How to Read the Bible
Fr. Thomas Hopko · October 25, 2010
As he travels, Fr. Tom is often asked to say some things on the radio about how to read the Bible. Where do you start? What translation does he recommend? What presuppositions should be discarded and what should be maintained? In this new episode, Fr. Tom addresses each of these questions and more.
Several people have contacted me through email and even in person when I travel around and visit people who listen to Ancient Faith Radio. They ask me about reading the Bible. There’s all kinds of questions that are given to me that I get from people about reading the Bible. Some folks said, “You know, Fr. Tom, you ought to maybe speak on the radio very simply, very directly, offering whatever advice and counsel you would give to people, especially people who are not theologically trained but who are very much participating in Church life and very interested in the Holy Scripture and in the Bible and trying to understand it, if you would give some suggestions, very concrete suggestions, simple, concrete suggestions about Bible reading in the Orthodox tradition, in the Orthodox Church.”
How was the Bible read in the ancient Church? How is it read by the Church Fathers? How is it used in the Liturgy? How should we read it, today, now, in the 21st century? These are the questions that are asked, and so I’m going to just say a few things about that right now.
I would just like to comment, though, that it’s interesting for me, being an old guy, that the very first publication that I ever made in my entire life, way back in 1964, I believe it was… It’s a long time ago. I was a young priest, a very young priest, in my 20s, in Warren, Ohio, in my first parish. We had a deanery there of priests, and we used to publish little booklets. I was assigned to publish a booklet, to produce a booklet called “Reading the Bible.” In that booklet, my task was to convince Orthodox people that we ought to read the Bible, especially if we’re literate; if we’re not literate, we should like to know the Bible, hear the Bible, listen to it, listen to it read, listen to it in church; that the Bible is our book. It’s the book of our covenanted community with God, the holy Church, beginning with the people of Israel. The Bible are holy Scriptures, God-inspired, God-breathéd Scriptures, writings that are given to us for our salvation and for our instruction.
Many Orthodox people at that time were discouraged in reading the Bible, even discouraged to read the Bible. I remember in my childhood, my own priest would say:
You know, don’t read the Bible. The Church knows what the Bible says. Just come to church, say your prayers, keep the commandments of God, and let the experts deal with the holy Scripture. If you start reading the Bible yourself, you’re going to get all mixed up. You’re going to get confused. You’re going to end up what they called in those days in the Slavic tongue, a bibliosh; you’re going to become a bibliosh. You’re going to just follow the Bible. You’re going to become a sectarian. You’re going to end up in one of the 2,000 Protestant churches and perhaps go from church to church, trying to find the real Bible Church and the place where they really understand the Bible. So just don’t get into it at all.
But when I went to the seminary and began to study, I realized I was [mis]taught. This was absolutely not the truth. Just plain not the truth. The New Testament Scriptures themselves speak about reading the Old Testament Scriptures. They speak about searching the Scripture. They speak about all Scriptures being inspired by God, and so on. Then when I started studying the Church Fathers—wow! Every single one of them said that if you are literate, you should try to get contact with the Holy Scriptures and read it, devour it. They even have that expression: to chew it. In the Latin tradition they call it the ruminatio verbum Dei, the chewing of the word of God.
Then I heard such texts like John Chrysostom, who said, “The cause of every difficulty and schism and division in the Church is the ignorance of the holy Scripture.” Or I remember a very vivid sentence of St. Gregory the Theologian who said about his brother bishops, “They quote the Scripture second-hand, and even then they get it wrong,” he said. Then I remember sentences like St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in Russia, who on his desk when he was writing his books had only really two books: the Bible and a commentary of some parts of the Bible by St. John Chrysostom. Everything is there in the holy Scripture. [It was] St. Seraphim of Sarov who said, “We should swim in the words of the holy Scripture, like a fish is swimming in the water.” It’s the air we breathe, it’s the food we [eat], and so on.
Then way back in the second century, you have the early Church Fathers, the apologists, who were collecting Scriptures and comparing Scriptures, Old Testament texts, New Testament texts, trying their best to have the best possible texts and to understand it properly. I think it was perhaps Origen—maybe not good to mention him, although he was a great biblical scholar; he made some mistakes in life and then he had some… sadly, he was the victim of having some very unenlightened disciples who kind of ruined his reputation pretty badly—but in any case, Origen said that “the blood that flows through the veins of Christ, the holy Church, is the blood in which the holy Scriptures are written, and the words of the Scripture are our food.” The word of God, Jesus Christ, is in Scripture, we eat and drink the word of God. We commune with the word of God.
Yes, yes. Bible reading, Bible hearing, Bible contemplating, Bible chewing, reading those words, being acquainted with them deeply—that’s certainly the Orthodox tradition. Everyone who is ever consecrated a reader, technically had the prayer of blessing to be a reader in the Church, was exhorted and even commanded to read the Scriptures daily, to peruse the Scriptures daily.
