do the words of the text, in terms of their
grammatical content and composition, actually say? The historical
portion is concerned with Question 2: What did those words mean
to those who first heard them in terms of their own life and
times (the historical, religious, cultural, and philosophical
Lesson 2 illustrated the process of interpretation with a
two-step diagram: listening and applying. The three basic
questions, as examined in this third lesson, also give specifics
to those general steps. Questions 1 and 2 - "What do the words
say?" and "What did they mean to those who first heard them?" -
are questions of the "listening" type. They are answered by
carefully listening to and examining the text. Question 3 - "What
does the text mean for us today?" - is a question of the
"applying" type. It is answered by evaluating the information
gathered from Questions 1 and 2 and then appropriating the
applicable information to our lives.
In essence, these three questions are hermeneutics in a nutshell.
They are the foundation of the process of interpretation. All
other principles and techniques are built on them. "Don't leave
home without them."
The Bible as Literature
Extra! Extra! Read All About It! How is the Bible like the
newspaper? "They are both black and white and read all over."
Well, even that old riddle tells us something about what they
really have in common. They are both literature. Both contain
"black and white" written material with a set of conventional
characteristics that they share with all other forms of
literature. But there's also a difference. It's the "read all
over" part. Even though we place the Bible on a higher plain than
the daily paper, we probably know more about the newspaper - and
how to read it - than we do about the Bible.
One reason for this is familiarity. The newspaper is of our
culture, a product of our times, written in a language and style
that is second nature to us. We've grown up with it. We know how
it works, even without thinking about it.
But let's try to articulate what we "just know" about the
newspaper from daily use. First, we know that the newspaper looks
different from other literature. It has big, bold headlines, rows
of columns, articles, and pictures. It comes in different
sections. What we're seeing, of course, is its unique
arrangement, or format. In literary terms, this is its structure.
On closer examination, we see that even the individual items in
the paper have their own unique structures. For instance, the
news stories all follow the same basic structure, editorials
another, full-page advertisements another, small classified ads
another, and so on. It's by this structural difference that we
recognize, without thinking about it, a news story from an ad.
They look different!
Based on the way items look, their characteristic structure,
we've given them different names: news stories, editorials,
comics, classified ads, crossword puzzles, weather forecasts,
stock reports, etc. In literary terms, this is the genre, the
name by which things of like structure are called. The newspaper
even groups items of the same genre together, hence the news
section, the classified ad section, and the all important comics
section. So when we pick up the paper, we automatically recognize
the items we want to read by their structures, and we know where
to find them by their genres.
The sections, in turn, form a setting for the material. In
literary terms, the setting operates on two levels: 1) location -
where an item is found within the sequence of the overall piece
of literature; we call this the literary setting or context; and
2) origin - where an item came from, which itself has two levels:
a) the date, time, and place that an event occurred or an item
was written - that is, its historical setting; and b) the
environment, circumstances, or factors that gave rise to an event
or inspired a writing, which we call the life-setting.
Now here's the amazing thing:
The structure, genre, and setting work together to produce the
function or purpose of a piece of literature. In literary terms,
we call this intention - the reason the material was written in
the first place. For example, the intention of a news article is
to inform; an editorial, to persuade; a comic strip, to amuse; an
advertisement to sell.
Even an item's location or setting within the paper plays a role.
Editors know that to sell papers, they must grab the reader's
attention. That's why they place news items with the greatest
public interest on the front page in big, bold headlines.
These literary features, so familiar to us in newspapers, are
also present in the Bible. We may not notice them as readily, but
they're still there. The elements of structure, genre, setting,
and intention don't visually jump out at us from the page the way
they do from the newspaper's contemporary style. First of all,
Bibles are printed in one continuous flow of type, visually
cramming things together. And second, we are just not as familiar
with the Bible's literary forms. Remember the gaps mentioned in
Lesson 2? The Bible was originally written in a foreign language
for people who lived a long time ago in a different part of the
world with a different way of life and a different way of
expressing themselves. It only stands to reason that the biblical
writers would use the literary forms and conventions that the
people of their day expected and understood. With a little
awareness and practice, you can enter that world, and before you
know it, the Bible's literary features will jump from the page.
This will help you not only to better understand the Bible's
message, but also to gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty of
its language and form.
Biblical Lit 101:
Let's briefly look at how the four basic elements of structure,
genre, setting, and intention function in the Bible.
STRUCTURE: the outline, movement, flow, sequence, or development
of a text. The structure of a text is like the blueprint of a
house. It's how the text is put together, its' design or
skeleton. The best tool to reveal the structure of a passage is
an outline of the grammatical components of each verse, line by
line, so that you don't inadvertently skip one "jot or tittle." A
grammatical or structural outline really helps you to slow down
and "listen" to the text.
Do not confuse a structural outline with an outline of content:
what the text says or what information it contains. That can be
determined by reading the text. Instead, a structural outline
looks below the surface of the content to examine how things are
being said - what kind of sentence does the author use to deliver
the content. Two important questions to ask when analyzing the
1. Where (in what verse) and how (with what kind of sentence)
does a text begin and end?
2. What "moves" a text (plot, question and answer, praise,
complaint, exhortation, theological argument, etc.)?
GENRE: the literary type, classification, kind, style, or
category of a text determined by its structure. If structure is
like the blueprint of a house, then genre identifies (names) what
kind of house it is (ranch, colonial, cottage, duplex, barn,
etc.) and thus the purpose for which it was intended. When you've
seen one kind of structure and genre, you've seen them all. The
content may change, but the pattern stays the same. For example,
one miracle in the Gospels has the same basic structure and genre
as all the other miracles. Recognizing this can be a great help
in interpretation. If you can identify the structure and genre,
then you have a good idea of knowing where the text is heading.
