Digging Deeper: Understanding the Bible Better
If you’ve been a Bible student for a while and want to understand things even more deeply, that’s great! I wanted to do that too so I thought I would offer some of the things that I learned in case that would help you as well.
I spent the vast majority of my life in evangelical Christian circles and most of what I picked up early on about the Bible came from that. But, I found that there are some things that probably aren’t communicated well or at all that would affect how one approaches the Bible. As you’ll see there are some well-meaning doctrines out there that don’t really end up helping us, but in addition, there are some amazing things about scripture that aren’t generally taught or understood which make the Bible even more amazing as a document.
As I provide this information, I should mention my background. I grew up learning a lot about theologies and doctrinal stances. By the time I graduated high school, I could explain Calvinism, Armenianism and even major doctrines of Catholicism. And I knew well the arguments for and against, etc. As I started learning more and more deeply, I realized:
A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing
My experience in evangelical churches is that there is a feeling of “we’re serious about the Bible” or “we know the Bible” . But, is that true? How much have we really invested in learning the Bible? Do we read it in large chunks and as a whole or do we just know proof-texts and read small portions? How “serious” have we been about learning it?
I thought I knew the Bible pretty well after having studied in churches for over 30 years. However, when I really started digging in, learning Greek, learning about how the Bible came together, learning how translation is done, learning textual criticism, learning about source texts (Masoretic or Septuagint?), learning how the writers of the New Testament wrote in terms of overall story, learning literary study, learning where doctrines came from and how they differ over time and in the Western church vs the Eastern church, I realized that what I had learned was basically a set of doctrines and readings that are 500 years old or less and many of those were developed in a reactionary position to either other church doctrines or to pressures in the secular world.
I guess what I’m saying is this: compared to the general population and even to most Christian populations, many evangelicals do read their Bibles more but that does not mean that we have studied it well or enough. In other words, just because we may know more than our neighbor still does not mean that we understand the Bible well or that we’ve learned enough to be dogmatic in our stances on doctrines. This leads me to my next observation.
We need to be careful about dogmatism and “my Bible says….”.
After studying more deeply, I came to realize It is naive to think that you can read the Bible solely in an English translation and take a dogmatic stand on doctrinal points. I often read or hear people say something like “well my Bible says…” which on so many levels is not good. Behind this kind of saying often lies pride or arrogance….”I know more and here’s my proof text”.
I know not all evangelical churches do this, but an environment of argument starts to form and we start to learn so that we can “argue” someone into being a Christian or coming to our doctrinal point of view. This is not to mention that saying something like “my Bible says” can be quite hurtful and also shut down dialogue and conversation with someone who genuinely wants to ask questions and may be seeking to know more about God.
In addition, quite frankly, unless you know Greek or Hebrew, you quite literally don’t know what your Bible says. You know what your English translation says. These are all reasons enough for us to dial down the dogmatism and to learn more before we speak so stridently.
Having said all of that, of course, one does not need a degree to be able to learn how to follow Jesus. The point of the Bible is primarily for us to be healed by doing (not just “knowing”) what He teaches while pursuing a real life with Him. It is easy to understand “love your enemies and do good to them”. We don’t have to disect that we just have to actually train with Jesus’ help in order to do it. It’s when we start building theological frameworks that we need to be able to understand things more deeply than just reading it in English.
So, are you ready to know more? Great! The first place we can begin in handling the Bible is to understand how we can best respect what it is and read it for what it is. Hermeneutics is one of the first things a serious Bible student needs to learn.
Introduction to Interpretation
My favorite book for beginning this understanding is Introducing New Testament Interpretation. Here’s a few excerpts:
“Scholarship begins from the recognition that these scriptural texts were written many centuries ago, in different languages from our own, in different cultures and societies, in different worlds of meaning from our own, and is concerned to understand them across the historical divide.”
“….Evangelicalism alone without scholarship can easily become dangerously lopsided in its emphasis on Scripture as God’s Word. The claim to hear God speaking directly through Scripture is quite proper. But it can easily become self-deceptive. Individual presuppositions can easily bracket out what one doesn’t want to hear. Or a meaning can be heard in a text which is quite divorced from its original or scriptural sense. A text can become a pretext. Or strange teachings and actions can be justified by a selective hearing of Scripture.”
