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D.R. Dungan



That is about the first question on opening any book. If we know not its author, we shall be quite in the dark, much of the time, while trying to interpret its pages. Large and small, there are a great many questions we may ask about the writer or the speaker that will assist in the interpretation of what has been said. We have not the space to devote to their discussion, and will leave it to the genius of the exegete. But there are a few questions that we must ask.

(1.) Was he an inspired man?–Is God the author of the communication? Did He direct the wording of the letter, or the speech? or did He give the writer or speaker the ideas and then leave him to his own selection of words and manner of speech, in presenting these ideas to the people? It is evident to every careful student of the Bible, that both of these plans have been followed. Generally God gives the inspiration, and leaves the man to present the thought in the words he chooses. But at other times it was impossible for men to hold the thoughts that God had to communicate. Under such circumstances He gave the words, for man could not be trusted with any part of it. At such times they spoke as the Spirit of God gave them utterance.  But it is fair to say that the most of the Bible has been given by men who were inspired, but who were left to do the work according to their own methods of expression. This will account for the difference that may be found between almost any two of the writers of the Old and New Testaments. Matthew is not like John, nor is James like Paul, nor is the style of Isaiah the same as that of Jeremiah.

(2.) Was the author an educated man?–If we could know that the writer has been left to himself in the selection and use of terms, we should deal with him as we do with any other writer in the use of grammar. If the writer was scholarly, we may be assured that the laws of the language in which he wrote are not violated, and the strictest rules of its grammar should be applied in the interpretation. But a less scholarly person may be held less firmly by such rules of interpretation. Most of the prophets seem to have been speaking men, and their sayings and predictions were gathered up by others, and recorded. But Isaiah was a writing prophet, and his language may be regarded, for the time, as strictly classical. He differs from Jeremiah, in that his figures are completed according to rule, while those of the latter are frequently broken off at their height, and the communication concluded in literal language.

Knowing first that Luke was a physician, prepares us to anticipate the marks of his profession on his writings. All through his account of the teachings and doings of Jesus he has left the shades of his culture. The orderliness of his record is that of a student. This is true, not only of his gospel, but of the Acts of the Apostles. When the other writers say that a man having the leprosy said to the Master, “If thou wilt, thou canst make me whole”; and He said, “I will, be thou whole.” Luke reports the man as “full of leprosy.” By that expression he indicates that the man was in the third stage of that disease, and therefore incurable. The others say that “Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever,” but Luke says that she was “holden of a great fever.” Thus he gives the extent of the trouble–she was bedfast, holden, or bound down. When a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered, was healed by the Saviour, Luke is particular, and says it was his right hand. And so it is all the way through the narrative–he enters into all the details, both in describing the diseases and the manner in which they were healed. To a physician, these would seem to be matters of importance; but they would not impress others in that way. His profession appears clearly in his statement of the prayer of Jesus in the garden (Luke xxii. 44, 45): “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. And when he rose up from his prayer, he came unto the disciples, and found them sleeping for sorrow.

It would not have been apparent to another man that they were asleep because of sorrow. Even most of the theologians of the present time have charged upon these men an indifference to the occurrence of the hour. But Luke has redeemed them from that imputation. He could understand how the undefined sadness of that awful night could so entirely overcome these strong men that, as an infant cries itself to sleep, so they were exhausted by sorrow, and slept. It would be his place, too, to describe the bloody sweat, which would, to him, indicate the near approach of death. But for the angel that appeared to strengthen the Saviour, the sorrow of the night would have been too much for him, and He would have been dead before the morning.

Knowing this man’s culture beforehand, we are ready to enter with him into all the details, and understand him.

