20 May The Principle of Detail in Bible Interpretation
Published May 20, 2021
By Thomas Baber, DMin
Attention to detail is a necessary trait for many occupations. The Swiss watch-making industry is famous for its relentless pursuit of precision and meticulous detail. Even a casual tour of a watch museum in Zurich will leave visitors stunned by the industry’s thoroughness and attention to detail. This reputation was built by generations of careful craftsmen. In contrast, those who overlook detail do not make very good watchmakers, pilots, inspectors, auditors, detectives, lawmakers, surgeons, engineers, or scientists.
God pays attention to detail. Put your eye to the microscope and observe the infinitesimal detail of the cell or turn to the telescope and witness the infinite expanse of the universe and you will be rapturously amazed by God’s attention to precision and harmony. Such a reflection, as one scientist remarked, “reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”1
Isaiah said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”2 Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”3 If such be the case, what does that say about the enduring quality of Scripture which recorded God’s words?4 If God was so precise in the details of the universe which will pass away, how much more can we expect detail in the words which He intended to last forever? Indeed, we can. The details of Scripture were very important to Jesus.
We often come to a biblical text that contains a variety of details that may be difficult to understand as a unit. We are tempted to make a hasty interpretation based on our previously held views and then skip the parts we do not understand. However, the interpretation that honors the contributions of all aspects of the text is preferred over those that disregard even the smallest detail.
EXEMPLIFIED BY JESUS — MARK 12:18–27
One of the very first lessons Jesus taught His disciples was the importance of scriptural detail. Nowhere is Jesus’ commitment to the detail of Scripture more vividly illustrated than in His debate with the Sadducees over the resurrection.
The Sadducees were wealthy men of rank, belonging to the highest social stratum of Jewish society, including the priesthood. The Sadducees differed from the Pharisees in two important ways. First, they disagreed with the Pharisees over the extent of Scripture. The Pharisees accepted the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets (the whole Old Testament). The Sadducees only regarded the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as Scripture. Second, they differed in their view of the afterlife. The Pharisees believed in angels, spirits, and the resurrection; the Sadducees did not.5 They believed that at death both the body and soul perished together with no future rewards or punishments. Their philosophy of life was similar to modern day secularists.
The Sadducees’ contention with Jesus was over the resurrection. Mark recorded a fascinating and instructive debate between Jesus and these aristocrats that illumines the level of detail that Jesus saw in Scripture.
The Sadducees’ Game Plan
The Sadducees’ game plan was straightforward. First, they cited a portion of Scripture. Second, they came up with a hypothetical situation. Third, they asked Jesus an absurd question in order to discredit the idea of the resurrection.
The Scripture involved
Some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) came to Jesus, and began questioning Him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves behind a wife and leaves no child, his brother should marry the wife and raise up children to his brother.” (Mark 12:18–19)
The Sadducees based their argument upon a paraphrase of the custom of the Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5–6, whereby a man was responsible to marry the childless widow of his brother in order to raise up a son to carry on his brother’s name.
The hypothetical situation
“There were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died leaving no children. The second one married her, and died leaving behind no children; and the third likewise; and so all seven left no children. Last of all the woman died also.” (Mark 12:20–21)
The Pharisees’ scenario was likely hypothetical, concocted to ridicule belief in the resurrection.
The absurd question
“In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had married her.” (Mark 12:23)
Their question was basically, “When all eight of them supposedly rise again, who gets the girl?” They thought the idea of multiple marriage partners in the afterlife created such a conundrum that it reduced the resurrection to an absurdity. Their question was based upon a faulty assumption about heaven. They assumed that the life and world to come is much like the present and could be measured in terms of our current existence.
With this background in mind, we are ready to understand not only Jesus’ view about life after death but also His incredible attention to the details of Scripture.
Jesus corrected the errant view of the Sadducees in three phases. First, He established the right foundation for understanding the resurrection. Second, He described the nature of the resurrection. Third, He emphasized the certainty of the resurrection.
The right foundation for understanding the resurrection
Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God?” (Mark 12:24)
The word for “mistaken” comes from the word planas often translated as error, meaning to wander off track.6 Jesus told them they were off track for two reasons. First, they did not understand the Scriptures. The Sadducees would have taken this statement as a slap in the face. They championed themselves as the experts in the Law of Moses. Second, they did not understand the power of God. They did not think God was able to resurrect the dead. They completely underestimated the power of God. The Torah sets forth Creation out of nothing. If they had been good students of the Torah they would have known the power of God, not underestimated it. If He had power to create man’s body in the first place, He could certainly raise it up.
Jesus began by informing them of the right foundation for understanding the resurrection, which must be built upon Scripture and the power of God to do what He says.
