If you’ve been around the Bible a while, or you’re new, here are six things to know. These are important. They will help you understand Scripture in its proper context.
First things first: the inspired writers recorded Scripture in ancient languages. Three, to be exact: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Old Testament (the first 39 books) is mostly written in Hebrew. There are a few chapters in the Book of Daniel that appear in Aramaic. We find that section in chapter 2 through chapter 7:28. Aramaic is a different dialect only used in the Middle East at the time. The writings of the New Testament (the last 27 books) are in Greek. Why? It was the most common writing language in the Roman Empire
2. It isn’t a Single Book
Even though it’s bound under a single cover, the Bible isn’t a book. The Bible is a library sixty-six individual books. It’s a library, not a novel. But, it is fascinating that it builds on itself and tells a seamless narrative from beginning to end. The composition of the Bible took place over a period of roughly 2,000 years. Forty different authors from three continents, wrote in three different languages. It never once contradicts itself. I admit that some will claim that it does, but a critical examination of the text shows otherwise.
3. Literary Types
The Bible isn’t written in a singular literary style. There’s poetry, wisdom literature, history, Gospels, Law, proverbs, songs, letters, and apocalyptic literature. There are parables, psalms, narratives, prophetic writings, and instruction. Each of these need a different approach to understanding the text in proper context and form. For instance, you can’t read poetry the same way you read history. You can’t read a narrative like you would a parable. Keep that in mind as you read through the Bible.
4. Historical Context
Approaching scripture through the historical-critical perspective is a must. Remember, it wasn’t written in the 21st Century. They didn’t have cars, smartphones, and sophisticated medicine like we have today. Instead, Scripture rings with the cultural assumptions of the original audience in mind. We filter the text, then, through the lens of history.
One should keep in mind and explore the cultural differences and phrases that occur. To neglect this is to miss the beauty and intensity of the text. A word about culture: There are some things that Scripture points out that are cultural. Some things won’t make a lot of sense to us because we don’t live in the ancient Middle-East. Cultural norms and societal understandings have changed. Keep history at the forefront when reading the Bible. Without it, you’ll come to some…interesting conclusions.
5. Covenant Theology
There are two sections of the Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Summing up the Old Testament goes like this: Jesus is coming. A summary of the New Testament is this: Jesus is here and Jesus is coming back! Is there a difference between the two testaments (covenants)? A big difference. The same God wrote both, yet their applications and your responsibility to God differ in each. This is where things get muddy when we interpret the Bible. The word for this is hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics are the systematic framework one uses to interpret the Bible. Since there are two testaments, how they apply matters. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”. (Matthew 5:17-18, ESV). Jesus fulfills the requirements of the Old Testament that humanity could not do. Jesus came and lived a perfect, sinless life in obedience to God. Thus, He fulfilled the Old Testament. That means He brought it to completion. It’s no longer binding. It no longer saves us. Jesus does.
There are lots of great principles that we still strive to live by. But, what the Law could not do – restore us in a right relationship to God – Jesus did. He accomplished it through His death and Resurrection and Ascension. So, the 613 binding commands of the Old Testament are no more on us who follow the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
6. Context, Context, Context
These are the three most important words in Bible study. I tell our congregation this on an almost weekly basis. Approaching the Bible can seem daunting. Yet, if we apply all the rules of literature and history above, we’ll be able to see it in its proper context. If we take it out of context, we can get a wrong interpretation of the text.
For instance, I often hear something like this: “Christians are such hypocrites! They don’t even do what their own book says. It says they can’t eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:12) but to stand against homosexuality (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10, etc.) But they eat fish, shrimp, and mussels! What a bunch of hypocrites!”
First off, you’re trying to cram the requirements of the Old Testament into the teachings of the New. It doesn’t work. Ever. These are two different contracts (Testaments) between God and man. Two different purposes. Two different ball games. Cherry picking scripture shows complete ignorance on the part of the person speaking it. The next thing it does is ignore the context of the Bible as a whole. That’s why context it paramount to successful reading of Scripture. Without it, you can make it say anything you want.
These are simple things to keep in mind when reading the Bible for yourself. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but these six things will get you started in a right direction.
What would you add to the list?