(3.) What religious bias or prejudice?–We have before seen that God has not always directed the very words of the men through whom He has made a revelation of His will. And it is not too much to say that they had feelings like other men; and that their speech partakes more or less of these feelings, is evident to every careful reader. Sometimes these men write history, and were in need of no guidance from the Lord, being competent to tell very clearly the facts in the case. When we find that Isaiah would not speak to Pekah in a respectful way; that he does not call him king, nor even speak of him by his own name but as “that son of Remalia,” we would think it strange to find that he has embellished the qualities of the man. When Elisha speaks of the king of Israel as “that son of a murderer,” we expect him to be fairly explicit in stating the faults of the man. But while we feel compelled to say this much, even respecting men who were divinely employed to reveal the will of the Lord, we must remember that many of the characters of the Bible were not inspired, and did not claim to be. Hence their words are to be understood in the light of their prejudices, and allowances to be made on that score, just as if we were reading an account of their sayings in any other book. The Bible is responsible for nothing but a faithful record of what was said and, done. The language of the worst men that have ever lived is to be found in the Bible. The sons of Belial have had their say, and even Satan himself has given his falsehood in his most attractive manner. Hence we should know who speaks, and especially his heart condition. It is unreasonable to quote the language of Job’s comforters as containing the will of God perfectly, for God condemns their views, and the men themselves. It is just a little more in order to quote Job himself. And yet he undertook to speak of things of which he had no knowledge. The Lord reduces the sage somewhat, and Job confesses that he had presumed on intelligence that he did not possess.

(4.) What of the style?–That speakers and writers greatly differ in their manner of composition, no one calls in question. Two men may have the same thing to say, but the manner of saying it will show all the difference of mental temperament and drill. One presents his thought by the use of florid rhetoric, while another proceeds by the shortest lines known to the art of communication. Some are closely logical, while others pay but little attention to any relation between premise and conclusion. The logical mind will follow one, topic, with another having direct relation with the preceding and succeeding statements. Others are haphazard, and put many strange things in juxtaposition. Nor are these peculiarities removed by inspiration.

The eight writers of the New Testament exhibit so many styles of composition. Some of these writings are in short sections, so that no particular violence will be done if the usual method of verse interpretation should be followed. But most of them have a subject that must be considered as a whole, or the meaning will never be gathered. Paul is peculiar for his logical acumen. It never forsakes him. Commonly, when a writer or speaker reaches the lofty heights of exultation, all signs of logic drop out of sight. But not so with Paul. From first to last he is severely logical. It was his mental nature, and any inspired thought that will come to us through him must assume that form. Even his rhapsodies are finely inwrought with syllogism. Not only so, but he starts out with the purpose which cannot be accomplished with a single verse or chapter. He ordinarily presents his topic, directly or indirectly, and divides and subdivides, and brings out all the truth that relates to the matter in hand, and reaches his conclusions by a careful induction of the facts. Not only so, but he anticipates the objections that may arise in the minds of his readers, and shows that they are not well founded, or, in the nature of the case, the conclusions they have reached are untrue.

Now, what I insist upon is that each writer shall be studied as to his manner of composition, for not until we shall understand the writer will we comprehend the writing.

Paul is not only a logical writer but a very versatile writer. He seems to have a large vocabulary from which to make his selections of terms. Hence, even when he is presenting an antithesis he will likely change the terms on both sides every time he makes the comparison. The best illustration that now occurs to the mind is in II. Cor. iii. 6-12. There the Law and the Gospel are referred to by so many different terms, that one who has not paid attention to the style of the writer, in this respect, is very liable to miss the meaning altogether.

(5.) A writer usually, condemns the evils, which,, appear the most dangerous to him.–Hence, if he has been converted from any particular doctrine, he is likely to regard that as the prince of evils, and give his time largely to opposing it.

The fact just mentioned will account, in part, for the great space that Paul gives in efforts to show that Christianity and Judaism were distinct, and that we are not now under the Law, but under the Gospel of Christ. To know the history of the man, therefore, will greatly assist in understanding him.


(1.) What is their history?–Where have they been? What have they done? From whom have they descended? A reference being made to such matters would be quite unintelligible to one who knew nothing of their antecedents. If they had been Gentiles, carried away unto dumb idols, we should know it, and all about the character of that worship in which they had been engaged. If they had been Jews, raised and trained in the Law and the traditions of the times, we need to know that also, for these things may be referred to, and leave us in doubt as to their import without such previous intelligence.