The nature of the resurrection
“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25)
Jesus made it clear that the marriage state as we know it does not continue in heaven. The verb of the first expression is active: They do not marry. The verb of the second expression is passive: They are not given in marriage. This is why I jokingly tell my four daughters that our home is just like heaven. They will not marry nor be given in marriage.
Jesus’ comparison to the angels supports His declaration. The whole nature and order of angels is such that marriage is not necessary; so it will be with mankind. The exclusiveness of the marriage relationship is for this life only and will not be a complexity in heaven. Jesus’ point is that the afterlife cannot be understood as a mere continuation of this life, as the Sadducees had presented in their hypothetical scenario.
The certainty of the resurrection
“But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken.” (Mark 12:26–27)
In verse 26, Jesus used a present passive verb in describing the resurrection, to communicate the fact that the dead are being raised by God, not by themselves. The dead are raised because God resurrects them.
The Sadducees held themselves as authorities on Moses, so Jesus responded in kind, as if to say, “You want to talk Moses, let’s talk Moses.”7 Jesus specifically referenced the time when Moses met God at the burning bush.8 His argument goes like this: Since God refers to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as still living, the Sadducees’ notion that a person ceases to exist at death is false. He did not say, “I was the God of Abraham.” If the Sadducees were correct and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died and ceased to exist, the words “I am” should have been “I was.” The use of the present tense, “I am,” implies that God is still the God of these patriarchs. They are alive with God, have already been raised spiritually, and will share in the physical resurrection of the righteous because death cannot ultimately eclipse the life God has given.9
God is a covenant-keeping God and this necessitates a resurrection, which is what the Sadducees categorically denied. The whole context of God coming to Moses was to fulfill His promises to Abraham. The covenant was an everlasting covenant.10 The eternal God does not make an eternal covenant with people who cease to exist.
The Sadducees failed to see that resurrection is necessary in order for God to fulfill His promises to His people.11 The certainty of the resurrection is due to the certainty of God’s commitment to His promises, and His desire to have a continuing relationship with His people.
Jesus’ Attention to Scriptural Detail
This exchange is instructive to Bible students because it depicts the level of Jesus’ attention to detail. Observe that the weight of Jesus’ argument hung upon the tense of a single verb. He quoted Exodus 3:6 and called attention to the present continuous tense of the verb “I AM.” Based upon the tense of this one word, Jesus directly tells them “you are greatly mistaken.”
The Sadducees were off track because they did not pay attention to the little details of Scripture. Their hardness of heart manifested itself by conveniently overlooking the fine points that did not fit in their agenda. Small details were very important to Jesus and they will be to His true followers as well.
Before moving on to some applications of this principle of detail, a related principle of interpretation needs to be mentioned — the principle of valid implication.
Jesus and the Principle of Valid Implication
A valid implication of a text is a truth assumed to be true in order to support the point being made by the author.
In the previous example, I emphasized Jesus’ attention to detail by looking at Mark 12:26–27 and His use of Exodus 3:6. This passage has been the subject of much theological discussion and debate as to how Jesus actually used the OT. One author goes so far as to assign Jesus an “F” in the way He handled Scripture.12 However, that author failed to understand the difference between the meaning of the text and a valid implication that Jesus recognized in the text.
Although this is not a passage that Moses intended to prove the necessity of the resurrection, Jesus saw that his words had valid implications for the resurrection. Likewise, this is not a passage that Moses intended to prove the historical existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and yet his words affirm their existence by valid implication.
This is a good juncture to clarify the difference between meaning and implication. Meaning involves the sense of the words or expressions the author intended to communicate to his audience. Implication involves those realities implied in the words of a text but not explicitly stated. For example, the meaning of Exodus 3:6 is simply that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Some valid implications of Exodus 3:6 include the historicity and current existence of the three patriarchs. The meaning of the text is single but has valid implications that touch upon other subjects.
APPLYING THE PRINCIPLE OF DETAIL TO OTHER SCRIPTURES
In the above example, Jesus demonstrated the importance a verb tense can make. Applying this same level of scrutiny, brings up a host of other details that demand the attention of serious Bible students. The purpose of this section is to provide some simple examples of what types of details to look for while studying other portions of Scripture, and the impact they can have on interpretation.
You probably have heard the expression, “We cannot see the forest for the trees,” meaning that we are so close to the details that we cannot see the big picture. Sometimes the opposite is true. If we cannot see the trees for the forest, we are too far away to see the small details. Both perspectives of detail are important to the student. First, a look at the trees, the sentence-level detail. Then a look at the forest, the big picture.
Pronouns: Do you love me more than these? John 21:15
This example addresses the importance of pronouns. After the resurrection, Jesus manifested Himself to His disciples at the Sea of Galilee and asked Peter a profound question.
