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Rabbi, pastor give instructions on how to read Scripture

Friday, December 26, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST
About 24 percent of people surveyed by the Baylor Institute for Studies on Religion said they never read sacred texts. According to the survey, sacred texts include the Bible, the Koran and the Torah.

COLUMBIA — From Bible study groups to Sunday school programs, countless groups of people in Columbia gather throughout the week to discuss sacred Scripture in an effort to better understand it and apply it to modern life.

James L. Kugel has written a book designed to help people do just that. "How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now" guides readers through the Hebrew Bible, which is the Old Testament for Christians. The book integrates ancient traditional ways of reading and interpreting the Bible with modern historical biblical scholarship, which uses scientific methods and fields such as anthropology, archaeology and linguistics to uncover the truth about the Bible.

Advice to Christians reading the Bible

  • One major issue people seem to have when it comes to reading the Bible, and in following what the Bible says, is that the Bible contradicts itself in places. It also does not always hold the same standards modern society does, especially when it comes to such topics as slavery (see Leviticus 25:44-46, for example) and the place of women in society.
  • Baker has some advice for Christian readers of the Bible when it comes to this issue: “For Christian persons, I think that the center of the Scripture is the story of Jesus, and therefore, when there are some texts that seem to conflict, that it’s best to look at the story of Jesus and see how he handled that particular situation,” Baker said.
  • When it comes to the issue of a woman’s place in the Bible, looking to Jesus’ actions will help to reconcile the conflicts in the ancient text and help people apply them to modern social standards.
  • “The apostle Paul, for example, said that women should be silent in churches and learn from men, and in another place, he talks about Phoebe, who was a deaconess, and the prophetess Anna. So what do you do when you see those kinds of conflicting things?” Baker said.
  • “We look at Jesus, and we see what he did,” Baker said. “Jesus had women in his entourage the whole time — Mary, for example, learning at the feet of the rabbi was very radical for that time.”
  • “You see how Jesus dealt with issues such as gender and, for me, that tips the scale … so use Jesus as your filter or lens,” Baker said.


Kugel is an Orthodox Jew and an emeritus professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard University. He is also the author of "The Bible as It Was," which focuses on early scriptural interpretation.

Reading the Bible today

In "How to Read the Bible," Kugel discusses the assumptions that ancient biblical interpreters made as they read sacred texts. One of these assumptions was that the Bible is meant to be a series of lessons written for people living in the interpreter’s time. “The Bible’s laws were understood as being intended for people to obey in the interpreter's own time, even though they had been promulgated in a different society many centuries earlier,” Kugel said.

Today, many readers of Scripture continue to believe that the Bible is applicable to modern life. Every Sunday at 10 a.m., a small group of people meet in the student lounge of the St. Thomas More Newman Center to discuss Bible passages and apply them to modern life.

The group at the Newman Center agreed that it is important to consider modern biblical scholarship when reading the Bible but that, at the end of the day, it is what you get out of reading Scripture and how it affects your actions.

"The important thing is in how (Scripture) affects our lives," said Richard Heimburger, a Columbia plastic surgeon who attends a study at the Newman Center. "Jesus taught in parables, and there can be several different interpretations," Heimburger said.

 "You should consider why it's written and for whom it was written; some of it was written dealing with things that were going on at that time. I think that makes a big difference in how you interpret it," said Don Day, who teaches a Sunday school class at Broadway Christian Church.

It's all in the interpretation

One major point of contention among Bible-readers is how the Bible should be interpreted — if it should be interpreted at all. Some think it should be read word-for-word literally while others think that if the Bible is read literally, much of the deeper meaning is missed.

Ardene Watkins, who participates in a women's Bible study group at Heritage Baptist Church, says she generally takes the Bible literally but uses tools such as Hebrew and Greek concordances to aid her reading.

"I've been reading the Bible for 40 years now, and it's one of those books that continually gives, and the longer you read it the more there is to get from it. That's why I like to use the tools and go back to some of the original language," she said.

John Baker, pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, said the Bible should be read as a small library of literature.

