For Christians, learning to interpret the Bible is very important. And not just interpret it, but interpret it well. This is very tricky to learn how to do. Many Christians just pick up on it intuitively after years of listening to sermons and Bible studies. However, there are some definite "rules" that can be learned, and some things to watch out for, to help you figure out what is probably a good interpretation and what might be questionable.
Is there only one correct interpretation?
It is important to understand that there is not absolutely only one "correct" interpretation of many passages in the Bible. Expert scholars often disagree over how to interpret the tricker passages of the Bible. If you've ever been in a Bible Study, often each member of the group will have a slightly different opinion of what a verse means. But there are some interpretations which are more correct than others, and some interpretations can be wrong, even if the person makes it sound like they know what they're talking about. It's important to learn how to do Biblical interpretation well so that you won't be misled by people who misuse the Bible, and so you can get the most out of reading the Bible. But remember that often people disagree about how to interpret specific verses, and both might find good reasons to support their interpretation. In this case it might be best to agree to disagree, as long as it doesn't compromise any major belief of Christianity.
I believe that there is probably only one real "correct" meaning for each verse (the meaning that God and the human author intended) but we cannot really find that out for sure until we get to heaven. Then maybe we can ask Paul (or another author) "So what did you mean when you said ____ ?". In the meantime we have to do the best we can, which might mean that some verses can be interpreted several ways, although there will probably be one choice which is slightly "better".
Important Factors to Consider when Interpreting the Bible
There are many different factors to consider when doing Biblical interpretation. Each is important to understand to get the fullest meaning out of the Bible. I will discuss each one below, and try to give a good example so you can understand it better.
This is one of the more common methods of interpretation that you will encounter in Bible Study groups, and you might use it on your own when you read the Bible for devotions. In this method, you don't care about the historical background or literary genres of the text, and only focus on what the verse means to you. Because everyone has a different personality and background, people can interpret verses very differently if they are only using reader response interpretation.
Often, this method is ok for personal reading, because God does speak through the Bible by pointing out verses that might touch you personally and speak to a situation or feeling in your own life, no matter what the historical or literary context of the verse was. For example, you might be touched by "You protect ordinary people, and when I was helpless, you saved me and treated me so kindly that I don't need to worry anymore" (Psalm 116:6-7, CEV). You might not care that this verse was originally written by David when he was in trouble, and might not care about what comes before or after this verse in the context of the psalm, but it touched you personally anyway.
This method is somewhat less legitimate for serious Bible study. We cannot just interpret verses however we feel like it or we might come up with some very strange ideas. For example, if you tried reader response criticism on this verse: "I know everything you have done, and you are not hot or cold. I wish you were either one or the other. But since you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spit you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-16, CEV) you might think that it's better to be really passionate about God or really far away from God. But this verse requires the knowledge of the historical context of the city of Laodicea to understand that both hot and cold were good, but the city only had a lukewarm aqueduct which was considered to be disgusting to drink. So in this case, using only reader-response criticism would lead to a misunderstanding of the verse.
It is often very useful to understand the historical context of the books and verses of the Bible in order for them to make more sense. For example, we do not have Pharisees around anymore today, and so it is useful to know who these people were and what they did to make Jesus dislike them so much. It's often useful to learn what the culture was like back then, and to remember the Bible was written in a variety of time periods. The New Testament was written in the early first or second centuries, the gospels depict Jesus' time from approximately 2 BC to 33 A.D, and the Old Testament varies from approximately the time of Moses (with stories that take place even earlier), up to a few hundred years before Jesus was born. So each book might be dealing with a different period of history, with different cultures and problems to consider. For example, many of the books in the New Testament were written as letters from Paul to early churches around the Roman Empire, so some of the things Paul says are meant for this culture and the people in specific cities who were dealing with real historical situations, such as idolatry, persecution, the Jewish Law, etc. Often the short introductions that the editors sometimes put before each book in the Bible are quite useful to get a sense of when/where/why and by who the book was written. Study Bibles and Bible Dictionaries are also great for this sort of information.
So once we understand the historical context, we can still apply Bible verses today, but it just takes a little more work. For the Old Testament, remember that the ancient Israelite laws don't apply to Christians today, even though we might be able to look for the principle behind the law to understand what God values. The Old Testament is mostly useful for us to learn how God has dealt with humanity in the past, and we also learn about God's values and faithfulness to his chosen people. It sets the background for the New Testament and helps us understand why Jesus had to come to Earth.
