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Figuring Out the Bible

Don’t know Sacred Scripture? Intimidated by how or where to begin? Don’t be—just start reading.

Jimmy Akin

I grew up in the Cold War, when the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation hung over the world. The apocalyptic fears this produced drove the public mind toward, well, the apocalypse. It was a time when prophecy-themed books and movies such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth were all the rage.

Although my family had stopped going to church, we were still nominally Protestant, and I spent time reading the Bible—but only the parts dealing with prophecy. As a kid, I had no background in biblical prophecy and how it works, and I made the typical mistake of trying to match biblical prophecies directly to current world events.

When I was twenty years old, I no longer called myself as a Christian, but I became intrigued enough that I decided I needed to read the Gospels.

I mentioned the plan to a friend, and he warned me that what happened to C.S. Lewis might happen to me—that, despite the fact I was a smart guy, I might become convinced and become a devout Christian. This didn’t seem likely, but I went ahead and started reading Matthew.

I hated it.

Matthew’s Gospel was alien to me. It was a work of literature written in a different culture, almost two thousand years ago, and I found it confusing and frustrating. Then I read Mark, and I hated it even more. Mark sometimes leaves out little explanatory bits that Matthew includes (e.g., “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .”), which made it even more confusing.

By the time I read Luke, my attitude was changing. “Okay,” I said to myself, “I’m starting to see how this type of literature works.” Eventually, I had the type of conversion my friend warned me about, and as I learned how the books of the Bible work I saw them in an entirely different light. Today, Matthew’s Gospel is my favorite!

Both my childhood experience of reading the Bible and my early adulthood experience reveal common pitfalls of studying the Bible—and how they can be overcome.

Start reading!

The common thread tying together both of my experiences was a lack of familiarity with the books of the Bible. I hadn’t tried reading them, and thus I hadn’t acquired the background needed to make sense of them.

The solution to this problem is simple: Start reading! Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by worries such as whether you’re using the best Bible translation or the best study method. Just take the plunge and start filling your head with the text.

Do it in whatever way you find easiest. If you like print books, get a printed Bible. Or get an electronic Bible you can read on your mobile device. Or get an audiobook and start listening to it. Get all three, so you can switch between them, depending on what fits particular moments of your schedule best.

The best translation?

I’m often asked what the best Bible translation to read is, and my answer is one often attributed to Billy Graham: “The one that you will read.”

If you like the elevated, old-fashioned language found in some translations, read one of those. If you find that language a distraction, get a modern one. The important thing is that you do read.

Don’t be distracted by the question of finding the “best” Bible translation. There is no perfect translation, and they all have advantages and disadvantages.

Some translations—like the Revised Standard Version—apply what’s sometimes called a “literal” approach to translation. This is a bit of a misnomer, because no translation can be truly literal. Translators have to render some things non-literally for their readers to understand them.

For example, if you’re ever reading one of the passages in the Old Testament that says God is “slow to anger,” what it really says in Hebrew is that God is “long of nose.” In Hebrew speech, saying that someone had a long nose meant that he was patient, but that would be baffling to a contemporary English speaker, so translators invariably translate it non-literally.

What so-called “literal” translations try to do is preserve as much of the original word choice and sequence as possible, given the way English works. But this means that the resulting translation doesn’t sound exactly the way English speakers talk, and that can make the text harder to read.

Other “dynamic” translations—such as the Good News Bible—try to sound more like contemporary English speech. They seek to provide a “thought-for-thought” translation rather than a “word-for-word” translation. The advantage is that they’re easier to read, but the disadvantage is that they’re more prone to translator bias, since the translators aren’t as tied to the original wording and are freer to express their own thoughts about what the original means rather than what it says.

Some translations—like the New American Bible: Revised Edition—try to strike a balance between these approaches, with varying degrees of success. But none of them is perfect, and the best solution—short of learning Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—is not to confine yourself to just one translation. Get several!

Dynamic translations can be good for Bible reading, when you’re trying to get a general sense of the text. But literal translations are better for Bible study, when you’re focusing on the details.

Neither should be used to the exclusion of the other, though. In fact, seeing how a passage is rendered in multiple versions will help you see the different possible ways it could be translated. Don’t limit yourself to seeing what just one group of translators thought.

Getting the big picture

It’s important to engage in Bible reading as distinct from Bible study. You need to get the big picture of what is going on in Scripture. You won’t be able to see how its individual parts relate to each other unless you have a grasp of the whole.

It can make sense for first-time Bible readers to start with the New Testament, since this is the part that is most directly relevant to our Faith, but it’s important not to neglect the Old Testament, because the New Testament builds on it. You can’t fully understand the New Testament without the Old.

This means you’ll need to spend time just reading the Bible—not narrowly focusing on the details of particular passages. That kind of detailed study is a second-stage activity—something to be done after you’ve already got the basics. Otherwise, you risk missing the forest for the trees.

This is one of the big mistakes that leads to erroneous and even heretical ideas about the Faith. Throughout history, heretics have focused on particular passages and ignored others.

For example, if you focus on the passages that stress Jesus’ divinity and ignore the ones dealing with his humanity, you end up with the heresy of Docetism, which held Jesus only seemed to be a man (Greek, dokein, “to seem”). Do the reverse, and you get the heresy of Ebionitism, which held that Jesus was only a man and not God.

Similarly, if you focus only on passages that talk about getting what we ask for in prayer and ignore the ones about subjecting our wills to God’s or the role of suffering in the Christian life, you could come up with the “prosperity gospel” that holds Christians should always be healthy and wealthy—and it signals a lack of faith if they’re not.

The only way to avoid focusing on particular passages and misreading them is to have a knowledge of what else Scripture says so that you can read passages in light of each other. That means reading the Bible “in bulk,” not just studying individual sections.

Context is king

By having a basic familiarity with the whole Bible, you learn the context in which individual passages need to be read. But this isn’t the only kind of context to which you need to pay attention.

In addition to having a general grasp of what’s said in other parts of Scripture, you also need to pay attention in particular to what’s said in a passage you’re trying to figure out. If a verse is confusing, read the ones just before and after it to get its immediate context. They are usually the most relevant for figuring it out.

Then read other passages in the same book or in books by the same author. This will let you discover how a particular author approaches a subject and get a better idea of what he likely means in a confusing verse.

Looking for ammo

A particular danger apologists face when reading the Bible is “looking for ammo”—that is, reading with the primary goal of finding verses they can use to defend the Faith.

Knowing what verses support doctrines of the Faith is important, but it can’t be our primary goal in reading the Bible. The reason is that God didn’t give us the Bible just to do apologetics. He gave it to us to reveal his will and save our souls.

Our first task in reading the Bible is not looking for ammo but seeking to understand. Before any assessment can be made of what apologetic value a passage has, you must understand its intended meaning.

Asking questions

The key to understanding a passage is asking questions about it. This means putting questions to ourselves as interpreters. If we don’t do this, we’ll assume that our first impression of a verse is correct, and first impressions are often misleading.

The first step in figuring out what a passage means is seeing the range of possibilities. Ask yourself: what are all the things this verse could mean? Then make a list of them.

Once you have your list, start narrowing it down. Of the possibilities that occur to you, ask which ones can be definitely ruled out. Are there things you know, particularly from the immediate context, that show it can’t mean some of the things if might if you read it in isolation?

Of the remaining possibilities, which ones are more probable and which are less probable? In making this assessment, it’s important to be as objective as possible.

Confirmation bias

We all have preferences about what we’d like to find the Bible saying, and people are prone to a cognitive flaw that psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

That means we’re biased toward things that confirm what we already think. In the case of Scripture interpretation, it means being biased toward readings that confirm what we already believe. In other words, we have a tendency to assume that the text says what we want it to say.

We must challenge this tendency. Whenever examining a passage—especially if we’re hoping to use it apologetically—we need to control for our confirmation bias by thinking about what arguments could be made against our preferred reading. How would someone with a different perspective understand the passage? What arguments could they make for their interpretation?

Only by asking these questions can we discern whether the passage is a useful one apologetically. And only by seeking to understand it from an opponent’s point of view will we be prepared for the counterarguments he’s likely to give us.

What’s the point?

The most important question to ask when examining a passage is: “What is the point that the biblical author is trying to make?”

Answering this question tells you what the passage must mean. It may imply or suggest other things, but the point that the biblical author was making is the core truth that the passage expresses.

Let’s look at an example to see the importance of asking this question. In Deuteronomy 28:49, Moses warns the children of Israel that if they disobey, he will bring against them a nation “from the end of the earth” and they will be defeated.