“…..To set a text in its historical context, to hear it as it was intended to be heard and was in fact first heard by those who received and cherished it, is therefore one of the chief tasks of evangelical scholarship. This requires hard work – knowledge of original language, not just of NT Greek, but of the wider usage of the time as well, awareness of the difficulty of recovering the original text, appreciation of the significance of different genre, awareness of the broad social, political and religious context of the time (without which we cannot begin to hear the less explicit allusions let alone the taken-for-granteds), developing hermeneutical method and skills and so on. Hard work, but necessary. Only so will we have some check on whether what we hear from the text is in fact the Word of God as it was heard by those for whom these texts were originally intended.”
“….So the role of evangelical scholarship is crucial. That is why some pastors and teachers must go through the sometimes wearisome business of studying ancient languages and texts, of familiarizing themselves with theories of origin of the biblical documents, with questions of source and genre, form and redaction, word studies and specialist monographs, the theology and ethics of this NT writer or that. Because they share the responsibility with Christian NT scholarship generally of expounding the NT text with its original Word-of-God force in such a way that those they minister to may hear the Word of God for themselves and may have some of their misconceptions, including those about the Word of God, clarified and explained.”
You will most certainly learn more of these things as you learn from NT Wright and others, but if you want to go more specifically into this I would suggest:
Introducing New Testament Interpretation – edited by Scot McKnight
I also want to mention before I give further details that a number of evangelical Christians are touchy about close, critical looks at the Bible and I can understand why. But, there is a fear that has crept into Christianity that somehow people will show the Bible can’t be trusted. So, in some circles, Christians have built dogmas and fences around scripture essentially to protect it as being trustworthy. I understand the motive for this, but often the methods for doing this aren’t sound. Never fear though! I have found in all my close research of things that actually there is nothing to fear at taking a careful look at these things. Actually, you will have a more robust trust of the scriptures when you know more.
Where the Bible is concerned, you have nothing to fear! The Bible is amazing! Dig deeper, learn more! Do the critical thinking! The Bible will hold up! Here’s what you’ll want to learn more about:
The Source Documents of the Bible We Use Today
The Bible didn’t fall out of the sky in English and the books that are presently in it came to be put together over a period of time. How were these books chosen? And, we also need to learn about the copies we do presently have. Where and when are they from? Are they complete? It’s important to learn that there are textual variants and to learn how those have been handled by translators for example. Like I mentioned, I find people get nervous when these issues are brought up but you should be well aware that there are textual variants. Admitting this is not a detriment to the scriptures….actually this makes our trust level in what we read even higher.
No one is trying to “hide” things from the masses with regard to the content of the Bible. Transparency is key so everyone can best understand and trust. And, the overwhelming vast majority of textual variants are of minor things….misspellings for example. However, we must be well aware of some of the ones that aren’t minor for example that Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 are not in the earliest manuscripts. There are also other texts that we know are in different areas of different manuscripts. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 verses are not always located in that section. So, we need to be more careful with using these kinds of verses to hold dogmatic view points.
The Bible can be trusted precisely because we have been so careful with it. Both from the standpoint of its early copies and transmission but also because we are careful to look at all the copies. And for the NT in particular, we have an amazing number of copies. This is in great contrast to other secular documents of that time. So, we can have great confidence in the Greek text we presently use to translate from Novum Testamentum Graece as long as we understand the textual variants.
You can learn more about textual variants and textual criticism in Introducing New Testament Interpretation.
Bible Languages: Hebrew and Greek
The original language is very important to understand. And, in order to understand it well, we will have to also understand how the language was used at the time in the culture. Words mean what they mean within the culture that uses them. For example, a “boot” in the US is something you wear on your feet, but a “boot” in the UK can also mean the trunk of a car. And of course, languages change over time as well (for example, see 20 Words William Shakespeare Used Completely Differently To You).
Your present English translation uses a Greek NT source, but for the OT it uses primarily a Hebrew source (except sometimes that source is missing verses in which case they use the Septuagint). There is a bit of debate between the Western church and Eastern church as to whether the Masoretic Hebrew source (comes from around 700 AD) or the Septuagint (comes from much earlier with present sources going back to fragments from around 100-200 BC and full copies from around 400 AD) should be used to understand the Old Testament. See Masoretic Text vs Original Hebrew.
