Reading the Bible as a Whole
By: Reality SF
As we continue in the Year of Biblical Literacy, we will be providing a few hermeneutic (the art of interpreting the Bible) tools to help you engage with Scripture in your personal reading and also in communal settings. This piece focuses on how to read the Bible as a whole and walks through various ways to read the Bible.
- Learning How to Read the Bible
- Reading Forward
- Reading Backward
- Reading Patiently
- Reading Literarily
- Reading Gratefully
Reading the Bible – Literacy, Learning how to read the Bible
We believe the Bible is a unified library of texts that tells a cohesive story culminating in Jesus. We read the Bible because we want to encounter Jesus, understand the story of how God is redeeming the world, and find our place in that story. During this Year of Biblical Literacy, we are trying to become more adept at reading and understanding the Bible by reading it through — some of us for the umpteenth time and some for the first time ever. But how should we generally read the Bible? And why exactly are we beginning in Genesis and working our way forward toward the New Testament? Let’s answer the first question first and look at a few fundamentals on approaching the Scriptures.
First, we read the Bible by reading the whole Bible. Specifically, we read both the “Old Testament”, which is essentially the Jewish Scriptures arranged in a slightly different order, and the “New Testament”, which is the collection of Christian texts written in the first generation or two after Jesus. Typically, Jewish converts to the Way of Jesus begin with the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and find that it eventually leads them to Christ. They then begin to explore the New Testament. Most gentile (non-Jewish) Christ-followers, however, typically discover Jesus through first exploring the New Testament, and then later (if ever), they go back to the Old Testament to see where everything started. Part of the beauty of the Bible is that it works both ways. It doesn’t matter where we begin. But to get a full picture of God’s story, we have to do the homework and read the rest of the story. All of it matters and it all fits together to paint one cohesive picture. If we leave any parts out, we may end up accidentally distorting those parts that we read to mean something other than intended.
For many of us, the first major shift in this year’s approach to reading the Bible is that we’re actually reading the Old Testament. The whole Old Testament! Biblical illiteracy often stems largely from a lack of serious attention to the Old Testament. Some of us really never even open it. Therefore, the first challenge of the Year of Biblical Literacy is to discipline ourselves to read these old texts and to learn to understand and appreciate them.
Secondly, we read the Bible in a kind of back-and-forth rhythm. As mentioned, we can read the Bible in either of two directions. Like many Jewish converts, we can read it forward, beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures and working our way toward the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus as their fulfillment. Or, like most Christians today, we can discover Jesus in the New Testament Christian Scriptures and then read backward, studying the Old Testament in order to explore the earlier story and promises that Christ fulfilled. We call this reading forward and backward, inspired largely by theologian Richard Hays’ wonderful book, Reading Backwards. Another way to think about it is reading Jewishly versus reading Christianly, or reading developmentally versus Christologically. But going forward, we’ll use the forward-backward paradigm.
The second foundational approach to reading the Bible then is not only to read the whole thing but to read it both forward and backward in a kind of ongoing rhythm. We ought not to read the Bible in only one of the directions mentioned. This too can cause us to miss out on much that the Bible has to offer. In fact, one of the most surefire ways to misread the Bible is to read either only forward or only backward. As with any good long story, we should start at the beginning and read forward to the end, and we should then go back and re-read it, allowing the climactic ending to shine new light on the earlier chapters of the story. If we only read the ending without really understanding the beginning of the story, we’ll misunderstand its meaning. But it would be foolish then to never allow the ending to in some sense reinterpret and reimagine the rest of the story. Both of these approaches to reading the Bible are important and both lead to their own kinds of understanding. What is key is that the insight gained from reading in one direction enables us to better go turn and read in the opposite direction. The Bible wants to propel us on this back-and-forth journey.
The Year of Biblical Literacy challenges us with the discipline of reading forward through the Bible, from Genesis to Jesus. Those of us who are unfamiliar with the Old Testament are likely also unfamiliar with reading the Bible forward and perhaps even uncomfortable with the notion. It can feel like we’re pretending to be the Old Testament people of God for half of the year until we finally reach the Gospels at the end of the summer. Therefore, this year’s journey is an opportunity to discover a more balanced approach to Bible-reading. It’s a chance to practice our weaknesses. And this means of course that it often won’t feel fun or easy. It’s a discipline!