Some in the Flat Earth community take the reference to “the end of the earth” as meaning that the earth has a literal end—an edge, a point where it just stops. They usually see the earth as a flat disc, with the North Pole at the center, and the continent we refer to as Antarctica as a giant ring of ice surrounding the edge of the disc.

But does Deuteronomy 28:49 support the Flat Earth view? Asking the biblical author’s point will help us see why it doesn’t.

Set in its historical context, what is Moses warning the Israelites about? An invading army that will come from Antarctica? Mighty warriors from a land of ice and snow at the edge of the world who will have journeyed 8,000 miles to invade Israel?

Hardly. He’s warning them against invasions that could and did occur later in Israel’s history, from nations such as Assyria and Babylonia. The point he’s making is that if the people of Israel sin, they will be invaded by one of their neighbors in the ancient Near East. He’s not giving a lesson on the shape of the Earth, and the phrase “from the end of the earth” means simply “from a faraway land,” not that the Earth has a literal edge.

This is an obvious example, but the thing happens in many apologetic discussions. Instead of identifying the main point that the biblical author is trying to make, people get sidetracked by possible meanings that phrases might have if they were read in isolation.

The ignorant and the unstable

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter comments on the letters of Paul and says that “there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”

That certainly was true in the first century. Some took Paul’s teaching that Christians are not under the Law of Moses and used it to justify immoral, libertine behavior, which Paul himself condemned (Rom. 3:8, 6:1-2, 15). In later centuries, heretics of various types seized on things in Paul’s writings—and elsewhere in Scripture—to justify their departures from the Faith.

But note who Peter says does this Scripture twisting: the ignorant and the unstable.

The Greek word for ignorant—amathês—indicates a person who hasn’t been instructed. But Peter isn’t thinking of people who don’t have an education in the Greco-Roman classics. He’s thinking of people who have not been taught the correct understanding of Scripture.

The unstable, then, are those who have been taught the correct understanding but who have refused to adhere to it. They’ve wandered off and embraced destructive interpretations that they seek to justify by twisting Scripture.

Who did Peter expect to give the correct, authoritative understanding of Scripture to the ignorant? Who had given it to those who then proved unstable? In the apostolic age, the answer was clear: the apostles themselves. They were the authoritative teachers of the Christian faith, and they were the authoritative interpreters of Scripture.

The apostles thus expected the first Christians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).

They expected those in the post-apostolic age to do so as well, for as Paul was preparing to die (2 Tim. 4:6-8), he told Timothy to take “what you have heard from me before many witnesses”—that is, apostolic Tradition—and entrust it “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

He thus names the first four generations involved in passing down oral Tradition: his own, Timothy’s, the generation of teachers that Timothy will instruct, and the one they will instruct.

With this set as the pattern for the post-apostolic age, it is the principle we must employ today. Rather than seeking to understand Scripture in isolation from apostolic Tradition, as the ignorant and the unstable did, we need to read it in light of Tradition. This, together with the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, is what keeps private interpretations from going off the rails and plunging into error or heresy.

That means you need to read more than just the Bible. Read Scripture, yes! But also read Tradition and the Magisterium!

The best place to start is by reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes and synthesizes Tradition and the teaching of the Church. The Catechism, together with the Bible, are the two books you most need to read when enriching your faith.


Private and Official Interpretations

Sometimes you’ll hear both Catholics and Protestants saying the Catholic Church opposes the “private interpretation” of Scripture.

If that were true, the Church would need an official interpretation for every passage in Scripture. And, sure enough, people often seem to think that it does. I regularly get the question on Catholic Answers Live, “What’s the Catholic Church’s interpretation of this passage?” The answer in almost every case is, “It doesn’t have one.”

If you read Church documents, you will find places where the Magisterium appeals to particular passages to support its teaching, but that’s not the same thing as telling us what the passage means. It indicates the passage offers support for a particular Church teaching, but that doesn’t give us a full interpretation of everything the verse means.

The Church leaves great room for individual interpreters to explore the meaning of the text. As Pius XII pointed out, “There are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church” (Divino Afflante Spiritu 47).

God gave us the gift of reason, and he expects us to use it when trying to understand his word as found in Scripture. We are, as individuals, expected to interpret Scripture and not simply look up each passage in a nonexistent Official Catholic Commentary on Every Single Verse of Scripture.

What we’re not supposed to do is absolutize our own private judgment and ignore everything else.

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