I’m not qualified to make the argument, but I can tell you something practical. The NT writers mainly quote directly from the Septuagint and have a LOT of echoes of the Septuagint by repeating certain OT phrases from the Septuagint. So, if you want to see the connections between the NT and the OT as the NT writers saw it, you’ll need to know Greek as well. And, I cannot overstate how important seeing the echoes of the OT in the NT are. There are many, many things you would not pick up in the English translation of the NT that are echoes of the OT, but you would totally see them if you were familiar with the Greek OT. These echoes link the whole story line and is something the original hearers of these books would have understood.
So, why learn Hebrew you might ask? Because Hebrew can also inform us of the word that lies behind the Greek word. For example, the Greek word “irene” (which in English is “peace”) is how the Septuagint translators translated the Hebrew word “shalom”. Because of this, we know that “peace” isn’t just something about a lack of conflict but is rather related to “shalom”, that things are “whole, complete” and just as they should be…..everything is functioning as it was intended and everything in that sense is “good”.
Interestingly enough, this also works in reverse for us. There are few ancient Hebrew documents and therefore it is at times difficult to determine what an ancient Hebrew word means. Often the only source is to see where a word appears and how it is used in the Bible. But some words aren’t used much….there may be times where it’s only used once. This is where the Septuagint can help us. We can see how the Jewish translators translated from the Hebrew into the Greek by looking at the Septuagint.
You will find that understanding the Septuagint will becomes vital for certain NT words. For example, the Greek word “hilasterion” is sometimes translated into English as “propitiation”. However, we should already know what “hilastarion” means from how it’s used in the Septuagint and the Hebrew word it is related to. “Hilasterion” is the “mercy seat”. So, there is actually a big difference between the idea of “propitiation” (appeasing God) and the mercy seat (the place where you receive mercy). And the difference is in part an understanding of the nature of God. This one word becomes very important in a verse like Romans 3:25.
Ready to learn Greek?
You can learn using the same texts used in many seminaries:
Learn to Read New Testament Greek – David Alan Black
Basics of Biblical Greek – William Mounce
It’s important to understand the time and culture of the documents we read. You will understand certain things better in the Bible if you know these things. For example, the Greek words “zoen aionion” get translated as “eternal life” but actually are quite literally “life of the age”. In order to understand that phrase, you have to understand what it meant in Jesus’ day. This was a phrase already used at the time and used by other Jews besides Jesus and Christians. The Jews of the time understood that there is the present age and then the “age of come”. That was the age when everything would be set right again by God.
Now, this principle is true for both the OT and NT which were written in very different times and cultures. It is therefore useful to be able to access the information of these ancient histories from experts in those times. People like John Walton (for the culture and time of the OT) and NT Wright (for the culture and time of the NT). This is in fact a huge hurdle for those beginning serious Bible study.
NT Wright eventually wrote a book covering many of the various aspects of Jesus time and culture that is often used as a seminary text to help seminary students enter into the ancient time of 2nd Temple Judaism. This is a foundational text for a serious student of the Bible…it’s called The New Testament and the People of God
Framework and Method Matters
Whether most people realize it or not, almost all evangelical Protestant teaching is a product of a systematic theology like Calvinism, Armenianism, Dispensationalism, etc. It is unfortunate the most lay people aren’t aware that most ideas about God, Jesus and what is going on with humans, etc are derived from these axiomatic theologies rather than careful readings of the overall narrative. Of course, these theologies put forth “evidence” but that is in the form of proof texts where verses are not carefully understood in the context of both the book they are written in and the context of the whole Bible narrative. Now, there are several things that we need to be aware of with all of this.
Proof texting is how most people have been taught “what the Bible says” and the definitions of words have been formed by this method as well. As I’ve mentioned “eternal life” isn’t about going to heaven when you die and the “kingdom of God” is not something that happens later when Jesus returns. These definitions are incorrect because they are based on the systematic theology and not the Biblical use and contexts of the words especially in light of their use in Jesus’ day (and not our times).
So, what does this mean? The typical method we have learned as evangelicals in order to decide and even “argue” over the meaning of the scripture is to line up our proof texts….who has the most proof texts, which proof texts seem most “straight-forward”, and of course the argument is also partially won by the person who can spout them off the quickest. We must put this method away. This is not fruitful, not respectful of the Bible and can most certainly lead to wrong understandings. So, the methods we use to understand the Bible matters.