And the goal is not to perfect our understanding of the Bible this year but rather to build momentum that will propel us toward a lifelong journey through the Bible moving continuously from Genesis to Jesus and back again. This rhythmic approach to reading is a huge, lifelong project, not something we’ll check off our box this year. The aim is to spend the year growing in Biblical literacy in order to then spend a lifetime enjoying the life-giving fruit of Scripture reading. Treat this Year of Biblical Literacy as a beginning. Use it to set yourself in motion and to train yourself through daily practice to read and enjoy the Bible for the rest of your life. Like all training, especially at the beginning of a new workout routine, this year will likely feel painful and difficult and even disorienting at times. That’s just part of the workout. Stick with it. Put in the work. If we want to exercise our Bible-reading muscles, we’ll simply have to work through some of the pain and fatigue of working out. The payoff will be well worth it in the long run.
Now let’s explore this forward-backward paradigm a bit more.
As we said, though the Bible is a diverse library of distinct texts, it together tells one cohesive story about God and His people. And the Bible’s story, like all stories, builds forward as it goes. Therefore, it expects us to start reading at the beginning. You wouldn’t pick up Harry Potter at book 7 and expect to understand the story. It’s assumed that we would’ve read books 1-6 beforehand. We encounter characters and ideas in Book 7 that J.K. Rowling assumed (fairly) would be familiar to us from having read through the entire series. But as we said, many of us come to Jesus by reading the Gospels or New Testament epistles, which is the literary equivalent of beginning Harry Potter in book 6 or 7. You can learn a ton about the meaning and purpose and aim of Jesus’ story by merely reading the New Testament, just as you could know much about Harry Potter from Book 7 alone. However, there is richness and depth that would be forever missed in either case if that is all we ever read. It’s okay to start there, but at some point we should do our homework and go back to the beginning. So, like any book, we should read the Bible forward from Genesis (literally “the beginning”) and try to interpret the significance of each book and passage in light of those before it.
Part of what it means then to read forward for someone who enters a story near its end is to go back to the beginning and in some sense put aside one’s knowledge of how it ends. To again use Harry Potter, it is to read Book 1 and to temporarily ignore, or move to the back of our minds, our knowledge of what happens in Book 7. It is to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is authentically starting from the beginning and try to appreciate the story as he/she would. We do this because that is how the story intended to be read. To read it as such is the only way to get at its truest original meaning. So to read the Bible forward is to momentarily put off our Christian perspective and to enter the shoes of the Old Testament Jews to whom the Hebrew Scriptures were written. We know where the story is heading, but we remember that we haven’t gotten there yet. This isn’t abandoning Jesus or our Christianity. We’re simply re-inhabiting earlier moments in Christ’s story.
This posture then affects how we interpret such texts. It should prevent us from habitually contorting the Old Testament to appear like allegories for or allusions to Jesus. Rather, they can simply be earlier chapters of His story with inherent meaning and value as such. Reading forward entails asking questions like, “How does this text reveal God’s heart as consistent from the Old Testament to the new?” rather than, “Where are the clues that point to Jesus?” or “What texts can we use as proof for Christ?” Rather than allegorizing or proof-texting, we read forward by remembering that Jesus and the New Testament are built upon the beautiful foundation of the Old Testament, and therefore, we should appreciate it in its own right as this foundation.
These texts meant something significant and formative when they were written, long before Jesus, and we want to understand what exactly that significance is. For example, what was the Isaiah 53 passage about a “suffering servant” trying to get at for the hundreds of years before Jesus? We read this way not just out of intellectual curiosity but because Jesus Himself considered His Bible – our Old Testament – absolutely paramount. When people misunderstood Him or questioned His actions or debated His teachings, His primary response was, “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Often, as on the road to Emmaus, He was even more cutting, saying “How foolish you are and slow to believe all that the prophets have written!” In other words, we don’t read forward to distance ourselves from Jesus but actually to approach Him more effectively. This means holding off momentarily on reading Jesus and the New Testament into the Old Testament texts like the book of Isaiah.
This is precisely what we are doing in the Year of Biblical Literacy. For many of us it can be a very disorienting and even exhausting experience. Again, this feeling is okay. It’s normal and it can be really good for you. Remember, exercise involves discomfort. Training ourselves to approach the Scriptures through a Jewish lens by reading forward will feel uncomfortable, but if we can stick with it we will start down a path toward profound new meaning and beauty.
