The Where-and-When Principle of Bible Interpretation

Principle #2: The Where-and-When Principle of Bible Interpretation

Imagine walking along your favorite beach. You find a bottle half-buried in the sand. Sure enough, there is something inside. You work out the rolled up paper and discover a letter. You can read it but the meaning is not fully discernible. Think how eager you would be to know who wrote it and to whom. Or when was it written? Or where was it written? Knowing that information would help you understand the message written there.

beach bottle message

As we read and interpret the Bible, we need to ask similar questions. You learned in high school English class to look for the who, what, where, when, and how of the piece of literature you were reading. The same is true when interpreting the Bible. Let’s call this the Where-and-When Principle. This principle is also called the historical principle because we seek to understand the historical circumstances that surround the Bible passage we are studying.

What we want to discover as we read a passage is the answers to the following questions:

  • Who wrote or spoke this passage?
  • Where was it written?
  • To whom was it written?
  • Who were the original readers or hearers of this passage?
  • Where were the original readers or hearers of this passage?
  • Why was it written?
  • When was it written?
  • What were the special circumstances under which this passage was written?

Here is an example. Consider Psalm 51. The introductory note tells us that this psalm was written by David after Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. David reflected about the nature of his sin and how it affected his relationship with God. You can feel his painful repentance as you read his words. While psalms cover a period of about one thousand years of history, knowing the when and where of each psalm opens up its deep meaning to us. To fully understand Psalm 51, you must know the setting in 2 Samuel 11-12.

Look at 1 Thessalonians. This is one of Paul’s letters, likely one of his earliest letters.  Paul preached in Thessalonica about 50 AD during his second missionary journey (Acts 17). From there he went to Corinth (Acts 18) where, only a few months later, he wrote back to the believers in Thessalonica. Apparently the Thessalonians had a mistaken belief about Jesus’ return. The Thessalonians were worried that some believers had died. Would they miss out of seeing Jesus’ return?

What is important here is that we cannot understand what the passage means to us today if we cannot determine what the passage meant to the original hearers or readers. We interpret the passage in the light of these kinds of questions so that we do not read our own meaning into it.

You can get help with the When-and-Where Principle with study resources like there:

  • A study Bible
  • A Bible handbook
  • A Bible commentary
  • A Bible dictionary or encyclopedia

Add the When-and-Where Principle to your Bible interpretation tools. We will look about the Grammar Principle in the next post.

Reflection: Read 1 Chronicles 12:32. The men of Issachar knew the cultural meaning of their times and could make use of wisdom. How can you wisely use an understanding of biblical times as you lead your small group Bible study?

Learn more: Add the Holman QuickSource Guide to Understanding the Bible by Kendell H. Easley (Holman Bible Publishers, 2011) to your library.

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