How to Read the Bible for Greater Insight

Lazy reading will yield shallow results.

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Once when I was beginning to pastor a church, I spoke about my hopes for my ministry with the church’s governing body. I mentioned that I hoped to start an adult Bible study session, as teaching the Bible is my passion.

A woman on that governing board responded, “Pastor, I can’t think of anything more boring.” I’ve learned she spoke exactly how many people, both inside and outside the church, feel about Bible study.

Why is that? I find the Bible a deeply engaging and ever fascinating book to read. Why don’t others? I have come to believe that one source of their attitude is that they have not been taught to read the Bible with skills that open up its depth. Instead they engage in light, lazy reading that yields shallow results.

As a result, I’ve made it a point to teach adult classes my four-step method for reading the Bible. I’m going to share that method in this posting and the next. Maybe this method can help some of you my readers to enrich your Bible study.

Step 1: Read the Text

I am constantly amazed at how many people authoritatively proclaim what the Bible says and yet have never opened the book to read it. So when I start a Bible study class, I always insist that we read the text out loud before we ever begin to discuss it.

This is essential. We must expose ourselves to the actual text before we start to talk about what it may mean. We need to have that actual text at the very center of our attention.

I insist we do this out loud for two reasons. One, because that is how millions of people through the centuries who did not have access to a written Bible came to hear the Bible text. It entered into their lives through their ears, not their eyes.

And two, even for us today who have access to numerous printed Bibles, when we read the text aloud, we absorb it into our bodies as well as into our minds. For Bible reading to release its power, it must become something more than just a mental exercise.

Step 2: Observe the Text

After we hear the text read aloud, I teach my students to try not to immediately make sense of the text, but rather to take time simply to observe what the text is saying. We want to note carefully what is there in the text. What is the text saying or not saying? Questions like these can help us do that:

  • Who are the characters in the story, if it is a narrative?
  • Who is speaking? Who is addressed? Who acts?
  • What happens in the text? What is said?
  • Are there any key words that get repeated?
  • Do peculiar words, phrases, actions stand out in the text?
  • How does the text unfold? Does the text make an unexpected shift in its thought or tone at one point?
  • What strange juxtapositions do we find in the text?
  • What is omitted that we would expect to be there?

In this step, as I said, we do not try to understand what we are seeing. Instead we want to just note what the text is saying.

Step 3: Interpret the Text within Its Context

After we have spent some time observing the text, then we are ready to try to understand it. The overarching question in this step is: What is the author of the text trying to say and why?

When we try to interpret the text, I consider one rule as the most important: Interpret the text within its context. The meaning of the text depends upon the context in which it is placed.

A passage, however, may belong to several different contexts, all of which may be important to its meaning.

  • The literary placement of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Where does the passage we are reading fit within the Biblical book to which it belongs? What precedes it? What follows it? What precedes or follows may affect how we read the passage we are focusing on. For example, the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus recounted in Mark 10:46-52. This can seem like a simple healing story, until we notice it follows a story of James and John asking Jesus to sit on his right and left when Jesus enters his glory. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asks James and John: What do you want me to do for you? This signals, I believe, that we are to read the two stories together. For the question the story of Bartimaeus raises is: Who is the really blind one?
  • The context of literary genre. Literary genre refers to the kind of literary work that the passage is. Is it a fictional story, a historical narrative, poetry, a sermon, a letter, a legal document, a parable, a teaching lecture, etc.? Knowing what literary genre the passage belongs to helps us determine how to read it.

For example, the book of Jonah. Is it a historical narrative or a didactic short story? For various reasons, I believe it is the latter. If we read it as historical narrative, we will miss the important spiritual insight the author is trying to convey.

  • The literary context formed by the whole canon of the Bible. When we read a passage in one book of the Bible, we need to pay attention to what other books in the Bible may say about the same theme. Individual books may be in dialogue with one another.

For example, the books of Ezra/Nehemiah tell us of the rigorous requirement the scribe Ezra lays down that Jewish men who have married non-Jewish wives must divorce and dismiss them. This is necessary to maintain the integrity of the fragile community in Jerusalem. Yet the book of Ruth tells the striking story of a foreign woman married to a Jewish man who ultimately proves the spiritual equal of Leah and Rachel, the revered wives of Jacob. Both books are in the canon. The canon forces us to hear the two books in dialogue with each other.

  • The context of the Hebrew and Greek languages that the books of the Bible were written in. How does the vocabulary or grammar of the passage in English translation reflect something peculiar to the Hebrew or Greek language?

