How we read the Bible

Bible Reading

Fear not folks – this isn’t a piece on the Magisterium and Protestant “private readings”.

Recently my Christian reading has been in a decidedly academic vein – which might not be saying much, but anyway…I have been enjoying the fresh perspective that Dr Mike Heiser has given to reading the Bible – and when I say “fresh” I really mean “sort of new to me.” Those of you who will happily sit down with the likes of NT Wright,  Jonathan Klawans, or Michael Coogan will appreciate where I’m coming from.

One of the tasks that a Christian faces in his or her reading of the Bible is the problem of passages that seem “weird.” (Don’t worry folks this isn’t a post on Revelation or anything eschatological.) A variety of options present themselves in this situation:

-Ask your pastor/priest

-Ask a friend or contact a Bible teacher

-Try and research the topic yourself using commentaries, articles, books, etc.

Now I’m not necessarily talking about things that are defined by creeds, councils, etc; there are parts of the faith in pretty much every denomination where Christians have freedom to disagree – provided they treat their opponents with respect and civility. In these areas of freedom our own conscience, inclinations, and abilities will play a large role in trying to make sense of difficult and strange Bible passages. Traditionally Christians in these circumstances have had recourse to consult the Fathers or learned expositors like Matthew Henry or John Calvin. But what does one do when these sources disagree? Much as we would like to affirm complete unity across the great men of the faith, we have to accept that this was not always the case. Try as one might, one cannot reconcile S. Hippolytus and S. Jerome on some issues: either one is right and the other wrong or both are mistaken – they can’t both be right.

This is where modern scholarship can be very handy, provided it is accessible. We need to remember – and this is no criticism of our august forebears – that the doctors of the Church didn’t have access to the archaeological materials and other sources that have more recently been discovered. It is the lot of more recent generations of churchmen to make sense of materials that can challenge and enlighten our understanding of the context in which the books of the Bible were written.

These discoveries have not always been happy, and they have challenged Christians to reconsider some of their “traditions” (by which I don’t mean an attack on Tradition as Catholics and the Orthodox would understand it). But our faith is built on firm foundations, and nothing could ever challenge the true authority and sovereignty of our God.

A case in point is the discovery of tablets in Mesopotamia that recounted the Flood story, but not in the form we know from Genesis. In these accounts the Noah figure is referred to as Uta-napishtim (“I have found life” in Akkadian) or Ziusudra (which has a similar meaning in Sumerian). Uta-napishtim is alerted to the Flood by the god of wisdom, Enki or Ea, and he proceeds to build a “boat” (more like a cube) which he lines with pitch to keep out the water. Like the Biblical Noah, he is accompanied by family and animals, and he sends out birds following the Flood to search for dry land. Upon his exit from the “boat” he offers a sacrifice and Enlil, the god who sent the flood, is appeased.

When these tales were discovered they caused controversy: for some they were an affirmation of the Bible’s Flood narrative, for others the discoveries undermined the Bible – the Hebrews’ account was just a derivative of the Babylonian material. How could one believe any claims about Biblical authenticity?

We have to live with the results of these discoveries; but rather than igonoring them, we should allow them to help us form a better picture of the Ancient Near East (ANE), the context in which the books of the Tanakh were written. But rather than seeing the Biblical account as merely derivative of older traditions, we should understand it as a polemic against the beliefs and practices of the world surrounding the Israelite nation. The Biblical writers were not afraid to use material from their neighbours and their ancestors – but they subverted it to affirm the truth of the revelation given to them as a nation (vide Rom. 3:2 “to them were committed the oracles of God”).

The Bible consistently claims that Yahweh is the creator and that His sovereign purposes stand. There is no god like him in the heavens above or the earth beneath. It was He who saved Noah from the Flood, He who accepted sacrifice and promised never to send a flood again.

So, the next time you come across something strange in the Bible, don’t be afraid to search for a reputable Christian scholar – you may just learn more than you bargained for. They too serve God and His Church: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” (Gal. 6:6)





3 thoughts on “How we read the Bible

  1. At my public university, I took a class on called Geomythology. We read works that some would consider to undermine the Noah Flood story; however, in my reading of the evidence it reaffirmed the story. Academically, I come from the school of history, where much of what I gather is from eyewitness accounts. In this manner, what the multiple flood stories would indicate is that there was a large flood, the natural history also tells me that it was probably a regional flood and not a world flood. A proper historicism of the people who would have given these oral traditions would have shaped them under their own cultural understandings, and the participates of the period would have considered such a large flood to be a world event.

    However, does this dismiss Noah? I don’t necessirly think so; however, those who wrote about relied heavily on oral traditions and cultural understandings.

    I’ve actually written a pretty lengthy piece on the comparision of the Moses Infancy Narrative and the Sargon Infancy narrative, as Sargon is often used by Atheist to dismiss Moses and Christianity. I think the faithful, but not ignore these challenges but address them properly.

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  2. Having come to the Catholic faith from the testimony and the revealing of the innermost spiritual insights of St. John of the Cross, Biblical connundrums have rarely given me pause. From generation to generation there are new theories and they are rather pliable and used for various expositions . . . at times, at complete odds with one another. But the way that the contemplative saints read scripture seems to me to cut through the fog and get right to the heart of Christianity; a complete surrendering of self to God. These saints semed to live for God alone and to please only Him. Their love was slowly and carefully perfected such that God was their All in All. In fact, at times, I wonder how in the world I ever got caught up in teaching and doing Biblical Apologetics seeing as though it seems only the handmaid to the goal; union with Christ. Being a means, scripture points the way to prayer, asceticism, and a heart to do that which God demands or might call on the soul to undertake. For those souls found that the course is not easy but they became so dependent upon their God-centered existence that they would rather die than commit a small venial sin; and even a minuscule imperfection would cause them untold grief. I would say that their lives were totally saturated and immersed in the presence of God. It was the very air that they breathed. And without it, they would perish. So sadly, I find Biblical Scholars only slightly more interesting for their insights than I do Liturgist who seem to have no idea in this age what in the world they are doing. 🙂


  3. Nicholas – I’m going to deviate from the ‘mission statement’ of this blog, which is that we’re supposed to interact with the arguments presented and do so with respect rather than turning attention to the person.

    Nevertheless, the comments are connected with what you wrote.

    I don’t believe that there are two Christians since the time of Adam who see eyeball to eyeball on absolutely everything. Nevertheless, we recognise when someone whom we meet is governed by the Spirit of God – even when the ‘theological’ differences may seem rather large and perhaps even incompatible. Most of us have limited time and energy for philosophical study and haven’t even heard of Hippolytus, let alone read anything by him – and although we’ve heard of Jerome, we probably haven’t read him. I don’t think his ‘Commentary on Romans’ is in print and available in all good Christian bookshops. Certainly, the fact that the two gentlemen didn’t see eye to eye is something that few people have been worried sick over. Similarly, if John Calvin and Matthew Henry seem to be in disagreement, who cares?

    Some study is (of course) extremely interesting, but somehow it isn’t central to anything at all. When I first started listening to the ministry of James Philip back in the 1980’s, on the one hand it was a revelation to me that Scripture could be handled in that way and that sermons could be like that, but on the other hand, with the bits that I agreed with (say 90 percent of the ministry and all the important issues) the great thing about it was that he seemed to be formulating exactly what I had always believed, but hadn’t put into words.

    What worries me about you is all this business about counselling to deal with personal issues – perhaps going back to childhood. I very much hope it wasn’t a David Monier-Williams sort of thing (referring back to the old AATW blog when he effectively got booted off for peddling dangerous heretical nonsense). As a Christian, you’re supposed to have the Holy Spirit working within you. This is supposed to give you a certain amount of steel to deal with things – and I’m not at all sure where counselling comes in.

    The central point (which unites Christians) is the acceptance that I am a sinner, believing that Christ took upon himself my sin and that his crucifixion was necessary to deal with it, and understanding that, in the resurrection my sin has been forgiven and that I am right with God. That, in a nutshell, is the Christian faith. People who hold this are governed by the Spirit of God and have the Spirit living within them. Despite all the theological garbage that gets presented where finite minds try to explain the infinite in words – and disagree violently about it, yet we seem able to recognise when others are governed by the Spirit of God.

    I ask myself: why do you need all this counselling? The New Testament is full of examples of fine Christians who had to endure a bad childhood, and yet they magestically rose above it. Similarly, this post strongly indicates to me that you’re hoping to achieve something through study of literature and philosophy that simply doesn’t happen that way. For a large part, all the stuff you are reading simply falls into the category of ’empty philosophies of men’ even if they are talking about God and Paul’s letter to the Romans and stuff like that and using good and Holy phrases while doing so.


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