There’s even a canon which I always love to mention when I get a chance: Seventh Ecumenical Council, second canon, Canon 2, which says that no man should be consecrated a bishop in the Orthodox Church who cannot recite the entire book of Psalms, the entire Psalter, by heart. By heart! By memory! Of course, in those days, that was probably not too hard to do, because you didn’t have all kinds of internet and Facebook and God-knows-what, Twitter and iPods and cds and players of all sorts and radio and TV and all that; that didn’t exist.
When you heard the Scripture, you pretty much always heard it—in fact, you almost always heard it, until modern America, you always heard it in the same translation, the same language. You became familiar with it, and so it wasn’t so hard. If you were a monk, for example, and you went to church every day and had the Psalter through once a week with all the other additional psalms at the various offices, various liturgical services, and you went through that for a couple of years, you would become very familiar with it.
My own children, my own little kids, when they were children, they went to church so much—of course, we took them to church—especially I remember they used to memorize the psalms of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. And they knew how to use them. I remember when I would try to get my kids to go to bed, they would say, they would quote to me: “I will not give slumber to my eyes or sleep to my eyelids until I find the place for my Lord,” or something. When I’d try to wake them up, they would say, “It is in vain that you rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
So [they] always knew how to quote the Scripture; everybody knows how to quote it to their advantage. But the question is: How do you quote it for what it really means? How do you understand it? How do you read it? Of course, we remember the very famous sentence of St. Hilary of Poitiers, again in Latin, “Non in legendo sed in intelligendo.” The Bible, the holy Scriptures, the Graphoi, it’s not in the reading, in legendo; it’s in the understanding, intelligendo. So it’s not enough to read the Scriptures. Lots of folks read the Scriptures. We want to understand the Scriptures. We want to know how we are to interpret them. We want to know how to interpret them properly. We want to know what kind of literature this is and how we are supposed to make it our own, how we’re supposed to use it.
So people do have this question: How do we do that? How do we read it? How do we understand it? How do we use it? What should we do? What kind of concrete advice can you give us? So what I’d like to do right now is just to give some advice. People have asked me, so I’ll answer. I can only tell you what I think. Maybe other folks would give you different answers. In fact, I’m sure that certain people would, even certain other Orthodox people might give you other answers. But these are the answers that I would give, and I would just ask you to consider them and ask other people their opinion, too. Ask the advice of every person you meet. Then, of course, sort the advice carefully and make your decision and do what you believe [that] you need to do. But this is what I would tell you.
First of all, you have to read them. You can’t have an opinion about the Scriptures unless you read them. And it’s not enough to read them. You’ve got to study them. You’ve got to read them over and over and over again your whole life long. Reading Scriptures daily, reading Scriptures regularly is simply part of [living] a Christian life, certainly for those who are literate, and I believe virtually all of the listeners of Ancient Faith Radio are literate: you all know how to read. We have to read. We have to get the holy Scriptures and read it.
Now, the next thing I would say is… People ask, “What would you recommend, Fr. Tom, for Americans and generally English-speaking people about reading the Scripture, those who don’t know any other languages or don’t know them well enough or familiarly enough to use them for Bible reading? But if you were recommending a Bible, what would you recommend?” I’ll tell you what I would recommend, personally: the Old Revised Standard Version translation into English. The Old Revised Standard Version, not the New Revised Standard Version. I would not recommend the New Revised Standard Version to anybody; I think it’s simply terrible. It’s rewritten so much for political correctness that it actually distorts the meaning of Scripture; you just can’t trust it.
I also would definitely advise against reading paraphrases, things like Living Bible or Good News for Modern Man or something, where they simply… [with] incredible, I would say, boldness, even some sense madness, of people just rewriting the Bible in colloquial form, rewriting the Bible as, like, modern jargon. We can’t do that. This is the holy word of God, and it was written in Hebrew, written in Greek, and we have to honor that and try to make as perfect a translation from those languages into English that we can possibly have.
Now, translation, of course, is a tricky business, and it’s a debated business, but in my opinion, we still have to have a translation. I personally think—maybe it’s just because I’ve used this all my life—that the Old Revised Standard Version, the Oxford Annotated, with the annotation, with the notes, is still the best to read, in my opinion. Why? Because it’s a real translation, first of all; it’s not a paraphrase. Secondly, it doesn’t seem to have any theological tendencies, like some translations do. For example, there are Evangelical translations or translations done by Evangelicals, like New International or Varsity or whatever, and there are translations done by Roman Catholics, old Roman Catholics, like the Douay-Rheims version.
In any case, in my opinion there’s lots of translations in those translations; there’s lots of places in those translations where the theological bias and prejudice of the translators comes through in the text. For example, in some of the old Roman Catholic texts, every time it said “sin,” they translated the word “guilt.” Well, sin is sin and guilt is guilt, and those are two very different things, you know.
