Ever find a big book that’s easy to understand? Not me. Probably not anyone. Big books always end up being a lot of … work. It takes time to read them. It takes time to understand them. It takes even more time to gather what others think about the book and figure out your own position.
The Bible is not alone in this. The writings of many people are read for understanding and not all conclusions are the same. It happens in science. (Was Darwin really teaching uniformitarian gradualism?) It happens in philosophy. (How could Kant hold to absolute truths yet teach individual relativism?) It happens in politics. (Must an orthodox Marxist always demand a violent revolution?) It even happens in entertainment. (Did Castle and Beckett die in the original finale or was the subsequent family scene intended all along?) You might say that all the opinions and interpretations are the equivalent of what are called “denominations” in church circles.
There are no 30-page Cliff Notes for the Bible. At least none that would be of any real use in getting the whole picture of the book. Though it takes some work to get a reasonable handle on the whole of the book, there are some simple guidelines that can help. This should be especially useful to both media and critics for understanding the Bible if they wish to represent it fairly to the general public. They might also be useful if you are just beginning to read it for yourself.
#1: When you read it, ignore verse and chapter markings.
The were inserted long after the material was written and are intended as look-up short cuts. They serve no other purpose.
Much of the Hebrew portion, the Old Testament, was divided into reading segments (chapters) long ago. Probably before Jesus walked the earth. This allowed for scheduled weekly readings of blocks of text. This allowed the blocks to be large enough to convey the thought of a passage rather than something more minute. The rest came later, about the 9th c.
The New Testament portion didn’t get divided into chapters until, in the way that we see them today, about the 13th century. That’s roughly 1,300 years after they were written.
Verse markings came later still. Sort of. The Hebrew section was again the first to see this, again about the 9th c. It was the 15th & 16th c. when the NT saw these divisions.
In short, the chapters and verses are artificial. They are not part of the text and were not part of the original. They’re tools for quick access to specific locations.
#2: Learn its themes.
Only two books resemble treatises and both are similar in their structure — Romans and Hebrews. The rest is history, poetry, and biography. And some prophetic announcements.
The themes of the Bible are overlapping. For instance, it can be read in terms of family. There’s the family of Adam, of Abraham, and then of Jesus and His bride, the church, the people of faith.
It can be read in terms of redemption. Adam & Eve fell. The serpent was bruised. Jesus became the new Adam to bring life.
It can be read in terms of purpose. There was once a perfect world. Humanity sinned and destroyed it. God intends to replace it one day with a new heavens and earth.
It can be read in terms of relationships and even politics.
#3: Understand that it is a book of (mostly) history & biography.
The Bible is not a list of trusims or disparate and unrelated comments. Nor is it a diatribe of rules or of obtuse and confusing speculative philosophy. Genesis is about creation — the creation of the universe and the creation of the Hebrew nation. We read the biographies of the patriarchs and the kingdom. We read the biographies of the leaders and the people as they suffer conquest, captivity, and starvation. We read of national survival in captivity. We read of a people having an exodus from national ethnic slavery.
The history covers the ideas of the time — idol worship versus God’s law. It covers the personal lives of individuals, both small and great, such as Ruth and Naomi as well as David and Solomon. It also covers the nation.
Some of it is treatise. The books of Romans and Hebrews are clear theological statements which say much the same thing but address different groups. These pieces are not very long. Each is like reading a 20 page book, and that’s nothing compared to most things out there. Yet these, and especially Romans, proved world-changing. Both set up Jesus as both Messiah (the Christ, the Annointed One) and as sovereign Lord. They establish His faithfulness in action and character. And they give application to these principles so that the reader is challenged to live accordingly.
#4: Read it systematically.
That sounds complicated but it’s really not. When you read, for instance, Kant, or even when you watch Star Trek or Castle, you interpret their material according to when it was written chronologically. Early Kant is different than late Kant. Captain Kirk is far more optimistic than Captains Janeway or Sisko. And Kate did not always like Rick. We can read things like we watch things — according to their context. This may take some time but there are some books that can help. One such work is “What the Bible is All About” by Henrietta Mears.
Some critics say, for example that Christians hold to the Hebrew law. It is claimed that, if it is in the Bible, then those who take the Bible “literally” certainly must accept those laws. A statement like that, common in discussions about homosexuality and sin questions, completely ignores two millennia of church theology. Church theology (generally) recognizes that the Law was given to Israel. One approach for making this work in Christian teaching has been to divide up the law into civil, ceremonial, and moral law. The civil law belonged to the Hebrew people; the moral is universal; the ceremonial, between the Hebrew people and God. This solution has functioned successfully for most of the existence of the church. And it sort of leaves the complaint that Christians supposedly want to eliminate homosexuals, well, standing on its head. It is a nonsense complaint, completely uninformed.
Let’s take another popular statement about judging. Romans 2:1 says
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
On the surface this looks like a statement to individuals. It reads like a condemnation of those who judge. But wouldn’t that make Paul (the author) a hypocrite for judging those people who are judging by telling them that they shouldn’t judge? Seems so. At least until we read it in its context.
Romans chapter 1 talks about the world outside of the Mosaic law and concludes that the world is lost without God. Chapter 2 takes the reasoning further beginning with the consistent behavior of the human race even if one is under the Mosaic law. The discussion concludes with this: All are lost and in need of redemption through Christ.
So where does that leave the judging statement? The context gives it new meaning. It’s about putting one’s self above judgement, both individually and even ethnically. It’s about a type of self-righteousness and is not about day-to-day relationships. That’s a completely different subject. The statement has its context and its meaning is not apart from its context.
Don’t get discouraged when you read it. It is a big book. Take your time and treat it fairly. You may disagree with what it says. In any case what is important is that you’re honest with yourself and those you interact with.