A Beginners’ Introduction to Reading the Bible

The Bible is the ‘foundation text’ for Christianity, so much so that St Jerome, an early translator and scholar, could say, ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’. We hear selections from it at every mass, but reading and praying with scriptures on our own is meant to be is a vital part of spiritual life. Modern historical scholarship, archeology, and literary studies have made much of the Bible far more intelligible for our times than in the past, and the Church has encouraged us to make use of these aids. Yet starting to read the Bible is not always easy and people do not always know where to turn for help.

There are numerous books giving background and interpretation of the Bible, as a whole, or by sections or individual books which can be found at local Catholic bookshops or online, but the very number of these can be confusing. One simple way to start is with The Jerusalem Bible. This is the Catholic translation we hear at mass which also contains introductions to the various books and types, and footnotes on difficult passages.

Thousands of Christians, however, who did not have that access to scholarship, have for centuries found instruction and inspiration for their lives in hearing, reading and reflecting. With or without study guides, the most important step is just to start reading. This may also give you an idea of which studies you would find useful.

These notes give a little basic background to picking up the Bible yourself.

The Greek word ‘biblia´ from which our word Bible comes means ‘books’ – in the plural. It is more a little library than one book and the parts were written over several thousand years. The last books come from the first century after Christ. We are dealing with ancient cultures and ancient histories as well as ancient literatures. For Christians, the Bible is divided into two parts: the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’, often abbreviated OT and NT. The word ‘testament’ in this context means ‘covenant’ or ‘solemn contract’, and was first used for the Jewish people in their acceptance of God’s Law and way of life as they heard it revealed by Moses. Jesus then spoke of the ‘New Covenant’ which came with him and his saving death.

Our Bible was written in Hebrew for the oldest parts, but the Hebrew version was translated before the Christian era into the Greek that was the common language of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ and the early church. This version named the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX) also includes some books written shortly before the time of Christ. These did not end up in the accepted Jewish scriptures set by rabbis after the time of Christ. Although used by early Christians they were also not accepted by the first Protestants. They may be omitted from Protestant Bibles, or put in a second section called ‘Apocrypha’. Catholics and Orthodox Bible will contain them, and they may be called ‘deutero-canonical’ or ‘second canon’. We share with Jewish believers the books of the Hebrew Bible, and with Christians of other denominations the 27 books of the New Testament.

The New Testament was written in Greek. This means that for all of these we are reading translations, and languages rarely have word-for-word perfect equivalents. A translation is necessarily an interpretation, and interpretation is an inevitable part of reading scripture. (Actually we have to interpret anything we read, but some is so automatic that we usually don’t notice that is what we are doing.)

There is much scholarship that is shared with Jews and Protestants, but beginners may be more comfortable starting with Catholic writers to be sure that interpretations will fit our own beliefs. As Catholics, we have a general guideline to interpretation from the teachings of the Church, but there are many points on which Catholics scholars disagree and as readers we may make choices as well on what it means for each of us.

If we think of the Bible as a little library we can compare it to our modern books. The Old Testament, with its much longer history and ancient literary types, is more difficult to understand. Within the various books or sections, we may find differences or even disagreements. All human life from the highest aspirations to the worst cruelty and violence is contained within the pages. We can see over time a growth in understanding and ethical standards. I find it important to remember, as one of my professors Sandra M. Schneiders said, that not everything written in the Bible is for us to imitate; some of it is a warning to act or believe differently. A simple guideline for Christians is to ‘read the Old Testament in the light of the New’.

Modern readers who go into a library understand the divisions we make: we know that ‘science fiction’ and ‘science’ are very different and we recognize some overlap like ‘historical novels’. These literary types are something we pick up through our culture, but the biblical books come from a different culture and differing times and if that is not understood there will be confusion and mistaken interpretations. It doesn’t help that some ‘books’ may contain within them parts written at different times and by different authors!

Besides unfamiliar forms, there are some similarities in literary types or ‘genre’ – for example the Bible has lots of poetry, though we may not recognize it without rhymes. Hebrew poetical style is based on ‘parallelism’. This is stating of one idea in two sentences (parallels) or in contrasting two ideas in a verse. For example from a Psalm:

I will celebrate your love forever, O LORD,
Age after age my words proclaim your praise.

Some of Jesus’ words are cast in parallels, too. It may seem repetitive at first, but it is a way to read reflectively. Poetry with its images has the capacity to touch us deeply, sometimes beyond the words themselves.

The Bible is full of images, and most of these are not meant to be taken literally. For example, often God is spoken of having human attributes. We read of his ‘strong arm’, he walks in the Garden of Eden during the cool evening, and shows emotions like anger and jealousy. The Hebrews were not ‘naïve’ in writing of God in this manner, for any human words will be inadequate to express the ‘otherness’ of God, even abstract terms like ‘omnipotent’. We see in other sections of scripture reminders that God is far above humanity, and in some ways unknowable to our limited minds – ‘God dwells in light inaccessible’ (1 Timothy). Human comparisons have the advantage of putting us in relationship with God, one of the ways scripture helps us.

There is history in the Bible, but not quite the same as modern standards, more like family or group traditions. Some sections contain moral codes, also lesser commandments and rules for Jewish ritual practices. The ‘Song of Songs’ is a human love story, which can also symbolize God’s love for each of us. Another genre is the ‘Wisdom’ literature. Some of this is simply practical reasoning looking for good ways to live (much of this in the book called Proverbs), but there are also more spiritual reflections. Seeing ‘Wisdom’ personified as a woman who was treated as an aspect of God, helped early Christians understand both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Job is a fictional book and particularly complex, as it seems an old story of ‘patience’ is torn apart in the middle to give a poetic dialogue on the problems of human suffering in the light of God’s love.