For the New Testament, we can apply it a little more directly, but it requires finding an analogy between us today and the situation back then. Although it is the "New" testament, it's still approximately 2000 years old, and our culture today is very different. For example, today we don't have to deal with the problem of meat sacrificed to idols, which was a big cultural problem for early Christians back in the first century. So when Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 gives instructions about eating meat, they do not apply directly today. But we can learn by analogy that if there are things that we do that can cause problems for other people (even if we know the thing itself is harmless), that we should not do it for the sake of the weaker Christian. Then we can apply this principle today. For example, if a Christian we know came from a denomination where drinking alcohol is forbidden, we shouldn't take them to a bar or have alcohol at dinner with them because it might upset their faith, even though there is nothing wrong with alcohol itself in moderation. So, finding the analogy behind the historical situation and understanding how it can apply to us today is very useful.
I have often seen people who take one line from the Bible and use it to support their argument. The problem is that if a verse is taken alone out of its context, it might not make sense or might be misused and say something it was not meant to say. When trying to understand what a verse says, it must be read in the literary context. So make sure you read it in relation to what comes before and after it in the text.
For example, we might read only "But it is better to have self-control and to make up your mind not to marry."(1 Corinthians 7:37). Does this mean people should never get married? No, because this verse is only one part of a larger discussion on marriage and singleness, and so we need to read the whole argument to put this verse in context, and also consider the historical context of the argument. Here, Paul believed Jesus would return in only a few years, and so he suggested that it was ok to marry, but it was better to not get married but to spend time serving God. So we can't just take verses that say what we want and forget the literary context they are in. When we compare verses from different books of the Bible, we must make sure they are addressing the same topic before combining them to prove a point.
It's also important to understand the type of literature that we are reading. The Bible is made up of many types - historical narratives, poetry, prophecy, wisdom sayings, law codes, apocalypse, parables, gospels, and letters. Each has a different purpose and focus. For example, a wisdom saying (i.e. Ecclesiastes, Lamentations) is not as theologically authoritative as what Jesus said in one of the gospels. Parables are fictional stories told by Jesus meant to teach a moral or theological lesson. But the Old-Testament stories are not parables - they are stories of Israel's real historical past, and so we should not read them like they are a parable. Apocalypse is a genre that uses a lot of symbols and epic imagery to convey it's message (i.e. Revelation, Daniel), and so here the symbols must be interpreted correctly. Prophecy was messages to Israel to turn back to God, with warnings of what would happen if they didn't, and promises of good things that would happen if they did, but the outcome depended on their response. We should not interpret Genesis (historical narrative) as if it was apocalypse or a parable, or else we will come out with some really messed up interpretations!
Consistency with the rest of the Bible
We can't interpret a verse to have a meaning which is totally out of context with the rest of the Bible. For example, 1 Timothy 2:15 "Yet she will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control" (ESV) is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the entire Bible. It cannot be saying that women must have kids in order to get into heaven, because that totally contradicts everything else the Bible teaches about being saved by faith alone. Therefore, scholars have to find alternate interpretations that might be correct (based on the meaning of the Greek words, and literary context) and be consistent with the rest of the Bible.
Some suggest it means good Christian women shouldn't fear dying during childbirth (a common occurrence back in the first century), some say it's an example of the proper role of women in society in response to false teaching about the role of women, or some say it might mean women are saved "through the birth of a child" (i.e. Jesus). There is no consensus among scholars, and so we might not ever know what this verse really means until we can ask Paul about it in heaven. But at least from Biblical consistency we know it is not talking about women getting into heaven, so women who cannot or do not want kids can still get to heaven through faith in Jesus.
A final important feature of Biblical interpretation is the belief in inerrancy. Inerrancy means that every word of the Bible (in the original languages) is inspired by God, and is completely true. Since God does not lie (Titus 1:2), he could not inspire error, and would not allow error in something as important as the Bible. This is a whole other debate, but a brief discussion of inerrancy is important for Biblical interpretation.