As an example, let’s take an important Bible word: peace. In John 20:19 the risen Jesus greets his disciples with Peace be with you. To fully appreciate what Jesus is saying, it is important to recognize that Jesus uses the word peace in its Hebrew meaning that we find in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word is shalom.

In English peace means primarily a calmness or lack of conflict. But in Hebrew shalom is much richer in meaning. It can mean calmness or lack of conflict, but also well being, wholeness, prosperity, social harmony, prosperity, and a healthy relationship with God. In many ways, the word shalom is a synonym for salvation in all of its many dimensions. When you read Jesus’ blessing in this context, it becomes a rich blessing indeed.

Now obviously if one is not fluent in ancient Hebrew or Greek, one will not capture these subtleties in English. One may find it necessary then to rely on commentaries from Bible scholars to help illumine some of these dimensions of the text.

  • The cultural context of ancient Israel and the early church. How does the history and culture of the period when the text was written affect its meaning?

For example, in John 15:14-15 Jesus at the Last Supper calls his disciples his friends. This remark takes on far deeper significance when we realize that in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate relationship among human beings. In fact, a higher and more intimate relationship than marriage.

Once again, it requires some additional background reading to familiarize ourselves with ancient Israelite and Greco-Roman culture. But the more we do, the more elements of the Bible’s text will begin to take on richer meaning.

What we strive for in Step 3 is to understand the text as the author spoke to his original, intended audience. This is important grounding for our next step, which explores how the text may speak to us today. Any application to today should grow out of what the text actually says, not what we want it to say.

Two Words of Caution

I have two final comments. One is that I believe no individual person alone can ever come to a fully unbiased, objective understanding of the Biblical text. Every one of us approaches our reading of the Bible with conscious, and more often unconscious, assumptions and biases that affect what we see in the text and more importantly, what we do not see. We all have blind spots when we come to reading the Bible. So no one can aspire to an infallible interpretation of the Biblical text.

We correct against our assumptions and biases by reading the Bible in dialogue with other people. As we listen to other interpretations, we as a community of believers stand a better chance of perceiving the Bible’s meaning. So there are times when liberal Protestants need to pay attention to what their fundamentalist brothers are saying, and vice versa. Catholics must listen to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostals, and so must each of the others as well.

This is what can make Bible study so exciting. It can be an energizing group activity. But it is what makes Bible study sometimes frustrating as well. If we are looking for certitude in interpreting the Bible, we are not going to find it. But if we take joy in the journey of debate, we are more likely to find something deeply satisfying.

And second, what I am advocating means that we must put some serious work into our reading of the Bible. As I said earlier, lazy reading will yield shallow insight. If we want to tap into the riches of the Bible, we must be prepared to dig deep into the text to find the insights we seek.

And Now on to Step Four: Applying the Text to Our Lives

 The last step in my method for reading the Bible is one that only believers, whether they are Jewish or Christian, will take. That is because we seek from the Biblical text words that may speak to us today, in our life challenges. This is what we mean when as believers we talk about the Bible as the Word of God. We believe that through the Bible, God continues to speak to humanity.

This is the step I call reflection and application. In this step the ancient text ceases to be ancient and becomes contemporary in speaking to us today. It is why most people continue to read the Bible as a religious discipline. I will talk about how we can exercise this step in my next posting. Stay tuned.

Note to Readers:

The steps I describe in this posting are what Biblical scholars call the process of exegesis. Exegesis is a Greek-derived word that implies that what we are doing is trying to extract the meaning that lies embedded in the text. This contrasts with eisegesis, in which we read our own meaning back into the text. In eisegesis we make the author say what we want him to say; in exegesis we strive to listen to the author as accurately as we can.

Exegesis is a tool not only for reading the Bible, but any work of literature. I first learned the principles of this tool in a college class in poetry writing.

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Pay Attention to Context

A tribute to two influential teachers.

Whenever I try to understand a Bible passage I am reading, I follow an important principle of interpretation: Pay attention to the context.

Sometimes that context is all the other words that surround a specific word or sentence. Sometimes it is the paragraph or paragraphs that precede or follow the passage I’m reading. Sometimes it is the flow within a whole book of the Bible. Sometimes it is the cultural environment in which the author is writing. And sometimes it is the dialogue of one passage with other passages in the canon of the Bible.

I learned this principle from two teachers who have left a significant influence on all my work with the Bible.

Learning to read in a class on poetry writing

The first teacher was an English instructor at Wheaton College, when I was an undergraduate. His name was Douglas Olson. One semester he taught a course in poetry writing. I decided to take it. I don’t remember why. I learned from the class that I was not a particularly gifted poet, but I learned something else much more important.

