Do you read the Bible on a regular basis?
Or do you view it as an anachronistic expression of values from a pre-scientific era?
It doesn’t matter.
If you live in Western society, you should read the Bible.
If you wish to understand human nature, you should read the Bible.
If you seek to lead people, or even yourself, you should read the Bible.
Everyone should read the Bible.
And not just read it, but read it with the intent of understanding it.
Which is different than reading it to win an argument, or reinforce already existing beliefs and ideas.
Why should everyone read it?
Whether you personally ascribe to the holiness of the Bible or not, it is the foundational text of Western civilization.
I should add, my intent here is not to convince you that the Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit, but simply to suggest that we owe it to ourselves to be open to the wisdom and teaching contained in the books.
That’s where I started, simply absorbing the wisdom of Proverbs (the wisdom books continue to hold a special place in my heart).
I didn’t start reading the Bible as a Christian, at best I was an open-minded agnostic, very critical of organized religious entities, but willing to admit that wisdom is timeless, and often found even amongst those we disagree with.
I would’ve found myself more often in agreement with atheists than any Bible-thumper at that time of my life. But even Christopher Hitchens, one of the renowned Four Horsemen of Atheism says of the Bible, “ A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one.”
None other than Richard Dawkins himself, the original Horseman of Atheism, calls the Bible “a great work of literature.”
Yet, even in this concession, these brilliant men reduce the Bible in a way that betrays the true value of the most widely published and distributed book in human history.
The Bible didn’t shape Western society solely because it was a great work of literature.
Shakespeare wrote a host of great works of literature, they aren’t the foundation of a cultural revolution.
Monks didn’t spend their lives copying scripture to maintain a common store of image.
There are no martyrs of the Odyssey or the Iliad.
They didn’t die to protect an allegory.
While there are many Christian examples of putting the Bible to positive impact in the world (Mother Theresa, St. Francis. St. Anthony, St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day and others), Ghandi’s close connection to it is uniquely powerful, particularly since he was a devout and practicing Hindu.
You don’t have to be Christian to use the lessons of the Bible to make it a better place.
In trying to recognize the truth contained within this collection we call the Bible, it is important to acknowledge that understanding and applying context to this ancient and influential book is difficult and requires some actual effort and study.
Martin Luther made some good points in his criticism of the corruption of the worldly Catholic Church in the 16th century, but his destruction of the tradition which informed understanding the Bible is one of the great mistakes of Western Civilization (and that’s really saying something). It led to a self-referential religious preference which fragments Christianity and allows the individual to become the arbiter of holiness.
While personal interpretation is important to an individual’s spiritual journey, it is necessary to consider the Bible in the language and culture of ancient Israel and then consider those lessons in contemporary circumstances. Too often we read our own cultural perspective into the Bible, which is an obvious and natural error, but an egregious one nonetheless.
I’ve broken out three key points of consideration to help read the Bible more authentically.
1. Is the Bible true? How to read the Bible with nuance based upon genre.
2. Many books, one story. Reading the Bible as a developing story written by a host of authors.
3. Explore the historical and linguistic context of the Bible. It was not written in English and does not take place in 21st century America.
1. Is the Bible true?
Yes and no.
Too often people try to categorize the Bible as a single genre-a religious story- but it’s more complex than that.
It is a collection of writings spanning at least a thousand years and includes history, folklore, mystery, epic, poetry, and self-help.
The Bible is a unique single story running from creation to the final days, and indeed the remarkable coherence of the story forms a narrative across writings, but in order to properly understand that narrative one must read each piece, each book, in the context and genre in which it was written.
It would be a mistake to read Exodus the same way you read Proverbs, or Chronicles the way you read Matthew.
If you read the Book of Job as a literally true account of events, rather than an exposition on moral action in a world in which suffering is real, you run into some really challenging theological and moral questions about why God would make a bet with Satan.
If you read Jonah as history rather than folklore, you might believe you can actually live within a whale for several days.
