(Author’s note: This is the updated and completely rewritten version of an article that I wrote in the early 2000s. The information contained therein is based largely on the booklet entitled, Hermeneutics: How to Understand the Scriptures by James Scott Trimm [http://www.nazarene.net or http://www.lulu.com/shop/james-trimm/nazarene-jewish-manifesto/paperback/product-403845.html], although I have added many of my own insights and new information to the original material.)
When reading the Bible, how do we properly interpret it, so that we arrive at the author’s intended meaning? This has proven to be a daunting task for both Christians and religious Jews. There is a saying: Put three Jews in a room will have five opinions. The same could also be said of Christians. Perhaps the fundamental principles of biblical interpretation as laid out in this article, if followed, will help to bring some unanimity among truth-seeking Bible believers. Who knows?
Over the millennia, differing views on the meaning of many Bible verses have resulted in countless church splits and the founding of thousands of religious denominations. This is a problem than can be mitigated if not largely alleviated if YHVH’s people learn to follow Paul instructions to the young Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto Elohim, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15, emphasis added). How do we do this? This will be the subject of discussion below.
If there is a right way to divide the word of truth as 2 Timothy 2:15 states, then it follows logically that there must also be a wrong way to do it. As a matter of fact, we actually have biblical record of this occurring among the first-century believers. In 2 Peter 3:16 we read, “As also in all [Paul’s] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest [or twist], as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” In this case, some believers were twisting Paul’s writings to say something other than what the author meant. Sadly, this practice still goes on today. Whole denominations, sects and even cults have been founded on the twisting of scriptures resulting in countless biblical heresies and millions of people being deceived.
Twisting or improperly interpreting Scripture can lead to one’s spiritual ruination if the result is a false “salvation” or the loss of one’s salvation. This is no small matter! Over the years, there have been whole denominations that claim to justify through their erroneous biblical interpretation such heinous abominations and sinful practices as abortion, homosexuality (sodomy), torture and even genocide. Scripture warns very clearly that “no prophecy [or divinely inspired utterance] of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” YHVH Elohim will judge false teachers severely!
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive [or damnable, KJV] heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction…and their destruction does not slumber. (2 Pet 2:1, 3)
So with all these warnings and admonitions in mind how can we insure that we will not fall into the trap of misinterpreting Scripture and coming up with the “damnable heresies” and false teachings as we read about in 2 Peter 2:1–3 that lead many people astray? This now brings us to our study of the rules of biblical interpretation that were extant in the first century during the time of Yeshua and the apostles, as well as the universal rules of simple logic that every honest scholar and truth seeker follows.
As we shall discover below, during the first-century there were specific rules of scriptural interpretation that were taught and well-known among Bible students and scholars. These had been developed over the centuries by leading learned Jewish biblical sages to ensure that false teachings and twisting of Scripture would not occur. We can learn from the wisdom of those who have gone before us.
As Bible student seeking to reconnect ourselves with the Hebraic roots of our Christian faith, we realize that much twisting of Scripture has occurred from the time of the last apostle until now in Christian theology. Grossly aberrant teachings have been promoted in churchianity where, for example, it is taught that Messiah Yeshua and Paul came to “do away with” the Torah-law. Sabbath has been changed to Sunday and Passover to Easter. Christmas, Lent, Halloween and other Christian holidays have replaced YHVH’s commanded and blessed feasts. Moreover, the church has set aside many biblical standards of holiness such as the Torah’s dietary laws and now permits the eating of what the Bible refers to as abominable things (e.g. pork and shellfish). In these lasts days as the saints prepare to be the spotless or sin-free bride of Yeshua in anticipation of his second coming, it is time for us all to awake from our spiritual sleep and to repent of our errant ways and return to scriptural Truth. It is time that YHVH’s people search out the Truth and come into alignment with it. This involves learning how to properly interpret Scripture, so that we will have the tools to separate the spiritual wheat of Truth from the chaff of unbiblical doctrines and traditions of men. Currently, YHVH is raising up a spiritual priesthood who is learning to separate the holy from the profane, the precious from the vile (Jer 15:19; Ezek 22:26; 44:23), as his saints extricate themselves from the spiritual Babylon of religious confusion in which they find themselves (Rev 18:4). For too long YHVH’s people have been feeding from the serpent’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of from the tree of life. The former is contains the evil the doctrines and traditions of men that have made of none-effect the Word of Elohim (Mark 7:9, 13). “Come out of her my people” and “be separate, do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you,” is YHVH-Yeshua’s cry to his end time saints (Rev 18:4; 2 Cor 5:17), who love him and keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21; Rev 12:17; 14:12).
