Thursday, August 03, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 3: In Context


For Part 1, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

For Part 2, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Types of Literature in the Bible (Genres)

To understand the Bible we need to understand how the different kinds of literature in the Bible actually work. We have different kinds of literature in own our culture, and we understand how they work. For example, when we read George Orwell's novel 1984, we know we are not reading a history of the the 1980's. There is truth in that book, but it does not function in the same way that a history book functions. We know what to expect when we read a comic book, and we know it works differently then a how-to guide. The various types of literature we find in the Bible have some features that are different from what we know from our own culture, and so we have to make some effort to try to understand how they work.

For example, we need to know that the patriarchal narratives are not intended to be taken as direct instructions on how we should live our lives. Sometimes we read about very admirable behavior, but in other cases the examples we find are negative, and are not there for us to "go and do likewise."

The proverbs we find in the Bible are wise saying that will generally prove to be true, but are not legal commandments -- you would generally be foolish to ignore them, but that's their point. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are not merely helpful hints for hopeful Hebrews -- they are moral laws that apply to us, and are not there for us to take or leave as we might wish.

This video does a good job of introducing the basics of the major literary types you find in the Bible:


You will also find some information on how various literary types work in a particular book of the Bible if you look up that book in a good Bible dictionary, and read what it says. You find much more detail in a good commentary or a Biblical Introduction, but for starters, your Bible dictionary should be sufficient to point you in the right direction.

We will come back to this in more detail in a subsequent series.

Levels of Meaning

Sometimes people ask whether or not we should take the Bible literally. The answer is that we should take it as literally as it is intended to be taken. There are many things in Scripture that clearly were not intended to be taken literally. For example, in the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation, read about a "fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads" (Revelation 12:3), but we are not expecting to encounter such a literal beast in the future. This is a symbolic vision, and we have to try to understand what the symbols mean to properly understand the text. But "Thou shalt not commit adultery" has a literal meaning, and we don't get to dismiss that literal meaning by interpreting it figuratively.

It is also true, however, that the same text can often be understood on more than one level. The fact that there can be more than one level of meaning does not negate the more obvious meanings of the passage -- it just means that can be additional meanings found in the same text.

There are traditionally four senses of Scripture, and you can read about those in more detail in these articles:
Sword in the Fire: 4 Senses of Scripture
OrthodoxWiki: Typology
But to simplify things a bit, just keep in mind that there is the level of meaning that is clearly intended by the text, but often there is a less obvious spiritual meaning of a text that you will find brought out in the services of the Church, and in the writings of the saints. You in fact see New Testament writers reading the Old Testament in precisely this way as well, and so this is not something that the Church made up, but comes from Christ and the Apostles (for example, in Galatians 4, St. Paul uses an allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar (which begins in Genesis 16 and ends in Genesis 21).

Becoming familiar with the more obvious meanings of Scripture will enable you to better grasp the deeper meanings you will find in the services and the Fathers.

Reading contextually

When reading Scripture, it is important to read particular parts of Scripture in their proper context.

There are three broad levels of context to keep in mind:
1. The immediate context of a passage within a book.
2. The context within the book as a whole. 
3. The context within the entirety of Scripture. 
Chapters, Verses, and Pericopes

With the exception of the Psalms, the chapter and verse divisions we have in our Bibles today are not original, or really all that ancient. Chapter divisions go back to the 13th century, and the verse divisions who know today were in place by the 16th century. These divisions usually make sense, but sometimes they actually can be deceptive, because they seem to mark a break between one chapter (or even one verse) and the next, when the break may not really be there in the text itself.

The Church has an older system of dividing the Gospels and Epistles into shorter readings that are read liturgically on a given day, and in a particular service. These divisions is called "pericopes," which literally means "a cutting-out" [you can hear how it is properly pronounced by clicking here]. "Pericope" is a Greek word. The word in Church Slavonic is "зача́ло" (zachalo).

