What does it take to really understand the Bible? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
We live in a day and age where most everyone thinks they can pick up a Bible, read it, and be an expert in it. You have the “prophecy experts” who think they can ignore the genre of a text and the historical setting and successfully pontificate on what is going to happen today. You have the fundamentalist atheists who think likewise that they just read the Bible and the “face value” of the text is what the author meant.
Of course, there is some level where the basic message of a text can be understood, but there is a level where it cannot. There are aspects that do require specialized knowledge. When you’re growing up, for some basic illnesses and such, your parents could pick up something over-the-counter and you could trust them with it. For a specialty condition, they would take you to a doctor.
So what are some things you should try to understand in a passage?
For one, what is the genre of the passage itself? If Jesus is telling a parable, you do not want to interpret it as a historical account. It is historical that Jesus told the parable, but the parable itself is not historical. If you were ever told that the story of the Good Samaritan never happened, that should not cause you to panic about the reliability of Scripture.
But then, what is the grander genre of the book itself? The Gospels, for instance, are Greco-Roman biographies and when you realize this, your reading of them will change. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic and so one of the last things you want to do is read it at face-value. The Law in the Old Testament is written not as iron-clad but more of a teaching tool showing the limits of what could be done in a situation, but giving judges freedom to decide. Of course, there are also cases like the first eleven chapters of Genesis that are real hotbeds of debate.
You also need the original languages. It’s better if you know them yourself, but if you do not, then you can use a site like BlueLetterBible and look them up. Even still, there is a limitation here. You can only look in the Bible itself. My wife asked me today about the verse where Paul uses the word Skubalon. If you want to know what that word means, just the New Testament will not help you. It’s only used once. You will need to look at usages outside the NT, if there are any, and then if you can’t do that, look up the work of scholars who know the language and see what they say.
And yet, there’s still more. You will want to know the historical context. What was going on in a book of prophecy? So many people badly misunderstand the prophets because they think everything is about our time instead of about the time of the prophet or his relatively near future. When Jesus does something in the Gospels, is there any particular historical situation that explains His actions more? When Paul wrote about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, was there anything going on at the time that explains what he said better?
And still there’s even more! What about the social context? We often think the people in the world of the Bible were much like ourselves. In some ways they were, but not in all. We are a guilt-based culture. Were they? We value individualism. Did they? What was marriage like for them? What was the economic status of the people involved? How did they all relate to one another?
It is not being said that you have to understand all of these or you’re completely in the dark, but if you are struggling with a passage, try to understand some of these even more. What definitely needs to be moved past is a simplistic approach that practically assumes that God will make everything easy for us to understand if He wants to. He is under no obligation to do that and those who are seeking truth will not care if it takes work. If you do care, then you are not really seeking.
When someone is reading a passage and you think they could be misunderstanding it or if you think you are misunderstanding it, consider these steps. Look at them and see what all can be learned. Go and check the best scholars in the field and see what they have to say. To understand any ancient text, one must have the humility to be willing to let it speak for itself as it were and work to understand it.