5 Levels of Reading the Bible

This is the second in a series of blogs I am doing about the Bible in the Christian Faith.

Let me lay out some framework for how to read the Bible as story. I suggest that you look at any particular passage of the Bible on five levels. This may sound pretty basic, as opposed to the in depth exegesis that many of us did in seminary, but the simplicity is what the church is bad at. We have looked at these texts so academically that we have lost our ability to see the stories as story.

On the most basic level, and passage of scripture is its own story. It has its own characters, actions, and details. The first step with any passage is to read the passage for itself. Think of it this way—the author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, put certain details in the story. They could not write every detail about the story, the dialogue, or the setting. They had to choose certain details to add and others to leave out. Take those choices seriously. What about thinking of the passage not as the inspired Word of God, but the inspired Words of God? (thanks to Len Sweet for that one)  This is where commentaries mess us up. We pick up a commentary and we are pressed into a long term historical or theological debate. This is fine and fun, but it often takes us away from the story. I recently read that theologian John McLeod Campbell did not read commentaries in his ministry because he thought there was plenty in the text to take him through his career as a preacher. I suggest you read a passage a number of times, notice and write down your own thoughts and questions, and only then read commentaries to check on what you came up with or to see anything you missed.

The second level of reading a text is the historical context of the passage. This means understanding the details of where this story is placed in history. Where does this happen? What year? What cultural norms or practices influence the story? A helpful question is to ask—do I know how this story would be different if it happened a century before or after when it did?

The third level of reading a text is the literary context of the work. This involves understanding the passage in the chapter and in the book it is written in. How does John 13 work within the book of John? How does Romans 11 build the discussion toward Romans 12, and how is it build on Romans 10? I don’t think this is secondary to the historical context in any way. For the literary context, you can simply read the chapters around your periscope. For the historical context, you must engage a study Bible or Bible dictionary.

The fourth level of reading a scripture is understand the historical context of the writing. What is going on in the world when this story is written down? Sometimes, such as in the Epistles, the historical context of the story and the writing are basically the same thing. In other places, such as the Gospels, they are different times. What is going on when Matthew writes the Sermon on the Mount as opposed to when Jesus said it? This also involves some of the more nerdy conversations of authorship, such as whether it was actually Matthew who wrote the book. I have found, however, that these kinds of questions, including the JEDP discussions, add very little to the story. However, whoever wrote the book of Matthew, it is clear that the book takes Jesus’ teachings and presents them to an audience at a time that is different than Jesus’ original audiences, though is apparently Jewish. That information helps tint the reading.

The fifth level, which is always happening in the mind of the reader or interpreter, is where the text fits in the metanarrative. Where are we in the grand story? What does this passage add to the overall redemptive story?  Also, at this level, the text needs to be compared to other passages of scripture. Are there other texts that relate to or echo this passage? MORE ON THIS LEVEL IN THE NEXT BLOG.


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