Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Four Important Things to Consider in Studying the Bible to Understand it Better


We often hear people say: “ Just read the Bible and do what it says.” There’s a problem with this mindset. We may read the same Bible but make different conclusions regarding its meaning!

The Bible was initially written for people who lived in a different place with a unique culture and a different period in history. They also spoke different languages. The Bible also contains various types or genres of literature.

In order to have a good exegesis, one must read the text very carefully, understand the details thoroughly and ask the right questions. These processes are important to enable us to interpret the texts correctly. Incorrect interpretation is the result of bad

Here are four tips that can help us understand the Bible further:


Scriptures are part of a larger apostolic and ecclesial tradition:  the process by which those who believe Jesus is the risen Son of God learned from those who had gone before them - ultimately, from those who knew Jesus - and preached that to the wider world.  Eventually some of that got written down, and some of the letters from the first Christian apostles were circulated to other Churches than just the ones to whom they were first written.  What the Church thinks of as "tradition" is the context in which some works came to be regarded as normative for faith, were read at the Eucharist, and eventually came to be read along with the Jewish Scripture as one story of God's revelation.  But tradition is the bigger, more defining part of the process.  Scripture is simply the normative, written part of tradition.  (See Vatican II, Dei Verbum 7-10)

The Scriptures exist to build up and guide a community, not isolated individuals. Therefore, we should read the Bible with other people, bit off by ourselves. That community of readers includes those who have gone before (the tradition). The Church (people of God) have been having a long conversation about the Scriptures, and we are entering into this conversation in our own time and places, but we still learn about and pay attention to how the conversation has been shaped by past participants. 


History is the study of human events, culture, persons.  We can't understand what people write and talk about unless we know who they are or were what their world is or was like.  We can't make full sense of any human documents or language without some understanding of their human context.

We need to know history and historical context to understand Scripture as a basic level, just to know the plain sense of what it says, If you read a Victorian novel and read the "he made love to her in the carriage," you would radically misunderstand that happens in the carriage if you do not know something about history and how English usage has changed since the 1800s. Without historical study, we are prone to gross misunderstanding of Scripture and therefore gross misappropriations of its significance for our times and our lives. Similarly, some oracles of Isaiah make no sense at all without an understanding of the Syro-Ephraimitic war and Assyrian westward expansion. 


The early writers we call "the church Fathers" are really the most famous and influential of the early authors who wrote about Christian faith:  usually people mean by the term writers on Christian subjects who lived from the time just after the New Testament until the 8th or 9th century a.d. - but there's no formal definition of the term.  They are our main clue to the beginnings of a genuinely Christian tradition.  Without them, we would not know how the Christian community in various parts of the world understood and preserved the beginnings of its tradition of faith:  how they understood Scripture, how they prayed, what the main points of their faith were, how they thought Christians should act, and so on.  They are our main source for what we know about how a distinctively Christian faith began. 

Someone who knows the fathers knows the early stages of the conversation surrounding Scripture, and that is helpful and important knowledge.

St. Polycarp of Smyrna has a reminder in his letter (Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, Chapter 7).

"Whoever interprets according to his own perverse inclinations is the firstborn of Satan."
This passage is urging the community not to be selective in the way they read the Scriptures, or take seriously just what they agree with. So here, in chapter 7, he adds to the phrase i quote another phrase, "and who do not confess the resurrection and the judgment." He has just made the same criticism of those "who do not accept the cross." The point seems to be that you need to accept the whole "package" of apostolic teaching about Jesus.

An in-depth study on the Church Fathers will enhance our knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures.
Even the non-Catholic Bible scholars have useful statements in their respective books:

First, Dr. Daniel Wallace said in his book, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, on page 28:

"If someone were to destroy all those manuscripts, we would not be left without a witness, because the church fathers wrote commentaries on the NT."

Second, many people know we do not have access to original manuscripts since we only have at hand copies of the ancient Greek manuscripts. However, Geisler and Holden said in their book, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible, on page 124:

"In fact, one could reconstruct the entire New Testament based solely on the more than 36,200 Scripture quotations of the Fathers - with the exception of a few dozen verses. "

Many people say it is not necessary to study the Hebrew and Greek languages inasmuch as the Bible has been translated into many languages that we understand better. It is hard to admit it but studying these two languages is really difficult.  

