Interpreting a Passage of Scripture in Depth

My seminary students have appreciated this, and I hope it can be helpful to others. I wrote it with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but you may also find it helpful for other parts of the Bible.

1.  Read the passage very closely, several times, to see what’s in it. Try to read it in more than one translation. (If you’ve studied Greek, use it, but this guide doesn’t assume knowledge of Greek.) What questions come to mind in regard to the passage? As you read the passage, try to follow the train of thought. Describe the line of thought as best you can.

2. Notice the key repeated words and ideas. What role do they play in the passage? What is the main theme(s)? Describe the transitions from one theme to another. Describe what you think these verses are really about.

3. If at all possible, read the whole letter to look for insight into your passage. This will help you take advantage of the literary context. When you find connections between your passage and other parts of this book of the New Testament, describe the links and record the verse references. What can you say about the stage of the overall book where your passage occurs? Does reading the whole letter give you information about the rhetorical situation? (By rhetorical situation, I mean the circumstances of the author and audience that led the author to write as he did.) Has reading the whole letter helped to answer your questions regarding the passage? What insights into your verses have you gained in light of the whole-book context?

4. Now that you have made many observations, review your notes, think through them, and draw connections between the things you have seen. How would you summarize the focus of the passage? What conclusions can you draw regarding the role and function that your passage plays in the book as a whole? How do these verses help to shape the theology of this book of the Bible? What conclusions can you make about this passage’s teaching regarding the Christian life?

5. If you have not already done so, ask yourself: How does what you see in the text relate to your life? How do you see yourself in these verses? How do you see your church or your society in and through this passage? How is God speaking to you, and how might God wish to speak to others through the passage?

6. This is a good stage to look at a commentary, if you have access to one. Now that you know what you think about your passage, you’ll be able to tell the difference between your own thoughts and what you find in the commentary. Does it offer insights that correct your perspective or persuade you of a different point of view? Do not assume that the commentary has all of the right answers. (A commentary is just an informed conversation partner.) Does the commentary give you historical or cultural information that adds insight into your passage? Be careful at this stage to keep a clear distinction between what the commentary says and what your own observations are, and keep a clear record of page numbers if you take ideas or quotations.

7. Have key themes or questions stood out that might help you organize an essay, teaching, or sermon? Organize the information you have found as well as you can until the basic outline of your presentation develops. If you’re writing a paper for a class, now is the time to write. Then proofread and edit it. Read it aloud to make sure each paragraph and sentence says exactly what you wish to say.

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