In some of the Protestant ones, they would even add words. I always remember the addition to the Prologue of St. John in the Living Bible, where it said, “The Law with its rigorous justice and merciless demands came through Moses and the grace came through Jesus.” Well… to say that the Old Testament Scripture and the law of Moses had rigorous demands and merciless justice is simply slander. It’s just plain not true. Besides the fact that those words are not in the text itself.
Even the Old Revised Standard has some places where it’s inaccurate, where it says that “we will suffer exclusion from the face of God,” where “exclusion” is not in the Greek text. It says “we will suffer from the face of God.” So we’ve got to know that when we’re using translations, we’re at the mercy of the translations and of the translators, so none of these are going to be perfect.
Probably the best thing, at least in the New Testament, that a person could do, is learn a little Greek—at least learn the alphabet, learn how to read the words—get an inter-linear, and while reading the texts, go to the inter-linear and just see what it literally is saying. Sometimes it can be a very great help to see how words were left out or words were added or words were changed. But in any case, we have to read it in English.
Here I would say we can generally be confident, certainly with the Old Revised Standard Version. I would even say even with the New King James Version, the one that’s in the Orthodox Study Bible. I’m not particularly fond of that, but it’s probably because I’m not used to it, but I also think that sometimes there there’s things there that are not really… that somehow betray the theological tendencies of the translator. But I think if we take the Old Revised Standard Version, with the notes—and here I would say the notes, 99.9% of the time, the notes are the Orthodox reading. If you use the annotated Old Revised Standard Version…
And by the way, the Old Revised Standard Version has been recently republished by the Roman Catholic publishing company called Ignatius Press; it’s sometimes even called the Ignatius Bible. Why was that? It was because several years ago, many years ago—I don’t know how many; certainly more than 30 or more; I can’t remember exactly—there was a so-called ecumenical edition of the Old Revised Standard Version. It was done by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox together, and the footnotes indicated differences among the different faith traditions, the different Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant ways of dealing with holy Scripture. That particular Old RSV, which the Catholics themselves had given their blessing to and so did the Orthodox, that is now being re-made available again. It’s republished by the Ignatius Press.
So my suggestion would be: Get that Bible. Get that Bible, and I think it’s the most dependable, it’s the easiest to read, it’s a real translation, it’s in pretty modern English, unlike the Old King James which is pretty hard to understand—a lot of the words there even change their meaning. For example, “prevent” in the King James means “to go before”; it doesn’t mean “to stop.” “Press” doesn’t mean the journalist; it means a crowd, etc. The Old King James, maybe some people like it even because of sentimental reasons, but it’s pretty hard for a normal American in the 21st century to understand, certainly younger people who are not used to it.
So I would just suggest: Get that Bible. Get the Old Revised Standard; get the New King James. Maybe get them both. Get a couple. Compare translations. That’s helpful. Compare English translations, and you can see somehow how they differ, and maybe then you can have greater insight into the meaning.
As far as the reading itself goes, I would say that certain things have to be in order before a person begins to read the Scripture. Certainly in the Orthodox tradition, this would be the case. I believe that if a person is going to read and understand the holy Scripture properly and be inspired and illumined and instructed, exhorted, encouraged, and comforted by the words of holy Scripture, they have to do certain things. Number one, they have to want to understand its meaning. They have to not come there with pre-judgments about what it says. They also cannot pick and choose parts that they like and parts that they don’t like. You’ve got to read it all. You’ve got to read it all carefully.
You can’t pick and choose. The word “heresy” means to pick and choose. It doesn’t mean to be mistaken. All heretics are those who have picked and [chosen] their favorite parts of Scripture by leaving out the other parts. Of course, parts of Scripture very often appear on the surface to be very contradictory to each other. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, they are contradictory as far as details and data or historical information is concerned. That’s not a problem for us Orthodox at all. But in any case, it is a problem in some sense, because, reading the Scripture, you’ve got to learn how to deal with that stuff.
Well, the intention has to be that the reader wants to read the Scripture in order to understand it. They have to read it in order to get its God-inspired meaning or, even more accurately, to get the many God-inspired readings that can be found sometimes even in the very same text. Take, for example, the Prodigal Son parable. How many different meanings there are in that one parable! It’s amazing. So there are levels are meaning. There’s depth of meaning. There’s variety of meaning in sometimes the very same books and the very same chapters and the very same paragraphs and the very same sentences of the holy Scripture. But our intention has to be that we want to understand it.
We’re not judging it; we’re trying to let it judge us. We’re not going there to pick it apart, and we’re certainly not going there to sort of prove it wrong or find the contradictions or find what seems outrageous to our moral sensitivities like, I don’t know, God slaughtering all kinds of people in the Old Testament. You can’t go there that way. You’ve got to go there and say, “What is God Almighty trying to tell me in my life, here and now? What’s he trying to tell me?” Here, a Christian would add: “What is he trying to tell me as a Christian?” An Orthodox would add: “What is he trying to tell me as a member of the Orthodox Church, with all that that entails?”
