Want to Be a Good Reader of the Bible?

Categories: Biblical Studies, Religion & Theology

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Not many get to be (or want to be) a biblical scholar, but lots of people want to read and understand the Bible well. What must one do to become a good Bible reader? J. R. Daniel Kirk gives exactly the answer that I have made into a mantra the last few years:

Learn how to read.

He’s not kidding, and I’m not either. Even within the guild of biblical scholarship, my biggest complaint of late has been that too many people (even scholars) simply aren’t good readers. (The main purpose of my “Misinterpreted Bible Passages” series is to highlight passages that tend to be especially poorly read.) This is true of very smart people—reading is a skill, not a matter of intelligence. As Kirk points out, one of the keys to being a good reader is to learn how to approach the text—one should not approach the Bible as an engineering book or a historical factbook.

In Kirk’s post, he also puts forward standard literary features found in the Gospel of Mark, simple things that contribute to our understanding that are easily missed if one isn’t a good reader. He also points out that the Bible has been atomized all too often—broken down into little pieces with no real taste of literature or sense. I would agree entirely that a key to becoming a good reader is to consume lots of good literature—fiction, dialogue, etc.—and learn what each “tastes like.” Then one can come to the Bible and read it on its own terms, rather than coming to it simply to confirm one’s own ideas about it.

I would also add that one of the most important lessons necessary to become a good reader of the Bible is to learn not to read it as a “holy book,” as “scripture.” Instead of reading it in a special “devotional” tone, read it like one would read other things—read Paul’s letters like they are letters. Read the Gospels like one would read a good story. Ignore the chapters and verse divisions (they weren’t there in the originals anyway). You’ll be surprised at what you wind up hearing when you read this way. You’ll hear the voices in the text—perhaps for the first time.

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