How To Read The Bible

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Writer James Chapman created a list of the most read books in the world based on the number of copies each book sold over the last 50 years. He found that the Bible far outsold any other book, with a whopping 3.9 billion copies sold over the last 50 years.

While the Bible is the most read book in the world, it certainly is not the best understood book in the world. There are thousands of different interpretations of various passages and books in the Bible. Having a vast smorgasbord of interpretations has lead to over 30,000 different Christian denominations in the world today.

This situation becomes more convoluted as modern man has become dumb-down by the superficial messages within the pop culture, consequently, he generally has no clue how to interpret these ancient texts. Take for example, how laughable Biblical scholars view Bill Maher’s take on the Bible.

The stories of the Bible have been the object of sophisticated interpretation for two and half millennia. Great thinkers such as Origen, Philo, Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Henry Newman have uncovered the complexity and multivalent mode of the Bible. Here, these theologians have showcased the Bible’s oasis of deep symbolism and have delighted in showing the literary artistry that lies below its sometimes deceptively simple surface.

However, having been diluted by the cheap messaging of our culture, the average Joe in the pew has little experience in grasping the multi-layered meaning of a sacred text. Being overwhelmed in this setting, one can get lost, confused, and ultimately frustrated when reading this book.

Yet, God, in His wisdom, knowing that flawed humanity would divide into 30,000 different interpretations, provided for us a living guide to consult us – the magisterium of the Catholic Church. As Augustine of Hippo wrote in the fourth century, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”

Just as the apostle Philip guided the Ethiopian man to comprehend Scripture (see Acts 8: 26-39), so too the Church built on the apostles stands as our guide to understand the Bible and its ultimate meaning in Jesus. Historically speaking it was the Catholic Church, at the Council of Rome, that put the various writings together to what we know today as the full Bible. If the Church had the God-given authority to put the Bible together, why wouldn’t we think she didn’t still have this God-given authority to interpret and teach – to bind and loose.

This authority was on display for all to see in the early church. In the second century, Ignatius of Antioch said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” [Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8]

The word “authority” stems from the Latin word “auctor” which translates more accurately to “author’s rights.” Therefore, the author or creator of a book would naturally have the final say of what that book is about. Now that we’ve established where the authority of the Bible comes from, let’s next move to how this authority (the Church) helps us navigate towards the best mode of interpretation.

The most common mistake of all Bible readers is to read a text outside its natural context. As the adage goes, “A text out of context is a pretext.” For example, some read Jesus’ statement to “Give to him who asks you,” as though one had an obligation to give anything to a child as long as the child asks for it. Failure to understand that meaning is determined by context is a chief error of those who find fault with the Bible.

According to the Catechism, there are essentially two ways to interpret a text. There is the literal and spiritual interpretation (CCC 115). While there are subsets of meaning within the spiritual component, for our purposes we’ll classify the spiritual into the deeper meaning of the text by using allegorical images and subtle clues in typology.

The literal is the meaning the author is trying to convey all the while taking account of the popular cultural meaning. Therefore, the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” communicates that it is raining hard. In the literal, the author utilizes popular modes of figurative expressions that people will recognize.

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The literal is not to be confused with a “literalist” read on a text. A literalist would interpret a phrase outside the obvious context. Very few people, outside my three-year-old, takes the exact words without any contextual consideration. So, a literalist hears the phrase, “It’s raining cats and dogs” and views that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Hardly anyone approaches a passage through the lens of a literalist. However, when it comes to the Bible, most people, for whatever reason, run to put their literalist glasses on. Being far removed from the Biblical culture, one cavalierly implants today’s cultural read onto an ancient text. Therefore, they’ll read Genesis as if it should be compared to a science textbook. At this point, they’ve completely missed the point and ended up showcasing their literalist naivete.

The two stories of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:2; Gen. 2:4-22) are not intended to be a chronological scientific account. The author is writing about a real event with real people (see Humani Generis, 37-39). However, the author is not writing in a literalist mode in which all words are read with a benign surface-level meaning. He’s also not writing as a physics author outlining all the embedded scientific formulas within creation. Rather, the author is communicating poetically with literal cues throughout the narrative much like a sportswriter writes a column about a story without needing to go into the minutiae of the game itself.

