Do a quick google search on the term “How to Read the Bible”, and there will be endless pages of content. Everything from books, to blogs, tp op-eds, to social media will instruct you on how, in the opinion of each author, to read the bible. So rather than add another voice to the cacophony of voices already with an opinion on the matter (some good, some bad, some with no right to have their name in print), I’d like to offer an opinion on how not to read the bible, in 13 easy don’ts.
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The word “bible” is the english translation of the latin word “biblos” which means ‘books’. The Bible (in caps) as we have it today is the product of various groups of scholars coordinating on what they consider to be the best representation of available manuscripts. In some cases, this is broadened to include the “best” in a theological sense (like the NET Bible, which freely admits it translates with evangelical orthodoxy in mind). This phenomenon applies to the so-called “septuagint” or LXX as well, where the name is just a scholarly demarcation for the available Greek manuscripts compiled in book form. There is no septuagint canon, and there are multiple Greek manuscript families. In addition, there are multiple canons of scripture, in various iterations, in many different sects of Christianity and Judaism.
2. Don’t assume the author of the piece of text you’re reading knows the same things you know about the universe, science, history, and geography.
For the authors of the biblical text, the view of the world was not as a globe amid an endless and ever-expanding, ever-moving universe. The earth sat at the center of the cosmos, with the firmament and heavens above, and sheol and the depths beneath. The earth was a table atop pillars, and often likened to a tent or tabernacle. The ‘gods’ (elohim) were ‘above’ humans (and so, Psalm 8:5 “you have made the human a little lower than the elohim”). Sunrise and sunset were actual events, rather than the turning of the globe on its axis. The edges of the earth were very real and terrifying places to be exiled. Natural occurrences like volcanoes, underground fire eruptions, and flowing lava all find their way into various descriptions of ancient Israel’s deity (and so, Sodom and Gomorrah). “History” in the ancient world was not as history is today. We are concerned (mostly) with scientific preservation of the data as accurately as possible. They were concerned with preservation of the event, regardless of how fantastic the story needed to be to maintain the kernel. Jonah and Nineveh strikes a note here, where the fantasy of a human living for three days within the digestive fluid of a giant fish contains the kernel of Yahweh’s love for Babylon (most likely penned during the Babylonian exile) and so, “love your enemies”.
3. Don’t assume the author thinks you know everything about the context of their writing.
The various authors and editors of the biblical texts tip their hat from time to time to let the reader know that they are a part of the story just as much as the narrators and characters. Sometimes, this appears as a scribal note, with the Hebrew word “zeh”, which is usually translated “that is, “ or “which is, “ and most often refers to place names. In this way, the editor is letting the reader know “hey, I’m here”, and at the same time informing them about a place which they have no information on. In other words, “that is, “ signals to us today that the author believed their audience would not have known the original place name, and so, edited it. (For more on this phenomenon, see M. Saebo – Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: History of its Interpretation, Vol 1).
4. Don’t assume you know everything about the context of the writing.
It seems simple to look back through history at the texts we possess and assume they are an all-encompassing view of life in the ancient world. The simple fact is, they are an infinitesimally small sampling of what life looked like for ancient Israel, let alone other cultures surrounding (and predating) them. The texts we have are very small samples of certain scribal, priestly, and folk opinions on the origin and encounter stories of their ancestors and their god(s). While Israel proper was never considered “polytheistic”, largely due to the levitical priesthood sanctifying and absorbing several names of various deities under the banner of Yahweh, there are (even in the biblical texts) multiple accounts of the people of Israel being accused of “idolatry” for worshiping other gods. Clearly, polytheism was an issue for at least some of the biblical authors, while in other cases, the names of the gods are woven into the stories as divine self-revelation (I am the God of your forefathers…).
5. Don’t assume the translators (both modern and ancient) translate without bias or intent (and until very recently, without theological mandate).
Translations of the biblical texts are almost as old as the so-called original texts of the bible (see point 6 below). The various Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Ge’ez/Amharic and Hebrew translations (as well as the Samaritan, which is a different historical tradition, not a translation) are not all in agreement on certain points. Translation requires the translator to do interpretation on the text. The moment this happens, the translator is put in a position to make the decision on a singular word from a range of meanings for another word. With some words, this seems easy enough, but when it comes to various verbs, prepositions, and other parts of speech, the task is not so easy. The ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible have various points of departure from the texts they are supposedly based upon. In some cases, scholars suggest a different Hebrew “master” may have been used from what we now have. In other cases, the translator seems to be making a judgment call on the idea behind the Hebrew text being translated. In still other cases, it is clear the translator simply made a mistake. (More on this from E. Tov – Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible). Ethiopian translations (Ge’ez/Amharic) shy away from God physically touching anyone (Naomi’s cry “Shaddai has set his hand against me” is an example).
