By Linda Tancs
The Bible is rich in precepts for daily living. So how do you go about harvesting that bounty? In the first instance, try not to focus on any particular order from which to read the Bible. Some will insist that the only appropriate way to approach biblical study is to start with Genesis and read all the way through to Revelation. Others might suggest beginning in the New Testament with John’s distinct Gospel and general orientation in the prologue (John 1:1) or with a synoptic gospel like Luke’s “orderly account” (Luke 1:3). Perhaps a better strategy is to approach the Bible with the goal of understanding its key themes, the main characters driving the narrative and the life lessons it presents. This strategy is consistent with a scholarly view that the Bible’s role is both to mediate God’s word of law and gospel and to serve as the fundamental source for shaping and maintaining Christian identity.
However, like any strategy, there are pitfalls or issues to keep in mind. First, a work such as the Bible written thousands of years ago presents obvious culture gaps—religious and social practices of Jews and early Christians that on the surface may not resonate in contemporary society. Nonetheless, history has a way of repeating itself, a fact masterfully executed by Luke in his Gospel by drawing parallels between the Old and New Testament. In this way, Luke emphasizes that God is always present—yesterday, today and forever—a key theme that drives our formation as Christians.
Likewise, biblical stories may comprise the reporting of actual events, historical fiction, parables (like 2 Samuel 12:1-6 in the Old Testament or Luke’s parables in chapter 15 in the New Testament) or an allegory like Isaiah 5:1-7. It may be tempting to get mired in identification of each account in the Bible or perhaps debate whether the account is real or historical fiction (such as occurs with the Book of Jonah). Regardless of the characterization of a biblical account, the most important point is that the truth about God and his relationship to His people can be conveyed through any type of literary device.
A third issue posed in Bible study involves translation and interpretation. As Nehemiah 8:8 (NRSV) states, “[T]hey read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.” Indeed, the Bible is one of the most widely translated and interpreted works of all time, beginning with its rendering from Hebrew to Aramaic, the common language. In addition to that translation, the Bible has been translated into Greek by the Jews and into Latin by Christians. Today, at least 12 common English translations exist (from the King James Version to the New Living Translation), along with scores of amplified Bibles giving additional background and definition to terms used in the Bible. Eliminate confusion arising from the different translations and versions of the Word by remembering that translation is not an exact science; the translator’s point of view is likely to shape the translation. The humanity of Scripture is that it evidences the work of fallible humans pressed into service to reveal the Word of God. Your own personal interpretation will be informed by your religious heritage, education, ethnic background, life experiences, gender and opinions.