Origen, one of the earliest Church Fathers (c. 184–253) and one of the most influential theologians of the entire Christian tradition said,
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. — Origen, On the First Principles IV.16
Origen is essentially saying that we should not make the mistake of taking the wrong stories literally. This does not mean they are not true, simply that they are not literally true. Sometimes metaphor is truer, and more useful, than historical facts.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you read history as folklore, you end up denying certain aspects of reality and closing yourself off from truth. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Those who deny the existence of Jesus Christ commit this error, preferring to categorize the entire Bible as myth, folklore, or ethical parable. Jesus can then be dismissed as either a wisdom guru, a long-haired Tony Robbins, or as a myth, a continuation of a story meant to give people a false hope and control them.
Yet the historical evidence of Jesus’ life and reality are strongly rooted, and in fact this connection to the historical narrative does not appear in mythology, which prefer characterizations such as “In a time long ago” or “In an age before.”
The New Testament locks the story of Jesus in the historical narrative by connecting him with Pontius Pilate, Herod, and concrete geographies known to exist during that time*, and it offers the promise of real suffering in this life and almost impossible challenges in the pursuit of virtue and holiness.
(*Yes, there are inconsistencies and factual errors in the historical narrative, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t historically rooted. 35% of Americans can’t name a single branch of our government in the modern information age…We are prone to the errors of our humanity, both then and now.)
When we read the entire Bible through a single genre, a single lens, it becomes flat, contradictory, and disconnected from the real and complex experience of our lives.
This is particularly true when we try to read the entire collection literally.
We need to reclaim the color and depth of the biblical stories by learning the proper genres, historical contexts, and in many cases linguistic contexts which make these stories valuable to us today.
In order to understand the Bible, we need to understand how to read it properly and let go of the impulse to coldly wring every secret from it.
It is not a scientific text, and it requires us to approach with a bit more humility and openness to non-scientific, but very real learning.
Realize that truth is more than facts.
We have a tendency in our modern Western culture to reduce all truth to facts. But love is not a fact. Honor is not a fact. The emotional contexts in which we live our lives are real, but they are not factually present in the way we are taught to think.
We need to open ourselves up to the truths of life which are always irreducible and far more satisfying than the fully bounded facts of science.
Science is amazing, and a beautiful and noble pursuit, but science really doesn’t help in comforting a friend, defining a moral action, or discovering purpose.
Please don’t read any of my words as being anti-science, I love science, but it does not define meaning in our life. A higher sense of truth is necessary (whether you are religious or not). The purpose of your life is not scientifically defined, it is a truth slowly unveiled.
Your purpose may be scientific discovery, but the internal motivation within you that gives meaning is not science.
It is something much more.
It is truth.
And it is this flavor of truth which the Bible offers.
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” -MLK Jr.
2. Many books. One story. Reading the Bible as a developing story written by a host of authors.
One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that it was written by over one hundred people, and yet contains a single narrative: Human relationship with God and salvation.
Christoph Römhild and Christopher Harrison put together a remarkable textual cross-reference chart which demonstrates how beautifully integrated each of the stories are with others and how the themes and messages throughout the stories, and across authors, echo again and again.
This is particularly important when discussions suggest that there is a difference between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.” It is all one story, and one God, but our understanding does develop, and you can see this understanding grow as the Bible progresses from Genesis to Revelation.
As you can see in the chart, ideas present at the beginning of the story echo and rebound throughout. It is not through a process of invention, but rather what St. John Henry Newman acknowledges as the “development of an idea.” In his great work, The Development of Christian Doctrine, he says,
There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea, no one term or proposition which will serve to define it; though of course one representation of it is more just and exact than another, and though when an idea is very complex, it is allowable, for the sake of convenience, to consider its distinct aspects as if separate ideas.
We are constantly refining, polishing, and exploring ideas so that we can manifest them more truly in the world. So it is in the story of the Bible. That doesn’t mean the root idea itself has changed, we have simply tested it and found that there was more to the idea than originally conceived.