In addition, these systematic theologies are all predicated on the foundation that the whole point of the Bible is to tell you how to get to a place (how to get out of hell and into heaven) or off the hook with punishment. The foundation is based on the primary idea that God’s main thing is a “legal” case He has against you. So, our first question is …is that really what the overall understanding is in the Bible? Is God mainly caught up in legal matters? Is God’s justice as discussed throughout the Bible primarily retributive (someone must be punished) or restorative (let’s set things right)?
What if the story of the Bible isn’t primarily focused on how to deal with punishment and where you go when you die? If you start to understand that that is not the main narrative and that instead God is setting everything right again, then you have to come to the conclusion that the systematic theologies I mentioned will always be flawed because their foundational assumption is flawed. They will always be “off”. And, here’s what I’ve learned….I can’t fix that. If the foundation is wrong, I can’t tweek those ideas enough for them to be made right.
So, I don’t just think that somehow my Bible kung fu is better than a Calvinist or Armenian, etc. And, it’s not that I think them somehow dumb. I think at the end of the day we all have to look at the evidence and investigate the foundations of things to see if they are valid. This is exactly what science does (my background). To say a viewpoint is foundationally flawed is not an ad hominem attack or a judgemental statement about the person. It’s simply to say that system won’t work and continued debate about it really won’t help things. The foundation has to be right before anything else can be built.
Lest you think these are my ideas alone, here’s a quote from Ben Witherington III, highly regarded NT scholar….
“In my new book, which is not just a critique book I have suggested some new avenues of approach, but first of course one has to own up to the weaknesses of one’s own theological orientation, if one is brave and mature enough to do so. After that one has to realize that treating theology as a history of closely linked ideas is in fact a modern notion, a post- Enlightenment notion, which the Biblical writers would not have advocated or recognized as valid.
I am talking of course about the strip mining of Biblical texts–denuding them of their contexts and storied world in which they operate, and then transferring them into one’s ‘system’, for example with the ordo salutis– the so-called order of salvation (justification is followed by sanctification which eventually leads to glorification).
What’s wrong with this picture? Go back and read the Gospels, for example and try and find this sort of linking of ideas denuded of parables or social context or rhetorical moment. You won’t find it. And low and behold when you turn to Paul, Paul thinks of such ideas not in the abstract but in the context of stories– for example when he thinks of the Law he thinks of the story of Moses and Israel, when he thinks of faith he thinks of the story of Abraham, when he thinks of salvation obviously he thinks of the Christian event. It might be better to ask what story is this idea a part of than to ask– what idea can I chain link this concept to?
It is my hope that this book which I have written will stir up a lot of discussion, not defensiveness or furor. I think in the 21rst century we need to learn to do our theology in a more Biblical way, not just use the Bible as a justification or proof text for the theology we want to do anyway.”
Dr. Witherington is also quite well known for this quote: “A text without a context is a pre-text for a proof text.” or he sometimes puts it in a related way “A text without a context is a pre-text for whatever you want it to mean.”
And this is how NT Wright talks about it in His talk and article The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross:
First, we have platonized our eschatology. We have assumed that the aim is ‘going to heaven when we die’, not realising that the people who taught that in the first century were not the Christians but the Middle Platonists; not Paul, but Plutarch. The New Testament is not about souls going to heaven, but about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, about the new creation already symbolized in the wilderness tabernacle and brought into reality by the Royal Priest, Israel’s ultimate representative, the Word made Flesh. This isn’t just a matter of adjusting some nuts and bolts of what we say and think about our ultimate future – about God’s ultimate future! What we say about the future plays back into how we conceive the problem to which the cross and resurrection are the God-given solution.
Second, then, if we simply think about souls going to heaven we shrink the human vocation – to be the Image-bearers, the Royal Priesthood – into mere morality. Morality matters, but it matters as the by-product of being Image-bearers, summing up the praises of creation rather than worshipping and serving idols. Morality matters because only through properly functioning image-bearers will God’s rescuing justice flow out into the world. But if we focus on morality – thereby making the knowledge of good and evil the fruit around which we construct our theological menu – then we turn the whole large drama of creation and new creation into a self-centred play about me and my sin and what God’s going to do about it. And, with a great deal of western theology, we then re-read Genesis and all that follows, not as the story of the Temple and the Image, and not (in consequence) as the story of idolatry, but simply as the story of humans failing an exam, deserving punishment, and the punishment eventually falling elsewhere. In the Bible what matters ultimately is not sin but idolatry, wrongly directed worship; that produces sin. That is why the Christus Victor theme – victory over the dark powers – takes priority over, and then contextualizes, dealing with sin. When we worship idols we give them the power we ourselves ought as image-bearers to be exercising. We have, then, platonized our eschatology, and to fit we have moralized our anthropology.