Biblical scholars also speak of pericopes, but while the idea is very similar, there is a bit of a difference. Liturgical pericopes can vary. The same passage of Scripture might be divided up differently, for different liturgical occasions, because different aspects of the passage are being emphasized. When we speak of an interpretive (or exegetical) pericope, these do not change, though sometimes there may be some debate about where the lines should be drawn.

Interpretive pericopes are smaller sections of a book that represent a complete unit of the whole (for example, a distinct story, or parable). Sometimes these will follow chapter divisions, but often they will not. Usually, a given chapter of the Bible will have more than one of these subsections.

To see what we are talking about here, let's take a look at the Sermon on the Mount. Where does it begin? The sermon itself begins in Matthew chapter 5, but actually the end of chapter 4 is really the introduction. So you have sort of a preface that begins in Matthew 4:23 and ends in Matthew 5:2. In verse 3 the sermon begins, and does not conclude until chapter 7, verse 27, and then you have an afterword in 7:28-29 that sums up the response of the hearers to the sermon. But between Matthew 5:2 and 7:27 there are a number of interpretative pericopes that make up the total sermon, and should be examined both as distinct sections, but also in their broader context within the sermon. So for example, you would want to look at the Beatitudes as a distinct pericope (Matthew 5:3-12). Christ's discussion of how we are to be salt and light (5:13-16) is another pericope, etc.

You can see verbal ques and shifts of though that will mark were one section begins and ends. Sometimes it is not always so clear where one section ends and another begins, because one section is closely linked with the next. It is not crucial that you always get these divisions precisely right, you just want to keep them in mind, because the most immediate context of a verse is crucial to understanding what is being said. Fortunately, most contemporary bibles actually provide section headings that usually will tell you at least where the editors think these sections begin and end, and in the Orthodox Study Bible, for example, I think you will generally find these divisions to be accurate and helpful. See, for example, the NKJV's headings in the Sermon on the Mount.

You should also keep in mind, that it is often the cases that several pericopes in a row have a collective function in a book. That is certainly true of the Sermon on the Mount, but you see it in many other places as well. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, you have the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son all grouped together, and they all have similar points, but they are also distinct units.

And when we speak of interpreting a passage in the light of its context in the entirety of Scripture, this works in two ways. On the one hand, other passages of Scripture often shed light on a passage. But on the other, we do not believe that Scripture contradicts itself, and so if you interpret a passage in a way that contradicts what the Scriptures as a whole teach, you are reading it wrong.

Reading with the Church

One of the most important ways that we must read the Scriptures in the proper context is by reading them in the context of the Church.

We have already talked about one way that we do this, and that is by ensuring that we interpret the Scriptures in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Church. And we have also talked a bit about how to use the commentaries of the Fathers as we are able, and have access to them. But beyond that, while it is important for us to read the Scriptures on our own, we also need to study them together with others in the Church. We do this in the context of our immediate families -- every home being a little Church. We should also do this in our parishes. If there is a Bible study that you can participate in, this should be helpful. You also do this by attending the services, hearing the Scriptures read in the services, and also hearing them interpreted in the services of the Church, and by your priest or bishop when he preaches on them.

In St. John Chrysostom's time, people had multiple opportunities to hear sermons. The local bishop would often preach, and any of the priests might preach as well. St. John often preached sermons every day, as is evident from his homilies on the book of Genesis. Few today would have any opportunities remotely close to that. However, with the printing press and the internet, we have access to collections of sermons like that, and a lot more. Not only can you read the sermons of many Fathers and saints of the Church online or in books, but you can read and listen to sermons from contemporary clergy. Also many clergy podcast verse by verse Bible commentaries and Bible studies that they conduct in their parishes.

The opportunities are vast, in fact so vast that you could allow the vastness to overwhelm you. But if you are not sure where to start with such things, you can speak to your parish priest, and ask for pointers, and then go from there.

And again, don't try to do too much all at once. Focus on doing something, and doing it consistently.

In the future, there will be a follow-up series of posts that will talk about how to dig deeper into the Scriptures.

For More Information:

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

The Inerrancy of Scripture