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When Reading the Bible . . .

Advice to Help You Better Understand Sacred Scripture

By: Mark Hart

When Reading the Bible . . .: Advice to Help You Better Understand Sacred Scripture by Mark Hart

Contrary to popular belief, you can understand the Bible and study it on your own. Reading and studying the Sacred Scriptures is the journey of a lifetime. Now, as with any journey, there are several different routes you can take to get to where you want to go. Some routes are faster but more difficult. Some routes take a little longer but offer a smoother ride.

Many people set out to read Scripture with the fastest route in mind; their goal is to finish and “conquer” the Bible as quickly and easily as possible. That route is treacherous.

I want to encourage you to take your time on this journey. I also want to point out a few potential potholes and obstacles that might slow you down or make you want to turn around or quit altogether.

1. Don’t get lost in translation.

There are hundreds of different translations of Scripture available today, far too many to list here. Basically, Scripture is translated in two principal ways:

  • The formal equivalence method: The person (or group) translating tries his or her hardest to match the original text word for word or phrase for phrase as closely as possible, while still making the new translation readable.
  • The dynamic equivalence method: The person (or group) translating is not as concerned about matching words as he is about matching thoughts. Basically, it’s a meaning-for-meaning translation rather than a word-for-word translation.

Depending on which method the translators used, you could be reading a translation of a translation of a translation. So obviously, the particular word you are reading could have a different connotation than when it was first expressed. Footnotes and commentaries are helpful in sorting out the original meaning(s), what the original words were trying to convey.

2. Don’t assume that other cultures thought the way you think.

Our twenty-first century is so different from ancient Mediterranean culture and from the times of ancient Palestine that it can be difficult to fully understand some of the customs and cultural references in the Bible. You might read sentences or sections that leave you feeling confused, disgusted, or even angry. Before you get too worked up, however, imagine how past generations would think of your life.

Imagine how easy someone from biblical times would consider your life to be, given that you have cars, air conditioning, microwaves, and cell phones, for example. But those technological and cultural advancements don’t necessarily mean your life is easy, just different. In the same way, the simplicity of ancient biblical times doesn’t mean that people were stupid or their behavior was gross, just that they lived with different challenges and obstacles. Take the time to learn about their culture before you dismiss or judge it as antiquated.

There are literally hundreds of resources you can consult, from books to websites, that will tell you about Jewish culture, geography, customs, and so forth. Take the time to read this information; it’s really interesting stuff.

3. Don’t get overwhelmed by the geography or pronunciations.

When it comes to biblical geography, you’re probably no expert. Facts about ancient cities in the Middle East, for example, are probably not part of your everyday conversation. As a result, you might get frustrated or even demoralized when reading Scripture because, not only are you unable to find most cities and sites on a map, but you can’t even figure out how to pronounce some of them.

Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember, times and places change, but the truths are timeless. Nevertheless, the stories contained within the pages of Sacred Scripture happened in actual places, not fictional locations. And so getting to know even a few facts about the geography or the culture can make a huge difference in your understanding of a situation or in the lesson you draw from it.

The word “Bethlehem,” for instance, means “house of bread.” That fact might not have meant a lot to the people in the time of King David, who was born there, but it sure carries a deep meaning to us who realize that the Bread of Life, Jesus, was born there. As you study Scripture, it’s not as essential to know geography as it is to know certain other facts, but the more effort you make to locate cities and learn a few facts about them, the more the stories will come to life in your life.

4. Don’t think that random details are useless.

There will be moments when you will read a story or passage and say to yourself, “Why is that in there? Why was that detail, something so random, included in the Bible?” The temptation is to say, “That’s useless to me in the twenty-first century,” and just move on. The challenge, however, is to look deeper and ask yourself why that fact was inspired, recorded, and preserved for future readers.

For example, you might be reading about the storm at sea in Mark 4 and come to the line that says, “[Jesus] was asleep in the stern on a cushion” (Mark 4:38). You might ask yourself, “Why do I need to know where Jesus was sitting in the boat or the fact that he was on a cushion and not on wood? What difference does that make to the story about how he calmed the storm?”

The better response? Look for deeper reasons why the author included such details. In this case, the stern and the cushion can point to an eyewitness testimony: only an eyewitness would have seen them or communicated them. Maybe that means that Mark was in the boat with Jesus or that someone who was in the boat (like Peter, who traveled with Mark later in life) communicated the intimate details of the story to the author. Get the idea?

Don’t ever think that random details are just random. They were important at one point, and if we look deep enough, they’re probably still important on some level.

5. Don’t dismiss names or family trees as unimportant.

Have you ever been at Mass or been reading the Bible on your own and come across a family tree (lineage)? You know, it’s one of those phrases that says, “So-and-so begat so-and-so, and then so-and-so begat so-and-so.” The normal response when one of those lists begins is to jump ahead to “the stuff that matters.”

Those lists do matter, however, even if they don’t mean a lot at first glance. Knowing which people were connected to one another—and the circumstances and sin and virtue that shaped certain family trees—helps us get a better grasp not only of biblical characters but also of how similar our families and lives are to those of our ancestors in the faith. Knowing where we come from is essential for knowing where we are headed. On a very practical level today, for example, knowing there is a history of alcoholism or cancer in a family tree allows us to be more proactive about our own health.

Look at Matthew 1:1–16 for a few moments. How many of the names on that list do you recognize? They might not seem that important, but Matthew knew they were. Not only did his Jewish audience need to know the genealogy (the ancestral bloodline) of Jesus Christ, but they also needed to see some of the non-Jewish people in Christ’s family tree. Those verses that begin Matthew’s Gospel appear unimportant, but even a quick study of the five women listed there reveals much about the family, life, and mission of Jesus Christ.

Keep these things in mind as you navigate the Scriptures, and write down the questions you have as you go along. Study solid Scripture resources, attend parish or diocesan Bible studies, and talk with people at your parish who are knowledgeable about the Bible—priests and deacons and religious sisters and catechists, for example—and you will find answers to many of your questions.

This is a selection from Mark Hart’s latest book, Unleashing the Power of Scripture: A Guide for Catholics (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). Available at