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How to Read the Bible: Approaches and Translations

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  1. Three Ways of Looking at the Bible
  2. Lost in Translations
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There are as many different ways to read the Bible as there are people to read it. Whether you and the Bible have barely met or are trying to rebuild an old relationship, a fresh perspective can work wonders. Without pretending to exhaust all the possibilities involved in Bible reading, this chapter skims some of the options every reader has when approaching or reapproaching this massive, diverse, and frequently misunderstood book.
This chapter is from the book

In this chapter

  • Three ways to approach the Bible

  • An overview of seven popular Bible translations

There are as many different ways to read the Bible as there are people to read it. Whether you and the Bible have barely met or are trying to rebuild an old relationship, a fresh perspective can work wonders. Without pretending to exhaust all the possibilities involved in Bible reading, this chapter skims some of the options every reader has when approaching or reapproaching this massive, diverse, and frequently misunderstood book.

Three Ways of Looking at the Bible

Most people read the Bible in at least one of three ways:

  • As holy scripture

  • As history

  • As literature

As Holy Scripture

In the previous chapter, we discussed various beliefs regarding where Scripture comes from and classified them into three basic categories:

  • Fundamentalism—Holds that God is the author of the Bible. Biblical fundamentalists believe that the Bible is a holy and divine product and means what it says at face value (except in cases where the metaphorical intent is clear, such as when Jesus tells his parables).

  • Modernism—Holds that the Bible was written by human beings inspired by their relationships with God. Biblical modernists also tend to see the Bible as holy, but believe that context, metaphor, and the limitations of its human authors should be taken into account.

  • Secularism—Holds that the Bible is purely a product of human creativity. Biblical secularists believe that the Bible represents a literary tradition that has a great deal to say about human nature and the history and culture of the ancient Middle East, but they do not believe that God was involved in its origins.

Whether you believe that the Bible is the work of God, the work of human beings, or a combination of the two, it can still be a useful devotional aid. And if you believe that the Bible is a holy book, it has an additional virtue: It brings you closer to God.

There are many ways to read Holy Scripture, but everyone who draws religious meaning from the Bible does so as part of a group, individually, or through some mix of the two approaches.

There are several important advantages to group Bible reading: It exposes you to the viewpoints of others and gives you a way of expressing and clarifying your own understanding of the Bible. Group Bible reading is practiced in almost every church, but it receives particular attention in the Roman Catholic Church and in most mainline Protestant churches. These churches use lectionaries—books that reorganize the Bible into short readings that function well for church use, either during formal services or during small group prayer. The Jewish tradition also uses a lectionary approach; every week, one is given a parsha ("portion") of the Torah to read and study, preferably in a group setting.

The most common place to read the Bible as Holy Scripture in a group setting is in a house of worship, although it is not always necessary to join a religious community to participate in its Bible study programs. When in doubt, it is always a good idea to call and ask.

In Judaism, individual Torah study has always been encouraged. Within Christianity, however, individual study of the Bible is a relatively new phenomenon that came about during the fifteenth century and the height of the Protestant Reformation. Until that time, most people did not own a Bible or read it as they would a book—primarily because most people were illiterate. (Then again, at that point in history very few people had books, either.)

Individual Bible study can be challenging for those of us who cannot read Hebrew or Greek and do not fully grasp the context of each Bible verse. Fortunately, a good study Bible can solve this problem. In Appendix F, "Choosing a Study Bible," I’ve listed a few of my personal favorites. Online Bibles (such as those described in Appendix C, "The Top 25 Bible Websites") can also be useful, because they allow you to search the entire Bible for a word or phrase with only a few keystrokes.

As History

Although the Bible was not written to function as a history book in any contemporary sense of the term, it is the only book of its time to study the Christian movement in depth and the only book to chronicle the history of ancient Israel in any meaningful way. Reading the Bible as history can be a compelling experience, placing you in the mind of the ancient writers in a way that few ancient texts can.

Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, the Gospel of Luke, and the Book of Acts are especially useful for those seeking to study the Bible as history because these books are, in effect, histories. Judges, Kings, and Chronicles essentially tell the story of ancient Israel after the time of Joshua; the Gospel of Luke is the most objective and historical of the four Gospels; and the Book of Acts (written by the same author as Luke) tells the story of the early church in a fairly direct way. Few books of the Bible are completely devoid of history, but some are more oriented toward history than others. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, for example, cannot be read as historical narratives, and neither can most of the New Testament epistles.

As Literature

Whatever anyone might believe about the Bible’s religious value or historicity, few can deny that the Bible is one of the greatest literary anthologies ever produced. The Hebrew Bible is certainly the pride of the ancient Near East; nowhere else can the same level of complex characterization, the same detailed plots, and the same varying literary forms be found.

Even the Bible’s harshest critics acknowledge its literary merits. Books particularly well-loved by literary scholars include Exodus, Ruth, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, and the Revelation (Apocalypse) of St. John.

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