The 5 Contexts of Biblical Interpretation

Jun 23, 2020 | Article, Christian Living, Podcast

The below is an excerpt from my upcoming book, How to Fall in Love with The Bible: And Beat Bible Boredom Once and For All. It has been slightly edited and formatted for publishing on the blog. Enjoy!

When we think about “context” there are certain concepts that come to mind involving grammar, genre, literary devices, and other linguistic features. More astute individuals will go even beyond this to include extra-biblical historical referents, where the text is within the larger canon of Scripture (including the surrounding passages), etc.

These are all extremely important concepts and should be considered! I believe the context question is even more pervasive than that, though.

Theologians choose to think about these things in a variety of ways, so rather than thinking there is a particular method to follow, it’s more as though there is a matrix of ideas that should be intentionally considered. We’ll briefly discuss five categories that I believe helpfully summarize the variety of contexts that must be considered when approaching the biblical text:


Here, the word supernatural would also be appropriate. Simply put, the Bible is a book that reports supernatural events. Naturalism and a biblical worldview are diametrically opposed to one another. This is important because many of us come from Christian traditions that have a predisposed bias against the supernatural. What is meant by supernatural? While the answer could quickly lead us into subject matter the length of another book, it’s important to grasp the basic idea here.

A lengthy quote from Dr. Michael Heiser, in his book Supernatural, will be helpful:

I’m not talking about the big stuff, such as whether Jesus was God come to earth, who then died on the cross and rose from the dead. I’m not even thinking of miracle stories like the exodus, when God rescued Israel from Egypt by making a way for them through the Red Sea. Most Christians would say they believe those things. After all, if you don’t believe in God and Jesus, or that they could do miraculous things, what’s the point of saying you’re a Christian? I’m talking about the little-known supernatural stuff you run into occasionally when reading the Bible but rarely hear about in church. Here’s an example. In 1 Kings 22, there’s a story about a wicked king of Israel, Ahab. He wants to join forces with the king of Judah to attack an enemy at a place called Ramoth-gilead. Judah’s king wants a glimpse into the future—he wants to know what’s going to happen if they attack. So the two kings ask Ahab’s prophets and get thumbs up all around. But those prophets are just telling Ahab what he wants to hear, and both kings know it. So they decide to ask God’s prophet, a fellow named Micaiah. What he says isn’t good news for Ahab: Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him.” And the LORD said to him, “By what means?” And he said, “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you. (1 Kings 22:19–23) Did you catch what the Bible’s asking you to believe? That God meets with a group of spirit beings to decide what happens on earth? Is that for real? Here’s another example, courtesy of Jude: And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day. (Jude 1:6) God sent a bunch of angels to an underground prison? Really? As I said, the Bible has a lot of strange things in it, especially about the unseen, spiritual world. I’ve met many Christians who have no trouble with the Bible’s less controversial (at least among Christians) teachings about the supernatural, such as who Jesus was and what he did, but passages like this tend to make them more than a little uneasy, so they ignore them. I’ve seen that tendency up close. My wife and I once visited a church where the pastor was preaching a series based on 1 Peter. The morning he hit 1 Peter 3:18–22, the first thing he said after getting behind the pulpit was, “We’re going to skip these verses. They’re just too weird.” What he meant by weird was that those verses contained supernatural elements that just didn’t fit into his theology. Such as: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. (1 Pet. 3:18–20 NIV) Who—and where—were these imprisoned spirits? That pastor either didn’t know or didn’t like the answer, so he simply chose to ignore these verses. As a Bible scholar, I’ve learned that strange passages (and lots of other little-known and little-understood parts of Scripture) are actually very important. They teach specific ideas about God, the unseen world, and our own lives. Believe it or not, if we were aware of them and understood what they meant, as difficult and puzzling as they are, it would change the way we think about God, each other, why we’re here, and our ultimate destiny.