Inerrancy means we must treat each part of the Bible as God's word, and should not discount or ignore verses we do not like or don't agree with. Some people want to say that some of the more difficult verses are just because of Paul's chauvinism or Jewish bias, and so we don't have to consider what they say. Some say that the Old Testament or even the Gospels are not historically accurate, and are just myths and fables, and so they might include errors. But this is dangerous - if we ignore some verses because we think they are not God's words or are false, then how do we know that important Biblical teachings are not also human error? We might as well throw out the entire Bible at that point, since we cannot prove what is God's word and what is not, or prove what is true and what is not. So to keep Christianity intact and consistent, we must treat all the verses as God's word. We must do our best to interpret them and we cannot ignore them.
However, inerrancy does not mean that each verse applies today in the same way as it applied back then. Some verses were God's word for people in different times, places, and cultures than today, and so the verses may or may not apply to us in the same way. This is why we need to know the historical context and use analogies to determine what the Bible says to us today.
Inerrancy also doesn't mean that God condones everything in the Bible. For example, God does not think slavery is good, just because it's in the Bible. The Bible is often a record of real historical situations, good and bad, and of real people, with good and bad traits. Just because something is recorded in history doesn't mean it should necessarily be emulated, whether it's in a textbook or the Bible. But we can learn from the Bible how God instructed people to behave in cultures where slavery was practiced, even though we know slavery itself is wrong. Most often God's instructions did not openly confront ungodly cultures head-on, but worked within them to subtly undermine them, while still hoping that eventually the ungodly activity would stop completely. Examples of this include slavery and persecution of women - God's instructions were meant for a society which assumed slavery was ok and that women were less than men, but God set up specific legal protections meant to defend these two marginalized groups in that culture.
Some Biblical Interpretation Mistakes to Watch Out For
There are some common mistakes that should be avoided. Some of these are accidentally done by amateur interpreters who have no formal training, and don't even realize they're doing it. Others might be purposely used in order to avoid an interpretation that the interpreter does not like. Some interpreters have other motives and try to get the Bible to support their false teachings. It's important to watch out for these mistakes so you can not be misled by false teaching or bad interpretation.
Eisegesis means "reading into". This is where someone has a preconceived idea or bias, and they impose that onto the Biblical text, even if the text doesn't specifically support that. For example, if someone has a preconceived idea that women should stay at home and raise kids while men go out to work, then they might interpret Genesis 1:28 "Have a lot of children! Fill the earth with people and bring it under your control. Rule over the fish in the ocean, the birds in the sky, and every animal on the earth." as that it's the woman's job to do the having children, and the man's job to rule over nature. However, if we look closely we can see that this command was given to both the man and the woman, so there is no defined split in tasks by God. The split in tasks is not in the text itself, but was imposed by the interpreter's bias and preconceived ideas. It's important to try to remove our preconceptions when reading the Bible, so we can clearly see with an open mind what God is trying to teach us.
This is where someone tries to link the text and application in more than one way to find extra meaning. This is particularly what medieval scholars tried to do to the book of Revelation. For example, the first trumpet judgement is: "When the first angel blew his trumpet, hail and fire mixed with blood were thrown down on the earth. A third of the earth, a third of the trees, and a third of all green plants were burned."(Revelation 8:7, CEV). This was interpreted by Tyconius as: "The 'earth' represents everything terrestrial, while persons who wave about through unfaithfulness are depicted as 'trees'. For those blown about by 'every wind of doctrine' are mentioned by the apostle Jude, 'fruitless trees in late autumn, uprooted, twice dead'. The green grass represents flesh fattened with luxury, for 'all flesh is grass.'. Although in an earlier passage three fourths were set against one, that is, the church, this passage confines those opposed to the church to two thirds. One third consists of the false brothers who are mixed in among the good within the church, and another third that is separated by the error of the Gentiles or by heretical depravity or by open schism."[1, p.123].
As we can see, there is nowhere in the verse itself that implies these things (that the trees are anything other than trees), and instead of the relatively straightforward interpretation that the first trumpet is a worldwide disaster that results in the destruction of 2/3 of plant life, it is allegorized into some very obscure strange meaning that is never hinted at anywhere in the text itself.
To avoid this, it's generally safest to take the most straightforward meaning of a verse and avoid making it metaphorical or allegorical, unless it's clearly using symbols to represent something else. Often we can know if something is meant to be metaphorical if it makes absolutely no sense literally (e.g. there will not literally be a red seven-headed beast ruling the world during the Tribulation (Revelation 17), so it must represent a government or a leader).
