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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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INTERPRETATION . This word and its cognates are found throughout the Bible with a wide variety in their use. 1. In the earlier stages of the history of mankind dreams were looked upon as manifestations of Divine intervention in human affairs, and it was regarded as of the first importance that their mysterious revelations should be explained for those to whom they were vouchsafed. From the story of Joseph we learn that a special class at the court of the Pharaohs discharged the function of interpreters of dreams (cf. ‘magicians’ [RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ‘sacred scribes’] and ‘wise men,’ Genesis 41:8 ), A similar body of wise or learned men is mentioned in the Book of Daniel, for the same object at the court of Babylon ( Daniel 2:2 ff; Daniel 4:6 f.). The idea that dreams were a means of communication between the Deity and men was also current amongst the Hebrews from a very early date. In the NT we find that dreams occupy the place of direct visions or revelations from God, and no difficulty seems to have been experienced by the recipients as to their precise meaning ( Matthew 1:20; Matthew 2:12-13; Matthew 2:19; Matthew 2:22 ).

2. Turning again to the history of Joseph, we find there an incidental remark which leads us to believe that there was an official interpreter, or a body of interpreters, whose work it was to translate foreign languages into the language of the court (cf. ‘the interpreter,’ Genesis 42:23 ). The qualification to act as interpreter seems to have been required of those who acted as ambassadors at foreign courts (cf. 2 Chronicles 32:31 ). That prominent politicians and statesmen had this means of international communication at their disposal is seen in the translation by the Persian nobles of their letter from their own language into Aramaic ( Ezra 4:7 ). As the Hebrew tongue ceased to be that of the common people, interpreters were required at the sacred services to translate or explain the Law and the Prophets after the reading of the original (see W. R. Smith, OTJC [Note: TJC The Old Test. in the Jewish Church.] 2 36, 64n, 154). In the NT, examples are frequent of the interpretation in Greek of a Hebrew or Aramaic phrase ( Matthew 1:23; Matthew 27:46 , Mark 5:41; Mark 15:22; Mark 15:34 , John 1:38; John 1:41 f., Acts 4:36; Acts 9:36; Acts 13:8 ); and in this connexion it is Interesting to recall the extract from the writings of Papias preserved by Eusebius, in which Mark is called ‘the interpreter of Peter’ (see HE iii. 39) a tradition accepted by Jerome and Athanasius. The most natural explanation is that which makes St. Mark’s Gospel the outcome in Greek of St. Peter’s teaching in his native tongue.

3. The function of the prophets is described as that of interpreters or ambassadors explaining to Israel Jehovah’s messages in terms suited to their capacity ( Isaiah 43:27 , cf. Elihu’s reference to the intercessory or ambassadorial work of angels in interpreting to man what God requires of him in the way of conduct, as well as explaining the mystery of His dealings with men [ Job 33:23 ]).

4. Frequent reference is made by St. Paul to a peculiar phase in the life of the early Corinthian Church speaking with tongues. Whatever may be the precise meaning attaching to this feature of Christian activity, and it is plain that in individual cases the practice gave the Apostle considerable cause for anxiety, one of the special spiritual ‘gifts’ to believers was the power of interpreting these strange utterances . The speaker himself might possess the gift of interpretation and use it for the benefit of the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 14:5; 1 Corinthians 14:13 ), or, on the other hand, he might not. In the latter event his duty was to keep silence, unless an interpreter were at hand to make his message intelligible to the other assembled worshippers (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26 ff; 1 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Corinthians 12:30 ).

5. A somewhat ambiguous use of the word ‘interpretation’ occurs in 2 Peter 1:20 , where the writer refers to the expounding of ancient prophecies; ‘no prophecy of scripture is of private (RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ‘special’) interpretation.’ Two explanations of this passage are current: (1) the ‘interpretation’ is that of the prophet himself, who, because of his peculiar relation to the Spirit of God, uttered words the full meaning of which he did not comprehend; or (2) the word has a reference to the exegesis of the passage in question by individual readers. The present writer is of opinion that neither explanation does full justice to the author’s idea. If the word translated ‘private’ be confined solely in its meaning to the noun which it qualifies, we may understand by the phrase that no single event or result can be looked on as a complete fulfilment of the prophet’s message. It has a wider range or scope than the happening of any special occurrence, though that occurrence may be regarded as a fulfilment of the prophet’s announcement.

J. R. Willis.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Interpretation'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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