Note: I wrote this with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but most of it applies to other parts of the Bible, too.
1. Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole and trying to follow the line of thought. As you read the whole book, be aware if you see things you haven’t noticed before or if you recognize parts that may not have been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book. Also, does reading the whole give you have a sense of the basic structure of the book?
2. What clues do you discover about the rhetorical situation and aims? That is, can you find evidence for the occasion that gave rise to the book, or what situation the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What clues does the book give about the writer? What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, where and how does the writing express what the author was seeking to accomplish by writing this book?
3. What primary themes stand out? Look for literary devices like repetition of key nouns, verbs, images, phrases, and ideas. Look for “book ends”, where a theme stands out at the beginning and end of the book. Try to trace how the author develops the main themes. Making an outline of the book will help you follow the flow of thought and the way the themes develop. Where and how do the key themes intersect? As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main thought is and where it changes.
4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about the theological perspective of the book? What seem to be the most important beliefs, and how are they described?
5. What perspective on the Christian life do you find? How does this piece of literature describe the inner dynamics and outward behaviors of the Christian life? What are the Christian’s resources for living in this way? Try to figure out and describe how the Christian life works, according to this document.
6. This is optional but possibly clarifying: How do your observations regarding numbers 5 and 6 compare with what you’ve seen in other books of the Bible? Does the comparison help to distinguish the particular perspective of this book?
7. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this document speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know?
8. If you are writing an essay, teaching a class, or preparing for a preaching series that will interpret the book as a whole, read and dwell with your observations until you can develop a way of organizing your discoveries in a meaningful way.
One thought on “A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible”
Many of my students become pastors in places where books about the Bible and an internet connection are hard to find. I made this brief guide to help them learn to interpret a book of the Bible for themselves. Instead of requiring lots of books written by professional interpreters, they’re learning to do the interpretation themselves. The students have found the guide useful as they prepare essays for class and sermons for their churches, but I wonder if it can also be helpful for anyone who simply likes to read straight through a book of the Bible. Please let me know if you have questions or ideas for improving it!