Why You Should Care About The Tools Theologians Use To Reach Accurate Biblical Interpretations


by Donna Howell (partly excerpted from my new book The Handmaidens Conspiracy)


The two most important deductions that any reader of the Bible should be making are these: 1) what God was communicating to His original audience through the human writer at the time it was written, and 2) what normative regulations for daily life that presents for us today. By this process of thinking, we have historically concluded which Scriptures apply only to an audience at a particular point in time (restricted regulations), versus which Scriptures still hold a valuable behavior that must be modeled timelessly, throughout all ages (normative regulations).

I once read a story about an American missionary who went to spread the Gospel in Greece. After his first sermon there, which was well received, he made his way to the door of the church to greet his new congregants as they left for home. As is customary in America, he extended his arm forward, expecting to shake hands. His hand was ignored as he was repeatedly approached by full grown men who leaned in for a holy kiss on the mouth. I can’t even imagine the shock the missionary must have felt: the awkwardness of this foreign social situation manifesting right there in front of his wife…

Romans 16:16—as written by Paul—tells believers to “Salute one another with an holy kiss.” First Peter 5:14 gives the same regulation: “Greet ye one another with a kiss of charity.” Why? Because in that day and in that culture, that was an appropriate way for a holy man to greet another holy man, and it showed an innocent camaraderie amidst the followers of Christ. Another famously referenced instance of this greeting was from Judas to Jesus on the night of His betrayal (Matthew 26:47–50; Mark 14:43–45; Luke 22:48). The Greek word used here is kataphileo, simply referring to a kiss generically, as opposed to philein, which refers to an amorous kiss. Some parts of the world still treat such a kataphileo greeting as customary, such as the city in Greece the missionary just mentioned traveled to. When this occurs in those specific locations, there is nothing to be viewed out of the ordinary, and it most certainly is not considered a man showing romantic interest in another man. In America, however, especially after the last century’s social revolutions involving the homosexual community, there is almost no setting where a man could kiss another man on the mouth (or anywhere else, like the cheek) without it being taken as a romantic gesture (philein).

As such, we can easily conclude that almost all Western Christians perceive Paul and Peter’s command to “greet with a kiss” as a “restricted” regulation (which is, again, a command or rule pertaining to a specific population of people in a specific time and place) when the verses are analyzed literally. But that conclusion is incorrect. The holy greeting is one that should be seen as “normative” (a command or rule pertaining to all people of every culture and throughout time: a timeless truth), once the intent behind the Scripture is deduced. Today’s fellow believers should greet each other in whatever “holy” way is appropriate to their culture, so long as that greeting does not go against the intent of Scripture elsewhere. In the States, that is almost always a firm handshake and a hearty smile, and since a male reverend showing a romantic gesture to another man would be forbidden in Scripture, our “holy kiss” becomes a “holy handshake.” The intent of the regulation is preserved.

I know that for some, the following review is redundant, but for others, this process is new, so I will say once more: By this illustration, we have quickly satisfied these two items: 1) what God was communicating to His original audience through the human writer at the time it was written (that “fellow believers should greet each other warmly in the way they would have at the time of Paul”); and 2) what normative regulations for daily life that presents for us today (that “fellow believers should still greet each other warmly in the way they do now in their own culture,” assuming that greeting does not oppose the intent of Scripture elsewhere).

One example of a “restricted” regulation would be the sacrifices of animals upon the altar. This practice, for Christians, was ended when Christ became the ultimate Sacrifice once and for all through the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:13, 9:13–15, 10:8–18). Another example would be when Paul instructed Timothy to drink wine for his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23). Obviously, not all digestive problems today should be treated with wine. (My words here should not be taken as an argument for or against the moderate use of alcohol in a Christian’s home. That is another debate entirely. I mean only to show that Paul’s words to Timothy were not “normative” advice for any believer with a tummy ache throughout all time.)

