How to Read the Bible

rembrandt_christ_in_the_storm_on_the_lake_of_galileeFor Christians the big questions in any discussion of science and faith generally come down to Scripture. How are we to read Scripture as the word of God? In much of the church there is an assumption that this should be straightforward… just read it literally. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold up well for many of us. It isn’t even science that is the biggest challenge to this “simple” reading, it is Scripture itself. It isn’t clear that the Bible was intended to be read in this flat, literal manner. Among other things, Scripture is full of figurative language and allusions. The books have been structured to convey a message and often (more often than we expect) the flat reading misses in significant ways.

This is not just an insider issue, it is also an evangelism issue. The flat reading is often easily dismissed by skeptics, especially educated skeptics, those who might see books by Richard Dawkins or Bart Ehrman and find it easy to reject the possibility that Christianity is in any fashion reasonable for the modern (enlightened) person. We don’t want to deny truth to attract outsiders, but we also don’t want to erect unnecessary barriers.

reading-backwards-41pum5wfyul-_sx355_bo1204203200_I am leading an adult Sunday morning discussion class this winter that digs into the question of interpretation, looking for the full depth of meaning in Scripture. One of the primary resources we are using (after the Bible itself) is Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays. Scot posted on this book several years ago, just after it came out, and reviewed the book for Books and Culture (Believing to Understand). The book is a bit academic, but well worth reading. (As an aside: We desperately need resources that make ideas like those developed by Hays accessible to the average Christian reader and small group or class discussion.)

Calming the Sea. Consider the image above – Rembrandt’s depiction of the calming of the Sea. For many Christians this is just a demonstration of the deity of Christ. He can perform miracles, therefore he is divine. (Of course prophets in the Old Testament and apostles perform miracles as well, but ignore this for now.) Others find it necessary to look for scientific explanations – such as this example about the story of Jesus walking on water, suggesting a layer of ice as a possible explanation. Both the typical Christian brush and the search for scientific explanation miss the point (although the former gets closer). What can we say about the calming of the sea? The following is a passage in Mark (4:35-41).

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The passage is a powerful one. It is significant that Jesus doesn’t pray to his father to calm the storm, rather he simply rebukes the wind and the waves. Mark ends the story with a question, provocatively left open for the reader to fill in the blanks. Hays points to the Old Testament as a context for this story and its deep Christological significant, particularly to Psalm 107.

Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and
went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders. (107:23-32)

In this passage there is no doubt – the Lord, YHWH the God of Israel, is the one who stills the storm. Mark portrays Jesus doing exactly this. Hays notes, “Jesus’ mastery over the wind and waves demonstrates that he is the possessor of a power that the OT consistently assigns to the Lord God alone. It is God who rebuked the waters and formed dry land, God who parts the sea for Israel, God who made the storm be still. Well might the disciples ask “Who then is this …?”” (p. 23) And “common knowledge” (among some anyway) ascribes to Mark a view of Jesus as a good man, a view later corrupted by the church!

Walking on Water. Hays comments on Mark 6:45-52, the story of Jesus walking on water, as well.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”(47-50)

Hays suggests that this passage should invoke an image of Job 9 where it is the Lord alone who “treads on the waves of the sea” (v. 8, the Septuagint has “and walks upon the sea as on dry ground.”) The passage in Job also includes the idea of God passing by … “a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power.” (p. 25) This isn’t a miracle in need of scientific explanation (no ice on the surface or just under!) but a manifestation of divine glory.

The Great Commission. One final passage, this one from Matthew 28:16-20

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The short video below lays out Hays’ approach to the passage:

Hays takes us to Daniel 7: 13-14.

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

No low Christology in Mark or in Matthew! This becomes obvious when the book is read in the context of the Old Testament, the Scriptures available to the early church. A flat reading simply doesn’t do justice to the whole.

I will dig deeper into Hays’ book and some of the other resources in the next few months.

What insights do you gain from understanding these passages as an echo of the OT in the words and actions of Jesus?

How do the evangelists portray Jesus?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

You may also comment on How to Read the Bible at Jesus Creed.

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1 Response to How to Read the Bible

  1. “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the skies, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-believer to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside of the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scriptures are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.” De Genesi Ad Litteram (On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis), Augustine of Hippo

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