No other collection of words has wielded so much influence over so many individuals, nations, and cultures. The billions of adherents to the Abrahamic religions depend on its accounts; even Islam holds it in a certain regard.
The Bible is the most important collection of documents, ever.
Even those who don’t believe the Bible’s contents were revealed by God, even those who pay no heed to its instructions and warnings, are as likely as not to live in a culture that has been shaped by the Bible. The Christianization of Europe in the late ancient and medieval period laid the groundwork for modern Western culture. Even atheists can thank Christianity for eradicating the cults of thousands of various gods to which no one today pays homage—for creating a theological climate in which there was only one God left to reject.
The Bible’s collected books have been translated in whole or in part into over three thousand languages. It is the bedrock not only of Western civilization but also of the daily lives of billions of people who profess faith in the God of Abraham—Christians and, in the case of the Old Testament (the Tanach), traditional Jews. It directs our lives; it moves us, molds us, and shapes us.
For Christians, there is nothing more important than developing an accurate understanding of the Bible.
It is for precisely this reason that I think Christians should not be reading it.
Let me explain. Like millions of other American Christians, I grew up somewhere between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. In that hard-to-define place, I was only given a few absolute and concrete tasks, duties to which I was taught every Christian was obligated. One of these tasks was daily Bible reading.
Every day when I got up in the morning, I was told, I needed to read my Bible. Take five or ten minutes; read a chapter at a time. Once I had children, I was told, I was to read it to them as well. These family devotions were to be the centerpiece of our life together. This simple exercise would help prevent my children from leaving the faith as adults.
My dad had a Bible specifically designed to be read once per year; the reading plan included selections from both Old and New Testaments to be read daily. I can remember him reading it. As a child, I found this reading to be a chore—like castor oil, one Baptist preacher once admitted to a class I attended—but I was assured that over time it would become palatable, even enjoyable.
This and other urgent pleas from spiritual authority figures throughout my childhood planted in me a deep sense of guilt that I didn’t read my Bible enough—no matter how much, it was never enough—and a sense that Christians who didn’t read their Bibles every day were not really serious. So even when I didn’t understand, even when I didn’t want to, even when it was Greek to me (probably one of the first jokes every seminarian learns—the New Testament was originally written in Greek), I still tried.
I tried different translations. I tried commentaries. I asked for guidance from pastors and teachers. Yet just when I felt I had a handle on something, another verse, another passage, another book of the Bible seemed to throw me off track again.
Eventually, in seminary, I learned why it had been so difficult for me to understand the Bible I had been reading for so many years. I was dumbfounded at this discovery; it was so simple, but it explained so much. I have always wondered why pastors and teachers below the seminary level don’t simply pass this information on to their congregants and students—at least, not the pastors and teachers I was exposed to as a teenager and young adult.
What I discovered was that despite the multitudes of translations, cross-references, notes, concordances, Bible atlases and other helps available to the average English-speaking Christian, there remain four distinct barriers that keep most of us from really understanding the meaning of the text on which we have, like a poker player with a winning hand, gone “all in,” betting our lives and afterlives on its validity.
These four barriers make it truly difficult for everyone from every background—some more than others, but all to some degree—to truly grasping the meaning and significance of the scriptural texts. What are they?
Time, language, geography, and culture.
We live in a different time; we speak a different language; we live in a different place; we think and act and interpret the world around us in a different way.
We approach our English translations with the assumption that someone else has already done the work of overcoming these barriers for us. We think that reading the English text must be giving us a good idea of what the original authors were trying to communicate—and what God is trying to communicate to us through them. But in reality, translations—especially those designed for readability—only mask these barriers.
Herein lies the danger. If we come away from reading an English translation of a scriptural text with the idea that we have understood something, that we have learned something, and that we are ready to apply what we have learned in our life of faith, but in reality we have gotten something wrong—because we didn’t really understand the time, language, geography, or culture of the original human author—we are worse off than when we started. Where before we may have been open, now we are closed. Before, our wineskins were empty; now, they are full—but with the wrong vintage. Rather than breaking down the barriers keeping us from understanding God’s revelation, we will have erected a fifth: the dangerous assumption that we have already grasped it.
My hope is that in the next few articles in this series, you will find some simple first steps toward overcoming these barriers. Because if you’re a follower of Jesus—of the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua—you have no greater task than understanding the Bible. Properly interpreted, these precious documents, preserved through centuries, will enrich and strengthen your faith like nothing else can.
But we can’t, and shouldn’t try, to just read the Bible. Instead, we must approach it with the same care, respect, and open-mindedness with which we would approach any other ancient document. We must study the Bible, a task that requires far more from us. But in every possible way, this task is absolutely worth the effort.