One major interpretation principle in determining “normative” from “restricted” regulation is called “internal consistency.” This can be viewed from two perspectives: 1) what the Bible says elsewhere on a particular subject, and 2) what a specific author (Paul, Peter, etc.) says elsewhere on a particular subject (whether that be the same letter/epistle, or a different book of the Bible, so long as it’s written by the same author). In order for the Word of God to have integrity, it must have unity within itself. It has to “agree with itself” from all points to be considered true. It cannot “contradict itself.” (Quick note: I know that there has been a raging debate since time immemorial about certain verses contradicting other verses. As a student of the Bible, I have studied many of these so-called contradictions. In every single case, it has boiled down to improper interpretation or a translational hiccup when the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek is forced into the confines of a secondary language, such as English. We studied just now how the Greek has a different word for a casual “greeting kiss” than it does for a “lover’s amorous kiss.” The Greek language also has many different words for “love,” and the English language is once again limited to one word. I do not intend for this series to be a study in every perceived contradiction. I will only state for the record that, once properly understood, the Word does not and cannot contradict itself. When it appears to do so, readers are encouraged to study on their own for answers. For the purposes of this study, the principle of “internal consistency” will be limited to a woman’s role in the Church and among men.)

Keep this principle tucked in the back of your mind as we continue throughout this series and in the upcoming book The Handmaidens Conspiracy, because it is crucial to the words of Paul regarding women.

So, within the process of establishing the original culture in order to draw normative regulations for our modern era, we can ask several questions to help us discover timeless truth. Throughout my college studies, I have found that these are the most important questions to ask when reading any of the books of the Bible:

  1. What literary genre does the material fall into?

The books of the Bible have been separated into literary genres by many scholars in order to aid study. If we don’t know what genre applies to a text, we can’t understand what the original text was meant to convey. Most popularly, the canonical list of books within today’s Holy Bible fall into eight categories: historical narrative, law, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, Gospel, and letters (epistles, such as that of Paul).

We wouldn’t take in a science-fiction novel involving futuristic medical information the same way we would digest a modern medical textbook at a university. Both books feature heaps of information about medicine, but because they belong to different genres, the material exists for different purposes (one entertains, the other educates). Likewise, we cannot approach apocalyptic Scripture in the same way we would read a historical narrative (one warns, the other informs).

  1. Who was the author?

In every conversation—whether between myself and someone else, or between two other people talking on television, at church, or wherever—when I hear someone speak, I consider who the speaker is in order to understand the meaning of his or her words. A person’s speech or written works cannot be separated from his or her identity. Two people can be involved in the same cause, but come from completely different angles. Knowing who they are is as important as hearing what they say.

When you listen to a sermon delivered by a pastor you’ve known for some time, you grasp his words better than you would those of a total stranger. You may have heard this pastor share testimonies, make the congregation laugh by telling silly stories about his home life, and open up his heart passions every Sunday. At times, you may even know what he’s going to say before he says it, because you know his personal convictions and you’re used to his oratory style. You’re familiar with him.

All the writers of the books in the Bible were involved in one central cause: bringing truth to the world. But many came from different angles in their approach to this cause. Paul had a different purpose for writing his letters to the early Church than Moses had when he documented ancient history. Knowing what Paul went through on the road to Damascus is crucial to understanding the passions behind his letters. Knowing what Moses went through during the Exodus helps us understand his anger toward the Israelites when he descended Mt. Sinai. If you don’t know the man behind the text, you won’t understand the author’s voice and intentions.

  1. Who was the original audience?

Just as with the author, the original audience cannot be separated from the purpose of a written text. New Testament letters address the false teachings, anxiety, persecution, and theological confusion of the early Church that was forming from Jews and Gentiles alike throughout Palestine and the rest of the world when Christ was no longer corporeally present to teach. Who these people were is just as important as understanding the identity of the writer. If we simply take in the text without understanding who originally benefitted from the material, we cannot understand how the material was beneficial. As such, we modern readers will find it much more difficult to render that text personally applicable to what we are going through.

  1. What were the circumstances that made the writing a necessity?

Knowing what was going on in the world or culture at the time of a writing is crucial to understanding the purpose of the writing. We have to consider what is being addressed, and in what social/cultural setting, in order to properly apply those lessons to our own culture/society. Paul’s advice to the churches sprouting up across Palestine after Christ’s ascension may at times seem similar in intent or meaning to the words of an Old Testament prophet just before the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles, but they weren’t addressing the same events. We cannot apply all of Paul’s words to the ancient Israelites, and we cannot apply all of an Old Testament prophet’s words to the early Church of Paul’s day. In the same trail of logic, responsible readers look for how the circumstances of our current modern world or individuals within it parallel the circumstances at the time of the original writing before making assumptions about how verses apply today. (Though this rule is fourth on the list as my college training presents it, for this particular work, it is likely the most important.)

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  1. What was the cultural language style in use at the time of the writing?

