Many of us have heard before how we are to read the Bible—read it plainly for what it says, right? Wrong! Reading the Bible this way will likely cause you to misinterpret it. A few examples from Scripture will suffice to confirm my point:
- When Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26),* it becomes quite clear that these words should not be read “plainly,” since that would contradict Jesus’s teachings about love.
- In the Book of Revelation, when John spiritually ascends to the heavenly realm and sees Jesus as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes” (Revelation 5:6), do we really believe, based on a “plain” reading, that this is how Jesus will look like when we meet him in heaven?
- In the Song of Solomon, when the male lover describes the beauty of the woman he loves, he says, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead… Your lips are like a crimson thread…Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David…” (Canticles 4:1-4). A “plain” reading of this description does not appear to be very flattering!
It is clear, then, that the plain sense of Scripture is an insufficient way to read Scripture. How, then, should we read it? Here are three ways to become a better interpreter of the Bible.
Read a Good Translation of the Bible
As a Californian I moved overseas to complete my graduate studies at Durham University, England. I thought I would have no problem communicating with other English speakers…until I ran into what the local British call the “Geordie” accent that happened to be prevalent where I was living. The words and inflections were so different to me that it was difficult to understand what certain locals were saying. And to my surprise, since I came from America, I was the one with the accent, not them! I also learned new meanings to words I already thought I knew. “Chips” were not fries over there but “crisps,” and “Walkers” were not ambulatory aids but a popular brand of crisps. “Pants” were not trousers but panties, and “dummies” were not dimwitted people but pacifiers for babies.
If such confusion and misunderstanding over words persists in societies that share the same language but a different history and culture, imagine the potential difficulties that arise when hearing the words of cultures that existed a few millennia ago and do not speak English!
We simply cannot assume that the English words from the contemporary translations of our Bibles perfectly communicate the ideas of biblical cultures. This problem only gets aggravated whenever we read a paraphrased Bible version that attempts to accommodate our culture and language rather than the Bible’s.
To be sure, language barriers can be alleviated if we study the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but the rigors of such learning are not for everyone. If we do not have time to learn the original languages, then we should at least attempt to read Bibles that translate these languages as faithfully as possible. Translations such as the English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and New English Translation do a better at this than versions that are considered dynamic equivalents or paraphrased. Popular versions in this latter category include, for example, the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and The Message.
Read the Bible Regularly and Thoroughly
To aid our understanding of what we read, we should read the Bible regularly and in context to familiarize ourselves with its content. This means reading chapters rather than verses, and books of the Bible rather than passages. If you have not done so already, it would be wise to set a goal to read the entire Bible, or at least the New Testament.
Did you know that by simply reading one chapter from the New Testament every day, you would be finished with the entire New Testament in just 270 days? If one starts in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 1 and finishes in the Book of Revelation chapter 22, one could be finished in 9 months.
A little more commitment would involve reading three chapters per day—two chapters from the Old Testament (starting with Genesis 1) and one chapter from the New Testament (starting in Matthew). Once one is finished with the New Testament (after 270 days), one would start reading all three chapters from the Old Testament. After about one year and a little over one month of reading this way, we would have read through the entire Bible (assuming the 39 book version of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi).
It matters little whether we choose one of these methods or another. The important point here is that we should read the Bible in a systematic and comprehensive way on a daily basis, if possible.
Read to Understand What the Biblical Texts Meant For the Original Writers and Audiences
Here is where we begin to study hermeneutics, the science and art of interpretation, and in our case the interpretation of biblical scripture. It is a “scientific” discipline because there are certain principles and “rules,” that if followed will lead a person to a better understanding of what the ancients meant by what they said.
It is also an art because there is some creative freedom to the meanings and nuances behind particular words and phrases. We sometimes have to be inventive and imaginative at what certain sentences mean because we cannot talk to Paul, Peter, James, and other biblical persons to ask them what they meant by what they wrote.
So, then, what do the biblical texts mean? Here we are wanting to know more than merely which words appear in Scripture and their English definitions. And we are wanting to know more than merely what the text means to us today, since the 27 books in the New Testament, let alone many more in the Old Testament, were not originally written to us. We should want to pursue instead what the text’s words meant to the original authors, readers, and congregational hearers (the auditors).
