Interpreting the Text (McMahan, Fall 2015)

last modified 2016-04-28T16:30:18-04:00

Note: This guide identifies scholarly resources to assist you with your "Interpreting the Text" assignment.  If you need more in-depth help, check out the additional course-specific resources available on the Christianity Subject Librarian page.  

Remember, you need to research your text carefully and should consult the grading rubric as a guide.  You need to consult scholarly sources during the course of your research, keep track of the sources used, and submit your notes by noon the day before your scheduled presentation.  The goal is to be prepared to discuss the assigned text in terms of its content, background (historical and cultural), literary context and form, theological perspective, and contemporary relevancy.  What is underneath the words on the page, what was the context, what is significant about this passage during this point in time?


The first item in your rubric is on background information.  What historical, social, or cultural background information is needed to understand this text?  Scholarly commentaries can answer questions about what things were like when your text was written, what social or institutional settings might have been in place, and provide general background information.  A key characteristic of a commentary is providing information arranged by chapter and verse.  Most commentaries also include an outline and general information on the book.  There are numerous sources, and you need to focus on consulting credible/scholarly sources. 

New Interpreter's Bible is a good place to start.  Listed for each passage are the page numbers for the introduction, commentary, and reflection sections.  This is a reference source, so it must be consulted in the library. 

New Interpreter's Bible - REF BS 491.2 .N484 1994

Matthew 20:1-16, Volume VIII (8)

Note: Your passage is included as part of a larger section, Matthew 19:16 - 20:16, in this source

  • Introduction and Outline pp. 89 - 124
  • Commentary pp. 389-394
  • Reflections: pp. 394-396

Luke 18:9-14, Volume IX (9)
Note: Your passage is included as part of a longer section of Luke 18:1 - 19:27 in this source

  • Introduction and Outline pp. 3 - 37
  • Overview, pp. 334-335
  • Commentary pp. 340-342
  • Reflections: pp. 342-343

John 14:1-7, Volume IX (9)
Note: Your passage is included as part of Chapter 14 Verses 1-11 in this source

  • Introduction and Outline pp. 493 - 514
  • Overview, p. 735 - 739
  • Commentary pp. 739 - 743
  • Reflections: pp. 743 - 745

Acts 9:1-9, Volume X (10)
Note: Your passage is included as part of Chapter 9 Verses 1-31 in this source

  • Introduction and Outline pp. 3 - 36
  • Overview, p. 146 - 147
  • Commentary pp. 147 - 154
  • Reflections: pp. 154 - 155

Ephesians 5:22 - 6:9, Volume X1 (11)

  • Introduction and Outline pp. 351 - 367
  • Commentary pp. 444 - 454
  • Reflections: pp. 454 - 457

James 2:14-26, Volume XII (12)

  • Introduction and Outline pp. 177 - 184
  • Commentary pp. 196 - 199
  • Reflections: pp. 199 - 201

The Mercer Commentary on the New Testament (REF BS 2341.2 .M47 2003) is another good source to consult.

Another helpful commentary series is Interpretation, published by John Knox Press.  Since there are so many of you working on similar passages, these have been pulled and placed on reserve for your class.  You can ask for your specific text for Dr. McMahan's class at the Circulation Desk on the main floor of Tarver Library.


  • Steer clear of online commentaries.  Most of these have a focus on inspirational usage rather than including research.
  • When possible, consult the most current commentaries.  Your task is to uncover research that does change.  You do not want to use an historical commentary (like Calvin's) that does not incorporate the latest research.
  • Many of the commentaries may be in the Swilley Library on the Atlanta campus.  You may request that items in the Swilley stacks be sent to you here in Macon.

The second item in your grading rubric relates to context.  How does your text relate to the biblical material surrounding it in the verses/chapters that come before and after your passage?  Simply stated:  read at least one chapter before and after your text to get the context. 

Reading your text in different translations is a good way to help you get a good "feel" for your passage. 

Electronic access to Bible translations includes:

Print versions available in the Tarver Library include:

New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: with the Apocrypha (4th edition)
REF BS 191.5 .A1 2010 O94 2010

Contemporary Comparative Side-by-Side Bible
REF BS 125 .B5 2011

The Layman's Parallel Bible
REF BS 125 .B5 1991 c.2

Good News Bible
REF BS 195 .T63 1986


  • Look back at the outline included in the commentary references to see where scholars place your text and how your text relates to the book as a whole.
  • Reading the text may identify terms to look up in the Bible dictionaries.
  • Hearing the text (selecting an audio version) is a good way to see the text fresh.

The fourth item in your rubric focuses on the meaning of your text. 

What point is being made in the text? 

After reading it in several translations, what seems strange, exaggerated, or even missing?  Remember, you must view the text in the context of 1) when it was written, and 2) to whom it was written.

Bible dictionaries can be very helpful with this component.  Remember that it is important to look up terms you know as well as those you think you know.  You must use the term in the context of the text.  Make sure that you are using the definition of the term as it was used at that time, not how we mean it today.  Remember, language changes.

Start with these resources:

Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (REF BS 440 .M429 1990)

New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (REF BS 440 .N445 2006)

Anchor Bible Dictionary (REF BS 440 .A54 1992)


  • Look back at the commentaries, especially the introduction, overview, and commentary sections to see what other scholars discovered in the text.
  • These dictionaries include more than just entries for single words but also broad articles about history, customs, institutions, and beliefs.  They also include entries for the books (Mark, Matthew, John, Acts, Ephesians, and James) that contain your passages.

The final item in your rubric gets personal.  What meaning is the text trying to convey?  What troubles, interests, or inspires you about this text?  What questions does the text raise for you?  This will require you to engage yourself with the text.


  • Look back at the commentaries, especially the reflection section.
  • This section is unique to you--focus on your own questions that have arisen out of your research and careful consideration of the text.
  • This work is "cyclical" which means that one thing often leads to another.  For example,
    • reading a translation leads you to words you either don't know or aren't sure of their context and these words taken you to a dictionary, where you might find more words
    • reading the commentary leads you back to the translation to see if the same phrase is used in more than one translation
    • reading the commentary may take you back to the dictionary and vice versa
  • This is going to take time, so don't put it off until the last minute.
  • Read the text, read the text, read the text ... familiarity can bring understanding.
  • The area of biblical studies research is research.  Do not depend on what you think you know from church or Sunday school or Google.  You are expected to consult scholarly resources and prepare notes that reflect your research.
  • You are reminded to document research gathered in your notes.  This means making sure you get all the information you will need later while you are searching
    • Take a picture with your phone, or save the links in a document, or do whatever you need to make sure that you capture all the information now rather than having to scramble later when you compile your notes.
    • Links to the catalog records are included in this guide to provide 24/7 access to the bibliographic information you will need to document your notes.
  • Stop and ask for help rather than spinning your wheels: