The Bible is the most widely read and influential book in history. Everyone should read it and be guided by its contents. I’ve been studying the Bible at a professional level all my adult life and I still regularly find my eyes being opened and my soul being filled by new understanding.
The Bible is not a simple book. It’s not really a book at all. The Bible is a small bound library. The Bible was written by over 40 different people over a period of 1,400 years. These people came from all walks of life, from shepherds to kings, from prophets to warriors. They lived in a variety of cultures from urban and sophisticated to rural or nomadic. Some were wealthy beyond belief. Some were hand-to-mouth poor.
This variety brings great depth and applicability to the Bible, but it also opens the door for misinterpretation. The reader often needs to make some effort to understand what has been written. Are you making one of these three common mistakes when trying to read and understand the Bible?
1. Reading an Incomprehensible Version
Thinking of her beloved, Juliet cried out, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Most people think that means, “Where are you, Romeo?” as though Juliet is peering off the balcony, looking for her lover. But they are wrong. Wiktionary explains succinctly :
In Romeo and Juliet, the meaning of “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Act 2, scene 2, line 33) is not “Where are you, Romeo?” but “Why are you Romeo?” (i.e. “Why did you have to be a Montague?”). (CLICK HERE for full article)
I will not disagree with you about the literary value of the King James Version of the Bible. The Psalms in KJV may be without peer in English. But if you don’t know what “wherefore” means off the top of your head, you should not read the King James Version as your basic reading Bible. if you don't know what 'wherefore' means, don't read the King James Version. Click To Tweet
Unless you are well versed in 17th century English (The KJV was completed in 1611), read a more modern version for the sake of your own understanding. There is a New King James version that is accurate and readable if staying in the King James tradition is important to you.
There are additional reasons to let your KJV look beautiful on the coffee table and read a modern translation. I detail some of them my post, “The Dangers of the King James Version.” (CLICK HERE to read it.)
2. Reading Without the Genre in Mind
From the wide variety of biblical writers comes a wide variety of genres. Some major genres you will find in the Bible are:
- historical narrative
- religious myth
- wisdom literature
- epistolary (personal letters)
If you are reading one type of writing but interpreting it as another type, you can go far afield from what the text is supposed to convey. Usually, this is not a problem. Nobody reads a psalm and goes looking for mountains that clap their hands. But what about Genesis 1, which has a poetic structure? Why do some people take parts of the book of Revelation literally while reading other parts as symbolic? What is the psalmist communicating when he writes that God knit me together in my mother’s womb?
A foundational aspect of reading the Bible correctly is to understand what genre the writing belongs to and then interpret it accordingly. If you don’t take into account the type of writing you are reading, you will likely misinterpret it.
3. Reading Without Asking Questions
Written communication is difficult even between an author and a reader of the same culture, language and era. The gaping chasm of time and culture between the modern English reader and the 40+ original authors of the Bible assures that misunderstandings will occur.
Much of the Bible is quite straightforward. But there are cultural understandings and nuances that a modern reader will completely miss unless that reader develops the habit of probing everything for deeper meaning and asking what seems like the simplest of questions.
For example: 0ne time Jesus talked to a woman at a well around lunch time. Big deal, right? Well, it is. Most people in this time draw their water early in the morning before the heat of the day. She was alone at the well probably because she was something of an outcast. We discover further in her conversation with Jesus that, indeed, she had lived a life that probably alienated her from most of the people around her. She had been married to five different men and she was currently living with a man she was not married to. Hardly a model citizen. Oh, and by the way, the idea that Jesus, a male Jewish Rabbi, was even talking to a woman (leaving aside that she was a Samaritan!), would give the first century reader an instant jaw-drop. This tranquil scene at a well actually reveals Jesus to be a wild boundary-breaking teacher. But one never comes to that realization without asking questions about every little detail.
A good Bible dictionary and a Bible handbook can be invaluable for understanding what’s going on in the Bible at a deeper level. You can find a couple of recommendations on my recommended resources page. (CLICK HERE to take a look)
If you read an incomprehensible version, read without the genre in mind or read without asking a lot of probing questions of the text, you are likely to misread the Bible. Or, at least, you will miss the richness and depth of meaning available in the text. Don’t make these mistakes with the most read book in the history of the world.
Read a modern English translation. Keep the genre in mind. And ask a lot of seemingly simple questions.
(I’ll write a post soon about how to ask questions of the Bible text to further your understanding.)