This leads to a next point, and that is: Ancient Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, would certainly hold that you can’t understand the Scriptures. You can’t understand the Old Testament for sure. You can’t understand the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets except through the illumination of Christ. Christ is the light that illumines all. In fact, when we read the Scripture in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, that’s what we say: “The light of Christ illumines all.” All things, and certainly the Scripture.
Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Christ, as well as the Lord’s teachings, are the key to understanding the entire Scripture. We know that in the Scripture itself, in the gospel of St. Luke, for example, it says very specifically that the risen Christ opened their minds to the understanding of the Scripture, that they didn’t understand the Scripture until they realized that the crucifed One had to be raised and glorified. St. Paul says several places—Colossians and, of course, the letter to the Hebrews says the same thing—that the Old Covenant Scriptures are a shadow. They’re a paedagagos; they’re a preparation for Christ. It’s only in Christ that the veil is taken away. St. Paul will say in Colossians that outside of Christ when you read the Scriptures, a veil hangs over your eyes. There’s no way that you can understand it.
What the Orthodox tradition would say is: A person has to believe in Christ, crucified and glorified, has to believe that Christ has been raised from the dead by God and is the revealer of God. There has to be faith in order to understand what the Scriptures are all about and what the meaning is given to us and to everyone in those particular writings. Here I would go even a little more modestly and say that if the person doesn’t believe that, if they’re having trouble believing that—maybe that’s even why they’re believing the Bible and the New Testament in the first place—they have to at least hold as a hypothesis that the key to understanding all the Bible is Christ.
If they’re unwilling to hold that even as a hypothesis—in other words, if they’re willing to say, “I’m going to try to understand the Bible, but I’m not going to do this by first trying to understand Christ and trying to see who Christ is”—well, we Orthodox and ancient Christians would say, “Well, you’re never going to understand it, then, because you can’t do it that way.” It’s just impossible to be done that way. It’s simply impossible to be done that way.
Here I think it would not be inaccurate to say that most people nowadays that I know—in fact, I would say just about everybody who’s not Jewish—the only reason they would read the Bible is because of Christ. Certainly we the Gentiles have no interest in reading the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures—we wouldn’t have any unless it was sheer curiosity—if we didn’t think that doing that would help us understand what the Christ event is about, who the Person of Christ is, how Christ is, why Christ is, what Christ does. In other words, Christ has to be an element in our desire to read the Scriptures in order to understand them. If Christ is not an element in that, then I think the effort is doomed. I would even say I’m sure that the effort would be doomed; you’d never get anywhere. You’d be spinning around in circles and say that it’s a lot of baloney and that would be the end of it.
At least hypothetically a person has to say, “I’m going to read on the basis that Jesus of Nazareth is the key to the whole thing. And I’m going to read on the basis that his being crucified is even more specifically the key to the whole thing. And I’m going to read on the hypothetical basis that his Person, his crucifixion and his resurrection and his glorification is really the key to understanding the whole thing.” So that’s where I’m going to begin my investigation. Simply put, that’s where I’m going to begin my reading.
So my suggestion would be, to good-willed people, that they would begin reading the New Testament, in fact, that they would begin reading the gospels. Here I would even say more specifically, they would begin by reading the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in that order: Mark first, then Matthew, then Luke. Mark as the basic gospel, the apocalyptic, sharp gospel; Matthew as the Jewish gospel, the Torah gospel; and Luke as the Gentile, historical, universal gospel. That’s what I would suggest that they do. They would get the Old Revised Standard, a real translation; they would get the notes, and they would carefully and slowly read through those first three gospels.
Here I would even suggest… I don’t think there’s any reason to suggest haste. There’s no reason to hurry here at all. I mean, we’ve got all the time we need. If time runs out, that’s okay, because then it doesn’t matter whether we read the Bible or not. If we die or Christ comes, it doesn’t matter. So let’s do it slowly. As Isaiah says in the Scripture itself, “Those who wait on the Lord do not hasten.” They do not rush. They’re not in a hurry. They take their time. So we have to take our time. We have to spend the time.
Here I would suggest that the good-willed person who really is open to understanding the meaning of the Scripture would begin by reading Mark and Matthew and Luke. I would even suggest that they do it a couple of times, maybe two or three times, before going to any other part of the Bible; that they would just take the time and read that two or three times before going to any other place in the Bible. Here I would even say that committed Orthodox Christians, baptized people who go to church, that they ought to be constantly reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke with the Church year over and over again every year of their life. You just read it every day. Then between Easter and Pentecost, between Pascha and Pentecost, we read John. During that time, we also read the letters of the Apostle Paul. But for now I would say let’s bracket the letters of the Apostle Paul. Let’s just stick with beginning with Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Then I would suggest that then we go on, and again that we would read very slowly, several times, maybe two or three times, a little bit every day, the rest of the New Testament. Here I would suggest even that we don’t even go to the Old Testament (with one exception which I’ll mention in a second) until we have read through two or three times the entire New Testament, beginning with Mark and ending with the Book of Revelation.
