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How can the Bible be interpreted?

Over the centuries, Jewish and Christian scholars have developed different ways of interpreting the Bible. Jewish rabbis living around the time of Jesus developed an elaborate set of rules to help them interpret their sacred texts. Among early Christian writers, there were two main schools of thought about biblical interpretation.

Those who studied the Bible in Egypt tended to favour more symbolic interpretations. Those who studied in what is now Turkey, however, preferred more literal, historical readings.

A monk called John Cassian (360–435 AD), took the discussion to the next level by bringing both kinds of interpretation together. He identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical. By the Middle Ages, these four methods of interpretation (or ‘senses’) had become fairly standard among Christians.

The ‘four senses’ of interpretation

An early monk called John Cassian (360-435) identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical.


One approach is to take biblical texts at face value. This doesn’t necessarily mean absolutely literally (e.g. that the rivers really should ‘clap their hands’ as the song of Psalm 98.8 has it).

Generally, it means that texts should be read in their ‘natural’ or ‘historical’ sense. Because it deals with actual events, actual people and actual statements, the literal method is often – but not always – considered the most important kind of interpretation of the Bible. However, some Christians prefer a more simple distinction between ‘the spirit and the letter’ – i.e. spiritual versus literal readings, rather than the four traditional methods.


Another way to read biblical texts is on a deeper, more symbolic level. This was often known as the allegorical or typological method. The Bible itself includes a clear example of this. The apostle Paul wrote that the story about Abraham and his two wives, Hagar and Sarah, could be read allegorically. He interpreted it to refer to the difficult relationship between Jewish people and Christians of his time (Galatians 4.22–31).

This type of interpretation was popular in the early Church. Many, for example, gave Christian meanings to details from the book of Joshua (e.g. ‘crossing the river Jordan to the Promised Land’ was about baptism, the ‘red rope of Rahab’ symbolised the blood of Christ etc.).


A third way of interpreting the Bible is to look for an ‘ethical’ meaning. This is sometimes known as the moral or tropological sense. It involves reading between the lines of a Bible passage or verse to see how it applies to daily life. In Jewish circles this was (and is) known as midrash.

1 Corinthians chapter 9 in the New Testament contains an example of midrash. The apostle Paul quotes a saying from the Old Testament (9.9, 10) about oxen and then ‘explains’ what the text actually implied on an ethical level (i.e. that apostles have the right to financial support).


A fourth kind of interpretation finds mystical or eschatological meaning within Bible texts. Mystical in this sense usually involves interpreting texts to reveal something about the future. For example, the book of Revelation uses the word ‘Jerusalem’ to refer to the heavenly future of Christians (Revelation 21.2). Therefore, wherever some interpreters found the word Jerusalem elsewhere in the Bible, they concluded that it also had something to say about heaven.

Another kind of mystical interpretation involves finding secret codes that deal with the here and now. The ‘Kabbalah’ method of interpretation within Judaism finds coded meaning (in numbers and symbols) within the words of the Torah (e.g. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to stand for the emotions of love, fear and mercy respectively). Similarly, the 1997 publication of the Bible Code claimed to unlock mystical codes about world history hidden within the biblical text.

Author: Bible Society, 20 March 2016 (Last updated: 21 July 2016)

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