(2.) We need to know their education.–It is presumed, at least, that every wise author will speak in the language of the people. Hence the words he uses, if they have any unusual signification, it will be because of the people to whom the words are employed. When Jesus said to the thief on the cross: “To-day thou be with me in paradise,” He certainly employed the word paradise in the sense in which the thief and the people of that day would understand the term. Hence, the best dictionary that can be had respecting that word will be found by referring to the use of the word made by the people. The Sadducees did not employ the term at all, but the Pharisees did, and meant by it, a place of abode for righteous spirits between death and the resurrection. Hence, unless He deceived the man, and that intentionally (for He knew in what sense he would understand it), He employed the word in its common or accepted sense. This rule is usually, if not universally, agreed to, that, in finding the meaning of the word, we must know the import given the word by those to whom it was used.

(3.) It is very necessary to know their customs.–Many references to such things may be made which we cannot comprehend, unless we have been first informed in these things. Not only so: there may be prudential measures adopted, concerning which there is no divine command, and yet an apostle may recommend a certain course. And without attention to this matter, these prudential recommendations have been elevated into divinely directed rules of life. It might be a shame for a woman in the city of Corinth to be unveiled. And under such circumstances Paul would have her wear a veil; but it would not follow that every woman in the world must wear a veil, or be regarded as unchristian. So he would advise respecting meats that had been offered to idols. If there is any danger of leading any one into idolatry by eating such meats, then he should refrain. It would be better to do without the needed food than to endanger the salvation of one for whom Christ died. So it would be better for the gospel to be preached only by a portion of the church than to give such offense to the community that the people could not be had to hear the claims of Christ.

(4.) We should also know what are the sins to which they have been addicted.–In the city of Corinth, a member of the church had taken his father’s wife, and was living with her as if she were his own. Now we ought to know why it was that they were not humbled, but rather puffed up, on that account.

(5.) To what temptations were they subject?–Were they exposed to Grecian philosophy, or to the arguments of Jews, or half-converted Christians, who were more Jews than disciples, and who were trying to bring them again into the bondage of the Law? Were they exposed to that subtle philosophy that claims to have received the good of all systems of religion and philosophy, and to have thrown away the evil and retained all that was valuable, and would therefore lead them into a conglomerate system made up of Judaism and heathenism, baptized in the name of Christ? Were they surrounded with the deceitful claims of the Nicolaitans, and urged to believe that a Christian cannot sin in doing his own pleasure–having been begotten of the Father, and His seed remaining in him, it would be proper to follow his promptings, as they would be the result of the divine seed, or regeneration? Were there men among them who claimed to be apostles, and who would readily make merchandise of them? Were there false teachers among them, as there had been false prophets before them? The prophets had many a tilt with false teachers who claimed that God was the Author of what they said. And the disciples were troubled with those grievous wolves who rose up to head parties in their own interests. There were foolish and vain talkers whose mouths had to be stopped. They withstood the teaching of the apostles, as Jannes and Jambres had withstood Moses, when before the court of Pharaoh. For such contention, men had to be prepared, and many a lesson was given for that purpose.

But false doctrine was not the only temptation that was in the pathway of the early Christians. Persecutions were before them, and for these they must be prepared. When the Saviour sent out the twelve and the seventy, He felt that they should be prepared to stand up against the persecutions that awaited them. And Paul, knowing the trials of the Hebrew brethren, tried to arm them for the conflict, so that they might endure to the end. To know these trials through which they were passing, will greatly assist in the interpretation of those Scriptures.