Here I would even recommend the Book of Revelation as a part of the New Testament. It’s a very hard book; it’s difficult, but I think that people should see the entire New Testament corpus, the 28 books, if they’re really interested in Bible reading. But they should do it slowly, carefully, and two or three times, no matter how long it takes. That is what I would suggest.
Now, while doing that, I would have some other suggestions. I would suggest the following. Number one, don’t worry about the parts you don’t understand. Let them go. Maybe you could make a note of them, maybe you might ask somebody about it, but don’t get hung up on the parts you don’t understand. Don’t get hung up on the parts that scandalize you either, because you’re going to be scandalized. I mean, you’re going to read stuff there that’s just going to blow your mind, and you’re going to think, “This is just outrageous.” You might even consider it immoral. You know: “Unless you hate your father, brother, mother, sister, you can’t be my disciple.” I mean, you’re going to read sentences like that. But in any case, I would say: Give it a chance. Don’t jump to conclusions, and what you don’t understand, just let it go. Just let it go.
I would say also, I would suggest very strongly, however, something else. I would suggest that the parts you do understand, that do seem clear to you, you try to put them into practice. You try to make them part of your life. For example, many of the teachings of Jesus are clear that you can understand. Love your neighbor, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. They strike you on the one cheek, give them the other. Give to other people when they ask you. Give in secret.
Another thing I think that’s clearly understood is that Jesus tells you to pray. Here I would say, absolutely, that anybody who’s going to understand the Bible has to be a praying person, even if they’re praying “to whom it may concern,” even if they’re saying, “God, if you are there, guide me,” but there has to be some kind of seeking so to speak before the face of Almighty God, even if you don’t know who that God is or even if that God is, there has to be a kind of a hypothetical placing of yourself in that context, in that condition. So I think the seeking person who is not a believer has to somehow act like a believer or say, “Lord, if you want me to be a believer, make me a believer, or lead me into faith if that’s what I should do, if that’s the truth.” But you have to be open to it. You can’t be closed to it. You can’t read it and say, “I’ll never believe it, no matter what.” You can’t read it and say, “This is a pile of garbage and baloney filled with contradictions, and that’s the end of it.” You just can’t do that. If you do that, forget it; nothing’s going to happen. Absolutely nothing’s going to happen.
Here I don’t think that that’s a particularly, how can you say, startling position to hold, because, I don’t know, if I wanted to learn music and I’d say, “I really want to understand Bach’s and Mozart’s compositions, but I don’t ever want to listen to them, and I think that they’re stupid and I can’t stand them and when I listen to the music I just want to turn it off.” No, if I really want to understand it, I’ve got to give it a shot. In the end, I may say, “Well, I don’t really like this very much,” and in fact, at least hypothetically you could say a person who reads the Bible in the end, during the process they can come and say, “I’m just not inspired to do this any more. I just can’t,” for whatever reasons, well, if that happens, it happens.
Who are we to say that it won’t or can’t or won’t or whatever; it might, but in any case, you can’t begin with that attitude. You can’t begin with skepticism. You can’t begin with doubting. You can’t begin with a chip on your shoulder. You can’t begin with what some scholarly people call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” in other words, where you approach the text, reading the text to find out what’s wrong with it rather than what’s right with it, or what may be meaningful in it.
There has to be some kind of a seeking, some kind of a praying, and some kind of a practicing as you go, because if we are reading and not putting into practice what is clearly stated, that we can understand, well, we’re not going to get very far, and we’re not going to understand the parts that we don’t understand. By the way, that’s simply also a simple rule of life. We come to understand things that we don’t understand on the basis of the things that we have come to understand, but the things that we have come to understand are the simpler things usually, because it’s the simpler things that are easier to understand. So you begin with the simpler things that you can understand and then you go on to the more difficult things that are harder to understand. That’s just, I don’t know—I would call it common sense. Will Rogers or somebody said, “The problem with common sense is that it’s not so common and not very sensible, usually.” But it is common sense still.
So I think a person has to approach the texts and try to put into practice what it says. If it says, for example, “When you fast,” and teaches, for example, that you should fast, we should try to fast a little bit. You know, not eat so much, not eat very rich foods, not eat and drink. Of course, we have to avoid all types of drunkenness and gluttony and debauchery, and if we’ve got an alcohol problem or a food problem, we’d better go get technical help, because we’ll never understand the Bible if we’re stoned on drugs or drunk on alcohol and stuffed with bad, ugly, yucky food; we’re never going to understand the Bible. So taking care of one’s body...