In the case of Gospel miracle stories, it's to reveal the
divinity of Jesus.
The Bible, therefore, uses a variety of genres to convey
different kinds of information, emotions, purposes, and
intentions. Here is a list of some of the major genres in the
Bible and a few of the sub-genres they contain. (Note: The major
genres are like the sections of a newspaper where items of
similar genre, and hence intention, are grouped together.)
A. Old Testament Narrative
1. Narrative (a. Report narrative b. Origin narrative c. Hero
narrative d. Epic)
2. Law (a. Apodictic law [direct command] b. Casuistic law [case
law] c. Legal code)
B. Prophetic Literature
1. Narrative (a. Historical narrative b. Prophetic call)
2. Discourse (an extended speech) (a. Oracle b. Judgment speech
c. Woe pronouncement d. Complaint/lawsuit e. Poetry d. Genealogy)
1. Hymn of praise and/or thanksgiving (community or individual)
2. Lament (community or individual)
3. Royal psalm
4. Wisdom psalm
5. Imprecatory psalm
6. Acrostic/alphabetic psalm
D. Wisdom Literature
1. Proverb 2. Riddle 3. Allegory 4. Hymn (poetry) 5. Dialogue
6. Autobiographical narrative 7. Didactic (teaching) poetry
8. Didactic narrative
E. Gospel Literature
1. Narrative (a. Miracle story b. Pronouncement story)
2 Discourse (a. Blessing/beatitude b. Epigram c. Parable)
d. Judgment speech
3. Hymn (poetry)
5. Creedal statement
1. Apology (defense of the faith)
2. Autobiographical narrative
3. Scriptural exegesis (literal or allegorical)
4. Christological hymn
5. Creedal statement
6. List of vices and virtues
7. Household advice
8. Homiletic exhortation 9. Proclamation
10. Church order
G. Apocalyptic Literature
3. Creedal statement
(Note: The major genre headings ed above will be addressed in
The written location and the background of a biblical text. The
setting involves three levels:
1. The literary setting or context - where the text appears in
the author's overall flow of thought. (This is perhaps the most
important aspect of setting and will be covered in more detail in
2. The historical setting - the time, place, and circumstances
when a biblical event occurred and when the author wrote about an
event. Sometimes considerable distance lies between the two. The
historical setting includes the social, religious, political, and
economic factors going on at the time of the events. The Bible
was not written in a vacuum. Therefore, the historical background
adds perspective that may clarify a detail and increase our
understanding. However, let the Bible itself be your first source
of information about the historical setting before turning to
other reference tools.
3. The life-setting - the motivational factors and influences
that gave rise to a biblical event or inspired a biblical
character or writer to express himself. This may include the
literary and oral sources that a biblical speaker or writer
drew upon, or the way in which he quoted, interpreted, or
expanded another biblical text.
The life-setting is an extension of the historical setting, but
goes a step beyond to ask how individuals or the community of
believers responded to what was going on around them - how their
personal experiences and religious convictions influenced what
they said and did. We get some insight o this in the life of
Paul, but it is often difficult to identify this level of setting
and get inside the mind of the biblical writer, especially from
such distance and with, such limited information to work with. As
Peter said of Paul, the biblical writers have written some things
that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15, 16). A glimpse into
their life-setting might help.
The function or purpose for which a biblical text was written (to
inform, instruct, inspire, convince, defend, correct, etc.; also
see Paul's list in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17). Intention does not stand
alone, isolated, or removed from the other elements of the text.
In fact, it is the structure, genre, and setting that lead to and
define the intention. The correct interpretation of intention
will be consistent with the structure, genre, literary context,
historical background, and life-setting of the text.
1. Structurally outline the following texts. Your outlines should
indicate the movement or flow of each text's structure,
especially noting how it begins and ends. Remember that a
structural outline does not focus on the content of the passage,
per se, but rather on the kind of sentences the author uses to
convey the content.
2. After analyzing your structural outlines, identify the genres
of Psalm 117 and Mark 1:29-31. What would you call them?
Also, what would be your preliminary idea as to the intention of
each of these genres?
3. What is the historical setting, and possibly the life-setting,
of Psalm 51? Look for the clue within the biblical text.
Where is the clue located? Is it within the psalm itself?
Who do you suppose placed this historical note where it is?
How does the historical note enhance your understanding of the
psalm and the emotions that David must have felt?
4. If time permits, compare Psalm 18 with 2 Samuel 22.
What does your comparison reveal? What are the similarities?
Differences? (Note only the first few verses of each text in
regard to differences.)
What historical note is attached to Psalm 18?
Where did the wording of this historical note come from? Notice 2
Samuel 22:1 and 2.
What does this say about the possible life-setting of these two
texts in ancient Israel, especially in Israel's worship?
In Lesson 3 we discussed the three questions we must ask of every
text: 1) What does the text say? 2) What did it mean to the
original audience? 3) What does it mean for us today?
Hopefully, today's lesson has provided some specific techniques
for fleshing out those questions. Question 1 relates to the
structure and genre of a text. The structure reveals the
blueprint of a text, and genre gives it a name - two keys for
identifying the core of what the text says. Question 2 relates to
the setting and original intention of the text. The correct
interpretation will always be consistent with the literary
context, historical background, and life-setting of the text.
Question 3 is answered by the sum total of all the information
gained from the structure, genre, setting, and intention of the
text, and then appropriating that information to our lives.
Next: the number one mistake in interpreting the Bible!
TO BE CONTINUED