Vatican II puts this in concrete terms when it indicates, “The Bible is the word of God but in the words of men.” The key phrase to hone in is “in the words of men.” God did not simply dictate to automatons who, in turn, merely wrote down every word in a robotic fashion. Rather, God worked through certain holy, appointed men in which their writing style reflected their audience and larger culture. Some of the books of the Bible are written as a saga, a poem, a letter, as history, as apocalyptic, and so on. The depth and the meaning of certain books vary with each writer’s style and genre employed. Therefore, much like one’s literary experience will fluctuate while wandering the halls of a library, one will also notice a wide variety of genres within the Bible.

The other key consideration is that the Bible is going well-beyond the surface level read of a story and asking the “why” of the matter. For example, when an illness ravages a remote village in Africa, the people will look to God for the answer. If a modern biologist comes to them to explain that the illness was caused by a certain venomous type of insect, the people would respond by saying, “Yes, we know that insects are doing this, but our question is why is this happening?” They are looking towards the more pressing question. But, our modern view continuously explores the basic question of the “how” of a phenomenon, whereas the Bible is more concerned with the deeper question of the “why.”

After we get passed the literal sense of an actual event, we then come to the spiritual perception (CCC 115-119). The spiritual essence reveals the profound meaning of an event. Here, one asks what does this event or story mean in the big picture? Ultimately, the spiritual meaning always points to Christ. Therefore, we read Abraham’s sacrifice to Isaac with God’s sacrifice of his Son, Jesus.

Spiritual meanings are based on historical realities. Yes, the event in the Bible happened, but the spiritual gist reveals the deep significance as it relates to Jesus and our salvation in general.

Given there is an interpretation mishap, we still might be confused as to how God and man communicate with one another. Assuredly, any disconnect comes from us, not God. God is the primary author of the Bible (CCC 105-107). And if God is all-perfect and all-knowing, it follows that the Bible is without errors (see Providentissimus Deus). Therefore, if we don’t understand a passage, the author hasn’t messed up, rather, we’ve likely made an interpretation error.

Yes, God used sinful men to write the Bible, but God is able to write straight with crooked lines. As Pope Pius XII said, “For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error.”

So, how is it that we flawed humans can make sense of God’s message? The big-picture meaning of the Bible is hidden in these clues called “typology.” As Biblical scholar Peter Kwasniewski states, “When these past entities themselves point to something further, we say they are ‘types,’ signs of something greater to come that already share to some extent in the character of that which is to come, and yet are like a shadow in comparison with a body. ”

Therefore, the people and events in the Old Testament represent prototypes that point to Christ and the Church in the New Testament.

Examples help clarify these concepts. The Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt under Pharaoh and were guided by Moses to cross the Red Sea and enter into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years, and later led into the Promised Land. All this is narrated in Exodus and constitutes the literal or historical meaning of the text. God chose to signify by way of these events something to come. The events are a type or shadow of things to come; they anticipate and prophesy them and in some way actually bring about what they signify.

By studying the early fathers, Dr. Kwaniewski helps us see that the historical deliverance of the Hebrews from their Egyptian bondage is an allegory for the liberation, by Christ through baptism, of fallen man from his slavery in the kingdom of darkness and of his embarking on a pilgrimage in which, strengthened by bread from Heaven, he must remain faithful to the promises until he is at last permitted to enter into glory. The corresponding clues in typology breakdown as follows:

  • Hebrew people = fallen mankind
  • Egypt = Satan’s kingdom
  • Pharaoh = Satan
  • Moses = Jesus
  • Red Sea = waters of baptism
  • Wilderness = earthly life
  • Manna = Eucharist
  • Promise land = Heaven

By the all-seeing and all-supporting providence of God, who is the principal author of Scripture, the literal-historical sense contains a further allegorical sense that we can apply to our lives. So, we can read Exodus and reflect that we are like the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness (earth) in need of the Eucharist so we can make it to the “promise land,” or do we prefer to go back to Egypt (i.e. the pop culture), like some Hebrews did, merely so our sensual pleasures can be satisfied (see Exodus 16: 1-3, Numbers 11: 4-6).

The Bible is filled with allusions to figures and types in the Old Testament that are taken in an allegorical sense and always point to Christ. For example, the story of Daniel’s peace in the lion’s den foreshadows Jesus, who, amid ferocious enemies that would tear him to pieces, triumphs over them. Therefore, Daniel is an allegory of Christ.

With typology and literal meaning we must avoid the typical pitfalls to graft ourselves towards God’s message to us.