Objectivity Versus Subjectivity
The first rule in proper Scriptural interpretation is to know the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. The word objective means “to exist outside of or independent of the mind, something which is observable or verifiable by facts, not by emotions or feelings of the individual.” By contrast, the word subjective means “something relating to the mind of the individual as the subject of experience.” James Trimm states succinctly that objective means “existing independent of the mind,” while subjective means “that which comes from a person’s point of view.” Facts are objective while opinions are subjective. Trimm goes on to say that many in Christendom, however, have developed a “do-it-yourself, do-your-own-thing” approach to biblical interpretation. Christians will often have Bible studies in which they ask, “What does this verse mean to you?” In response, many Christians will often say, “To me this verse means….” By contrast, the truth-seeking approach is to ask, “Okay, so if you were not here what would this verse mean?”
Exegesis Versus Eisegesis
These complicated sounding terms relate to the idea of subjectivity versus objectivity. Eisegesis (subjectivity) is interpreting a text by reading one’s own ideas into the text and pulling out a subjective meaning. Exegesis (objectivity), on the other hand, is an explanation or critical interpretation of a text by drawing the author’s intended message out of the text, and letting the text speak to you. The former approach is an inaccurate reading of a text and misses the author’s message, while the latter approach is an accurate reading of the text and catches the author’s message correctly. Many biblical examples can be given of how both mainstream Christian and Jewish religious systems have interpreted various Bible passages subjectively (or using an eisegetic approach). Here are some examples of this:
- In Matthew 5:17, Yeshua said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” To the modern Christian, this statement means that the Torah-law or law of Moses is largely no longer binding upon the New Testament Christian, since Yeshua did it or fulfilled it for us, even thought the context of the passage (especially the following several verses) say exactly the opposite thing.
- In Romans 10:4 we read, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (NKJV). To most Christians, this means that the necessity to adhere to the laws of the Torah terminated with the death of Messiah, even though in the context of the surrounding verses Paul, the author, is actually teaching that the law is binding upon Christians even as it was upon the Israelites under Moses.
- Romans 14:5–6 states, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (NKJV). To most Christians this verse is proof that the seventh day Sabbath is no longer a required observance, and that Scripture now allows one to rest on any day of the week, even though the Sabbath is not what Paul is even referring to in this passage of Scripture.
- Yeshua says in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Christians typically apply this verse to unsaved, non-Christians, when in reality it is referring to the saints who are already saved but who are asleep spiritually and lukewarm in their faith.
- Modern religious Jews apply the Messianic suffering servant figure of Isaiah 53 to the modern Jewish people and the State of Israel, when this prophecy is clearly referring to a singular individual who dies atoning for the sins of YHVH’s people and then resurrects to life again.
- One of the most famous verses in modern American Christendom is 2 Chronicles 7:14 which says, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” The context of this verse, however, is Solomon praying in Jerusalem at the temple’s dedication and the land of Israel is being referred and not America. Not only that, most modern readers fail to understand why YHVH would allow the land of his people to come under judgment. It was because they had forsaken his Torah commandments (the law of Moses, see vv. 17, 19). Only if they would return to his Torah would YHVH heal their land. The typical modern reader misses both of these points.
- Many Christians quote Hosea 4:6 which reads, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me….” However, they fail to read the rest of the verse, which explains why YHVH has rejected his people. It is “because you have forgotten the Torah-law of your Elohim, I also will forget your children.”
- 1 Timothy 4:4 reads, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving” (NKJV). Most Christians read this verse and stop there. They take it to mean that the biblical dietary laws of Leviticus 11 have been done away with and that it is now permissible to eat pork and other unkosher foods. Yet they fail to read the next verse, which says that not only prayer, but the Word of Elohim (i.e. Lev 11) sanctifies or determines the kind if meat that the saints are to eat.
- Ezekiel:15–28 contains the well-known “Two Sticks Prophecy.” Many modern Bible teachers declare that this prophecy has already been fulfilled by the Jews returning to the modern State of Israel, when in reality, there are major aspects of it that will not be fulfilled until after the second coming of Yeshua.