If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. – Augustine
The Bible is a unique, diverse book. It is the highest selling book of all, as well as every year since its first printing on the Gutenberg printing press (except for 2007 – thanks, the boy who lived). It is loved and cherished by millions, possibly billions. However, sometimes it can be hard to understand. It only takes one of the genealogies (for example 1 Chronicles 1) or maybe reading the laws in Leviticus for the eyes to glaze over and for you to get bored. Why? Because it’s foreign to us, it can be boring and repetitive, and we don’t understand why it’s there. The Bible is actually a collection of books, written by 40 authors over more than 1500 years. It has a number of different genres contained within it – historical narrative, poetry, sermons, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature and more.
A common objection at this point might be: so what? Can’t we just read it and apply it to our lives? Doesn’t all this study make the bible unclear, rather than clear?
Paul encourages us to greet brethren with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16), Deuteronomy instructs us to build parapets around our roofs (Deut 22:8), Paul tells Timothy to stop drinking water and drink wine (Tim 5:23), and women are commanded to be silent in church (1 Cor 11:2-3) – so why do we prefer handshakes to holy kisses, mostly ignore building parapets, still drink water and allow women to speak in church?
We all interpret the Bible in some way, and certainly errors have been made both by the reader ignoring context and the scholar exploring deeply. Sometimes the scholar will seek to study so deeply into the context and culture they miss the plain meaning or forget to obey it. However, sometimes we just open the Bible to a random passage and read it, and we bring all our cultural assumptions to the table. The antidote to bad interpretation is not no interpretation, but a good interpretation (Fee & Stuart).
This has all been abstract so far, so I’d love to give you some examples.
When we open the Bible to passages on the resurrection and read about the cross, we automatically think about the thousands of years of cross-shaped imagery we’ve seen – a Roman t-shaped cross. However, it is far more probable the cross was more a T shape.
Paul commands us not to touch women (1 Cor 7:1, KJV) – but he’s saying this in light of other passages as an encouragement towards sexual purity and avoiding sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1-5; 6:9-20; 7:2, 7:9).
Jesus used exaggeration (hyperbole) to make points with his disciples. At one point he told his disciples to gouge out their eyes or cut off their offending arms if it is causing them to sin (Matt 5:29-30, Mark 9:43-48). So why don’t we gouge out our eyes or amputate when we sin? Of course, Jesus doesn’t literally mean that we should gouge or amputate, rather that we should do surgery on what is causing us to sin. Jesus also used irony, proverbs, similes, and metaphors to teach his disciples and others – if we miss Jesus being ironic we’re sure to misinterpret what he’s saying!
And this is why I started with that quote from Augustine – if we bring our own baggage, our own cultural assumptions to the Gospels when we read them, we will simply reinterpret the gospels in our image. We may do this unintentionally, but we should avoid doing it if at all possible.
Imagine if you were listening on one side of a phone conversation. The problem is, you don’t know the people having the conversation, and the conversation is being held in a different language. So you record it using your trusty Google translate and turn the conversation into your language, but it’s still hard to understand. You can get the general idea of what they’re talking about but you don’t know why they’re talking to each other, you don’t know what places they’re referring to, and they seem to have a bit of a shared history you know nothing about. It is similar with the Bible. We have a gap between when these books were written and where we are now. The lifestyle, experiences, customs, and culture are different – life for a desert people in exile in 1400 BC is very different from postmodern westernised technology based life here today. Now I want to be really clear here – you can still get the idea of what’s going on by just reading the translation you currently use. Translators have put an incredible amount of time and effort into making sure that they’ve done a good translation. But to understand more, especially when a passage seems confusing, you’ll have to do a bit of work and ask some questions.
So provided that you are all agreed with me at this point, I want to encourage you – we can still understand the message of the Bible!
How, then, do we read the Bible?
Let’s get really practical – the next time you open your Bible, how will you be able to understand the Bible better?
It’s actually fairly simple – ask questions! What’s the point of this passage? Why is it here? Why does the language seem funny? Who’s the author? Who are they writing to? Are there any unfamiliar terms (a span, denarius etc.) and if so, let’s find out what they mean.
What was the author saying prior to the passage you’re reading? Is the author trying to making a case for something? Is there a central point they keep returning to? If you see therefore, see what it’s there for (Read the previous verses)!
Language is important!
Now in saying all this, it’s still fantastic to just read the Bible, but make sure you set aside time where you study the Bible as well, otherwise we can easily twist the Bible to be what we want it to be. In the next part we’ll have a look at some more examples and discuss how to better study the Bible.
Some useful tools
A good commentary
A dictionary on the Bible
Reading different versions in parallel
Finding out the original Greek or Hebrew word (Blue letter bible)
For further reading
How to read the Bible for all its worth – Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
How to read the Bible book by book – Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart