How to Read the Bible: Part I

Why is reading the Bible so complicated?

Why is the Bible so difficult to read? Why do we need so many books and articles and blog posts to help us read the Bible? If the Bible really is God’s word to humanity, why couldn’t God make God’s word easier to understand, more accessible, more simple, more clear?

The reality is that, while we believe God speaks through the Bible, the Bible itself is a collection of books written by various people at various times in various places. There is no single author of the scriptures. God did not write the Bible and hand it to humanity. The Holy Spirit worked through a variety of authors to pen the words of scripture, but those author’s voices, their culture, their philosophy, their social, geographical, and political contexts still come through. Its all they knew and it’s the only lens through which they could write.

Furthermore, we believe in a God who acts in particular times and places with particular people. Our God is a God of history, who chose particular people like Abraham and particular nations like Israel, who chose a particular time and place to become one of us (first-century Palestine under the rule of the Roman Empire). All these things alone would make reading the Bible complicated. But it gets more complicated.

When we read the Bible, we’re not only contending with an ancient culture, we have to contend with our own culture as well. Our morals, social expectations, government systems are quite different from the cultures of the Bible. The cultures of the Bible knew nothing of democracy or cars or smartphones or running water or reliable maps or North America, South America, Australia, or the southern portions of Africa. Likewise, most of us don’t know what it’s like to live without running water or reliable maps or TV or democracy. Our cultures are vastly different from each other, and it is nearly impossible for us to sympathize (let alone empathize) with these ancient cultures.

We each bring a particular lens to the Bible (something we’ll explore more when we talk about exegesis and hermeneutics later). And those lenses change over time. Third-century readers of the Bible believed every story in the Bible was an allegory. 18th century readers (Enlightenment thinkers) believed every story should be scrutinized through a rational and scientific lens. It wasn’t until the 19th century, with the advent of archeology and historical criticism, that people started trying to understand the scriptures in their socio-political and historical contexts. No one thought to read the Bible “literally” until close to the 20th century. The books of the Bible are born of their own cultural understandings and we in turn meet them with our own cultural understandings.

No wonder reading the Bible is complicated!

But wait! It gets even more complicated! Have you ever played a game of telephone? You whisper a word or phrase into some’s ear, they turn and whisper what they heard in the ear of the person next to them, and so on down the line until the person at the very end says what they heard. You might have whispered “My cat is taking a nap on the couch,” but the person on the end says, “Your rat is a fake bat and a lout!”

Something like a highly sophisticated game of telephone is going on when we read the scriptures. You see, the majority of the Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew and the entire New Testament was written in ancient (Koine) Greek. Both are dead languages (and distinct from modern Hebrew and modern Greek). We don’t really know what they sounded like when they were spoken, and we don’t necessarily know every single vocabulary word in these languages. No one alive “speaks” them and so we have to do a considerable amount of work to translate them into languages we understand.

What’s more, we can’t even agree on which ancient, original versions of the text are accurate. We don’t have the original version of the book of Genesis (it probably started out as an oral history anyway) nor do we have the first edition of Paul’s letters. We have copies, hand-copied in calligraphy by scribes. The oldest New Testament copies we have are from the second or third centuries (that’s over a hundred years after the originals were written!). And, as anyone who has played telephone or hand copied something knows, people make mistakes. The manuscripts we have are not identical. Some say different things than others. So biblical scholars spend a great deal of time comparing these old, seeing where they differ from one another, speculating on which ones have mistakes and which ones are true to the original. If you open your Bible to a page in the New Testament and look down at the footnotes, eventually you’ll find annotations like “Greek meaning uncertain” or “other texts read….” We have a general sense of what the original Greek and Hebrew said, but it’s not perfect.

To complicate things further, we have to translate these problematic manuscripts out of their dead language and into our living one. If you’ve spent any time learning another language you know that some words do not translate well from one language to another. Ancient Greek had no word for “car” or “TV” or “faucet” because those things didn’t exist. Some languages have words for which there is no English equivalent. For example, the German word Gemütlichkeit means that warm, cozy feeling for friendliness and good cheer, something like what you’d feel when you go home for Christmas. We don’t have a word for that in English.

Greek has a wonderful word: splagnizomai. The word literally means “to be moved in one’s bowels” (you can kind of see the word “spleen” hidden in there). How are we meant to translate that? Its commonly translated as “compassion.” But is that strong enough? “Great compassion”? “Visceral compassion?” What does it mean to feel “spleeny?”

Or take John 14:18. The Greek reads: Οὐκ ἀφήσω ὑμᾶς ὀρφανούς.

Literally, this translates like this:
Οὐκ           ἀφήσω            ὑμᾶς            ὀρφανούς
Ouk          aphyso          umas         orphanous
Not           I will leave     y’all             orphan-y.

(Greek doesn’t require word order in its sentences so that adds to the fun complication).

So how do we translate that into better English? Here are some examples from modern translations:

I will not leave you orphaned (NRSVue)
I will not leave you as orphans (NIV, CSB, ESV, NASB)
I will not leave you like orphans (CEV)
I will not leave you all alone like orphans (ERV)
I will not leave you like children who don’t have parents (NIRV)
I will not leave you desolate (ASV)
When I go, you will not be left all alone (GNT)
I’m not going to forsake you like orphans (ISV)
I will not leave you comfortless (KJV)
I will not leave you orphaned (NKJV)
No, I will not abandon you or leave you as orphans in the storm (LB)
No, I will not abandon you as orphans (NLT)

This is just a small example, but which one is right? We have to take some interpretive leaps to make the Greek words fit into English. Almost every sentence in the Bible requires this kind of work (to one degree or another), and it’s the reason we have so many different translations.

These are the reasons why reading the Bible is so complicated. We’re dealing with cultural challenges, linguistic challenges, historical challenges, ideological challenges, interpretive challenges, social challenges, political challenges—the obstacles seem endless.

AND YET—isn’t it amazing that despite all these questions and difficulties, we are still able to find in this book the word of God? Isn’t it amazing that despite all the years and languages and worldviews that remove us from the original authors, we still get (at least in general) the point they were trying to make? It’s a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit. Across the challenges of space and time, God’s word, this book, endures and carries with it wisdom and truth that transcend time, space, and culture. Amazing.

I hope you’ll stick with me as we explore what the Bible is and how best to read it!