The Bible is probably unlike most other books you have read. It uses many different styles of literature to convey the divine message. There were multiple human authors recording the words of Sacred Scripture. The Scriptures were written in different cultures spanning different eras of history. It’s no wonder that special care must be taken in understanding the Bible’s message to us in our current situation. Below are a few useful guidelines to reading and interpreting the Bible.
If you are just beginning to explore the Bible, select a Bible to use
Look up the same few Bible passages in several Bibles, and choose a translation that is, for you, the most appealing to read. And, yes: There is a difference between Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible. Make sure that the Bible carries an imprimatur on the front page that contains the copyright and printing information. “Imprimatur” literally means “let it be printed; and indicates that the book has been reviewed for moral and doctrinal error by a bishop, and found to be free of either.
Don’t feel that you must read the Bible straight through
You don’t need to read from cover to cover. It’s not a novel or a text book and doesn’t need to be read that way. Remember that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself. It is the “word of God” in human language, but Jesus himself is the eternal Word of God! He is the best and the final revelation of God; so, one suggestion is to select one of the Gospels in the New Testament and start there with the story of Emmanuel, “God with us”.
Before reading the Bible, pray
Ask God to help you to understand what you read. Ask Him to enlighten you with His word so you may know and understand what He wants to reveal to you at this particular point in your journey of faith. Also, prayer at the end of your reading is appropriate, asking God to help your reading of his word bear fruit in your life. The Bible isn’t meant to inform us as much as it is meant to transform us.
The Bible must be read literally, not literalistically
A literalistic reading of the Bible interprets scripture word-for-word. The problem with this approach i that it is intentionally incapable of recognizing uses of language such as allegory or metaphor. A literal reading approaches the Bible as literature. It takes into account what the author intended to convey, using the particular grammar, literary form, culture, and historical context in which the author writes.
Put another way, literalism views only the surface meaning of the text, while a literal interpretation looks at what the author meant to say. When we read Ps. 18:2 (“God is my rock”), we would be grossly misinterpreting the passage if we conclude that God is a stone, rather than, what the author intended, that God is reliable and unchanging, a source of strength for us.
The Bible’s human authors were not divine stenographers.
Everything asserted in Scripture that pertains to matters of faith is asserted by the Holy Spirit, but God allowed the human authors of Scripture to incorporate their own words, ideas, and worldviews into the sacred texts. Because of this, reading scripture sometimes has to make allowances for the culture, knowledge, and background of the human author. It cannot simply be read literalistically. But. Since God indirectly controlled the writers’ words, he would not have led them into error. Deceit and error are not attributes God.
The Bible’s human authors were not writing textbooks.
The Bible is a record of God’s relationship to his people. The human authors applied their own worldviews and cultural viewpoints to what they wrote. Scripture does not lay out what we would consider a scientific description of the world. For example, God’s creation of the world in six “days” does not necessarily refer to 24 hour days. But the divine message of God’s power to create and his relationship to that creation does not change and does not depend on what a “day” consists of.
The Bible contains many different literary styles or genres
Some of these genres communicate true, historical fact; others, present the divine message through nonliteral language, such as poetry or metaphors that no longer apply in our culture, and cannot be taken in a literal sense. Imagine someone thousands of years in our future trying to make sense of a letter describing a storm that “rained cats and dogs”. We realize that that is not a literal description, and the reader in the far future would have to allow for that.
The Bible must be read in context.
Sometimes biblical passages seem baffling because they are isolated from their original context. Find the context and you’ll usually find the explanation of the passage. What comes before or after the passage is important to understanding the message. Even other books of the Bible may shed light on what the author is trying to convey. Many times the notes at the bottom of the page will cross index one passage with another.
Evaluate Scripture against the whole of divine revelation
Interpret Scripture in light of what God has revealed in natural law as well as through his Church in the form of Sacred Tradition and the teaching office of the Magisterium.
Differing descriptions do not equal contradictions.
The authors of Scripture may have differed in their descriptions of an event’s details, but not in the essential truths they were asserting about those events. In the first two chapters of Genesis, two different accounts of creation are given. They are not contradictory, but are meant to supplement each other in their explanation of God’s care for his creation.
Incomplete is not inaccurate
Just because the sacred author did not record something another author recorded does not mean his text is in error. The very end of John’s gospel refers to the many things that Jesus did and said that were not written down, because “the whole world (could not) contain the books that would be written.”
When the Bible talks about God, it does so in a nonliteralistic way
Because God is so unlike us, Scripture must speak about him with anthropomorphic language that should not be taken literally. The “face of God”, his “arm” or “hand” or “ear” or “eye” aren’t meant to be a literal description of God’s appearance. Likewise God doesn’t possess human emotions; like anger, jealousy, grief, joy, or sorrow.