I know a psychiatrist who won’t take as a patient, as a client, a counselee, any person who does not walk for a half an hour a day and regularly exercise and be very careful with their diet, because this psychiatrist says, “You can’t deal with a person’s soul and mind if their body is shot. You just can’t do it, that’s all. We are corporal, emotional, mental, spiritual, and psychic people. We’re whole people, wholistic people. We have bodies; we’re not angels. So those things have to be kept in order also.
Then, of course, just moral things. If we say we want to understand the holy Scripture and are lying and cheating and fornicating and involved in all kinds of sexual, kinky stuff, we’re not going to understand the Bible. So the moral teachings of the Scripture have to also be put into practice when we see what they are, even if it’s just basic, really basic, 101-type level instruction, like the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, honor your parents, and so on. I mean, basically things like that. You might even say the normal moral positions that any reasonable moral person, if they’re an atheist or a believer or a Jew or a Muslim or whatever they are would hold, just the things that are generally human, ethical principles that most rational good-willed human beings would hold. We have to put these things into practice.
But then there are further things that Christ teaches, not just loving your neighbor or loving those who love you, but loving everybody, loving unconditionally, loving in acts, loving by concrete behaviors, works. This is what we have to do.
So anybody who’s going to say, “I want to read to understand the Bible,” they have to be living in a certain way or they have to start living in a certain way, according to the Scripture that they actually read and understand.
What I’ve said so far is: You get yourself a good Bible. You get one that’s a real translation. You get one that’s nicely noted. You get one that has good, contemporary English. If possible, you try to get an inter-linear Greek-English to see what it would originally say. You read it regularly. You read it slowly. You begin with Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Then you go on to the other books of the New Testament.
Here, on that point, I would make the following recommendations: Don’t get too hung up on the letter to the Romans. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the hardest ones to understand. We probably should come to that one near the end of our reading of the New Testament, and certainly the Apocalypse. But the Corinthian letters, the Philippian letters, Colossians, Ephesians, the Timothy letters, Philemon letter, Titus—these are pretty straight-forward and pretty easy to understand if we just give them a shot.
Certainly the letters of John. In fact, I had a professor who used to say, “The very first book in the Bible that any person should read if they want to know whether or not they want to be a Christian is 1John, the first letter of John.” Five pages long. That’s all it is. Five chapters, five pages. It’s so simple, so direct, so, in a sense, the easiest to understand.
And you’ve got James and you’ve got Jude. Then, of course, you have the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which may be a bit difficult because of early Christian troubles and because of the miraculous that’s in there and so on, but still the entire New Testament is what we have to begin with. And to do it several times before going on to anything else—with one exception, and that exception would be the Book of Psalms. Here, I believe, that a person who’s even just beginning should read the Psalter daily, one or two psalms, one page or so, not very long. If you do it by a clock, five minutes.
If some of the psalms are longer, like, for example, Psalm 118 (119)—you know, there’s different numbers of the Psalms with the Greek version and the Hebrew version—there’s the real long one that’s 170-some verses: you might read part of it. Divide it up into three parts, and read a part a day. But read the Psalter regularly, because the Psalter, as one wonderful Calvinist linguist scholar said, “The Psalter is the whole Bible in miniature.” It’s the whole Bible in miniature. But the Psalter is not only the Bible in miniature, it’s the Bible in doxology. It’s the Bible in poetry. It’s the Bible in prayer. It’s the Bible not simply informationally or prosaically; it’s the Bible poetically before the face of God.
So familiarity with the Psalter is crucial. I mentioned earlier how the Orthodox Church even has a canon, the second canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council says that no man cannot be made a bishop who cannot recite the entire Psalter by heart. So the Psalter is central. Orthodox Church services are probably 80% psalms. If you take the entire liturgical offices of the Orthodox Church—the vespers, the matins, and the four hours of the day, and the compline, not even counting the Divine Liturgy—it’s almost all psalms. If you take the Divine Liturgy, the first part is psalms. All the prokeimena and the verses are all psalms verses, but they’re all connected to Jesus.
I would say the New Testament and the Psalms is where one begins. Then one would branch out slowly I would say to the rest of the Old Testament. Here I would mention five books, for five books that are crucial. Genesis is crucial. In general the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, are crucial. Deuteronomy is certainly one to be read carefully. In fact, Deuteronomy is the most-quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. It’s interesting that in the Qumran Scrolls, the Dead Sea Scrolls, where they discovered all these Scriptures in the 1940s, there were more texts of Deuteronomy there than any other from the canonical Scripture, and more references to Deuteronomy in the writings that were not canonical Scripture than any other. So Deuteronomy is a very, very important book.
