During our discussion group in January, in the course of talking about Epiphany, we found ourselves making a diversion into consideration of how we understand what we read in the Bible.
The core question that we discovered we wanted to grapple with amounted to ‘What do we mean if we say the Bible is “true”?’
Of course that begs all sorts of other questions, most obviously:
What do we mean by “true”?
- Historically true?
- Scientifically true?
- Emotionally true?
- True in the eyes of the writer?
All good questions and there is not room in this letter to address them all.
But we did start to talk about some of these questions, and how the answer to each might be different depending on what part of the Bible you are reading…because the Bible is not simply a book.
Those who speak French – or even those of us who remember some basic vocabulary from school – will know that the French word ‘bibliothèque’ means library. Bibliothèque obviously has the same root as Bible (the derivation is originally from the Semitic, via Greek biblos [meaning scroll] ta biblia [meaning books], and latin biblia to the words we have today).
There is a hint as to what the Bible is in all of this – far from being just one book, it’s really a library containing 66 different books (39 in the Old Testament, 27 in the New), many of which were written at different times, for different purposes and in very different contexts.
And so when we read the Bible, the first thing we should do is think about what it is we are reading. We often suggest to new Christians that a good place to start is with the Gospel of Mark – for it is fairly straightforwardly an account of the ‘Good news of Jesus Christ’, possibly written by someone who was there. It is also quite short!
But if you tried to read the Song of Solomon in this way (as an account of what happened), you might think you were reading the Iron Age equivalent of pornography! And the book of Psalms is fairly obviously poetic hymns or prayers, so clearly has to be read differently: when Wordsworth wrote about a cloud of golden daffodils he didn’t mean they were up in the sky.
The Bible is full of books of different types: histories, Gospels, letters, wisdom, poetry, myths and many others.
Even some books of the Bible that we might think are relatively straightforward to tackle have hidden traps. I recently read an account of someone who, on picking up the Bible for the first time, decided to read the book of Acts – a friend had recommended it to him as ‘full of exciting stuff’. So he read ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about…’. He was stumped. What former book? Who wrote Acts? He searched the unhelpful contents page and flicked through his new Bible without enlightenment!
Sometimes you need some background information to understand what is going on.
I think the advice to start with Mark (or one of the other Gospels) is good. I wish someone had told me that when I started – I made the mistake of starting at the beginning – with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus etc – and quickly realised that was not an edifying experience!
At my ordination I affirmed that ‘the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation’ and I believe that is true – but there is so much more to reading it than we might think.
I wish you blessed and happy reading,
 Mark ch1 v1
 Richard Briggs in ‘Light to live by’
 It was written by Luke, who’s ‘former book’ was the Gospel that bears his name.