Introduction to Studying the Bible

Let's talk about bibles. For starters, it's a book, and it's written in modern English. It's comprised of lots of little books, each of which has a name. These little books are divided into numbered chapters and the sentences of each chapter are themselves numbered as verses. Aside from these numbered verses, it reads about the same as a lot of other books I've read. When I first read the Bible, I read it like any book and I gleaned from its pages what I saw written. And what I saw written was mostly pretty odd.

It says things like:

You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment made of two kinds of stuff. (Lev 19:19)

You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk. (Ex 23:19)

Things like those imply God makes a lot of strange rules. Seemingly even worse, we read:

Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Num 31:17-18)

God seems violent and creepy. But those are from the Old Testament (OT); in the New Testament (NT) we meet Jesus, a more likeable God:

And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment; 21 for she said to herself, "If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well." 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well. (Mt 9:20-22)

The miraculous cure of... menstruation? Is that really what Jesus was about?

What to make of such things? This is where academia and scholarship enter the picture. First, my modern English book is nothing like the books written so very long ago in a far off land. These books of the Bible were written in ancient languages and these languages had their own literary ways, quite different from the literary ways of modern English. They had no visual cues in their written text, just a seemingly endless string of characters without punctuation, spacing, font, etc. Context and derivative meaning were communicated by ancient literary devices, like chiastic parallelism. While a person living in Israel 2,000 years ago could understand these devices, we moderns who are not academics know nothing of such things and so fail to notice them in our modern translations. We notice the Gospel of John seems different from the other three Gospels, but we don't really know why. We don't recognize the excruciating detail John put into the structure of his Gospel, which is so rich in contextual meaning that it tells its own story beyond the mere words. We miss so much.

And we get so much wrong.

We fail to recognize the New Testament writers crammed their texts with references to Old Testament texts, cramming these references far beyond those noted in the footnotes in my modern Bible. Why did John mention the opening of Christ's side on the cross and blood and water flowing out (and make such a big deal about it)? (Jn 19:31-37) We assume it's because John wanted to connect the event to his quote from Zech 12:10, but we fail to notice the comparison to the story of Eve's creation, where the first Adam was put into a sleep, his side opened and a bone was extracted which became his bride (Gen 2:21). John's Gospel tells a parallel story where the second Adam was asleep in death on the cross, his side opened, and blood and water - symbols of the Sacraments - flowed out; Catholic theologians throughout the ages have seen these sacramental images as images of Christ's bride, the Church. This method of non-stop referencing of the Old Testament is indicated throughout the New Testament. The NT writers' primary aim is to prove that Jesus fulfills all of the OT references to the future Messiah. The OT then becomes a book of promises, which are fulfilled in Christ. Unless we read the texts these ways, we will miss so much.

When we read of Jesus walking on the water, (e.g., Jn 6:19), we don't compare with Gen 1:2, where the earth was a chaotic mess of water, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters; God walked on the waters at the dawn of time. We also don't particularly notice that this chaotic mess of water was the universe as God created it (Gen 1:1); it was after the Spirit moved over these waters that order was established. Likewise in John 6, Jesus fed the multitude with ordinary bread; but then He walked on the water, after which He revealed the Eucharist, the supernatural bread that He will give. In both narratives, God's movement on the water resulted in taking that which was before and transforming it into something new and better.

These are just two examples out of thousands. Jesus did not merely do and say many great things; everything He did and said refers back to the OT and is meant to teach us. To understand the Bible, we need to understand the OT, deeply and in context, as the Israelites understood it, using the literary techniques of their times. Likewise we need to understand the NT in the light of the Old. Texts don't mean what we think they do, nor what we want them to mean. This method of comparing Bible texts to other Bible texts to derive meaning is called canonical exegesis. It goes hand in hand with historical-critical exegesis, which adds appropriate historical context as well. Together, these tools can lead us to the deep meanings buried in Scripture, which will in turn lead us to the Author of Scripture. And that's what Christianity is all about.