The hope is that by reading the Bible forward through the Old Testament, we will arrive at a wonderfully fresh and more vibrant encounter with Jesus through the Gospels and epistles. When we open up the first page of the New Testament in Matthew’s Gospel and read of the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand in Jesus, those familiar words will be far more brilliant with meaning and grace than they’ve ever been before. Hopefully our experience of Jesus and the ideas of the New Testament will awe and inspire us like never before. That’s the hope, but it requires doing the homework. There are no real shortcuts.
And when we finish Malachi and return once again to our beloved New Testament Scriptures, we should read them forward as well. This entails using our newfound Old Testament familiarity to look a bit deeper at how the texts interact with and draw from the Jewish building blocks upon which they stand. Having read through the Old Testament from the beginning, we should be better equipped to notice and appreciate the Jewishness of the New Testament. It was of course written by Biblically fluent Jews to Biblically fluent Jews. Intimate familiarity with the Old Testament is simply assumed. And every one of the New Testament authors was passionately committed to weaving Jesus into Jewish faith, so there are hundreds of references and quotations and subtle echoes of the Old Testament throughout the new. Part of reading forward means doing the homework to slow down and consider these references. If one of Paul’s epistles quotes a Psalm, for example, we should look up the verse and even consider re-reading the Psalm. Again, this kind of careful reading is a life’s work and we don’t have to perfect it this year, but we should take advantage of the opportunity to practice reading the New Testament fabric with more careful attention to the Old Testament threads which hold it together.
So this is what it means to read forward — to read developmentally, growing more familiar with the earlier foundational building blocks in order to draw more richness and significance from the later additions. And then, remember, we don’t only read forward; we don’t always try to forget about Jesus and the end of the story while reading the Old Testament. In fact, knowing Jesus and having finished the story does allow us to go back and read the Old Testament differently, and even better. The forward rhythm opens up the opportunity for a powerful and profound backward reading of Scripture in which the climax of Jesus re-illumines everything that came before. The revelation of God in Jesus can help us make sense of so much that was written before Him. And so as Christians we also read backward, allowing the ending to shine fresh light on the beginnings. Let’s dive into that now.
With any good story, the ending ought to shed new light backward onto earlier parts of the story, just as the beginning of the story ought to shed light onto what unfolds later. Jesus is the perfect ending to the story of the Bible, which is the greatest story ever told. And like any good story with a climactic finale, Jesus ought to make us want to go back and take another look at the Old Testament texts that came before Him. And knowing that He is the climax and culmination of the Biblical story actually can and should change the way we read and interpret the Old Testament. This approach is the other side of the hermeneutic coin; it’s what we call reading Christianly or Christologically, or simply reading backward.
Specifically, to read backward is to go against what we said about reading forward. Rather than putting off our Jesus lens and pretending we don’t know how the story ends, it’s putting on the Jesus lens and letting what we know of Him serve as a kind of interpretive reading lamp that shines new light on old texts. As we said up front, to only read the Bible this way is to completely misread it. The Old Testament wasn’t written for us to read Jesus into. However, it was written to tell the very story that Jesus personally embodied, which means that we actually can see Christ – or at least Christ’s ethos and essence – throughout the Old Testament. And therefore, to only read forward and to never let Jesus be our hermeneutical lens through which we can see deeper into the heart of the Biblical story would be to miss out on much of what the Bible can give us.
For this reason, we have to do both/and, reading forward and backward. And again, we can’t do this all at once. It takes time. So we should be patient and pay attention to what kind of reading it is that we’re doing and try to understand how to do both. And also remember that each time we read in one direction it better enables us to read back in the opposing direction. The Year of Biblical Literacy is mostly focused on reading forward because that is what we typically tend to do the least of. However, the goal is for us to read forward so that we could then read backward with greater skill and proficiency. In other words, by becoming adequately familiar with what the Old Testament originally meant, we can better know Jesus. And by knowing Jesus better we can then go back and draw even more richness from the Old Testament, even richness that wasn’t necessarily intended by its authors.
Before we dive into some keys to reading backward, we should recognize that this requires great skill to do well. Knowing when it’s okay to allegorize and when we can and cannot bend the original interpretations is a craft that takes time, care, and practice. We won’t perfect it anytime soon, and it’s likely we’ll make mistakes in the process, either missing obvious opportunities for seeing connections to Christ in the Old Testament or else unfairly forcing Jesus to fit into texts in a way that distorts everything. Again, treat your journey with the Bible as both something to appreciate for its own sake and as an opportunity to expand your capacity for future reading. So how exactly do we read backward?