And the result is that we have been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. It is in the ancient pagan world, not the ancient Jewish world, that we find stories of an angry God, an innocent victim, and someone being rescued from divine wrath because someone else – preferably an innocent someone else – get in the way at the last minute. Now of course few if any preachers or theologians will own up to preaching the gospel Jesus like that. They will always insist that they speak of Jesus’ death as the act of divine love. But you know, and I know, that this pagan story is what generations of people in the churches have heard. And that’s been all too easy because that is often how Christians have behaved: using would-be redemptive violence whether internationally or domestically, and always asserting that it is done with the best of intentions, out of love. And so people hear what they think is the gospel, but instead of hearing ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’ they hear ‘God so hated the world that he killed his only son’. And the biblical truth of penal substitution is thereby both distorted and shrunk.
Distorted: because, yes, there is a biblical truth we can call penal substitution, but it is not well expressed within the platonized eschatology and the moralized anthropology. It comes to clearest formulaic expression in Romans 8.1-4, there is ‘no condemnation for those in the Messiah’ because on the cross ‘God condemned Sin in the flesh’. He doesn’t say that God punished Jesus; he says God punished Sin – Sin with a capital S, we might say – in the representative flesh of the Messiah. That is obviously penal, and obviously substitutionary; but it belongs, not at the heart of a normal western narrative about how we get to heaven after all, but at the heart of Paul’s story of how humans are rehumanized, conformed to the Image of the Son. Paul’s formulae mean what they mean within the narratives to be found where most theologians don’t bother looking for them – in the four gospels themselves.
Reading the Bible with the Original Author and Audience in Mind
It is unfortunate that a good amount of present day theological ideas were formed through the lens of a person many centuries (in most cases even more than a millenia!) removed from the time they were written. We rather need to understand the meaning during the time of its original writing. It is self-evident that the books and letters of the Bible were written to be understood by the people of that day. They obviously weren’t gibberish to them because the other option is that they were gibberish to them and that somehow, in the case of Luther and Calvin, 1500 years later we’ve luckily figured out what the Bible means. I have a hard time thinking that.
This applies to theologies developed by Augustine, Anselm, Martin Luther and John Calvin (and others). They had a tendency to read the Bible through their own background and cultural lens. The outcome of this is that it specifically has done a great disservice to the writings of Paul.
Luther and Calvin, in particular read Paul through the lens of issues they were dealing with at their time…some theologies of the Catholic church. I grant that these theologies (like indulgences) needed great correction. Unfortunately, Paul’s texts were taken to address these issues….they made assumptions about Paul’s framework and way of thinking that assumed he was dealing with a similar issue among the Jews of Paul’s time.
Unfortunately, this has led to misunderstandings of Paul’s writings and therefore also to some flawed foundational theologies. In recent years, many theologians have addressed this and shown that Paul actually has to be understood in the light of the issues of his time. This is today called the “New Perspective on Paul”. However, this perspective on Paul is not new. You only have to read Eastern Orthodox theology regarding Paul’s letters and also early church documents to see that. Because Paul’s letters have been used as the primary basis for our modern systematic theologies, this corrective understanding is also important in being able to understand what Paul wrote.
You can learn about this New Perspective by listening to a podcast by Scot McKnight Everything You Need to Know About the New Perspective in 30 Minutes.
A good outline of the New Perspective on Paul is described in the IVP Bible Commentary Series, Paul and His Letters
Here’s the eastern orthodox saying the same thing, Saint Paul and the Works of the Law.
Lastly, the New Perspective on Paul is an important example of why proof texting, in this case about the law, doesn’t work. Paul has different things he says about the law and to understand his thoughts you must read them in context. When you do this, you’ll start to see the entire Bible hang together as a whole. All of Paul’s words make sense together. This is in contrast to the systematic theology approach which often leaves you with some verses that fit your framework and some that don’t.
This is the power of reading the Bible as a whole and in its grand narrative framework. The whole story makes sense and you aren’t left with verses that don’t fit. And, this is precisely the kind of thing we do in science…..what fits the data we have best. When you have pieces that don’t fit, you know your foundational framework is off.