The Scriptures are a diverse compilation of writings encompassing a few thousand years of human history. As such, it can be difficult to understand them if you don’t recognize this context. St. Peter even writes that St. Paul’s letters can be hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), even though Paul wrote around the same time St. Peter did!
However, it is not impossible to understand the Bible. In fact, it is essential to do so. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Here are 5 ways to help make the Bible easier for you to understand.
1. Understand what the human author intended
The stories in Scripture take place within a particular time and context. The authors faced similar circumstances as our own, but within their own historical context. Many New Testament books (such as the Gospels) were written to specific Christian communities addressing their particular needs.
Find a good resource on the historical context in which the particular book you are reading took place. A good resource will explain:
- who did the writing,
- to whom it was written,
- the situation in which it was written
It is also important to understand the literary genre the authors of Scripture used. One of the most important documents from Vatican II, Dei Verbum, expresses the importance of understanding the literary context of the Scriptures:
[S]ince God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture… should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
… For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.
The historical context is vital to understanding the Scriptures. For example, the context of Genesis can tell us that the creation stories are not intended as historical or scientific texts. Therefore, it is possible to read the Bible without denying scientific evidence about the history of the created universe.
2. Be open to the message
Read from the Scriptures, not into the Scriptures. Let God try to communicate to you what he wants you to know. It’s easy to fall into a habit of reading a preconceived notion into a passage to fit our own ideology, but a more fruitful way is to let the Scriptures speak to us.
To ensure that the message you read is in accord with God’s intended message, look to the Church and the Bible as a whole for guidance. This can prevent you from reading your own ideology into the Scriptures. Taking one or two verses from the Bible and ignoring the context of the Church and the rest of the Bible often results in errors in understanding what those verses mean.
For example, take Jesus’ teaching on judgment. Many people read, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and decide that this means that we shouldn’t say actions are wrong. However, the Church recognizes that moral guidance is necessary, and this sometimes involves helping someone recognize when they are doing something wrong so that they can repent. Furthermore, if you read the rest of the Bible, you’ll see that God instructs the prophets to tell people exactly how they are sinning. We are not supposed to judge others in the sense that we should not say, “This person did this wrong thing so this person must be an awful person.” But we can say, “The thing this person did was wrong.”
3. Take time to reflect
Proper understanding comes through allowing yourself some time to think about what you read. Meditate on it. Think of how it might apply to your life. What is God trying to communicate to you through that passage? Although the human authors of Scripture wrote in a particular context and to a particular audience, God is the primary Author of Scripture. Therefore, the Scriptures were also written to you. That means that there is a message in the Bible that God speaks to you. An oft-used analogy is that the Bible is God’s love letter to each of us.
Some in-depth questions might be:
- What does this text tell me about God?
- What does this text tell me about the people of God?
- What does this text tell me about myself?
4. Read it more than once
Something as rich and vast as the word of God never exhausts its meaning on the first (or the hundredth) read. Re-read it as many times as you need to help unfold the various dynamics that might be taking place. A word or phrase might jump out at you on a second or third reading. Perhaps looking to a commentary will help you understand something better, and then you can go back and re-read the passage. If you feel like tuning out a Gospel at Mass because you’ve heard it all before, focus on the details that you may have missed before.
Re-reading the Bible is not only a good idea in the short term, but also in the long term. A passage that didn’t touch you a year ago might be exactly what you need to hear today. For example, if you’re going through a difficult time reading the Psalms of lament will probably be more comforting than the Psalms that express joy in God. But when you come out of that difficult time, the Psalms of rejoicing might be great guides for your prayer. This is one reason that Biblical stories we’ve read a hundred times still have something to say to us on the next reading.
5. Discuss the Scriptures with others
Reading the Scriptures in a group allows for a chance to discuss it and hear how God is revealing himself to other people. In fact you might learn how God is revealing himself to you through your discussion with another person! Hearing another person’s perspective on the Scriptures might also help you see details and messages you missed in your own reading.
It can be very helpful to discuss the Scriptures with a trusted friend. Another context in which to reflect on the Scriptures is a Bible study. Many parishes have Bible studies. If a knowledgeable person leads the study, it can help you understand both the historical background and the message God intends to send through the Scriptures.
The value of the Bible
The Church teaches that “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” (Dei Verbum). Knowledge of the Scriptures is essential for understanding Christianity as a whole. This is one reason for all of the Scriptures read at Mass and portrayed in religious art: even those who are illiterate can become familiar with the Bible.
The great treasure of Scripture is even greater when we come to a fuller understanding of each book and how to read it. God truly speaks to us through the Bible. What a wonderful gift!