It’s first important to understand that none of the Old Testament authors knew of Jesus or could even really imagine someone like Him. And yet, the Old Testament is in a way about Jesus. Another way to say this is that the Old Testament pointed forward to some vague shadow of a thing — a hope, an idea, a person — that Jesus made manifest. The author of Hebrews 10 spoke to this by referring to the Law as “a shadow of the good things that are coming.” Paul in Colossians 2 spoke similarly about Jewish festivals saying, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” In other words, the Jewish Law and holidays were good things in and of themselves. They weren’t just allegorical commands duping Israel for generations merely for our benefit today. And yet, they were foreshadowing an even greater reality that was revealed in Christ, and we can now understand what ideas and insights the Law and the holidays were really trying to get at. In a sense, what the Old Testament tried to give us through historical narrative, Jesus gives us in human form. It’s as if the dim lamp of Old Testament narrative revelation has become a high-powered spotlight in the life of Jesus. Not only do we see things in Him that we couldn’t see before, but we can now use Him to help us see the older things more clearly, more truly.
We should remember, for instance, that the first Christian churches preached the Word of God about Jesus entirely from the Old Testament. The new stuff wasn’t written yet! In other words, the way the early churches tried to prepare people to understand Christ was to help them become even more familiar with the Old Testament. This should remind us that it is entirely possible and valid and worthwhile to see and know Jesus through the Old Testament.
And we should also note that much of the New Testament has fairly been deemed a reinterpretation of the Old Testament. In other words, in light of what Jesus revealed, new and better ways of reading and interpreting Old Testament texts arose. Some of these reinterpretations even appear to rub against the way they originally intended to be interpreted, meaning that we may find very different meanings in texts from reading them forward and backward. This again is why it is important to do both — the back-and-forth rhythm keeps each in tension with the other, and this tension should prevent from any major distortion. So, when reading backward, practice holding your Christological interpretation loosely and in balance with a reasonable Jewish or developmental interpretation. Ask these three questions: 1) How would an Old Testament Jew have likely understood this text? 2) How would Jesus have interpreted it? 3) How would the early Christ-followers and apostles have interpreted it in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection?
When your backward reading appears to shine profound new light on texts, celebrate this beauty of the Scriptures, hold your interpretation lightly, and reflect prayerfully on the passage. In this way, you can allow Jesus, through his Spirit, to be your companion and guide through the Bible.
A few additional tips:
Read patiently. As you read the Bible, don’t expect to find a profound life-changing lesson in every verse or paragraph. For example, the entire book of Leviticus might leave you hard-pressed to find any refrigerator-grade nuggets of poetic wisdom. That’s okay. That isn’t what the Bible is for. Just be patient. Trying to squeeze too much out of the Bible is one of the most common causes for reading false meaning into the text and distorting it entirely. You don’t have to find timely personal lessons in every chapter. Jesus is with you even when you aren’t having any sort of Bible-reading epiphany. Every time you sit down to read the Bible, try to figure out where you are in the story and how this particular chapter or passage speaks to and moves along that story. If there’s nothing in it that you find particularly moving, no problem! Just relax and keep reading. Not every scene can be a climax.
Read literarily, not literally. The Bible is a collection of various works of literature. It’s authority doesn’t bypass its literary nature but is rather encompassed in it. To be rightly understood and heeded, each part of the Bible must be read as literature of its type is intended to be read. Distorting metaphor into fact, illustration into history, and poetic imagery into doctrine are surefire ways to misread the Bible. Rather, reading the Bible faithfully and obediently means reading poems as poems, letters as letters, narrative as narrative, and so on. Though for newer readers, it can be difficult to discern the allegorical from the factual. Be patient with yourself and take your interpretations lightly. Every time you read the Bible forward and backward, you grow in your ability to read and interpret well. When you feel like you’re really getting it, celebrate! And when you feel confused, be honest about the challenge and give thanks for the opportunity to continue growing in your Bible-reading capacities.
Read gratefully. Remember that the Bible is a precious gift. If not for the gracious plan of God to communicate His story to the world, as well as the brilliant and meticulous work of many generations of God’s people, we would have none of these Scriptures. And there is nothing else like them in existence, meaning that we would be as lost for wisdom as Abram and his moon-worshipping family once were. Remind yourself to practice a hermeneutic of gratitude.