Interpreting the Text (McMahan, Spring 2011)

last modified 2015-01-12T08:25:45-04:00

Note: This short guide emphasizes the small number of library resources needed to complete your CHR 150 assignment, "Interpreting the Text." If you're looking for more, look at the additional course-specific resources available on the Christianity Subject Librarian page.

Remember, you need to unpack your passages so that you will 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? A specific example, of unpacking the scriptures is available to get you started.

1. Become familiar with your passage

Your professor has suggested two websites to introduce you to scholarly electronic sources that will assist you with this assignment:

2. Read the text

Sometimes it helps to read the text in several translations to get a "feel" for the passage. Electronic access to Bible translations available includes:

Print versions available in the Tarver Library include:

The Evangelical Parallel New Testament: New King James, New International, English Standard, Holman Christian Standard, Today's New International, New Living Translation, New Century Version, The Message
REF BS 2095 .K65 2003

The Holy Bible with the Apocrypha : Revised Standard Version
REF BS 191 .A1 2002 .N43

Other sources are also available from this Bible Translations page.

3. Look up unfamiliar words or phrases as well as familiar phrases in Bible dictionaries:

Anchor Bible Dictionary
REF BS 440.A54 1992

Mercer Dictionary of the Bible
REF BS 440.M429 1991
(on Reserve, check at the Circulation Desk)

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible
REF BS 440.I63

4. Analyze the text's setting in history and in life

In order to gain a sense of the context in which passage is set, you need to consult scholarly commentaries and reference resources. Scholarly commentaries can answer questions about what things were like when the book was written, what social or institutional setting might have been in place, and general background information on the book as well as specific verses. There are numerous sources, but for this assignment you should be able to find all that you need from this one source. Listed for each passage are the page numbers for the introduction, overview, commentary, and reflection sections when available.

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

Matthew 25:31-46, Volume VIII (8)

  • Introduction pp. 89 - 119
  • Overview, p. 444
  • Commentary pp. 455 - 456
  • Reflections: pp. 457 - 459

Mark 16:1-8, Volume VIII (8)
Note: Your passage is included as part of Chapter 16 Verses 1-20 in this source

  • Introduction pp. 509 - 520
  • Commentary pp. 728 - 732
  • Reflections: pp. 732 - 733

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

  • Introduction pp. 493 - 511
  • Overview, p. 735 - 739
  • Commentary pp. 740 - 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 pp. 3 - 32
  • Overview, p. 146 - 147
  • Commentary pp. 149 - 151
  • Reflections: pp. 154 - 155

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

  • Introduction pp. 351 - 365
  • Commentary pp. 446 - 454
  • Reflections: pp. 454 - 457

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

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

Specific example

Luke 10:38-42 is the story of Mary and Martha. Reading this, you can come up with a list of words/ideas to explore. For example:

  • service
  • hospitality
  • feet
  • role of women in Jesus' ministry
  • hearing

Read through several of the commentaries written about this passage, look up several of these words in dictionaries, and then provide your interpretation of this passage based on all you have read.


  • This isn't rocket science, but it might mean moving out of your comfort zone. So, don't put it off until the last minute.
  • Remember to use the sources above to bring a "scholarly" rather than a personal read to the text.
  • Read the text, read the text, read the text ... familiarity can bring understanding.
  • Look up familiar words or phrases in The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible to make sure you are capturing the sense of the term in context.

Need more help?

Theresa Rhodes, Subject Librarian for Christianity, is available to assist you with your assignment. She can meet with you individually or, even better, with all panel members.