The title of this post sounds trite, but the intention is not.
When they read the Bible, whether as part of a daily discipline or just as the fancy strikes them, most people are looking for some sort of inspiration. They are therefore drawn more to the Gospels or the Psalms, and less to the Deuteronomy or letters of Paul. There is an unconscious filtering that goes on, since they are looking for something that meets their immediate needs and not abstract problems. They are not going to pay much attentions to the dimensions of the Tent of Meeting as they are to a good story with beneficial morals. This is fine: it is natural and pious, and God has blessed countless people for doing this.
But if someone is going to undertake more serious reading of the Bible, or if he approaches it with another purpose, such as making a study or arguing a theological point, there needs to be a different approach.
We have all had the experience of watching someone on the internet take a Bible verse and create a theological argument based on its authority with absolutely no sense of proportion or context. You simply cannot take something like the Book of Daniel or Leviticus, or John’s Revelation as the point of departure for an argument without some previous study, let alone a single line of any Biblical work.
The basis of this error is the belief that since the Bible is true, every word can be used to produce a binary true or false statement, but this binary logic only exists in formal logic exercises or in computer programs, not in human realities like Biblical interpretation.
With that in mind, here are four points to be considered when reading the Bible for purposes other than spiritual edification.
Every word of Shakespeare’s King Lear is true, even though it is extremely unlikely that there was ever a High King of Britain named Lear and the few legendary fragments we have suggest his reign was a happy, not tragic one.
King Lear is true because it is theater, not history. The truths it proposes are not historical, but artistic. It teaches us about politics, personality, power, and devotion.
So the first question when reading a book of the Bible: what genre is it? Is it history like Ezra? Is it a collection of prophetic utterances like Isiah? Is it patriotic propaganda like Joshua? A liturgical handbook like Leviticus? An origins myth? A love poem? A religious song?
Each genre is going to contain its own kind of truth. Some of it is factual, as in “this really happened”. Some of it is not factual but not for that reason less valuable.
Some people can be scandalized by the assertion that no, not everything in the Bible is literally true, which is strange because those parts were never written or intended to be taken that way. Jonah was never swallowed by a whale: the work is a moral tale told by someone who knew he was making it up, to readers who also knew he was making it up. Why should modern readers be different?
All the books of the Bible were written by real people living in concrete historical circumstances. Often they were copying from previous authors, updating their works for new circumstances. The stories about King Solomon for example were not written during Solomon’s reign, but much after; they reflect not the realities of 1000 BC Judah, but the problems and aspirations of a much later date, much the way Le Mort d’Arthur reflects the ideals of the 14th century, not the 7th.
This does not mean that the words of an author can’t take on new resonance with time, and even have new realities discovered in them which are beyond the intentions of the original author. The scribe who complied the stories of the Book of Samuel never dreamed how his ideal Davidic reign would contribute to later messianic theology. The author of the Song of Songs had no idea later readers would find mystical allegories in his erotic poem.* The new interpretations are not illegitimate, but a natural process of the development of Biblical thought.
Historical context also means asking about the circumstances in which the text would this have been read. The Book of Ruth, we know, was always read during the Feast of Tabernacles. Most of the New Testament was meant to have been read during Eucharistic celebrations. This changes interpretation: for example, the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus, in which he interprets scriptures and breaks bread for them, follows the pattern of the same Eucharistic celebration in which the passage was read.
This should go without saying, but most Biblical authors, and all New Testament authors, are theologians. Many had formal training as scribes or rabbis. They are writing primarily about God’s self-manifestation in human history with the intention of not just retelling, but of understanding and explaining the events.
One should not read a document like the Gospel of Mark as a straightforward telling of events. Despite the fact that the author is obviously not very comfortable writing Greek, he has a well thought out message he wants to communicate about Jesus. His theology determines how he tells his story: it is why he arranges his Gospel into a chiastic pattern, and why he often uses two very similar stories to bookend together a sequence of events, creating a narrative unit. His arrangement of material is a conscious choice, and the story he is telling he always has a theological point.
The ultimate context of Biblical writings is the actual historical communities from which they came, and which still exist to this day. The Old Testament is the book of the Jews, and both Old and New Testaments are the books of the Church. These collections of books have to be seen in their proper environment which is as part of the living traditions of real communities.
Another way of putting it: the main artifact of God’s intervention in history is not a book, but the peoples he has called to himself, the Jews and the Church. Christians are not the product of the Bible, the Bible is a product of Christians. Most Bible-based modes of argument have this historical reality completely inverted.
By “the Church” I don’t refer to any specific denomination or hierarchy, but the community of believers that goes back to the 1st century. I do think the Catholic, Orthodox and Ancient Churches of the East have more claim to continuity with the first century in practice, institutions and doctrine than Evangelical Protestant churches, most of which consciously broke off that continuity.
The Church has always read the Old Testament in the light of Christ, and has always exercised an attitude of critical appropriation towards it. Referring again to Emmaus: before breaking bread with his disciples Jesus takes time to explain to them how the scriptures (the Old Testament) are fulfilled in him. This was the pattern of first century Christian worship: read the scriptures, explain how they relate to Christ, and then celebrate the Eucharist as he taught. This is how the first Christians interpret the Old Testament – with reference to Jesus – and it is how they still read it today.
Using the Bible against the Church has to be done with a certain care. It is possible to use it to challenge practices or demand a return to a more authentic Christianity on the part of Church members or hierarchy, but most of the time we are making a mistake if we assume a break in continuity between the Bible and the Church.
For example, the argument is often made that the Church is inconsistent in condemning homosexual acts based on one line of Leviticus (putting aside for the moment St. Paul’s condemnation of arsenokoitēs) while ignoring other Levitical laws, or condemning abortion when there is not one reference to abortion in the Bible.
The accusation makes no sense because as we saw above the Bible is not a collection of binary propositions upon which to build doctrine the way Euclid builds his geometry on self-evident definitions and postulates. It is rather the book of a people, and makes no sense apart from them.
Even without St. Paul unambiguously condemning certain sex acts one can safely say that the Church has always taught this, that early Christians brought 1st century Jewish sexual morals into the wider world, whether it is written in the sacred book or not, because the peoples predate the book. The same goes for abortion: Christians have always been known for rejecting it, at least in principal. It does not have to be in a book, it is simply something Christians ought not do.
The project of reading the Bible in a more sophisticated and theological way is not necessary for beneficial personal reading, but it is for interpretation. A good Biblical commentary that is focused on historical-critical analysis helps in all this, so here are some recommendations:
- The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Catholic), I like it mostly because it comes in one volume.
- Raymond Brown’s Biblical commentaries are useful insofar as he simply compiles the majority and minority opinions of liberal Bible scholars without much of his own commentary, and it is nice to know what the liberals are thinking.
- On the conservative side is (Anglican) Bishop N.T. Wright who publishes everything from short popular commentaries as Tom Wright in his “For Everyone” series to middle-brow works (these are just my level) to scholarly multi-volume Summae. I don’t agree with everything Wright says but he is always engaging.
- Finally, if you have piles of money, or at least access to a good university library, I recommend the (Interdenominational) Anchor Bible. It is a scary hundred or so volumes, but the introductions and comments are worth perusing if you have interest in a particular book of the Bible.
*Rereading this today it occurs to me that the author of Samuel could have had a messianic theological intention, or possible that Song of Songs always had a mystical meaning. I don’t want to automatically discount the possibility.