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Reading the Bible: Navigating the complexities of interpretation and context

Are there more responsible ways to read the Bible?
Are there more responsible ways to read the Bible?

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“Well, the Bible says…”

How many of y’all heard someone start their sentence/argument/rebuttal in this manner?  Sometimes, it’s a helpful addition to the ongoing conversation. A lot of times, it only makes things more confusing and/or convoluted.

Technically, the Bible doesn’t literally say anything (nor is the Bible a book; it’s more of an anthology of 66 books). It has no lips or vocal cords of its own to verbalize the words it contains. We speak for the Bible.

And every time we read/recall/recite/speak on behalf of the Bible, we’ve negotiated with text to say what we want it to say. We’ve taken the words and funneled them through our perspectives, our beliefs, our ideologies and our theology.

Here’s a truth that not many are willing to admit: every one of us — every single one of us — picks and chooses from the Bible.

I know we throw that accusation onto our debate partner/opponent — that they only choose verses that fit into their argument -- but we all do that.

Picking and choosing Bible verses

The obvious use-cases are the laws and rules found in the Hebrew Bible (or often referred to as the Old Testament). But we rationalize it by saying things like, “that’s the Old Testament. What’s in the New Testament is what we need to follow.”

Then there are instances when we say that Jesus didn’t mean what he said; he was being allegorical or metaphorical.

Like when he tells the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus (Matthew 10:17-27), we say things like: “The sell everything was only meant for that person, because Jesus pinpointed his struggles.”

Even the most literal of Bible readers would say something to the likes of, “Jesus was being dramatic” or “Jesus is obviously using hyperbole” when we come to the passages where Jesus says that it’s better for one to gouge out their right eye if it causes you to sin or chop off a hand and throw it away if it causes you to sin (Matthew 18:7-9); that it’s better to lose that one body part than your entire being fall into damnation.

We can negotiate with the Bible to make it say whatever we may want it to say. 

Scary, huh? Or at the least, confusing.

So does that mean the Bible is worthless? Absolutely not. Should we just simply forgo reading the Bible? A resounding “no.”

We should continue the discipline of reading the Bible — but at the same time, we shouldn’t completely check out and leave our brain elsewhere. Methodists put an importance on the rational and reason. The “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral states that scripture is illumined through tradition, reason, and experience. 

What is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral?

Basically: John Wesley thoroughly believed in the importance of scripture. He knew that he stood on the shoulders of ancient Christian teachers and their work and experience could not be discounted; the scriptures still had to keep with Christian orthodoxy or tradition. But faith was more than simply discussing, exchanging, and acknowledging ideas — one has to live out their faith. Faith isn’t a third-person account but needs to be a first-person experience. On top of that, God gave each one of us a brain. We should use it so that we can understand ourselves and/or explain what we experienced to others, rationally. Without reason, Wesley argued, we can’t really understand the essential truths of scripture.

With that in mind, just a few things I think about when reading the Bible. 

The Bible was never meant to be used as a text book.

We get caught up on details that would likely mystify the original authors.

Take the Creation story for instance. There are two versions (and they offer slightly different accounts of creation). I grew up being told that the earth is about 6000 years old -- all based on the Biblical narrative and the Earth being created in literal 6 (24 hour) days. Well, we measure our 24 hour days by using the sun and the moon. But the sun and the moon weren’t created until Day 4 — so then how do we know that the first three days were 24-hr days?

These stories were written by ancient people (way  before the internet and social media) and they were written for ancient people — and we have to keep that in mind.
The Creation story (I believe) is less about the how and what and more about the who and why. It’s a poem written to the people in exile to remind them that it was God who ordered the universe; God is still with them in the midst of exile. 

Context is always important.

In seminary, I was taught “text without context is just pretext for making it say whatever anyone wants it to say.”

Whenever someone quotes a Bible verse, I like to read the entire chapter that verse is from and the previous and following chapters as well. This provides a sense of context.

Take Luke 4:7: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Beautiful idea and concept right? Might be worth memorizing and repeating. But this is why context is important. The beginning of Luke 4 is when Satan is trying to tempt Jesus. And it’s the Devil saying (to Jesus), “if you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Not as beautiful now, eh?

There are parts of the Bible that made sense to the ancient people -- that made sense in its context -- that we modern (smartphone using) people would be horrified at.

Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth sounds so barbaric to our modern (Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Email) using people. But it was revolutionary for the Israelites wandering in the desert because for them — up to this point — there was no limit for retaliation. You stepped on my toe? I’m going to kill you! But the “barbaric” law was advancing their civilization.

We have to remind ourselves that the texts were written by ancient people for ancient people. And we have to use our tradition, reason, and experience to see what it may mean for us today. How much have we evolved as a human race? How much do we still have in common (and repeat the history) of our ancestors and ancient Christians?

The Bible can be used (and misused) in many ways. But I think it would be woeful disservice for followers of Christ to dismiss or ignore the Bible altogether.

Ultimately, the Bible is full of stories of how unfaithful and misguided God’s people are. Yet, over and over (and over and over) we see God’s relentless faithfulness; God’s unconditional love; God’s refusal to give up on God’s creation.

Joseph Yoo is the author When the Saints Go Flying in. He is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at

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