6. Don’t assume the text is written directly to you, for you, and about you.
I call this ‘romanticizing ourselves into the text’. There is a thin line between finding inspiration in a story and finding ourselves as the main character in our heads. One is the usual response to a story meant to inspire, and the other is the product of delusions of grandeur with a touch of narcissism. When the biblical authors tell their stories, they are writing for one of several reasons: To preserve various origins/histories/theologies, to explain why things are the way they are at the time of the stories, or to in some way exhort a group of people in their own historical context. This last one might be the key for this point. Marcus Borg once said “the bible is written about their then, not our now”, and that works here. The audience of the biblical texts is the audience in the text. Typically the authors are very upfront about this (“To the saints at….” or “Hear oh Israel…..”). How people in the 21st century choose to apply those passages is called interpretation, but the initial audience is still not people from the 21st century.
7. Don’t assume a piece of literature from the ancient world began its life as a piece of literature.
Authors and editors in the ancient world did not take up writing for pleasure or leisure. Writing was a duty, keeping records of law, history, and story. But these stories come from somewhere else, and somewhen else. They began their lives as oral traditions, folk stories, handed down from generation to generation (in the case of ancient Israel, by mothers in the home), and eventually, after long periods of time, find their way to paper, or parchment, or animal skin. Even after being put to writing, the stories are edited multiple times throughout their lifespan. Which brings me to:
8. Don’t assume that there was no editorial process. As mentioned in point 2, there are obvious edits to the biblical texts.
There are also various “stitches”, where later editors pieced together pre-existing chunks of text. Much of the particular delineation here is speculative, but the phenomenon is easily enough demonstrated (for example, two creation narratives, two flood stories, both with conflicting information). Most scholars assume the priestly class to be the editors of the texts of the bible, and much of the editing which takes place carries a tone of legalism (defined as adherence to particular theological paradigms expressed in specific law codes).
9. Don’t assume the history of the text to be linear.
The biblical texts aren’t static, and weren’t edited in a linear fashion. Meaning, sometimes edits are re-edited, “corrected” (whether grammatically or theologically), or erased completely. There is little way to verify that the text as we now have it is the text as it began its life. In fact, there is more evidence to suggest the opposite. More on this also in Tov.
10. Don’t assume that those who experienced the stories written about were the same ones who wrote about those experiences.
This should go without saying, but the biblical authors are not traveling biographers who write their stories as the events are taking place. Morgan Freeman is not walking with the characters narrating as they live out the stories of their lives. In most cases, the stories aren’t put to writing until centuries after their initial telling (something we can’t even measure). During this early pre-writing phase, the stories go through several iterations (sometimes this is evidenced in the biblical texts as well, where dual narratives with conflicting information are preserved).
11. Don’t assume that the New Testament authors read the same bible as their predecessors.
Most, if not all, of the New Testament authors did not read Hebrew. They may have still spoken in in pockets, or as we do, for liturgical use, but the use of Hebrew as a spoken language was all but dead and gone at the time of Jesus. Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and various semitic dialects were in use, and as such, translations of the bible into these languages were made. More than likely, Jesus and his contemporaries read (if they knew how) Greek scriptures and spoke Aramaic in the temple. There are so many Greek variants of the Hebrew bible, that there is no way to tell which particular manuscript family they may have been reading from, including one we may not even possess. (Here, reference the Gottingen septuagint collection, a massive group of Greek manuscripts numbering in the hundreds, which is ever-increasing with new discoveries).
12. Don’t assume that any two authors agree on all points of history, doctrine, and theology.
A typical approach to the bible is to assume theological hegemony. Meaning, the idea that the authors – across thousands of years – all agree on every point of theology, doctrine, history, or social order. Again the phenomenon is easily enough demonstrated with two New Testament authors, Peter and Paul, Paul opposing Peter “to his face”. Amy Jill Levine says the difference between Judaism and Christianity is that when two Jews argue, it ends up in a meal, while when two Christians argue, it ends up in a denomination.
13. Don’t assume that any piece of text is “typological”.
Typology is a modern way of categorizing texts and comparing them against one another. Beside being completely speculative (nobody can know the mind of the original authors and editors), it relies far too heavily on later theological presuppositions created by Greek and Roman Christians in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. Meaning, some 2500 years after the original texts are being written, philosophies about those texts are being imposed upon them by people who don’t read, or speak, the language in which those texts are written.
This is in no way an exhaustive list. The point is, when we read any text, we have little right to impose upon it our opinions of the text and its meaning across time. The best we can do is theorize, and theorizing requires a commitment to being educated in as many disciplines as possible in order to make sense of how a chunk of text can be translated in such a way as to convey the “meaning”, as best we can define it. In other words, confidence with how any ancient text is translated, and so, interpreted, requires a willingness to “study to show yourself approved” (to do the gravest of sins and prooftext).