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15)
The question is, to what or to whom is Jesus referring? Is He referring to the fish they had for breakfast (21:9) or the fish in the net (21:8)? Or the disciples sitting around the fire (21:13)? If Jesus is referring to fish, then Jesus is asking if Peter loves Him more than his occupation. If the pronoun “these” refers to its nearest pronominal antecedent,13 however, then it refers to “they,” i.e., the disciples sitting around the fire. In which case, Jesus is asking if Peter truly loves Him more than His disciples as He once boasted, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.”14 This little detail makes a big difference in how one understands this verse.
Conjunctions: When does eternal life begin? John 5:24
This is an example of how great theological truths can pivot upon a simple conjunction.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24)
The conjunction “but” tells the story of an event that happened in the past that impacts both the present and the future. The past event is that those who believe Jesus’ Word have departed from the realm of the dead and moved into the realm of the living, from death to life. Having done so, eternal life has already begun for believers and will continue because they are not on a trajectory for judgment.
Connectors: What is the baptism that saves? 1 Peter 3:21
Connectors combine words, phrases and sentences. They help us see the author’s flow of thought.
“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21)
What does Peter mean when he says, “baptism now saves you?” What is this baptism15 that saves? Three main connectors show us Peter’s thought process. There is something baptism compares with, something that baptism is not, and something that baptism is.
First, baptism is compared (“corresponding to that”) to the flood of Noah’s day in the previous verse. The ancient world was baptized in water and perished. The water is symbolic of death. Noah was not exempted from the flood, but he experienced it from a perspective of safety in the ark. The ark was the means for humanity to survive the flood of God’s wrath and come out of a world under judgment. Two means of salvation are depicted: the water and the ark. The water saved Noah’s family from their corrupt world. The ark saved them from the water. In order to be saved from the water they had to leave their old world behind and get on the ark.
Second, by using the adverb “not,” Peter tells us there is something that baptism is not. It is not an external act or ritual involving physical water and the flesh.
Third, by using the word “but,” Peter tells us what baptism is. It is an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Three concepts are involved in such an appeal. First, there is awareness of sin. Man’s natural tendency is to flee God’s presence when his conscience is awakened to his sin.16 Second, there is the resurrection of Christ. To be resurrected is to be brought out of the state of death. The resurrection of Jesus Christ testifies that He made it through God’s judgment. Third, there is an appeal to God for the grant of a good conscience. Appealing to God is the opposite of fleeing from Him.
Putting the thoughts together, the “baptism that saves” is the faith that seeks reconciliation with God through Christ alone. It is the honest cry of the soul for pardon through solidarity with Jesus, the ark of God’s deliverance from the wrath to come. Such faith will always be met with God’s saving embrace.
Lists: A chorus of virtues. 2 Peter 1:5–7
This example stresses the importance of lists and what they communicate. In 2 Peter 1:10, Peter makes an astounding promise, “as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble.” The things he is talking about are the virtues listed in verses 5–7. How do I keep myself from falling into doubt, despair, dereliction of duty, or apostasy? By being diligent to mature in the virtues of the faith.
Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. (2 Peter 1:5–7)
The steps of a maturing faith follow the path listed: faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. Diligence in these virtues will keep one from stumbling. Students who take the time to prayerfully study each word in the list will find clear direction for their lives, have much to rejoice in, and much to share with others.
Figures of speech: How should we pray? Luke 11:1–4
Figures of speech convey meaning by identifying or comparing one thing to another. They paint pictures in a person’s mind and can be very effective in communicating concepts.17 The Bible is full of them. Jesus used such language when teaching His disciples how to pray.
It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.” And He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:1–4)
Jesus answered the disciples’ request by portraying God using two images. First, God is a father. Second, God is a king. We are not to ask Him for things that would bring shame upon His role as a father or a king. On the contrary, we are to come to Him with a view to honor His name with our requests, “hallowed be Your name.” Prayer is not to be a war between our name and His. God, as a king, has laws and He exercises dominion. We are to welcome His rule, not challenge it. Prayer is not a power struggle between our kingdom and His. So, prayer begins with a heart that seeks to honor God’s name and welcome His rule.
Jesus listed three basic needs that all humans have: daily provision (image of bread), forgiveness (image of indebtedness), and guidance. He tells us to approach God with such needs, remembering who He is. We need provision. As a father God provides. We need forgiveness. As a king, God pardons. We need guidance. As a father and king, God guides. God is pleased to grant such requests, as would any good father or king.
Commands: What is good leadership? 1 Peter 5:1–3
Look for commands. They communicate something that demands attention, action, obligation, duty, requirement, or necessity. They often drive the main thought of a passage, like in 1 Peter 5:1–3.