The study of the Bible's original language is a big help to make us understand the true message in every Bible verse. 

Even Martin Luther, the Father of Protestantism, emphasized the importance of studying Hebrew and Greek because these are the original languages of the Bible. 

“Luther was passionate about Scripture being the authority for the church. Although this belief made Luther work hard to give the people a translation in their everyday language, he also actively promoted the value of knowing Greek and Hebrew. Because Scripture was written in Hebrew and Greek, Luther considered it essential for ministers to know these languages.”

Source: https://www.tms.edu/msj/reformers-original-languages-calvin-luther-importance-greek-hebrew-theology-ministry/

John 10:30 has a long history of interpretation and was cited on both sides of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the 4th-5th century. The grammatical gender of “hen” could be interpreted in various ways. What the defenders of the position formulated at Nicaea particularly liked to point out was the fact that the verb “are” is plural while the predicate “one” is singular, which, of course, fits with the One divine nature - Three persons formula.  That fact does come through in translation.

The word "one" in this verse is interpret by some Protestants that Jesus is also the Father. 

In the Greek Bible, we can read this:

"Ego kai ho pater hen esmen"

In Greek, these three:  εἷς (Heis), μία (mia ), and ἕν (hen ) all mean “one.” 

If the masculine heis is used, those who believe that Jesus is also the Father are correct. But since the neuter hen was used, it means the persons of the Father and the Son are different. 

"The word for 'one' is the neuter hen, not the masculine heis: Jesus and his Father are not one person, as the masculine would suggest..." (The Gospel According to John, D.A. Carson, p. 394)

Well knowing the original language is valuable for any language because every translation is a compromise of some sort or another.  Words in Hebrew often have a range of meanings that no single English word can capture.  For example the word "rejoice" in Hebrew can refer to an inner emotional state but it can also refer to concrete acts of celebration such as singing, dancing, eating and drinking.  We could multiply such examples a hundred fold.  Or the word for "ark" in Noah's ark really means something like a "box."  That is significant because it can't be steered by anyone inside - it requires divine assistance to reach its destination.  Also that same word appears in Exodus 2:3 to designate the "basket" that Moses was put int.  As Jon Levenson writes:  "Noah foreshadows Moses, even as Moses, removed from the water, foreshadows the people Israel whom he leads to safety.  The great biblical tale of redemption occurs first in a shorter, universal form, then in a longer particularistic one."  If you did not know Hebrew, you'd never notice this!

Job 42:6 is notoriously difficult. People who know Hebrew can't agree on what it means and how to translate it, but at least they can see an appreciate the possibilities. Some of those possibilities do not appear in translations, like "I repent of dust and ashes."

The reflexive idea "I despise myself" comes from the Niphal stem of the verb "Nacham" means "to repent."

Waltke-O’Connor’s grammar  of biblical Hebrew shows Niphal Stem sometimes indicates a reflexive idea.

A word like hesed might be translated "loving kindness" or "loyalty," but it has a range of meanings and associations that are known only to people who read Hebrew. Similarly, the term paqad has several meanings and writers play with the senses. In Psalm 8, is refers to God's kind and generous attention to small humans, but in Job 7:17, the same term describes God's relentless and aggressive attention to human sin. The word has multiple meanings that no one English word can capture.

There are many passages in which there is a play on words that cannot be easily rendered in translation.  Think, e.g., of Nicodemus and his wonderment about being born ἄνωθεν. The Fourth Gospel has quite a number of such double entendres.  Another theologically important play on words is the use of διαθήκη in Hebrews 8:15, which enables the author to offer a new interpretation of Jeremiah 31:31-34.  The new “covenant” of Jeremiah becomes the “new testament” through which we inherit the promise of divine forgiveness. Or think of the way Jesus is described in Hebrews 12:2 as the ἀρχηγὸς καὶ τελειωτής of faith.

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