Each week in class we read and discussed poems written either by one of the great English or American poets or poems written by ourselves. As each of us students would boldly set forth our particular interpretation of a poem, I can remember vividly Mr. Olson (as we called him) saying, “An interesting interpretation. Now show me exactly where in the text you got that idea.”

If we wanted our interpretation to remain on the table, we had to point to the specific word, the odd turn of phrase, the allusion, the surrounding context, etc. that supported our position. If we could not do that, our interpretation did not merit consideration. It was an exercise in the close, attentive reading of a literary text.

When I got to seminary and started my training in Bible exegesis, I found I had already learned many of its basic tools from Mr. Olson. I have been using those tools ever since, not only in reading the Bible, but in reading any written document. Mr. Olson’s class in poetry writing turned out to be the most influential course I took in all my undergraduate education.

Learning to pay attention to diverse voices

The second teacher was Dr. Brevard Childs, my professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. He was a giant in the field of Biblical studies and an exponent of a process of Bible interpretation known as canonical criticism. He proved to be the most influential teacher in my theological studies.

One way he taught me was to be a model. I learned from him how to listen carefully to the diverse voices of Biblical scholarship and criticism but to retain a respect for the Bible as the church’s scripture.

Once again I learned from him the importance of interpreting the Bible within its context. Except this time, the context was the flow of the whole book in which a particular passage was to be found. I learned not only to read a text in isolation, but to search for its function and meaning within the wider flow of a whole book.

Also he taught me to listen to the dialogue that goes on within the canon of the Bible. That can include, for example, the dialogue that takes place among Ezra/Nehemiah, Ruth, and Jonah on creating a religious identity. And the dialogue that takes place between the Old and New Testaments.

I can no longer hear in the Bible one unitary voice. The Bible has many voices, and they are not always in agreement. In those diverse voices, however, we hear the Bible’s authors and editors bear witness to the rich complexity of God’s revelation and of Israel’s and the church’s experience with that God.

Why the lesson these teachers taught me is so important

Why is this principle of paying attention to the context so important to me? For one thing, because it guards against that process where I read my own subjective meaning into the text rather than paying attention to what it actually says. It steers me away from forcing the text to say what I want it to say rather than listening carefully to what it really says.

Of course, I recognize that one can never fully escape one’s personal bias in reading a Biblical text. That bias comes not only from our personal experience, but also from our upbringing in a particular religious, social, ethnic, economic, or national context. That’s why it is so important to expose ourselves to interpretations that challenge our own. I find that very hard to do at times, but so productive in the insights it brings.

The principle of paying attention to context also calls into question the common practice of careless proof-texting. Proof-texting is a practice when both scholars and ordinary Christians support a particular theological position by quoting an isolated verse or passage from one of the Biblical books. It is usually injected into a discourse with the introductory phrase “the Bible says….”

All too often the one quoting the text lifts the verse or passage out of its context and then makes the text say what the one quoting it wants it to say. In this way we can claim the Bible’s authority behind any number of theological positions that go against the grain of the Bible’s over-arching message of grace.

This is a practice that we also see all the time in social and political discourse in the form of the media or sound bite that politicians, social advocates, or media commentators love to use to either support their own position or attack another’s.

There is a reason why we are attracted to the short sound bite. It is hard work for most people to follow a complex argument, whether it is theological, social, or political. We want someone to boil it down into a pithy sound bite that is easily to grasp and hold onto. Jesus did exactly that when he boiled down the whole of the Torah into two commandments of love (see Mark 12:28-34).

But when anyone of us does this, we must be especially skillful and sensitive to what we are doing. When we extract a sound bite from what a person says or writes and ignore the richness of the context in which that sound bite is found, then we easily abuse the author or the speaker. Such abuse can do great damage to the church, society, or the political process. Likewise when we do this with the Bible, we abuse the authors and editors of the Bible… and the Spirit that inspired them.

Pay attention to the context. Yes, indeed, if we truly seek understanding.

Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

Bible text: Various

When the Protestant Reformers looked at the medieval Church, they saw an institution full of corrupt practices and doctrines. Defenders of those practices and doctrines regularly appealed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition.

The Reformers sought a platform where they could stand in criticizing these practices and doctrines. They believed they found it in appealing to the sole authority of Scripture—the reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

They also had confidence that responsible exegesis would illuminate the meaning of Scripture without any appeal to tradition. [Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.]

I have come to believe they were wrong in their confidence. Ecclesiastical tradition profoundly influences the way we read and interpret the Bible, whether we realize it or not. We carry those traditions and a host of other cultural traditions into every act of exegesis, thus determining what we hear in the Bible. This is true for Protestant exegesis as much as it is true for Catholic and Orthodox exegesis. [Postmodern literary theory has also established that this is true for the reading of any literary text, religious or not.]