Now, there is a true challenge in this. A trick of sorts. If you pick up the idea at the end, you may not understand the development of that idea and thus misunderstand the context upon which it rests.
This happens constantly when people try to divorce Jesus from his Jewish roots, or when they try to discard the Old Testament as having been replaced by the New.
We must understand the old covenants, and our failures, to recognize the beauty and opportunity of the new covenant.
The covenant presented in the New Testament is not a new offer, we need to understand how we’ve broken the old covenants if we are to grow as a people, as a culture, and as a world.
3. Explore the historical and linguistic context of the Bible. It was not written in English and does not take place in 21st century America.
We tend to make things outside of ourselves revolve around our perspectives, and this happens frequently with Biblical interpretation.
But the Bible does not revolve around the modern American in the 21st century.
It revolves around the timeless truths, the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose and it expresses them in the context of Israel/Palestine two thousands years ago and beyond.
This is important to remember, particularly when trying to assign meaning to parables and moral lessons.
We need to recognize the deeply agricultural context of that world, as well as the subjugation of an entire people to foreign oppression. We need to see the legalistic power games of the Pharisees/Sadducees and the geographic/demographic schisms that were well-understood and present in the cultural persona of a Jew during that time.
We need to explore the linguistic variations behind key words like love, which in Greek expresses itself as eros, storge, philia, and agape in the Bible. Agape in particular is a somewhat unique concept which is probably closest to sacrificial love. It is God’s love for us and it is what Jesus calls Peter to do when he tasks him with caring for the flock (John 21:15–17).
One of the challenges of the Bible is that the wisdom and information is so complexly interrelated (remember the textual analysis chart above?) that when we simply sit down and read it the way we would any other book so much is lost to us.
Meaning, beauty, and value disappear when we read it like a great big book.
It should be viewed as a deep and wide treasure of meditation.
We are not great at just sitting and marinating in thought these days, but it is a powerful opportunity to move knowledge from our over-stimulated brains to our too-often hardened hearts. We know many things with our heads these days, but so little with our hearts.
Like when our minds are trying to learn a new language, our hearts do not integrate new ideas, new truths quickly, because it is a new way of approaching the world. We need to start small and spend time with chewable segments of verse.
Read one chapter of one book each day and spend ten minutes afterwards thinking through and imagining it. Read it again. Think through phrases which stand out and apply them to different contexts in your life and relationships.
If you’re already a Bible-carrying Christian, start looking at the writings and commentaries of the Church Fathers, people who lived in the age of Jesus and the Apostles, some of whom learned directly from Peter, Paul, James and John.
Find out what the people of that age thought of these writings and discover their remarkable clarity and insight.
If you are like I was, seeking wisdom, not faith, them start with the books of wisdom. Proverbs, Sirach, Ecclesiastes, and the Wisdom of Solomon are what I would recommend from the baseline of the wisdom literature (you will likely need to get a Catholic Bible as Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon are often excluded from Protestant Bibles).
Maybe try on a psalm here and there.
Read them more than once. For a year I read one proverb a day (there are 31 proverbs so I read that book 12 times that year). There wasn’t a month that went by where I didn’t come to understand something I hadn’t noticed the month before; where I didn’t see a new glimmer of wisdom I’d missed last month; where it wasn’t valuable to me to have read it again.
I actually do not recommend those “Read the Bible in a Year” types of challenges until someone is deeply familiar with and comfortable around the language and contexts of the Biblical stories.
See if you can find something each day that makes you smarter, wiser, and more loving tomorrow.
The Bible can be used poorly by those who intend bad things (and it has been), but it has also been a light of Western civilization and its power shines brightly in the hands of those who want to make the world a better place.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” -MLK Jr.
Gerald Gabel is a writer, theologian, speaker, and perpetual student. From martial arts and physical fitness to business and finance, psychology and spiritual health, Gerald’s goal is to put his restlessness to work helping others.
Gerald is a veteran, entrepreneur, and community servant. He is a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Washington State University, and St. Joseph’s College of Maine where he received his Masters of Arts in Sacred Theology.