Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

How can someone who has never really read the Bible before begin to read and understand it? I will try to answer that question in a series of posts, beginning with this one.

Why is the Bible Difficult to Read?

Let's face it, the Bible can be difficult to understand, and there are a number of reasons for this. The Bible comes from a very different culture, and it was written in ancient languages that are not our own. It was written a long time ago, and over a long period of time. And while it is all inspired by the same Holy Spirit, it was written by many different human authors who used many different literary types (genres) to convey their message to us.

We should not let this scare us off. There are parts of the Scripture that are very easy to understand. These are the low hanging fruit that God has put there even for the most untrained reader, but there are many things that require work on our part to understand, and we should be willing to do that work.

But why is it that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand? St. Augustine tells us:
"Some of the expressions [in Scripture] are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness.  And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty" (On Christian Doctrine 2:6).
We are humbled by the fact that we do not completely understand the Scriptures. It takes humility to understand the Scriptures, but it is also inspires humility that there is so much we do not understand.

We also never have a "feeling of satiety" in our understanding of Scripture, because of these difficulties. A "feeling of satiety" is that feeling we often have on Thanksgiving day, when we have had too much to eat, we feel like bloated jellyfish that have just washed ashore on the beach, and we couldn't be tempted to eat another bite, no matter how good the food was that was offered to us. We never get that feeling when it comes to the study of Scripture, because there is always much more for us to learn, and so we are left wanting more. And because we have to work to understand the more difficult things in Scripture, we value more what we learn because of the effort it took for us to do so.

The fact that there are difficulties in understanding Scripture should not leave us with a helpless sense that there is nothing we can do about it, and then just give up. There are many things we can do to help us in this work.

A Good Translation

The first step is for us to get our hands on a good translation of the Bible, and preferably a couple. For a complete discussion of this topic, and of the options that are available, see: "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible." But to make a long story short, here are the texts I would recommend you get a copy of, at a minimum:
1. A good edition of the King James Version. My recommendation would be to get the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with Apocrypha, which I think you will find more pleasant to read because it uses modern spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing, but the King James Version comes in many editions, shapes, and sizes.
2. The Orthodox Study Bible. This text is not perfect, and I don't think the translation is usable liturgically, but it is an relatively easy to understand English. In the New Testament it is the standard New King James text. It also has some brief but useful study notes, and introductions to each book of the Bible.
3. The New King James Version. A copy of the standard New King James Version is good to have for comparison with the King James text.
4. The Boston Psalter. For the Psalms, there is really no substitute for this text. This is what is generally used in our liturgical texts, and in the Jordanville prayer book, and there is no reason to not use this as your primary translation for the Psalms.
There are several other translations that are good to consult for comparison, but you don't have to buy them. They are available electronically, for free. Young's Literal Translation, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the Brenton translation of the Septuagint.

The King James is a beautiful and generally accurate translation, and there are good reasons for using it, but if you have not grown up at least hearing it read on a regular basis, you might be better off sticking with the Orthodox Study Bible and the New King James text initially. I would not recommend using any other translation as a primary text for reading the Bible -- and for the reasons why, I would again refer you to "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible."

War and Peace

I grew up hearing Bible stories at home and at Church and so understanding the basics of Scripture was not a problem for me when I actually began reading the Bible for myself, but I can relate to the problem that many have beginning to read Scripture. I had the same problem with War and Peace -- which is probably the most notoriously difficult-to-finish book of the great classic novels.

When I was a new convert to Orthodoxy, I began reading Dostoyevsky's novels, and loved them. But when I was finished reading those, I thought I would try Tolstoy, and so got a copy of War and Peace, and I read several chapters, and found it difficult to follow. I put it down in 1991 and did not pick it up again for nearly 20 years. The problem with the novel for me was it was a complicated book from a foreign culture, and a bygone era, and it was full of a vast array of characters, and had many elements that I was not familiar with. It was hard to see where things were headed, or to keep track of who was who.

What changed was that I saw the four part Soviet era film based on the novel. The movie is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and the acting was excellent. Watching the movie helped me figure out who was who, and also what the novel was all about. When I then picked the novel back up, I found it to be fascinating and very entertaining. It was also a pretty good way to learn the History of Russia's role in the Napoleonic wars up through Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, which was why Tolstoy wrote it in the first place.

There are ways to get the same bird's eye view of Scripture too, and once you figure out who is who, and where things are headed, Scripture begins to come alive.

Getting the Big Picture

One way to get a feel for the scope of Scripture is to read Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy's "Law of God". About 300 pages of that text are focused on the contents of the Old and New Testaments, and this text provides a very thorough overview of the Bible.