As Nicholas of Lyra states, the literal sense “is not that which is signified by the words, but that which is immediately meant by the things signified.” For example, when Judges 9:8 says, “The trees went forth to anoint a king,” the literal meaning is not that a preternaturally talented tree anointed a king, but rather that the citizens of Shechem, who are represented by the trees, anointed a king. Therefore, this passage simply speaks of things by way of poetic images. It’s like saying, “The walls have ears.” We are not making a claim about painted plaster having a miraculous power of sensing, but using a colorful idiom to get our point across.

fishers-of-men

Jesus repeatedly taught in parables and used poetic imagery when he spoke. For example, when he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” no one thinks Jesus is saying he is actually a plant and we are attached to him as organic limbs. We obviously see that he is speaking metaphorically and that Christ is our preeminent source of life, and the Holy Spirit is like the sap running into a plant’s branches and leaves. If we are cut off from him, we cannot have spiritual life or bear any fruit. In this sense, Christ is our literal life-source even through this passage is not read in a literalistic fashion. The message in this passage is literal but the image portrayed is poetic. Therefore, don’t be confused about the word “literal.” There needs to always be a literal message even if it is displayed in a non-literalistic way. In other words, even though the passage isn’t intended to be viewed literally as Jesus as a branch, its meaning that Jesus is our source of life is meant to be understood literally. Just because the author utilizes expressive imagery does not dilute the literal message of a close, intimate relationship.

The same is true for all of the parables of Jesus. Take, for instance, the parable of the sower and the seed. In this instance, Jesus interprets his parable and points out what each metaphor corresponds to: the sower = God; the seed = the word of God; the soil = the soul preached to; the thorns = the cares of this life.

Consider how St. Thomas Aquinas address a parable:

“The parabolical sense is contained in the literal, for things are signified by words [both] properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Scripture” (ST 1, q.1, a. 10, ad 3).

Perhaps the most poetic book in the Bible is the Song of Songs. When interpreting this book, Aquinas first asks what is the literal or historical sense of the text? Then he contemplates what the author is signifying by the bridegroom and bride references given all the imagery used to describe them.

For Aquinas, the literal meaning of Solomon and the Shulamite woman in the Song of Songs is not the relationship between King Solomon and his bride. Rather, it is God as represented by the king, and Israel as represented by the bride. The literal, historical sense is the nuptial relationship of God and his people. That is, God who called forth a people, prepared them as a bride, and entered into a marriage covenant with them.

After this literal sense is established, the spiritual sense immediately follows: the covenant between God and Israel is a shadow of the more perfect, definitive covenant between God and man in Jesus Christ. That is, the old covenant is a type of the new covenant. As the saying goes, “The Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament and the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament” (cf. Col. 1:26). Therefore, The Song is literally or historically about the old covenant, the betrothal in the desert, and allegorically about the new covenant, the marriage consummated on the Cross. This story is then fulfilled with the marriage of Christ to his bride, the Church, as articulated in the book of Revelation.

What can we conclude? A careful reader does not skim the surface of the text and take every word “at face value,” as if the first meaning listed in the dictionary was what the author intended to articulate. Rather, he asks himself: what reality is the author speaking about or pointing to by means of his words? Is the author speaking with or without literary figures such as metaphor or parable?

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Notice the key is to ask how the writer reads the text – not merely how the reader sees it. The reader didn’t write it. So, the reader shouldn’t pridefully determine the meaning through his own omniscience, but rather understand the meaning through those who crafted it and were closest to the source. As mentioned above, the best mode of understanding is through the magisterium of the Catholic Church – which was founded by Jesus and handed on to the early apostles and exists today in an unbroken chain of succession. One who interprets his own meaning as though God was speaking directly to him inevitably sets himself up for failure.

Some simple advice; don’t try to be a hero with your own interpretation. If you do this, you’ll emulate the ignorant man with no engineering knowledge that throws away the building instructions of a complex machine insisting that his way is better than the very designer of that machine. Rather, when it comes to understanding the Bible, go to the early sources in the church fathers.

It used to be that people wrote off the Bible when they believed it contained historical errors. However, modern records  continuously indicate the reliability of Scripture while archeology  keeps unearthing artifacts that corroborate historical events in the Bible. Next, people tend to dismiss the Bible because the miracles it contains seem impossible. However, through reason, we can demonstrate how miracles are, in fact, possible. After showing all this, one’s last resort remains – “But I can’t understand it!” However, with interpretation clues, we can come closer to grasping the real meaning.

While these interpretation techniques can help, ultimately God provided the Church as a living breathing co-author. After all, the bride (Church) best knows the message of the groom (Jesus). They are intimately connected and always drawing you closer to the larger message of God. Knowing all this, let us now take some time and read the most popular book in the world.


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