I will admit that preachers and teachers can sometimes complicate biblical interpretation. I can understand the sentiment behind the statement “the Bible just means what it says.” Some academic approaches to biblical analysis can obscure the straightforward meaning of a text. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible is a simple book every part of which is easily accessible at first glance. The Bible is literature, after all, and that means there are some analytical tools that can help elucidate its meaning and prevent you from making it say whatever you want it to say. Here are 7 things that in my estimation are essential for a better understanding of the Bible, one that gets as close as possible to the meaning that its authors intended when they wrote it, and one that prevents ideology and opinion from distorting its message. It will be evident as you read that I hold a high view of scripture and believe it to be the inspired word of God that we should use as an authority for the life and practice of faith, but I will steer clear of arguments about inerrancy and the historical or scientific nature of biblical texts. My purpose here is to help the average student of the Bible make reasonable sense out of what he or she reads.
1. Find a good translation of the Bible. The Bible was not written in English. It was written in Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic thrown in the mix. This means that unless you know these languages, somebody has to translate the Bible for you to read it. Here’s the thing – not all translations are equal in accuracy or readability. Some are more literal, and often more difficult to read, while others are less literal and more readable, but potentially less accurate. Some translations are done by individuals and others by committees. All translators have an agenda, a theological perspective that they bring to the translation process that affects how they translate certain texts. In other words, all translation is simultaneously interpretation. Anyone who’s studied a foreign language knows this to be true. With this in mind, I suggest that you use multiple translations for reading, but select one for study purposes that is translated by a committee with as little a theological agenda as possible. In my opinion, the NIV is perhaps the best for casual reading, and the NRSV and ESV are two accurate, reasonably literal translations appropriate for study.
2. Understand the genre of the text you are reading. Not every book of the Bible should be read in the same way. You don’t read Genesis the same way you read Malachi. Matthew and Revelation require entirely different sets of interpretative skills. A flat reading of scripture, one that approaches the narrative texts, wisdom literature, prophets, Gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic texts all in the same manner is inevitably going to miss or distort the message. Learn the particularities of each genre in scripture and be aware of those traits as you read and study. A simple book like How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth (Fee and Stuart) can help you identify the basic types of literature found in the Bible and give you some simple pointers for how best to understand that literature. After all, we don’t read Harry Potter the same way we read Shakespeare, and Freakanomics is a fundamentally different kind of book than The Hunger Games. We are familiar with these types of literature because they are part of our culture. The biblical texts were written and shaped within a culture that we are not likely to understand without some education.
3. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Chapter and verse divisions, as helpful as they are, were not put into the text by the authors themselves, but added by later editors to facilitate Bible study. The negative consequence of their addition is that we tend to dissect the text and miss larger contexts and themes. We read verses rather than books, and our microscopic view of meaning becomes a cheap substitute for a broader comprehension of the narrative and its message. In other words, we may know Bible stories (Adam, Noah, Moses, David, Elijah, etc.) while missing the Bible’s story – the redemption of humankind. Read the books of the Bible the way they were meant to be read (or heard). Read them in their entirety, in one sitting, from start to finish. Only when you’ve got a sense of the overall narrative flow of a book are you ready to break it down into its constituent parts. And only when you’ve read the Bible itself broadly to see how the books are arranged and for what reasons, are you ready to comprehend how an individual book functions in the overarching drama of scripture.
4. Do your best to determine the author’s intended meaning. To determine what a text means you should begin by doing your best to determine what the text meant. I would not argue that a text can only mean for us what it meant for its original audience, but I do think that authorial intent is a responsible place to begin. Of course we cannot always know with certainty what the author intended a text to mean, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying to figure it out. The author’s intended meaning is an important limit on meaning; it keeps us from making the Bible say whatever we want it to say.
5. Learn context. Determining authorial intent can be challenging with even the most straightforward texts. Without context, you aren’t likely to understand the intended meaning. The historical, social, literary, or cultural context of a passage can have a dramatic impact on your interpretation. Knowing as much as possible about the world of the author, his or her language, customs, beliefs, values, etc., is of great value for making decisions about meaning. There are quality, affordable tools readily available to most anyone who wants to learn more about the world of the author, including Bible dictionaries, commentaries, language grammars, lexicons, Study-Bible notes, and a plethora of apps and online resources. As you use these tools over the years, you begin to learn enough basic context to help you even when the tools are not readily available.
6. Learn the difference between description and prescription. A description tells us what happened, while a prescription tells us what we should do. Often the Bible tells us what happened, not what should have happened or what should happen for all time and history. For example, the narrative texts of the Old Testament tell the story of people who are not necessarily role models to emulate, but rather fallible people who God chose to use to accomplish his purposes at a unique point in history. Similarly, the narratives of Acts tell us how early Christ-followers sought to navigate the complexities of becoming the Church in a culture increasingly hostile to Christian faith. There are lessons there for us in the description, but not necessarily hard-and-fast rules that should apply in every context. Clearly, the Bible contains prescription (the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Christ, etc.), but sometimes epistles give us opinion, as in 1 Corinthians 7.12 where Paul writes “To the rest I say this (not Christ but I) ….” Distinguishing between the two can sometimes be tricky, so we should take care with interpretation and extend grace to those who disagree.
7. The argument from silence is a weak foundation for belief or behavior. The Bible can sometimes be frustratingly silent on topics that we might find important. You will occasionally hear someone argue that since the Bible doesn’t speak about a topic, or because Jesus didn’t say anything about the issue, then we are free to choose as we wish how to believe or behave with regard to that issue. This amounts to an argument from silence – drawing conclusions based on the absence of statements in a text rather their presence. This is a commonly used but incredibly weak technique for establishing the legitimacy of a belief or practice. The Bible is not meant to be a systematic theology text. The Bible is a collection of occasional texts, documents written to address a particular historical context, difficulty, or question. As such, the Bible doesn’t always answer the questions we ask, and it often answers questions we aren’t asking. In some instances, you can extrapolate from what the Bible does say to make an educated guess about what it doesn’t. But this will be a guess, so be humble about your guesses. If you find yourself asking questions that the text isn’t, maybe you should be asking a different set of questions.