Knowledge of these is not as essential as in the other cases, and yet many references will be much more easily understood by having the same question asked and answered, as in the previous inquiry. Though less absolutely demanded, the same questions ought to be answered respecting them, to enable the reader to know the strength and point of the remark. We read many times in the New Testament of Herod, of Herod the king, of Herod the tetrarch. But who these Herods are, or if they are all just one Herod, many readers do not know. Their characters and power should be in the mind of the reader, for without such knowledge the pith and point of many things said will not be apparent. One will be greatly assisted in reading the Gospels and the acts, by knowing the characters that figure in government. So it will be in order to inquire about Pontius Pilate, Felix, Festus, Ananias, Agrippa. When the Master was in Perea, they came and told him that it would be better to depart out of the coast, as Herod would try to put him to death. He answered: “Go and tell that fox,” etc. The point of that remark is not seen without a knowledge of the character of this ruler. So it is all the way through the Scriptures–their meaning will be much more apparent after a careful study of the persons spoken of.


THE CHARACTER OF THE WRITINGS, OR THE KIND OF COMPOSITION.–In the Scriptures we have history, biography, law, prophecy, praise, poetry, the words of anger and of exultation. If we were reading any other book, we would not think of using the same rules for the interpretation of those several kinds of composition. While the historian or the biographer may deal in splendid rhetoric and occasionally embellish with a highly wrought figure of speech, yet we know that it is his aim to present us with a number of facts. And we interpret in the light of the work he was trying to accomplish. Generally, however, such writers deal in the plainest words and easiest sentences.

If law is being interpreted, we do not expect to find a single figurative expression. The author has evidently tried to be severely plain and definite. The very purpose of law precludes the thought of anything in the composition but the plainest and most direct form of speech. It has been the intent of him who gave the law to have his will carried out by the people. Hence we expect him to use every precaution to prevent any misunderstanding.

But when we come to condemnation, or exhortation, or any words prompted by mental ecstasy, we naturally look for the overflowing of all the lower grounds of thought and communication.

Poetry, whether found in the Bible or elsewhere, is granted a license of extravagance. It is supposed to have a right to play upon words for their sound. It is the style suited to strong imagination. It will tell the story of the dreamer or of the pathetic lover in language suitable to the mentality that employs it. No one thinks of interpreting the language of the poet as he does that of the essayist. And yet a very large portion of the Bible is in poetry. The simile, the metaphor, the allegory, the hyperbole, furnish gorgeous chariots for the conveyance of the rhythmic mind. All of the Psalms, most of the book of Job, and a very large portion of the prophecies, are in poetry. It is, then, of as much importance to regard the different kinds of composition, while reading the Bible, as in reading any other book. The Oriental trope should have as much latitude as the modern rhyme. For instance, in Job xxix. 16-xxx. 31, when the good man of Uz compared his former, with his present condition, his words are very strong. He shows his honor, as compared with the very low condition of those who then mocked him, in true poetic style. The very occasion seemed to be poetic, and the atmosphere was burdened with hyperbole. There is no danger of being deceived by this, if we are aware of the kind of composition.


At first thought, this is a question of no importance. But when we think again, that by it we will determine under what law or dispensation the writing or speaking was done, it becomes of great moment. If a man should ask what he should do to be saved, during the existence of that law of Moses, every one would expect an answer that would harmonize with the demands of that law. Its righteousness consisted in doing, perfectly, the things which it required. And if the inquiry was, What will it profit a man if he shall do the things which the law demands? he would be answered by any one informed in the matter, that he should be blessed in the basket, and in the store, and in his cattle, etc., etc. But no one at all acquainted with the teaching of the New Testament would think of giving these answers to these questions. It is seen, then, that it makes a great difference as to the time that the writing or the speaking was done. No one should, then, go to the Old Institution to learn how a sinner can become a Christian, for the two covenants are radically different in that respect. In that, they were saved by the deeds of the law; in this, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When the rich young ruler came to the Saviour and said, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life?” the Master directed him to the practical features of the Law. But when He sent out His disciples to go to the end of the earth and preach the gospel to every creature, He said that “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned.” The difference in these answers is because of the difference in time and the change in covenants that has taken place.

