In Reading the Bible: Where’s Waldo? and the Council at Jerusalem I shared how I have come to realise that much of my Bible reading has been self-centred, looking for how the text applies to my life without first understanding the text on its own terms. I wanted to give some examples of errors I think we can easily make in Bible reading, and then to mention three books that have helped me to better understand and be inspired afresh in my reading of the Bible lately.
Firstly, in our eagerness to take the Bible seriously I think we can often look in great detail at very small sections of Scripture, dissecting them for small gems that are relevant to us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but the problem comes when this is all that we do, never taking a step back to see the bigger picture. The danger when only studying a few verses is that we take them out of their context, add a few of our own ideas, read a few other out-of-context verses that back up our argument, and hey presto, we’ve made the verses say what we wanted them to all along!
I would love to see a church pastor preach a series that looked at a whole Bible book each week. For sure there would be huge amounts of detail that were left out, but I think there would be great value in helping the church to understand how the various parts of the Bible fit together, what the distinctives of the different books are, and the different issues and challenges they are addressing.
Recently I’ve loved reading The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story by Bartholomew and Goheen. The book basically tells the story of the Bible, as a narrative, in 200 pages. It is obviously a broad sweep, and is the authors’ interpretation of the narrative of Scripture – anything less than a full duplication of the Bible has to involve some level of interpretation. But it is brilliant at bringing together parts of the Bible that we may never have connected, and I love the fact that it treats the Bible as a narrative rather than a theology textbook. I would strongly recommend the book to anyone who has ever tried to read the whole Bible but failed, or even to those who have read the whole Bible but have struggled to piece together the diverse parts.
Related to this, the second failing I think we often make is to read the Bible as a one-dimensional answers-book to all our problems, rather than a diverse collection of documents inspired by God.
I have recently finished the excellent How to read the Bible for all it’s worth by Fee and Stuart, which is a book I wish I had read 15 years ago. It is easy to read, asking what it means to read the Bible on its own terms, and then how we should interpret the Bible today. The authors show that taking the Bible seriously doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean taking everything completely literally for ourselves – even amongst those who claim to take the Bible absolutely literally as God’s word for them, few have made the trip to Troas to pick up Paul’s coat and books, as Paul asks in 2 Timothy 4:13.
Fee and Stuart uncover some of the ways that we often sub-consciously interpret the Bible for ourselves, and ask how we might do so in a way that is consistent with the message and purpose of Scripture. On one level their thoughts are remarkably simple, but many of the points they make are things that I have never heard discussed in the western evangelical church before.
The third error that I think we often make in reading the Bible is not to understand the mindset of the original hearers. I think it is natural for us as humans to assume that everyone is like us and sees the world in the same way, and it often comes as a shock to us that this isn’t the case. Similarly when we read the Bible I think we often assume that the community to whom it was first written thought like 21st Century Europeans or North Americans.
But to really understand the Bible I think we need to ask what it meant to the first hearers. What was meant by a covenant in the Ancient Near East 3,000 years ago? How did it feel to be under threat from powerful empires with their own gods and kings? What expectations were there of God’s messiah? How did Jews in 1st Century Palestine relate to the Romans and other gentiles? What did justice mean in this context? How did different people try to make sense of the apparent failure of the covenant and the destruction of the temple? What were their hopes and expectations for the future?
For me the work of N.T. Wright in this regard has been hugely helpful. I’m sure there are many excellent Bible scholars who can help to answer these questions and explore the worldviews of those the Bible is written to, but I have just started Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. It is certainly heavy going, and probably not for everyone (probably not for me in fairness, but I’m slowly wading through…) but I love the way that Wright takes seriously the way that 1st Century Jews saw the world, and hence how we should understand their interactions with, and writings about, Jesus.
I for one am grateful that God speaks to us through the Bible, and that he does so even despite our imperfect reading and interpretation of it! But I pray that God would take me beyond myself as I read the Bible, and that as I see more of him in Scripture that I would think of myself less and know and love him more.