The Bible is not a book.
It is a collection of books.
The Bible is not a type of literature.
It is composed of many types of literature.
Christians hold the Bible in high esteem, perhaps too high in some circles, because the way that some Christians talk you’d think the Bible is their God, superseding even the very acts of Jesus described in the Bible.
This is actually heretical, even sinful, because it breaks the very first commandment in the Decalogue (if you need a reference, go ahead and check out Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:4-21). In my view Fundamentalists have become what they continually deride: idolaters.
So, if you’re a reforming Fundamentalist, an Evangelical who has read the Bible like an encyclopedia, a Mainliner who doesn’t really know where to start, or perhaps you’re on the edge of being Christian at all (or maybe you’re not even sure you can claim to be that close), I have a prescribed way to read the Bible that I commend to you.
- Read a good study Bible. Not any study Bible, but a good study Bible. The Harper Collins Study Bible, the Lutheran Study Bible, or some annotated version of the New Revised Standard Version are all to be commended.
To be avoided? The King James Version (or any variation of it). The Living Bible. Any form of an “Augmented Bible.” Any version of a gender specific/life-stage specific Bible (unless it’s an NRSV translation).
Get’s a “meh” from me: the NIV, the Common English Version, or anything the Gideons pass out.
The Message is a fine paraphrase to use if you’re using it for devotional purposes, as is The Book of God.
Not all Bibles are equal, and what I mean by that is not all Bibles are translated with the same scholarly scrutiny. Some of these interpretations take terrible liberties with translations, and even more problematic, some of them take absolutely wrongful liberties with commentary. Any Bible that tries to pinpoint Eden, that attempts to locate support for the Rapture, or posits Esther or Jonah as history rather than story, are of poor scholarly quality.
And it’s worth noting that the Christian industrial complex (if I can name it that) has consistently duped and made money off of people because they assume that most Christians either aren’t smart enough or discerning enough to know the difference.
Just like you should not buy any snake oil from a traveling salesman, don’t buy it if it’s embossed in gold, says “The Bible” on it.
- Read it with other people. The Scriptures are best read in community because then you hear what other people are taking from a passage. Read it and re-read it. Because parts of scripture say different things at different times in your life.
- Reading the Bible from front to back is not usually helpful. The Bible was compiled with some logic to rough timeline, but it’s not like a novel. So reading it front to back is not always the best way to read it.
The Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures places the books according to type of literature rather than timeline. Sometimes adopting that kind of reading schedule is more helpful, because you group types of writing together, staying in the same medium. This is roughly how the New Testament is arranged.
And, boy I know this is controversial, but there are simply parts of the scripture that perhaps are better left as un-turned pages. There are pieces that are shallow, and some even dangerous, without some extra guidance (like a good Pastor, a great lexicon, or a reputable commentary). Adopt a way of reading that works for you, and if something presents itself as a head scratcher, let it go unresolved for a bit.
- Speaking of unresolved…you’re going to find contradictions and errors…but keep reading and don’t try to resolve them too quickly, and don’t force a resolution. And if you don’t, you’re not reading with your brain (which is a mistake, friend). Why is it that scientists and mathematicians, engineers and auto-mechanics are well-practiced at using problem solving skills in their every day work and perfectly welcome scrutiny as a useful tool in their trade, but all of that is suspended the minute they crack the Bible?
The Bible is held in high esteem by Christians, but this does not mean that we do not use methods of discernment and scholarly discipline when reading it. In fact, I’d say that people who take a “plain reading” view of Scripture (or anything!) holds that thing in such low esteem that they are unwilling to submit it to the same tools and rules of finding knowledge.
The Bible is not an encyclopedia, so don’t treat it like one. It is not an instruction manual, either. Any reading that adopts this kind of “hunt and peck,” or “search and find” method does it absolutely no justice and, I would say, is not how it was intended to be read at all.
The scriptures are full of tension. The Bible contradicts itself. It has errors. And those who put it together saw these, by all accounts, and decided to keep it all the same. They lived with the tension. Why can’t we?
Don’t force a resolution. Live in the tension. Such is the life of faith.
- Literary over literal. These books were not written for these times, specifically. So we must adopt a malleable eye and meaning-making mind when reading the scriptures.I am not saying that they’re not applicable to these times.Certainly the message(s) is applicable! Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing any of this.
But to imagine that the writers had you in mind when they wrote it is to steal their agenda and make it your own.
The scriptures continue to speak into today, but they use the language, imagery, and thought process of yesterday. This is helpful when reading passages that don’t jive cohesively with our understanding of psychology, sociology, and even systematic theology.
Again, allow the tension to linger.
And one of the worst things that we can claim is that the scripture contains science. It does not. When representatives in Congress come to the floor to advocate that Creationism be taught alongside Evolution, they make the mistake of thinking that all theories are equal.
They are not. Christianity does itself no favors when it mistakes theology for biology (and I would say that science makes the same mistake all the time, too).
The Reformation may have brought the Scriptures to the people, but in some ways the theological world is paying the price for interpretations that have happened without any regard to good scholarship and training.
We wouldn’t buy a chemistry workbook written by someone who only took Chemistry 101 in high school, so why do we buy Bible studies written by people with little more theological training than an advanced Sunday School curriculum (looking at you so-called Bible Colleges)?
Not all Bibles are the same. Not all studies are the same. And when we treat them all the same we create an environment that is not only hostile to Christianity (because who would trust a discipline with such terrible standards?), but an environment also hostile to the pursuit of knowledge.
A very helpful blog. I agree with your suggestions regarding translations. I would add the suggestion to take a look at the St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible. It is an approved translation by the Roman Catholic Church. I find it helpful for the scholarly, accurate textual notes not found as consistently in other translations. And of course it includes the Apocrypha, which is not found regularly in modern Protestant English translations, and could be helpful for non-Roman Catholics to read.
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