My Spirit shall not always strive with man,” is quoted again and again as if it related to the present hour. Many would no doubt look for it in the New Testament. And yet it was spoken before the flood, of the wicked antediluvians, and concerning the one hundred and twenty years that yet remained before the world should be carried away with a flood. About as apt as this is the quotation generally indulged, “Yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.” It seems to be supposed that God did actually hate Esau before he was born, and love Jacob at the same time, for no other reason than that He could. But those who stop and ask when this was said, are enabled to see that the language was employed by Malachi, the last of the Old Testament writers, when, in person, both Jacob and Esau had been dead for twelve hundred years. Hence the language was not spoken concerning these men when they were infants, nor when they were come to maturity, but concerning their descendants; and hence it was selected by the apostle Paul to prove that God was no respecter of persons–that He had selected Jacob, because He knew that his people would be superior to the descendants of the older brother. Their violence to Jacob, as Israel came out of Egypt, and God’s hatred of them for it, proved that they were an unworthy stock, and that God did well in selecting Jacob, whose descendants were a much better people.

The language of the thief is not understood by many persons, on account of not noticing under what covenant they were yet living.

It should be borne in mind, too, that time brings a change of circumstances, and that with such a change customs, thoughts and feelings change also. Hence, with such difference, all prudential matters will correspondingly differ. While faith and obedience will ever remain the same, there are things which are neither right nor wrong in themselves, and are of no interest, except as they are wise or unwise methods of carrying forward the will and work of the Lord. They are merely the circumstantial or local details, and would not be proposed beyond the conditions that made them valuable.


THE PLACE OF WRITING OR SPEAKING.–If we could always know the surroundings, we would know very much of the intention of the speaker. An illustration will be clearer to the mind of the reader when he can be made to see the things referred to by the writer or speaker; and to have that knowledge, sometimes, it is necessary to know where the author was at the time of speaking. When Jeremiah stands in the gate of Jerusalem and preaches to that people, there is peculiar significance in the place in which he was at the time of the address. If King Uzziah or Azariah was ordered out of the temple, one must know why he was not at liberty to remain, and where he was, that he was profaning the house of God. Much of the life of the Saviour is not understood because the reader does not know where He and His disciples were at the time. There is a careless way of reading the Scriptures that marks nothing, and knows nothing of the passing events. If the reader of the Gospels would read each of the evangelists, so as to get the order of the events of the Saviour’s life, he would then know the things which preceded and the language which he is investigating. One of these writers has not told all the occurrences, but the others have filled out the account, and, from the whole story, the truth of any particular part of it can be the better understood. Perhaps the meaning of the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, verses 13-19, would not have been in doubt if the people knew where they were at the time that Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” If we could see the disciples with their Lord in the coasts of Cæsarea Philippi, and, therefore, looking into that city, we could easily see the illustration of the Master. There was a city built upon the rock, and Jesus intended to build His church on a foundation just as solid as that. And when He proposed to give the keys into the hands of Peter, He intended to make him a gatekeeper–give to him a post of honor, such as was probably held by some one plainly in sight. With this in mind, no one would think of Peter being the rock on which the city was to be built. How a gate-keeper might serve in the capacity of a rock foundation on which the city itself should rest, would never be seen by any one.

When Jesus gave His, disciples the figure of the vine (John xv.), it should be borne in mind that they had been in Jerusalem, and that they had just gone out into the Mount of Olives; and hence, at the time of giving this figure, they were on the hillside east of the city, and were looking down at those who were raking together the withered and dismembered branches, and burning them in the night when they would not be liable to set fire to anything else; or that they were then passing through the midst of such scenes on their way out of the city. In either case the illustration becomes very forcible. There was the vine, the keeper, the pruner, the withered branches beings raked into heaps and burned, and there were also the living vines which would likely bear much fruit, being purged for their good.

So when the Lord gave His disciples the allegory of the good shepherd. It was at the “feast of dedication, and it was winter.” During the winter season the shepherd put the flock into the fold at night, and took it out in the morning. Hence He presents Himself in the light of a true shepherd, and also the door of the sheep. These have a common thought, and were offered to make them understand their relation to Him, and His care for them. If they would accept of Him as their teacher and guide, they should find food and protection at all times, for He so loved them that He would even lay down his life for them.

[Taken from D. R. Dungan’s book entitled, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book (1888)]

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The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”