Then you have the prophecies, like Isaiah, generally all the prophets, but beginning with Isaiah, especially the second part of Isaiah, which refers to Christ very specifically more than others. So I would say: Genesis and the first five books of the Bible, emphasizing Deuteronomy. Then I would say: the prophetic books like Isaiah. And then in addition to the Psalter, you could read the Proverbs, because the Proverbs are really simple to read.
Here I would also just mention, according to Orthodox tradition: Genesis, the Proverbs, and Isaiah are the three books that are read in the Orthodox Church during Great Lent at the services. So probably the Church tradition is saying to us: These are three really important Old Testament books that we ought to be familiar with. Then, of course, during Lent the Psalm-reading is doubled in the monasteries. So if you took Genesis, Isaiah, Proverbs, and Psalter, that would be what you really want to really get into first and continuously in the Old Testament. Then little by little you branch out into the historical books, you branch out into the various prophetic books, and then that’s how it’s read. There’s other wisdom books like Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiastes.
Then you read these books, but what you don’t do is start in the beginning and read right straight through. You’ve got to begin with the New Testament. The other thing that you do not do is jump around. You don’t read this, read that, read this. Another thing you do is you don’t jump to conclusions. You don’t read—I don’t know—something in the Book of Judges and say, “This is stupid,” and shut the Bible and never pick it up again. That’s madness, if you’re a serious person. What you don’t do is read a whole lot at once and then not read a lot for a long time. What you do do is read it slowly, carefully, methodically, simply, taking all the time you need in a very particular order. This is what I would suggest.
Then there’s one last thing, at least for this very, very introductory little presentation, and that would be this: You read the Old Testament in the light of the New. You begin with the thesis, the hypo-thesis, the hypothesis, that every word of the Bible is ultimately about Jesus. You begin [with the thesis] that every story in the Old Testament is ultimately about Jesus. In other words, ancient Christians read the Bible Christologically, Christocentrically, through the lens of Christ, crucified and glorified.
I said that already and I’m going to say it again and stress it strongly. For us, it’s all about Christ. For the Bible itself, it’s all about Christ, once you get to see it for what it is. There are different levels, different stories, different interactions, different weavings, but ultimately it’s all about Christ. The meaning of it is all about Christ.
Now, here we would say that the whole purpose, as we said already, is to get the meaning, and the meaning is about everything related to God. It’s first about God, and then it’s about creation, and it’s about humanity, then it’s about myself, then it’s about my neighbor, then it’s about my world, then it’s about the birds on my birdfeeder outside—there’s a nice chickadee there right now, and here comes a fantastic woodpecker, then there’s another bird I can’t identify. It’s all about those birds. It’s about the trees, where the leaves are all falling down. It’s about everything, and ultimately it’s about Christ because Christ is about everything. Christ is everything. He’s all and in all, “everything to everyone,” as St. Paul says.
It’s all about Christ, so we’ve got to read it intentionally, purposefully Christologically, and that would mean that, for example, the Adam story in Genesis is about the ultimate Adam, who is Jesus. The Passover Exodus is about the ultimate Passover Exodus, which is about the death and resurrection of Christ. All the elements in that Passover Exodus story—the lamb that is slain, the blood, the bread from heaven, the parting of the Red Sea, the going into the desert, the crossing the Jordan—that’s all about Christ.
The Jordan River is all about the fact that Christ is baptized in the Jordan. Everything there—the wars are about the ultimate victory that Christ makes over all God’s enemies on the Cross. The kingship is all about Christ as the ultimate, final King. The priesthood and the temple is all about Christ as the High Priest and the Temple himself. The sacrificial systems of Leviticus are all about the sacrifice that Jesus recapitulates and realizes and actualizes and fulfills when he’s being crucified on the cross. The festivals of the Torah—Pascha, Pentecost, Sukkot, Booths, Tabernacles, Lights—they’re all about what Christ fulfills in the new Pascha, the new Feast of Lights, which is his birth and coming into the world, his Theophany on the Jordan. The new Transfiguration of Christ which is the new Feast of Booths.
So we read the [Old] Testament as a paedagogos to find its meaning. Sometimes the Fathers would call it its “deeper meaning.” In Latin, they said, “sensus plenior”: the fuller meaning, the deeper meaning. The Philokalia Fathers would call it the spiritual reading, the mystical reading, that you find in those Old Testament writings that are allegorical, spiritual, moral, and typological—typoses, figures, prefigurations, foreshadowings—for everything that is fulfilled perfectly in Jesus Christ, in his ministry, and especially in his passion, his suffering, his crucifixion, his death, his resurrection, his enthronement, and his glorification and his coming again in glory at the end of the earth to bring the real Jerusalem from above, which is our mother, since the old Jerusalem, as we will learn from the Scriptures, is not anything better than Sodom and Egypt, the place where Christ was crucified.
