The previous two entries have dealt with the first author and the first reader of Biblical books. The author generally has a big idea that he is trying to get across to the first readers or hearers of his message. Each party belonged to a specific time, place and culture. All of those factors have to be taken into account by the modern reader in order to understand what God’s word means for us in the here and now. In this third entry, I’m going to focus on what we actually read on the printed page.

First, every verse in the Bible has a context. Context means that a single verse doesn’t appear out of thin air. In every book of the Bible something comes before and something comes after any given verse I am trying to study. An obvious example is in John 19:30 which tells me that Jesus died. Fortunately the story doesn’t stop there because John 20 indicates that Jesus did not stay dead. While this example is overly simple, the point is a good one. Readers need to read around the verse they are studying so as not to misunderstand the printed page. Another good example is in Colossians 2:21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” Sincere readers could find themselves living in total isolation if they didn’t also realize that the author gives verse 21 as an example of what NOT to do. I have often heard people say along the lines of, “you can get the Bible to say anything you want it to.” I think the Bible can be manipulated if a person cherry picks sentences which fit their agenda in the same way that people on the newspaper editorial page spin the news. Reading every verse as a part of a larger chapter and book helps keep us from making major mistakes as we read.

Second, every book of the Bible has a genre. Psalms is a book of poetry. Philemon is a personal letter. Romans is a formal letter of introduction. I Kings is a book of history. Leviticus is basically a law code and just as exciting. Each type of book has different rules and conventions that reader needs to be aware of in order to best figure out the author’s big idea in writing. For example, if you sit down to watch a western movie some Saturday morning, you can expect to see a climactic showdown and shootout scene. If you read your kids a fairy tale you can expect to see the prince and princess living happily ever after. If you read a Sherlock Holmes story, there is always a “whodunit” scene at the close. James Bond movies all have girls, gadgets and cars.

Our expectations of the genre help us understand what’s going on by giving us clues we recognize. The same thing happens in the Bible. The parables that Jesus told are fictional stories that have a major point about what God’s kingdom is like. If we read the parable of the sower literally and come away thinking its a wonder everyone didn’t starve due to primitive first century agriculture, then we’ve missed the point entirely. The parable requires the reader to use a little imagination and ask the question of, “what kind of soil am I made of and am I productive?” Another example is in Paul’s letters. It seems like a lot of the time the letters can basically divide in half. The first half of the letter tends to be about what the Jesus is like, what we believe or the nature of the Christian life. The second half of the letters tend to be more like Paul giving tips on how to get along with each other in our relationships. Knowing the genre of the book we are reading can give us clues on whether something is figurative or literal and how we should understand the message from the author. The tricky part is that sometimes Paul’s letters have what looks like poetry popping up in them. The 4 gospels are kind of like spiritual biographies of Jesus, but have parables all through them and parables are their own genre.

So the questions I ask myself when facing a verse that’s hard to understand are:

1. What are the verses before and after this verse talking about?

2. What is the chapter about?

3. What is the book about?

4. What genre is the book I’m reading?

5. Is the verse I’m reading part of a different genre? Is a song or poem in the middle of a letter? Is the author quoting from another source? Is a parable appearing in one of the gospels?

I have a few more entries I’d like to do about the modern reader after this. Hopefully in the next few posts we’ll get to some ideas I have on moving from the raw material of the Bible to a full fledged philosophy based on the Bible. Thanks for reading.