This point requires further investigation than a simple reading of the Scriptures. It prompts us to look at, appreciate, and try to understand the original social, cultural, historical, and religious context and values of the people who were the first recipients of the Scriptures. When we have this type of understanding of the Bible, we are in a far better position to apply properly the same words to ourselves and our own culture.
The violation of the order of these three questions, 1) “What does the text say?” to 2) “What does the text mean?” to 3) “What does the text mean to me?” is commonly committed in personal and devotional studies of the Bible, as well as biblical study groups, Sundays school lessons, and even sometimes over the pulpit. There is a tendency for the contemporary western reader to “jump” from question #1 to question #3:
From: “What does the text say?”
To: “What does the text mean to me?”
This error leaves out the all-important question #2: What does the biblical text mean for the original writers and recipients of that text? Such a hermeneutical leap might seem innocent enough, but is it really? Let us look at an example of this error below.
A Case Study on the Veiling of Women in 1 Corinthians 11
In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 the apostle Paul encourages women in the Corinthian congregation to wear head coverings. Although there are still some churches who insist that women wear veils to church according to this passage, many westernized churches do not practice this. Why? They assume that there must have been a cultural issue at stake at that time, which warranted Paul discussing the issue. In essence, they are correct.
These women perhaps confused public spaces for private spaces. It is was socially and culturally proper at that time for women to be veiled when in public. At home, however, they were free from societal norms to unveil. It so happened that the early churches often met in homes. As such, certain women who were accustomed to unveiling themselves in the private space of a home (especially if it happened to be their home), did so when worshipping with other believers in such spaces.**
This problem may have been compounded if women were influenced prior to their conversion by the maenads of that region who would dishevel their hair when prophesying in the name of the god Dionysus. Could it be that the women prophets in Corinth, now converted to Christian faith, brought this style of maenadic prophesying into the congregation?***
In either or both scenarios, for the ancient Mediterranean world, a woman’s uncovered hair in public would likely be interpreted as disorderly, inappropriate, and provoking lust and distraction among the male congregation members. In 1 Corinthians 11–14, Paul is encouraging the congregation to practice decency and orderly conduct when worshipping in local gatherings. It would be quite a distraction for women to have disorderly heads and hair.
But how do we learn about the history and culture of the original audience so as to understand the situation, such as we just learned from 1 Corinthians 11? Our purchasing a good study Bible is often the first step, but such a resource often does not provide much information of this sort due to the limited amount of study notes provided. If you are serious about studying the Bible you will need to start consulting biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias, biblical word study resources (e.g. lexicons), commentaries, and specialized books (monographs) on whichever topic or passage is your focus.
Resources like these may or may not be available at your local library, university, or church. You may need to invest in such resources. For helpful lists see the Best Commentaries website.
Now back to the hermeneutical leap error—for those who jump from asking what the text says to what it means to them, they will likely resort to encouraging or enforcing women to wear head gear in their churches based on 1 Corinthians 11. For the rest of us, we recognize first what the text meant to the original recipients. If we discover that the issue is a culturally sensitive one for the time and region, as this one is (notice also the word “custom” in 1 Corinthians 11:16), then we might seek out what truths or principles are universal or applicable for our own churches and society today.
The provocation of lust and distraction in worship due to women’s hair not being covered does not translate very well in western society. Nevertheless, there are still principles that are important today from 1 Corinthians 11—modesty, the celebration of gender distinction, and the importance of not letting what you wear, or what you don’t wear, become a distraction to other congregation members as they worship. Even the most progressive churches today would consider it inappropriate for guys and ladies to wear swimming trunks and string bikinis to church. Why? Because modesty still matters, as does the value of parish members being able to worship and hear the message without getting visually distracted.
In conclusion, picking a good translation of the Bible, reading it regularly and thoroughly, and attempting to understand what it meant to the original readers before applying it to ourselves will go a long way in helping us become better Bible interpreters.
*Citations are from the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise stated.
**See further my commentary, 1 Corinthians, New Covenant Commentary Series.
***See further my sources for this earlier interpretation of mine in chapter 7 of A Time to Laugh: The Holy Laughter Phenomenon Examined.
Image 1: Love Died Cross Thorns; Image 2: Child Reading Bible; Image 3: Book Bible Bible Study, all via www.pixabay.com