You have all this biblical allegory, biblical typology, biblical prefiguration, biblical foreshadowing, biblical preparation that are in the Old Testament Scriptures. So we go back and forth when we read. We read the Old Testament and then apply it as a lens through which we can understand the New. And then we read the New and be illumined by the Old, and then see how the New itself illumines the Old. As St. Augustine said, “All the truths of God are lying hidden in the Old and are revealed clearly in the New.” And all the Church Fathers said that. Gregory the Theologian said that; they all say that. That’s a classic teaching of the Christian saints. The New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New. You have a symbiotic relationship between the Old and the New, and that’s how we read it, and we go back and forth.
These would be my concrete suggestions. One more that I would add, if a person really wants to go, so to speak, all the way. I would definitely suggest to a person who wants to understand the Bible to go to Orthodox church services, just to go to Orthodox church services: to listen to the Psalter being read, to listen to the hymns, to listen to the Scripture readings, to see what’s read when and why. Go to the festal days and hear the readings. Go to the Paschal vigil, for example, and hear the two canticles that are sung of Moses and of the boys in the fiery furnace. Go to church. Stand in church. Listen to what is said there. Listen to see how it’s all biblical. Let that worship of church, doxology and thanksgiving of church, be the context within which setting, like the schoolmaster, you read the Bible.
I would definitely suggest to a person, if they’re really serious, that at some point they start going to an Orthodox church and start listening and watching and paying attention, and even looking at the icons, because the icons are in painting what is in the Bible in writing. We even say “write an icon”; of course, that’s a little barbarous in English, because in most languages the word for “write” and the word for “draw” or “paint” is the same word: pisats, eikono pisits; graphos, eikono graphos. But in any case, the icons are there; they’re living images into what is in Scripture. St. John of Damascus even said, for people who are illiterate, you show them the icons and the frescoes in the church, and then they see all the biblical events and they can contemplate them in their depiction, in their artistic depiction in frescoes or paintings or bas-reliefs or whatever other works there are that can proclaim God’s truth and God’s Gospel.
Go to church. Pray. Practice silence. Do good deeds. Live a moral life. Read slowly. Begin with the New Testament. Begin with Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Then go on carefully to the rest. Bracket what you don’t understand. Maybe leave Romans and Galatians and, I don’t know, Book of Revelation to the end. Then go to the Old Testament, but begin right from the beginning, going through the Psalms, carefully through the Psalms. In the Psalms, when you hear “king,” think of Jesus. When you hear “victim” and “poor” and “needy,” think of Jesus. When you hear “those who are oppressed and exiled and ridiculed and mocked,” think of Jesus. When you go thinking of the armies and the wars and victories, think of Jesus. When you go there hearing about the sacrifices and the victims and the lambs who are slain, think of Jesus.
Think of Jesus all the time. Just get Mark, Matthew, Luke straight, and think of Jesus all the time. Then go on to John, then be reading the Psalter, and finish slowly, slowly, reading the New Testament. Then go to the Torah of Moses. Go to Genesis and Exodus. Go to Deuteronomy. Maybe you don’t need to spend too much time in Leviticus and Numbers, but that’s good to do, too. Then go through the historical books and the prophetic books and the wisdom writings. Do it slowly; don’t hurry, but do it in order to understand, and do it in order to do.
And don’t go there looking for biological information or archaeological information or historical information. Don’t go there at all with wanting to find things about actual data history or biological, scientific stuff. That’s not what the Bible is about. It’s just not about that. It’s about God and our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us. In fact, the Bible is not even man’s understanding about God. It’s God’s understanding about man. It’s not human beings trying to figure out God; it’s God trying to reveal humanity to human beings so they would know—we would know—who we are.
These are the suggestions that I would make about reading the Bible, and I believe that this is the way that the Bible was read in the earliest Church. In fact, this is the way that the Bible was read by the Jews themselves. That’s why the first Christians were Jews and many Jews were first Christians. And this is the way it’s done. And this is the way it’s done in Orthodoxy through the centuries. And this is the way that Orthodox Christians, who follow the ancient path, this is the way that we believe that we should do it today.
So these would be my suggestions to you. God bless you. It’s an effort. It’s not easy. In fact, when you read the Bible as the word of God, it lacerates you, it judges you, it depresses you sometimes. You get despondent: “How can I ever do this and how can I ever understand this?” and all this kind of stuff. Well, the fact of the matter is that ultimately it’s simple. We’re the ones who are complicated. We have the complexes, not the Scriptures. But do it. Just do it. Do it with a pure heart. Do it with an open mind. Do it with the desire to understand. Do it with an attitude of seeking, even of calling upon the God that you may not believe in. And do it in the proper taxis, in the proper order.
Then whatever happens, happens. And that would be between you and God, and God and you. But for anything to happen between God and you and you and God, a central part of it, for many of us—not all, necessarily, but certainly many of us—is the reading of the holy Scriptures. So many of us are interested in it, and what I have just told you is the way, I believe, we are instructed to do it.