The more I study the Bible, the more convinced I am that we need to take seriously the biblical claims about the unseen world. In fact, there’s a delicate balance between conspiracy theory and fact. Some people take this stuff too far; they see the devil behind every decision they don’t agree with. Others, as Dr. Heiser lamented, ignore it all together. It’s easier to brush it off than to admit the reality. If that’s you, I’ll remind you of the Apostle Paul’s words:

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

How often we find ourselves fighting the wrong battles! We tear down other people instead of realizing the true enemy to be the devil and his minions. A firm grasp of the unseen world is therefore a necessary precursor both to understanding your Bible and, frankly, being a fruitful Christian.


As this and the next contextual marker will make clear, something that makes the biblical worldview so interesting is the extent to which it is situated in real history. That’s the really striking bit of information that counterbalances our last contextual marker; namely, that the Bible is riddled with echoes from another world. For biblical writers, there is not a sharp distinction between the “otherworldly” and this world. Rather, they are interconnected and affect each other in extremely significant ways.

Understanding what is happening in the real world around the biblical writers, especially politically, is important for understanding much of the prophetic material in the Bible. It’s also helpful for grounding biblical events in the events of the day. Take, for example, Pontious Pilate.

The Baker Encyclopedia writes of him:

Appointed by Tiberius as the fifth prefect of Judea, and who served in that capacity from AD 26–36. He appears prominently in the trial narratives of the Gospels as the Roman governor who authorized Jesus’ crucifixion. In addition he appears in a variety of extrabiblical sources as a dispassionate administrator who relentlessly pursued Roman authority in Judea.1

Those extrabiblical mentions include the Roman writer Tacitus, who places him in direct connection with the crucifixion of Jesus, and also the Jewish historian Josephus, who describes three different incidents during the career of the prefect. Such information not only helps us date biblical information, but also contributes to the reliability and authenticity of the Scriptures.

If the Scriptures report to us reliably about even the most insignificant of details, why not think they would report reliability about the important ones? To cherry pick information like this is to credit the biblical writers with precisely the level of intellect and acumen that skeptics want to deny them in other contexts. If the goal is to deal fairly with the data, then considering the political context of any given portion of Scripture will be an immensely helpful exercise.


Similarly, the Bible was written in a particular time and place, and understanding more about the particular time and place in which passages of Scripture was written is helpful in determining authorship, whether editorial hands were monkeying with the text or not, etc. Additionally, we must understand that the biblical writers were not stupid; however, they just did not have access to the kind of information we have today.

Therefore, Scripture will often report things with less scientific and historical precision than we would like, and will often make use of phenomenological and/or under-determinative language. They will write things as they see them and as they believe them to be, even if it differs from our current understanding. By way of example: for ancient cultures, the center of consciousness was not the brain; rather, it was the bowels (see Jer. 17:10, for example).2

A serious effort must be made to understand the manners, customs, and other cultural nuances of the biblical world. Again, this all works toward loving the Bible for what it is, rather than loving (or hating!) the Bible for something that it isn’t.


Only now do we return to some of those literary considerations mentioned above. In this category I am including such ideas as genre, literary devices, grammar, parts of speech, syntax, lexical concerns, and situation within the biblical canon. Each one of these is important and certainly warrants (and receives) attention in a hermeneutics book. However, as hopefully has been made clear, it seems to me these things alone are dramatically insufficient for understanding the biblical text. Interpreting the Bible is a holistic enterprise that will include the study of the actual words and their relationship to other words, sure; but even the words are beholden to the cultural, political, and spiritual contexts we’ve discussed.

As just one example, consider hyperbole, a literary device we use all the time to intentionally exaggerate information in order to achieve a desired effect. If I say, “My son’s soccer team destroyed the other team last Saturday” you do not call the police because my son and his team have committed a serious crime and literally destroyed other people. The example seems almost silly, but we have to reckon with the presence of this kind of thing in the text of the Bible. Why not think they used language in much the same way? For biblical writers, though, the political and cultural contexts were different; therefore, it is reasonable to expect we might see this sort of literary device show up in ways that are not immediately obvious to us. Consider the example of Deuteronomy 7:1-3. This one passage is helpful because it includes not one, but two possible examples of ancient hyperbole:

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.