This is one of the most important yet frequently overlooked considerations when studying Scripture. Culture is embedded in language, and language in culture. The two cannot be separated. The way we speak in America is different from how Chinese people speak in China, even when the languages are translated from one to another. For example, I might say, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside.” To an American, that means the rain outside is heavy. To foreigners, I have just stated that canines and felines are falling out of the sky. If they take my word as gospel, they will apply some kind of meaning to canines and felines being in the sky—whether literally or allegorically—and, to them, that would never relate to heavy rains. This is an example of an idiom: a group of words that sound like one thing, but mean something else, based on cultural use, acceptance, and familiarity.

From Genesis to Revelation, we find many examples of idioms, rhetoric, grammar fluctuation, syntax variations, and semantics that, if considered outside of their cultural setting, do not mean what the author intended. Since no culture today perfectly operates like those at the time of scriptural writings, it can often be difficult to understand what we’ve read when we dive into the Bible. Therefore, trying to understand the cultural language at the time of the writing seems like a tedious endeavor, but it is well worth the effort when the consequence otherwise is misinterpretation.

  1. What does the surrounding text say?

Lastly, once we have, to the best of our ability, figured out the genre, author, audience, circumstances, and cultural language (and consulting commentaries is helpful if we get stuck), we must consider what is being said in context—in the verses before and after any passage, as well as farther out—of the whole book’s message.

Take, for example, the popularly quoted Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Many well-meaning Christians take this as a promise that no matter what happens, they will eventually be prosperous. But the surrounding text reveals that this verse was never meant to be dropped in a social setting to inspire a climb up the corporate ladder, to land an audition at a major theater, or have an old car come back to life if we just keep sitting on this verse and hoping the clunker will start. Looking at the broader context, we see that the “you” in this verse refers to a collective people: the ancient Israelites. This was a message given from the Lord, Himself, through the prophet Jeremiah about the future of Israel.

However, that doesn’t mean this verse isn’t relevant to Christians today. It absolutely is—more today than ever! If we properly consider the genre, author, audience, circumstances, and cultural language behind the verse, and then consider it within the surrounding text, we come up with the following equation: The “you” in this verse—the parallel of that “you” from the ancient writing to today—is the Church, all the people of the Lord. God knows the plans He has for the collective Body of Christ, the Church; He has plans to prosper the Church. It’s corporate, not individualistic.

Exegesis. It changes everything.

One last reflection before we begin our theological study…

I want to be very careful how I say this, because I do believe that the Word is all truth and nothing but the truth, written through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and is therefore the “God-breathed” Word of our Father. Nothing could convince me otherwise. It is this core belief that has driven me to study His Word in great depth every day I’m alive. However, scholars believe that the “God-breathed” and “Holy Spirit-inspired” texts were the original words penned by the original authors and everything since is a translation. Some modern Bibles have serious flaws. For instance, in November of 2012, a new Bible translation was released, affectionately called the “Queen James Bible.” The title was “based upon a theory that King James, the British king who commissioned the famous translation of the Bible, was bisexual.”[i] One article opposing the release of this translation reads, “This new translation, the editors say, will ‘resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality.’”[ii] The cover is all white with a rainbow-pride cross. I will not go into the translational differences between the QJB and more widely esteemed translations, as that is not what this series is about, but I will tell you that there are many heavy discrepancies surrounding how this new translation addresses the original Hebrew and Greek languages. Scores of conservative scholars reacted to the QJB release with vehement rejection.

Many Christians would agree with these scholars that the QJB is twisting Scripture, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was published and now exists for any person wandering a bookstore to find, read, and digest as the QJB translators intended. Does that mean that the QJB is “the Word of God” as He intended it to be when it was written so long ago just because a new translation claims it? No. It means that it’s the “word of” and “intention of” the translators from one language into another.

But with so many translations available, how do we know we’re reading from the best one? It’s remains true that “the most accurate translation”—and by extension the most “Holy Spirit-inspired translation”—when deciphering the intent of “God’s Word” isn’t a “translation” at all. It’s the original manuscripts, written by the original authors, in the original languages, as God first delivered it to humanity.

In the following entries, we will address how some words in the ancient Hebrew and Greek were translated into English, and we’ll look at the effects those translations have had on modern Church concepts that often stand in diametric opposition to the practices and teachings of the early church.



[i] John Jalsevac, “Queen James Bible: Publisher Releases ‘Gay-Friendly’ Bible Translation,” December 13, 2012, Life Site News, last accessed July 17, 2017,

[ii] Ibid.

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