Biblical Interpretation: Part One

Biblical interpretation, or how to read the Bible is a topic we frequently brush up against here.  It seems like a good time to tackle the subject in a somewhat organized fashion. There are several ways to approach the topic. There’s the nuts and bolts approach; which translation to use, advice on commentaries and that sort of thing. There is the discussion of what we think we are doing when we read the Bible and then there is the discussion of what we think the Bible is.

Now it might make sense to begin with the later topic, “What is the Bible?” or “What do we mean when we say the Bible is the word of God?”. To start with theory and then move to the practical. But I want to go about this the other way. To start with the practical, to think about what we do and the ways we do it, and see what the practice tells us about what the Bible is. 

So to begin with the very practical…

If you want to read the Bible, first get a Bible. If you walk into a bookstore to buy a Bible, especially a Christian bookstore, you may be tempted to abandon the entire project. There are an unbelievable number of Bibles to choose from. There are different translations, different versions, and different formats. There are red letter and green letter versions, versions for moms, for teens, for men, for soldiers, there are versions for every demographic you could possible sell a Bible to. I like Bibles and I like looking at them but aisle upon aisle of Bibles are enough to overwhelm me. If you feel like throwing your hands up in despair when faced with all these choices, I don’t blame you.

Here’s what I would suggest. Just a few things…   Get a translation rather than a paraphrase. While I am quite fond of  The Message, if you are serious about reading the Bible you need a translation and you need a modern translation. Even if you have your confirmation Bible from years ago, you should consider getting a new translation. Scholarship in the Biblical languages and about ancient texts has been quite fruitful. That’s why you see “New” on the covers of many translations. They have simply needed updating.

Which translation? I would suggest the New Revised Standard Version, (NRSV). It’s the choice of most mainline Christian scholars and seminaries. The New International Version (NIV) has its fans and is a suitable choice also. Both translations were carefully done by teams of Bible scholars. As a rule of thumb, when translation issues came up, as they are bound to do, the NIV scholars take a more theologically conservative approach and the NRSV scholars take a more mainline approach. While scholars and others pick and debate between the two, I’m not sure that it makes too much difference for the average reader. You might want to spend some time comparing passages between them.  There are many other English translations but the NRSV and the NIV are arguably the top two.

I also suggest you get a study Bible. These are different from gift Bibles or devotional Bibles. Study Bibles have articles written by Bible scholars for non scholar readers. These articles will help you understand the history, archeology, and culture of the biblical era. There will be articles that explain how the Bible is organized. There will be introductions to the different books of the Bible to help you better understand what you are reading. In addition, study Bibles have footnotes and explanatory notes in the text. Take a careful look at the New Oxford Anotated Study Bible, the HarperCollins Study Bible and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible.

If you are serious about reading the Bible, I also suggest you consider getting a Bible dictionary and a one volume commentary. A Bible dictionary is just what you think it is, a place to look up words you find in the Bible. You can look up “David”, or place names or anything you want more information about. A one volume commentary will give you information about each book of the Bible. Typically the article will discuss dating, authorship, the organization of the book and its main points and ideas.  You do need to consider who the authors of the dictionary and commentary articles are, because their theological perspectives will obviously influence their articles. Take a look at HarperCollins Dictionary and Commentary, the Oxford Bible Commentary, and Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible

You can also get commentaries that cover individual books of the Bible. There are lots of these,in fact, too many to discuss today. There are also all sorts of Bible study aids available. But a good study Bible, a Bible dictionary and a one volume commentary will be of great help and get you off to a good start.

So these are my suggestions for the practical part of Bible study. In part two of this post I’ll reflect on what these recommendations say about my approach to the Bible. Next week we will consider what we think we are doing when we read the Bible.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

2 thoughts on “Biblical Interpretation: Part One

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