Here’s the first example: The Hebrew word behind the phrase “utterly destroy” is haḥărēm. The idea is to “devote to destruction.” To be sure, regarding the conquest accounts, there is much conversation to be had. It certainly goes far beyond the discussion of just one Hebrew word. For now, though, note what Dr. Paul Copan has observed regarding use of such language in the ancient Near East:

Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia BC. The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts weren’t understood to be literally true. This language, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen observes, has misled many Old Testament scholars in their assessments of the book of Joshua; some have concluded that the language of wholesale slaughter and total occupation—which didn’t (from all other indications) actually take place—proves that these accounts are falsehoods. But ancient Near Eastern accounts readily used “utterly/completely destroy” and other obliteration language even when the event didn’t literally happen that way.3

In ancient times, hyperbole was often used in—get this—military annals. Doesn’t this make sense? It’s about bragging rights! The idea is to send a message to readers that we’re not playing around. Our team is big, bad, and dominates. And this is exactly the sense I used the term in my soccer team example, albeit with much less literal bloodshed. We don’t often think in these terms, but the evidence is plentiful, relatively speaking. The same was true in a theological sense, which leads into our second example of hyperbole found in this text.

Notice that each nation Israel is to defeat is greater and mightier (i.e., larger) than she is. Why might this pose a problem? Because if we take the number of Israelites reported by the text literally, we end up with geographical and archaeological absurdity. This is a problem that has puzzled scholars of the Old Testament for years.

One proposed solution argues that such inflated numbers are yet another example of ancient hyperbole.4 To be sure, this opinion is highly contested; some suggest it, along with other proposed solutions, may create more problems than taking the numbers at face value.5 Such scholars simply punt, suggesting that the text be taken at face value, while recognizing that there is likely some other consideration that may, in the future, provide a satisfactory answer. Regardless, my ultimate point stands: the biblical text is a product of the time in which it was written, and careful sensitivity to that fact will lead to more accurate interpretation of it.


This final contextual category has to do with the interpretation and application of the text to the life of the reader. This context is constrained by each of the categories already mentioned. Too many times, Bible study groups meet, read a text, and go around the room explaining what the text “meant to them.” The problem is that this relativizes Bible interpretation.

When seeking to really understand how a concept, passage, or teaching from the Bible applies to our lives, we must first reach the proper interpretation of it. In an earlier chapter of the book, we noted in Jeremiah 29:11 two ways of interpreting the text. One way has God as the cosmic life coach; the other way, as the merciful Judge of the universe.

The relativized approach would seem to suggest that both interpretations are correct, but this can’t be right. If the text means to teach particular truth that corresponds to reality, it can only have one meaning—the right one, whatever it is. In that passage it is obvious which interpretation is correct: God will show mercy on his people and has a plan for them, but judgment—by his hand—is first.

The interpretive context, then, is the one that is allowed by the other contexts. We must be able to make application from the Bible to our lives, or else, the Bible has no purchase in our lives. But such application is based on proper interpretation; they are linked inextricably.


A proper evaluation and exegesis of the biblical text will necessitate the consideration of these contextual parameters.

If you fail to consider these categories, only one conclusion, as mentioned above, follows: You either love the Bible for what it isn’t, or you hate the Bible for what it is. Neither of those are acceptable.


  1. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Pilate, Pontius. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1694). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  2. Some take this concept and run with it, suggesting that the ancient Israelites held, purportedly in concert with their ancient Near Eastern (ANE) neighbors, the idea of a three-tiered cosmology that included a flat earth along with a solid dome above. I disagree with this interpretation, as do many scholars with training in ANE thought. For one, the evidence suggests that not all ancient cultures held a similar conception of the sky. Further, where we do find cultures with these beliefs, they seem to be inextricably tied to their theology and have theological/etiological (cosmographical) concerns. See Vern S. Poythress, Three Modern Myths in Interpreting Genesis 1, WTJ 76 (2014): 321-50.
  3. Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (p. 171). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. See David Fouts, a Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Large Numbers in the Old Testament:
  5. See Merrill, et al., The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament.

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