One thing the Bible does not have is science in any recognizable form, although there are fundamentalists who view the opening of Genesis as a scientific account of creation in conflict with modern science. Seen in context, these two chapters are a theological reflection on God’s relationship with the world and its peoples. The Catholic Church has never been fundamentalist and for centuries has interpreted the Bible more symbolically.

The Bible also has ‘fiction’ as we do, because stories are universally enjoyable but can also instruct, reveal deeper truths, carry inspiration and warnings. Jesus was a master story-teller and did not expect his listeners to take his parables as factual cases. We are used to parables, but mistakes can be made about Old Testament stories when they are taken as history. Jonah is one example, a little gem of a story, fiction and not a history, dramatically showing God’s willingness to forgive and illustrates the ‘but if’ of prophecy.

There are books labelled ‘prophecy’ a word which is often now equated with ‘prediction’ but biblical prophecy is much more about bringing God’s word into the needs of the time, condemning sinful actions or giving encouragement and comfort in times of distress. Prophets gave warnings about human sinfulness and called on people to return to God. What is often not realized is that such warnings, including those of Jesus, contain ‘but if’ – if warnings of punishment lead to turning from evil that will bring God’s forgiveness.

Some of the prophets had predictions for the future, but usually spoke for their own times. Christians would see in some prophecies ideas that would help them understand Jesus and especially the meaning of his death.

The Old Testament presents us with several thousand years of God seeking out people, and people searching for God and responding to God. It was a development that for Christians reaches its climax in Jesus. Some Hebrew words that occur over and over give us the spirit of the whole, stressing of God’s love reaching out to humanity. Walter Brueggeman names five in the Old Testament about God: ‘merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving and steadfast in love’. This description will also shown to be true when Jesus speaks of ‘the Father’ – and true as well of Jesus himself.

The most important part of the Bible for Christians to read is the New Testament, especially the four Gospels. This is the best place for beginners to start. Here we encounter the events of Christ’s life-death-resurrection, his teaching, his humanity and his divinity. That there are four Gospels with some differences should alert us to seeing that there are varied ways of understanding the meaning of Jesus’ life. Repeated readings also help us to see ‘the breadth and the length, the height and the depth’ we find in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:18) It may seem confusing, but the effect is also enriching, opening us to creating our own encounter with Christ, the Father and the Spirit.

The first three gospels are often called the ‘Synoptics’ – from the Greek meaning ‘seeing from the same perspective’. They have differences, but follow the same general path through Jesus’ life. The shared parts are sometimes word for word, but it is good to watch for the subtle variations in their theology. Many scholars today think that Mark, the shortest of the three, was the first gospel and that Matthew and Luke made use of him as a source and outline. They both add some material they got from other shared sources, but some that is unique to each of them. John takes a different line, with longer discourses of Jesus, and a strong stress on his divinity.

The Book of Acts has the early history of the Church as compiled by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Most of the rest is cast as ‘letters’, many written by St Paul to his converts, but other writers used the form of a letter to contain a more general theme aimed at both telling more about Jesus as a guide for living. The last book, ‘Revelation’ or ‘Apocalypse’ is written in a genre not used in modern times, which features descriptions of ‘visions’ – which may not have been ‘real’ visions, but the intent is to encourage believers in difficult times. It contains imagery verging on the bizarre which should not be taken literally, nor are they precise prophecies. This book is perhaps the last place for a beginner, despite some passages of high poetry and consolation.

One entry to the Bible is following the liturgy and this we do in RCIA. The parish website also carries these notes for each Sunday’s readings. We have in the mass each week three selections from three different books of the Bible; usually the first is from the Old Testament, followed by verses from psalms that we are invited to recite. The second is often taken from the Letters, and there is always a gospel selection. We have a three year rota (A Matthew, B Mark, C Luke) of favouring one of the ‘Synoptics’. John does not have ‘his own’ year, but is read at various masses throughout each year.

There are traditional forms of praying with scripture reading, one is called ‘Lectio Divina’ – holy reading. This is at its simplest, reading a short section, thinking about it, trying to get into its meaning for you, and then in peace and silence, letting it speak to you and the needs of your own life. It is also a way to pray with others, reading a section, then some silence and finally sharing insights.

I advise keeping some note of passages that seem to speak especially to you, either as comfort, teaching, or a challenge to come closer to God. Some don’t mind marking their Bibles, but a list of citations (book, chapter, verse, as ‘Mark 1:1’) will make it easy to look them up again. I myself like to copy out verses that inspire and guide me; I call it my ‘Patchwork Bible’.

Reading the Bible can be a great adventure, a sure way of encountering God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus our Lord, and finding our own place in ‘salvation history.’ May you find it so!

Some minor points: There can be variations in the names of the biblical books between different translations. Many writers use abbreviations, but usually list them. Chapter and verse numbers are not original to the biblical text but very useful in locating specific passages. One problem is that Psalms are numbered differently in the Hebrew text and the early Greek translations which are often a more accurate source. Bibles differ in which numbers they print. In the parish notes, I give both alternatives so adjustments may be made for the particular translation used

St Jerome, who died in 470 AD, was an early biblical scholar and this is his prayer for reading the Bible:

Lord, you have given to us your Word to shine on our path: grant that we may so meditate on that Word and follow its teaching that we may find it in the light that shows more and more until the perfect day.

Joan Griffith, 2014