Reading the Bible

One of many problems we have when we discuss the Bible is that we don’t all read it the same way, or for the same purposes.  And we don’t think about how or why we read it ourselves.

In my OT and NT Intro classes over the past couple of years, I’ve given students the following information.  I think it’s proven helpful to those who were awake during that particular part of the lecture, and it might be helpful to you, also.


What IS the Bible?  There’s no single answer to that question, because there are at least four legitimate ways to read the Bible.  Each has its own purpose.

  1. You can read the Bible devotionally.
    1. The purpose of reading the Bible devotionally is to hear God’s voice, speaking to you, redefining your relationship with him and your priorities, the way you live your life and relate to the people around you, etc.
    2. When you read the Bible this way, the Bible is God’s message to you about what he has done for you and what he wants from you.
  2. You can read the Bible historically.
    1. The purpose of reading the Bible historically is to learn information, more cognitive than practical, about how people have understood God.
    2. When you read the Bible this way, you are treating it as the record of how the Jews and early Christians understood what God was doing around them.
  3. You can read the Bible narratologically (i.e., as a story).
    1. This way of reading emphasizes the whole story of the Bible, the five-act (or six-act) schema that NT Wright and others have popularized recently, and you read the parts of the Bible in light of the whole story.
      1. The parts of the story are: creation (Genesis 1-2), corruption (Genesis 3-11), covenant (Genesis 12 – Malachi), Christ (the gospels and portions of the New Testament), consummation (the gospels and portions of the New Testament.)
    2. When you read the Bible this way, you are treating it as the story of how God saves the world.
  4. You can read the Bible literarily (i.e., as a piece of literature.)
    1. This way of reading compares the Bible with other literature from the ancient world.  The purpose is to gain an appreciation for what the Bible writers were attempting to do as they used the literary genres, rules, and devices of their literary world to shape the way they told the story.
    2. When you read the Bible this way, you are treating it as a classic collection of ancient Mediterranean literature of various genres.

Which way of reading is better?

It’s a trick question!  No way of reading is “better” than the others, they’re just different.  People need each of them at different times and for different purposes.

Even more important: these ways of reading work together, interdependently.  

Reading the Bible as ancient literature makes you aware of its literary parallels.  E.g., read Genesis 1 in comparison with the Enuma Elish, and see how how Genesis 1 is both very much like it and very much different from it.  This can open up powerful new ways of applying the creation story to your life, faith, and relationships.

Reading the Bible historically gives you necessary information for interpreting and applying the contents.  For example, knowing the nature of Graeco-Roman slavery is necessary for understanding the radical demand that Paul put on Philemon when returning his wayward slave to him.

And knowing the nature of ancient apocalyptic [reading literarily] and the Roman emperor cult, especially under Domitian [reading historically] can help you be more responsible when you talk about the book of Revelation.  Which is a good thing, when you think about it.

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