There is YouTube channel called "The Bible Project". The people behind it are Protestants, and they only talk about the books that are in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but they have a summary of each book of those books, and they do a very good job of explaining the structure and content of these books. I would recommend ignoring their word study videos, and their videos on the themes of Scripture, because there you get a lot more Protestant theology then you get help on understanding the actual content of the Bible. Furthermore, if you run across anything that sounds fishy to you, ignore it.

For example, here is the video on Chapters 1 through 13 of the Gospel of Matthew:

And this is example of how the explain the structure of one of the most difficult books of the Bible, Leviticus:

A Good Bible Dictionary

There are a lot of Biblical reference texts that one could buy, but if you are only going to get one, you should get a good Bible dictionary. There is a Bible Dictionary in Russian that was published by the Orthodox Church, and there may be one or more in Greek, but as things stand at present, if you want a text like that in English, you are going to have to make do with a Protestant text.

There are two I would recommend:

1. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, published by Thomas Nelson, is the lest expensive option.

2. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 Volume Set), is more expensive, but much more complete.

For example, if you are reading Exodus and you run across a reference to the Urim and the Thummim, if you look these words up in a Bible dictionary, it will tell you pretty much everything the Bible says about them, and everything that historians know about them. If you are reading Hebrews, and you run across Melchizedek, you can look him up, and find where else he is mentioned in Scripture and who he is. If you look up the name of a place that is mentioned, you will find things like what the name of the place means, its history, and often also find a map showing where that place is. You could of course look these things up on Wikipedia too, but the information you will find in these texts is generally going to be far more complete and reliable.

To be continued...

See also: Computer Based Bible Study... for Free

For a sermon on why we should want to study Scripture, read St. John Chrysostom's 9th Homily on Colossians. You can also listen to a sermon I gave, entitled "Rich Man / Poor Man," which was based on that homily.

Stump the Priest: In the Lord Shall My Soul be Praised

Question "At the beginning of Psalm 33 (in the Septuagint), which we hear often in the liturgical services, is the line "In the Lord shall my soul be praised." This seems a strange way of putting things. What do you think this means? Are there other similar verses in the Scriptures?"

In the Boston Psalter (the translation we use liturgically), this verse is translated:
"In the Lord shall my soul be praised; let the meek hear and be glad."
This is a very literal translation of the Greek Septuagint, which is a very literal translation of the Hebrew. The King James version translates this verse as:
"My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad" (Psalm 34:2).
Which translates the Hebrew idiom in a way that more clearly conveys the sense of the Hebrew. A more literal translation of the Hebrew would read:
"In the LORD doth my soul boast herself, the humble hear and rejoice."
By comparing different translations, you can often get a better idea of the range of meaning of the words in a text, and this is a good example of that.

The inscription of Psalm 33 [34], links this Psalm to David's flight from Saul, and his deliverance from the Philistine King of Gath in 1 Samuel 21:10-15:
"And David arose and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me? Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?"
St. Basil the Great's homily on this Psalm provides a good interpretation of the verse in question, which explains it in the light of this background:
""In the Lord shall my soul be praised." "Let no one," David says, "praise my intelligence, through which I was preserved from dangers." For, not in the power of man, nor in wisdom, but in the grace of God is salvation. "Let not," it is said, "the rich man glory in his riches, nor the wise man in his wisdom, nor the strong man in his strength, but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth" the Lord his God [Jeremiah 9:23-24]. If, however, someone is praised for beauty of body or renowned parentage, his soul is not praised in the Lord, but each person of such a kind is occupied with vanity. The ordinary professions, in fact, those of governor, doctor, orator, or architect who constructs cities, pyramids, labyrinths, or any other expensive or ponderous masses of buildings, do not merit to be truly praised. They who are praised for these things do not keep their soul in the Lord. It suffices us for every dignity to be called servants of such a great Lord. Certainly, one who ministers to the King will not be high-minded because he has been assigned to this particular rank of the ministry, and having been considered worthy to serve God, he will not contrive for himself praises from elsewhere, will he, as if the call of the Lord did not suffice for all pre-eminence of glory and distinction? 
Therefore, "in the Lord shall my soul be praised: let the meek hear and rejoice." Since with the help of God, by deceiving my enemies, he says, I have successfully obtained safety without war, by only the changing of my countenance, "Let the meek hear" that it is possible even for those at peace to erect a trophy, and for those not fighting to be named victors. "And let them rejoice," being strengthened to embrace meekness by my example. "O Lord, remember David, and all his meekness" (Psalm 131[132]:1 LXX]. Meekness is indeed the greatest of the virtues; therefore, it is counted among the beatitudes. "Blessed are the meek," it is said, "for they shall posses the earth" [Matthew 5:4(The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil, Exegetic Homilies,, Homily 16, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963),  p. 251ff).