The Bible has been the most read and most hotly debated book, or collection of books, in history. That being the case, why are there so many different opinions about what it says?
A big part of the problem is people want to use the Bible to affirm their opinions, instead of letting their opinions be formed by the Bible.
The Bible was written over about 1,600 years in a few languages and very different cultures and situations. Each book was written for a specific group of people at a specific time in history. While the message itself is not complicated, careful study is needed to grasp the full meaning of what is written.
It has been used by millions of people to shape their spiritual lives and has been a great life-changing experience. This happens when it is read “correctly,” meaning the reader understands what is being written. However, there are some common mistakes people make when they approach the Bible. Here they are:
Taking it out of context
Context is everything, and this is the biggest mistake people make. Taking one sentence by itself can mean whatever you want it to mean, and it may be wrong because that is not what was intended by the author.
A common joke in Christian circles is to quote two verses that show how taking something out of context works.
“Judas went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)
“Go, therefore, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
It’s easy to see how putting those two sentences together gives a much different meaning than what either one of those verses says in their context.
Many times it is not that straightforward. I would go so far as to say a single verse or sentence, by itself, has no meaning apart from its context. Theology, or doctrine, should not be based on just one verse.
Another example is 1 Peter 3:21, which contains the phrase “Baptism, which saves you.” To a lot of people, this means you are not saved if you are not baptized. It does indeed say that, but the rest of the sentence says “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” While the phrase “baptism saves you” is there, it is clear that is not the meaning when read in context.
What to do: Read several paragraphs before and after any verse you want to study to see what the context is. Try to understand the message of the entire book instead of taking one sentence and making it into “what the bible says.”
Consider the greater context. How does what you are reading fit into the chapter, the book, and the entire Bible? If it seems to confuse what you read elsewhere or seems to contradict what you read elsewhere, you will need to do some more studying.
Ignoring historical and cultural context.
This is another level of context. The Bible is timeless with its spiritual message, but it was written at a specific time in a specific culture. It is important to understand the times and the culture.
It does seem misogynistic at times, but that was the culture. It was considered normal in that culture at that time. It is possibly less misogynistic than other writings at the time.
We should try to understand what the original author intended, and how the original readers would have understood it.
What to do: Read other books on ancient cultures to understand the times. Many study Bibles contain information that will help you understand the historical and cultural context of what is being said.
Ignoring the genre of the writing.
The Book of Psalms is a book of poems. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings. The Book of Romans, in the New Testament, is an in-depth theology book that explains complex ideas in great detail.
You do not interpret poetry the same way you would a philosophy book. In the same way, you should not interpret Psalms the same way you would Romans.
The first three gospels are called the synoptic gospels because they give an account of what Jesus did, and what was happening around him. The gospel of John puts stories in a different order and focuses on the spiritual meaning of the life and death of Jesus. Understanding that difference could change how you understand the Gospel of John, as opposed to the Gospel of Matthew.
What to do: Understand the type of literature you are reading, and how each of those types should be read.
Eisegesis versus Exegesis:
Eisegesis is reading a meaning into the text, while exegesis is drawing the meaning out. Many people bring preconceived ideas and biases to the Bible, and that clouds how they see the scriptures. People often go to the Bible to find verses out of context to prove what they believe, and this is the reverse of what should be done.
Recently, people have been saying that David raped Bathsheba in the famous Bible story. There is no indication that their relationship was not consensual. You have to read rape into that story.
What to do: Try to identify your biases and ideas. Let the Bible say what it says, and let it shape your beliefs, instead of just trying to find things to back up opinions you already have.
Taking it too literally, or not literally enough:
There is the idea of the basic meaning of the text. Some people over-spiritualize everything or make it more complex than it needs to be. Sigmund Freud once said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” There are other times when it is something more than just a cigar.
You can usually tell from the context whether the author intends what is written to be taken literally or not.
Jesus told a lot of stories about farming which had spiritual messages. It was an agrarian society, so people could relate to those stories. He was not talking about how to go about farming, which would be a hard literal interpretation.
Some things are debatable. Did a flood cover the entire earth? People have strong feelings about the question, but that may be a place where you can make your own choice. Going back to the idea of the entirety of scripture, whether that story is literal does not affect the overall message of the book, so you could argue that it does not matter.
On the other hand, there is the story of Jesus dying and rising from the dead. This is also debated, but it is the basis of the entire Christian religion. In this case, it must be taken literally if you want to take Christianity seriously, or the Bible seriously, at all.
What to do: Pay attention to the context. Often it is obvious whether the writer intends something to be literal or not.
Ignoring the big picture:
People fail to read the bible as a whole collection of books. That would take some time, but it would help you understand the individual books better. When you focus on individual verses or passages, you are in danger of getting out of context and missing the meaning entirely.
A common phrase used is “scripture interprets scripture,” and this is keeping every context inside its greater context. The Bible fits together well and is very coherent when taken as a whole. To properly understand any passage, it is a good idea to understand what the rest of the Bible says about that subject. That should play a part in any Bible study.
What to do: If you have not done so, read the entire Bible. Read large sections at once to get a better idea of the big picture. It is good to dig into an individual verse for detailed meaning, but you have to keep in mind the entire picture at the same time.
The Bible is a complex book, and understanding it fully is complicated and takes some serious study. There is also a tradition of interpretation that goes back thousands of years, and that too, must be taken into consideration.
There is also the supernatural, or spiritual, aspect. The Holy Spirit enlightens and helps believers understand the spiritual meaning. Even so, we should use our brains first to understand the plain meaning of the text as much as possible.