“Much of the Bible is not to be taken literally; it is made up of narratives (and) long sections of poetry. It's like a large book of books, and each one is different and has a different function and we have to read each one with the intention that it is written under,” Baker said.

To illustrate his point, Baker spoke about the incident in the Gospels when Jesus clears the temples of the money-sellers. In three of the Gospels, this is one of the last things that Jesus does, Baker said. However, in the Gospel of John, it is one of the first things he does.

“If you look at it as a story written by an artist, then the chronological order doesn’t matter. It’s the meaning behind the event that's important, not the particulars. You find what is important, the underlying meaning behind the text —  the goal is to find what is of enduring value more than other things,” Baker said.

One of the most prominent issues when it comes to interpreting the Bible is the debate between creationism and evolution. Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom and Don Day say they believe science and religion are reconcilable.

“No serious scholar would write the history of the creation of the world in 31 verses. This very small number of verses narrating the six days of creation are obviously not telling us the physical, actual history of the creation of the universe,” Feintuch said.

Feintuch said he believes that science and religion are not enemies and are reconcilable and that science is “Judaism’s ally.”

“(The creation story in Genesis) is not telling us what happened or how the world was created – for that you go to science books, which tell us how the world was created, not why it was created,” Feintuch said.

Day said science enhances his understanding of the Bible.

“I don’t see the Bible contradicting science particularly, but for me, the more I know about science, the more I understand about creation, and it just reinforces things for me,” Day said.

Applying modern knowledge to ancient texts

An assumption made by ancient interpreters of the Bible was that the Bible is not written in clear language; in fact, it is a “fundamentally cryptic text,” Kugel said. This means, Kugel explained, that “when it said A, often it might really mean B.” This inherent vagueness in the Bible is one reason why many think modern biblical scholarship should be considered.

However, some are skeptical of what modern scholarship can offer students of the Bible. Watkins said that though she finds some modern biblical research exciting — particularly when it comes to biblical archaeology — some modern scholarship tries to disprove the Bible.

"I think there's a lot of scientists and archaeologists who go overboard in trying to disprove the Bible," she said.

Modern biblical scholarship might not always support traditional ways of viewing the Bible and the individual stories in it, but it can help readers gain a deeper understanding of sacred texts.

“Modern knowledge, especially as we look back historically, allows us to understand things – words on the page are just words unless we understand the words in modern terms,” Baker said.

Feintuch believes that all sources of information and knowledge should be considered when studying the Bible.

“The bottom line is that the Torah does not belong to God anymore; God gave us the Torah. It is what we do with it, how we humanly understand and interpret it, that makes it God’s voice,” he said.

“We cannot get into God’s mind; we cannot e-mail him or call him on the cell phone; it is up to us to try to understand it," Feintuch said. "Always read more and search and search, and never think you’ve got it because next year, you’ll have a more-developed insight.”

Feintuch said it is important to never stop searching for more knowledge in sacred texts. Jews read the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – on an annual cycle. There are two reasons for this, Feintuch said.

“First of all, we forget much of what we read or learn every year, so we have to refresh our memories," he said. "But even more importantly is the premise that you don’t ever get 'it' right, and hence you re-read the text annually — if not more often — in order to find new insights every time you re-read it. The rabbis of old teach us to turn it sideways and upside down because if you only read it one way (i.e., the literal way), you are going to miss something."

Feintuch dislikes it when people say they understand the Bible or absolutely know what certain passages mean.

“Do not presume that you understand the Bible because you don’t; you have a very limited, finite and partial understanding," Feintuch said. "And don’t invoke God’s voice to support your understanding because you may not have it right.”

"How to Read the Bible" concludes with Kugel saying that the Bible can be read by “rational believers” and that, even though there are parts of the Bible that cannot be proved, the “divine presence diffuses every part of it” that still manages to touch us and move us to practice religion.

Like Kugel, Feintuch believes that the divine can be found in reading the Bible.

“The search is God’s voice, not the finding. As long as you continue to search and you understand that you only have a partial understanding, then you are doing something right,” he said.


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