Important Background for Reading the Bible
By Pastor Ed Vasicek
Many of you are going to take a stab at reading the Bible this coming year. For many of you, this might be your first attempt. But even if you have read the Bible annually for 45 years (like a friend of mine), becoming aware of a few background considerations can make a huge difference.
In western thinking (European, American), we prefer sequential presentations. We also like to separate topics. We might prefer to look at one subject, address it completely, and then move on to the next. If you have read even some of the Bible, you probably realize that this not the way Scripture is generally written, but rather “here a little, there a little.” The epistles (especially Paul’s) are more western, but the Gospels and the Old Testament are quite different because they are based upon Ancient Near Eastern logic, not European logic. The ancients sometimes preferred to group texts together by theme, for example, rather than sequence. They felt no obligation to include all the information about every event.
Someone has well said that, although we are separated from the Bible by thousands of years, the divide between east and west is the greater divide. If we better understood the modern near east, we would better understand our Bibles.
One of the underlying agendas for much of the Bible is ease of memorization. Although copies of the Scriptures were written on scrolls and animal skins, not everyone had access to them. And, frankly, it would be very “unhandy” to find the correct roll and locate a passage on a scroll. Memorization was part of ancient culture.
This ease of memorization is perhaps the reason why so much of the Bible is written in a pattern known as “chiasm” or “chiasmus.” The best way to learn what chiasm means is to see it. In the cases below, “A” corresponds to “A’,” etc.
Here is an example from Matthew 6:24 to help you understand what I mean:
A. No one can serve two masters;
B. for either he will hate the one
C. and love the other,
C’. or he will be devoted to one
B’. and despise the other.
A’. You cannot serve God and money.
Entire books of the Bible are often laid out with such a pattern, and the sub-sections of the book might have another detailed pattern, and even verse sections (like above) may have this pattern. Not all of the Bible is written as chiasm, but the general layout of many books and major sections do have this pattern.
Here is an example of the Genesis account of the Fall:
A (3:1-6) “you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (3:5)
B (3:7-8) Fig leaves
C (3:9-13) Excuse of the man and the woman
D [center point] (3:14-15) Curse against the serpent
C' (3:16-20) Curse against the man and the woman
B' (3:21) Animal skin garments
A' (3:22-24) "The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad” (3:22)
If you want to study this more, see David Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2004).
Since all devout Jews were expected to memorize the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), and since rabbis and especially devout Jews memorized the entire Tanakh (Old Testament), it is arranged to promote memorization. Of course other memory helps -- like same sounding words, etc. -- are lost when translated into English from Hebrew.
The Scriptures contain a lot of repetition, partly to emphasize a point, partly for clarity, and partly for memorization and reaffirmation. To our western thinking, this may seem redundant. Western thinking is not the only way of thinking.
The Bible is the inspired infallible Word of God. We believe it is without error in the original manuscripts. There is strong evidence that the text of the Bible has been well preserved, and all major translations are accurately done. English has many times the vocabulary of Hebrew and Greek, so we have a lot of synonyms to choose from, which accounts for some differences in translation. English has changed much since the 1611 King James, so translations in the King James that see inaccurate were more accurate when that brand of English was spoken.
Besides being the inspired Word of God, the Bible is also the word of godly men. God used human authors to write the Bible, using a broad spectrum of literary styles. Narrative sections are history. If the plain sense makes sense, look for no other sense when it comes to narratives. Much of the Bible is Hebrew poetry. Modern versions center the text when it is poetry. In Hebrew, these texts have rhythm, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, and other marks of poetry that are lost when translated into English. People often forget that the Bible was not written in English. English is really not even a thousand years old.
Wisdom literature consists of pithy sayings that should not be confused with promises. Wisdom literature (mostly Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and several Psalms) are principles that generally (but not always) hold true.
The Gospels and Acts are historical, while the epistles are instructive (didactic). Revelation, parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah (and other portions) are apocalyptic (visions that seem kind of weird and have a prophetic/symbolic meaning).
Evidence suggests that Ezra the Scribe (for whom the book of Ezra is named) was the final editor of almost all the Old Testament, updating Hebrew into its modern language (at the time) and adding reference information regarding cities that changed names, etc.
The protestant Old Testament is exactly the same as the Hebrew Tanakh (the Jewish Bible). We even translate from the same manuscripts. The Hebrew Bible, however, is arranged in a different order, based upon a three-fold division: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles. The Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi) are included as one book, called, “The Twelve.”
The Roman Catholic Church includes books called, “The Apocrypha,” Jewish writings written after the Old Testament and before the New Testament, although some purport to go back to Old Testament times. The Jewish people never accepted those as Scripture (although they were familiar with them; one book includes the story of Hanukkah). The New Testament writers never quote them as Scripture, and the Roman church did not officially make them part of the canon until after the Reformation. All in all, they are not bad books, but are of a noticeably different quality than Scripture, in my opinion.
The ESV, NASB, the CSB (aka, “Holman Christian Standard Bible") and the New King James are among the most literal. Some versions, like the NIV, CEV, and Living Bible (a paraphrase) are wonderful for reading or listening, but probably not for deep study. Others, like The Message or the Passion Bible take liberties that, to my way of thinking, add to the text rather than merely clarify it. I do not recommend them. At HPC, we use the ESV.
Remember, there are two themes to the Bible: God’s faithfulness to Israel, and redemption through the Messiah. The Old Testament looks forward to His coming, the New looks back.
As Christians, we are not Israel, but we are connected to Israel through our Jewish Messiah. The Laws that pertain uniquely to Israel do not necessarily apply to us. The Law (Torah) was partly religious, party civil (how Israel was to be governed), and geared toward God’s unique purpose for Israel, which is distinct in some ways from His purpose for the Church, New Covenant believers. At the same time, there is a lot of overlap, and we learn about God from His dealings with Israel.
If you are reading through the Bible for the first time, you will face some new challenges. This might seem overwhelming. My advice: understand what you can, but don’t feel like you need to understand everything. You can live with a few unsolved puzzles, and many of them will be solved if you read on or as you study over the years. The idea is to begin to become fluent in the Scriptures. I hope this article will help you forge ahead!