Let me offer some examples to make my point. Let’s begin with the Christmas story, which we have so recently read in our churches and celebrated in Christmas pageants. Our traditions about Christmas are heavily influenced by tradition, not by the Biblical texts.

The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. It does not, however, say anything about animals present that night. We assume that because of the reference to the manger. So in our Christmas crèche scenes we include sheep, cows, and maybe a kneeling donkey. Tradition adds that, not the Biblical text.

Luke also says that when the Christmas angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, an angelic host praises God. But he does not say explicitly they sang their praises. He says they said them. The angelic choirs singing on the hillside comes from tradition, not the Biblical text.

When Matthew tells the story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, we read that as a visit by three of them. Matthew does not say that explicitly. He just says wise men (number unspecified) made the visit. Church tradition determines our reading of three wise men (probably because there are three gifts).

Likewise Matthew does not say they are kings. He says they are magi, scholarly astrologers from the East. Church tradition has changed them into kings, most likely from conflating Matthew’s story with the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6, which talks of kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

And when we see the hundreds of images of the Annunciation story, we invariably see the announcement to Mary coming from the archangel Gabriel, who has a stunning pair of wings growing out of his back. The Bible has many references to angels, but it never says they have wings.

Yes, the prophet Isaiah has a vision (Isaiah 6) of seraphim with six wings. But in the ancient Near Eastern context in which Isaiah lived, seraphim were not envisioned as having a humanoid form. Seraphim were regarded as composite creatures, bearing maybe a human head, but the body of a lion or other beast. Wings, like the wings of an eagle, were a part of this composite understanding.

And yes, Revelation 14:6 has a reference to an angel flying in mid-heaven, but it never says that angel is flying by means of wings.

Yet church tradition, especially as expressed in Christian art, images angels as humanoid creatures with wings. And that is just as true of the art we find in Protestant churches as well as in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Our image of angels draws more from pagan Roman and Greek iconography than it does from the Bible.

Let me give a few more examples, outside the Christmas story. It is universally assumed that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden was an apple. The Biblical text does not say that. Yet Protestants as well as Catholics joke about the apple the first sinners ate.

We assume that the creature that swallows the prophet Jonah alive is a whale. The text does not say that. It says it is a big fish. If you read Matthew 12:40 in the King James or the Revised Standard Version translations, you will hear Jesus call it a whale. But the Greek word those versions translate as whale is the word ketos. This word does not mean literally a whale, but a sea monster. Tradition has come to regard it as whale, and so most of us read the story in that way. Tradition has even influenced how we translate the Bible.

Finally, most people tend to read Revelation 21-22’s description of the new Jerusalem as a description of heaven. Our image of heaven having golden streets, for example, comes from this interpretation. But the text is not describing heaven. It is describing a city of great beauty that will descend from heaven in the new creation. It images the idea of that perfect indwelling of God with creation when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness at the end of the age. Our eternal home is not heaven, but this new transformed creation in which God fully dwells with us.

What I hope these examples suggest is how much our reading of the Bible is influenced by church tradition, and in some cases, cultural traditions outside the church. We simply cannot read and interpret a Bible nude of traditions, assumptions, and prejudices that we bring with us to our reading.

This is not to disparage the vital task of exegesis. As my examples try to do, we see how a close reading of the text can help us see how our traditions and assumptions are influencing what we are reading.

But exegesis can never be purely independent and objective. Every interpreter of the Bible has his or her blinds spots. This is why the Protestant assumption that every reader can interpret the Bible for himself or herself independently of anyone else has proved so destructive. It feeds the constant fragmentation of Protestant churches over conflicting readings of the Bible.

This places a huge premium on reading and interpreting the Bible within a climate of dialogue, among various theological traditions, social classes, races and ethnic backgrounds, and genders. What you see in the text may be something I am blind to, and vice versa. This never leads to any form of infallibility of interpretation, but it does help to sharpen our exegesis. Our eyes can be opened to see things we never saw before.

The examples I have offered in this posting have been relatively frivolous and unimportant. They will hardly damage anyone’s faith or religious practice. But tradition can also influence the way we read important Biblical texts that lie at the heart of critical doctrines or practices in our churches. In so doing, it can lead to distortions that do indeed cause great harm in the spiritual lives of ordinary people.

I want to tackle one such example in the traditions for interpreting John 3:1-16, a gospel passage that lies at the heart of much Christian evangelism. I will do so in my next blog posting. See you then.