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1–3)
Peter’s command is “Shepherd!” Who is he commanding? Answer, the elders of the churches in Asia Minor. “Shepherding” involves rich imagery. It includes attention, feeding, guiding, protecting, caring, and all other duties a shepherd has for his flock.18 Peter’s command establishes a pattern of good leadership.
He goes on to be more specific. A good leader leads in three ways: (1) voluntarily, not under compulsion; (2) eagerly, not for sordid gain; and (3) humbly, by example, not lording over. These are the best kinds of leaders for any kind of organization, but especially the Church.
Paying attention to the commands in Scripture will help the reader see the primary thought driving the passage and how the other details connect to it.
Cause and effect: What is the Christian’s living hope? 1 Peter 1:3–5
Cause and effect define a relationship where one action or event is the result of another action or event. The one condition brings about the other. For example, what is this “living hope” that Christians have?
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3–5)
First, note the cause of the living hope; the mercy of the Father through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The driving cause for any of us to have a living hope is the mercy of the Father. He wants people to joyfully anticipate what is ahead. Notice that this hope came through the resurrection. Peter had experienced the death of everything he had hoped for the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. The moment Peter met the resurrected Jesus, his hope was reborn in a glorious surge of life.
Second, note the content of the living hope — the possession of paradise and protection by the power of God. The inheritance is the possession of a paradise that is described in three terms. It is “imperishable,” not subject to decay. It is “undefiled,” completely pure throughout. It is “unfading,” not subject to losing its newness, like a flower in eternal bloom. Nothing in the whole realm of humanity as we know it can be described by these terms. The good news of this hope is that God is the one comprehensively protecting both the inheritance and those who will receive it.
What an effect the cause produced in Peter. The resurrection guaranteed that the cross was not a defeat; Jesus’ future Kingdom, and our inheritance, is secure. Put on your resurrection glasses. We will leave this world one day and we can trust God in the meantime. We have a living hope.
For further study
These examples are just a sample of the many details to look for while studying Scripture. For more elaboration on the details mentioned here and additional details to look for while studying a passage, I recommend Chapters 3, 4, and 5 in Duvall and Hays, and Chapter 5 of Zuck.19
This is an excerpt from Thomas J. Baber’s book Jesus: The Alpha and Omega of Bible Study (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2020). Used by permission with all rights reserved. It is Chapter Six in the book and originally appears as “The Principle of Detail – Part I.” This book is available for purchase here.
1 Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, translated by Alan Harris (London, 1941), 28.
2 Isaiah 40:8.
3 See Matthew 24:35.
4 Likewise, the only access we have to Jesus’ words is through Scripture. There is no other reliable record of His words.
5 See Acts 23:8.
6 From πλανάω (planaō): “go astray, be misled or deluded, wander about” literally and figuratively. “Be mistaken, deceive oneself.” Walter Bauer, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt and W. Gingrich, A Greek English Dictionary of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 821.
7 Jesus did not try to answer the Sadducees’ question from a part of the Old Testament that they did not recognize as Scripture. Isaiah 53:10–12 would have been a good choice. However, they probably would have immediately challenged the scripture that Jesus used. By choosing to respond to them from the Torah, Jesus avoided a dispute over the extent of Scripture.
8 Exodus 3:6, “He said also, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
9 See 1 Corinthians 15:53–54.
10 Genesis 17:7, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (emphasis added). God’s promise to be Abraham’s God was an everlasting covenant, which implied that Abraham is alive and has to remain alive, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” as Jesus asserted (Mark 12:27).
11 The writer of Hebrews declared what every serious student of the Torah should have known. See Hebrews 11:8–13.
12 Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 167.
13 A pronominal antecedent is the noun that the pronoun is taking the place of. The pronoun used must agree in number (singular, plural) and gender (male, female, neuter) with the noun antecedent.
14 See Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29.
15 “A plunging, dipping, or washing,” BDAG, 165.
16 See Genesis 3:8–10.
17 For a more expansive treatment, see Zuck’s chapter, “Figures of Speech,” in Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1991), 147–68.
18 See Zuck, pp. 161–165, for a helpful discussion on how to interpret figures of speech. Determining the objects of comparison and setting appropriate limits on the figure itself are critical to interpreting figurative language. In this example, Peter compared the image of a shepherd to an elder of a church in Asia Minor. Context, normal means of communication, and simple logic make it evident that some aspects of the shepherding industry are not in Peter’s mind such as fleecing, butchering, lambing, etc. The extent of Peter’s shepherding figure is limited to duties of care that promote the well-being of a flock of sheep.
19 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1991).
Dr. Thomas Baber is Senior Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church of Bryan, TX, Director of Shepherds Theological Seminary Texas Teaching Site, and Adjunct Professor of Bible and Theology. He teaches holds a B.S. degree and an M.S. degree from Texas A&M University, an M.Div. from The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California, and a D.Min. in Preaching from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.