Often, the symbols are explained in the text itself. For example, the vision of the lampstands was explained to John in Rev. 1:20, and the vision of the beasts was explained to Daniel in Dan. 7:15-27). If not, then we can find the meaning by correspondence with other Biblical texts. For example, we know Jesus is the Lamb in Revelation 5:6 and 5:12 because we know he is "the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" in John 1:29. So if you think something is a symbol, it must be used symbolically elsewhere in the Bible or explained right in the immediate context of the symbol itself. We shouldn't just invent symbols or take things symbolically when there is no reason to.
This is when someone will try to find a "spiritual" application or meaning outside of the actual text. For example, to spiritualize the story of David and Goliath would be to say that "God can help us overcome things that we thought were impossible". Which might be true, but it is not the ultimate "meaning" of the text, because the story of David and Goliath is historical narrative. Or the story of Peter and Jesus walking on the water might be spiritualized to mean that if we just keep our eyes on Jesus, we won't get distracted and sink in all of life's worries. It might also be somewhat true, but this is not the ultimate meaning of the text.
Spiritualizing can be tricky to detect, because it does sound like it has a good application and lesson from the text, and it might be mostly true. But it's still good to be slightly cautious about this one, because many different lessons might be drawn out from one story, and some might be true and others might be false. I suspect that any correct spiritual lesson will be confirmed by a more direct statement somewhere else in the Bible, like in the gospels or the letters in the New Testament.
Sometimes people are lazy, or have ulterior motives, and will misquote a Bible verse by changing a word or two or leaving out half of the sentence. Sometimes they will give wrong credit to who said it (e.g. they will say Jesus said this when he did not and it was someone else). So this is why it's important to look up the verses in a legitimate copy of the Bible (i.e. not a Jehovah's Witness Bible) in a good translation (preferably NIV, KJV, NASB, ESV) for yourself to make sure it really says what someone claims it says. Even pastors can be guilty of this, so this is why most churches provide Bibles in the pews, or encourage you to bring your own, so you can follow along during the service and check that the verses really do say what the pastor is saying.
Imitating Bible Characters
Just because something is written in the Bible doesn't mean it's a good example to follow. Many of the people in the Old Testament do some really bad things, even the people we think are "good", like Abraham, Noah, and Lot. The Old Testament is a record of these people's lives and actions, so that we can learn from them and learn more about God and how God deals with humanity. We are not meant to copy them or use them as examples to follow. For example, just because Abraham had a concubine doesn't mean that we are allowed to have concubines today! Or that because Abraham passed his wife off as his sister because he was scared for his life, that we should do that today. Even the positive examples can be tricky, and we should be cautious about encouraging people to do or have ____ like ____. Ideally, the only example we should try to follow is Jesus, but even then we can't impersonate his life, healings and miracles, or calling, and so the only things we can imitate are his personality traits (kind, loving, courageous, self-sacrificing, holy, etc.), and no one will be able to do that perfectly.
I hope this article helps explain how to responsibly interpret the Bible. There are many factors to consider to make sure we come to the best understanding of the Bible possible, such as the historical and literary contexts. A good source to learn the historical context is to read the introductions to each book that are often added at the start of each book of the Bible, especially in Study Bibles. Other sources that can be useful for historical information are Bible dictionaries or commentaries. When we know the historical context, then we can use the principle of analogy to learn how it applies to us today, even though our culture is very different than the culture at the time when it was written.
The literary context is important to keep the meaning of the verses consistent with the discussion that they are included in, and to not give them a meaning that was not intended. We must also remember the type of literature that we are reading, and read each one correctly. And whatever we interpret a verse to mean, it must be consistent with the rest of the Bible.
Watch out for the mistakes of eisegesis (imposing preconceived ideas back onto the text), allegorizing, spiritualizing, misquoting, and imitating Biblical characters. For a look at other ways that people misinterpret the Bible, I would suggest finding a copy of the book "Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible" by James W. Sire. He focuses mostly on how Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists (the cult, not scientists who are Christian), and New Age people misuse the Bible, but this book is useful to learn how to watch out for mistakes in Bible interpretation by anyone - pastors, Bible study leaders, or other authors.
 William C. Weinrich (2005) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Revelation. Intervarsity Press.
 James W. Sire (1980) Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible. Intervarsity Press.