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Thread: How to Read the Bible

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    Senior Member Tharmas's Avatar
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    How to Read the Bible

    It seems to me that believers and non-believers on this forum, when discussing the Bible, and particularly the Gospels, seem to talk past each other, and it also seems to me that one of the fundamental reasons for this “talking past” is that the two camps have radically different ideas as to what the Bible is, and how to go about reading it. Anyway, I thought a discussion of basics was in order. I’d like to see a discussion of how you read the Bible.

    I’ll go first, with some gross generalities.

    First, there appear to me to be two basic ways of encountering the Bible. The first, which has been perhaps more common in the past, is a more-or-less literal reading, in which what the New Testament says is pretty much a literal description of events that actually happened in the real world. This approach would be called a “naïve” reading. This doesn’t necessarily mean that naïve readers are gullible or foolish, but simply that they stay on the surface of the text.

    The second approach, which has been around for three hundred years or so, would be a “critical” reading. Critical readers look “beneath” the surface to discover a meaning that isn’t readily apparent to the casual reader. “Critical” reading doesn’t mean that the text is disliked or panned. Many critical readers are still believers.

    There are many types or flavors of critical reading, including textual, literary, historical, form, source, myth, and others. For an overview, see Biblical_criticism.

    It seems to me that there’s no point in arguing about the Bible if we can’t first agree on how, and for that matter what we’re reading.

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    Christians can’t even agree on the what and how among themselves. Maybe you could work with them first.

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    Veteran Member Cheerful Charlie's Avatar
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    As an atheist, I now read the Bible looking for what claims theology makes based on the Bible. This usually leads to problems for theology. Then the theological tap dancing begins.

    Ezekiel 11:18-20
    19 And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out
    of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh:

    Jeremiah 31
    33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord,
    I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall
    be my people.

    Plus other similar verses.

    This makes the argument that God values our free will rather weak. Why doesn't God just make all mankind true believers? Put his law in everyone's inward parts? It all matters how you read the Bible and what you notice and don't notice.
    Cheerful Charlie

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    Formerly Joedad
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    Well, for starters it's necessary to understand that a first bible was never written, rather it was assembled in the 4th century. We don't have anything close to an original copy and there have been a lot of changes since then. We can safely assume that none of the many versions around today are anything like that old Benz Motor car.

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    Being a theist I find it amusing how little understanding there is about scripture around here. As a Jew, I have very little understanding the new testament. But I want to impress certain things to you guys. First, religion is an interpretation of Torah. So from my point of view where you guys go off the rail is when you assume Judaism = OT. Look at the death penalty as just one example. The Torah lists 36 capital crimes, Yet, Judaism is opposed to the death penalty. The Rabbis of the Talmudic era (the people who made modern Judaism) made it just about impossible to convict anyone of a capital crime. The State of Israel has only convicted 2 people of a capital crime and neither of them were terror related. Again Judaism <> OT.

    It is important to understand the Torah as we have it today was an oral tradition that was compiled at later time. It's also important to understand since it was an oral tradition there is a great deal that is left out. If you read the Torah in the original Hebrew you will see the language is clipped. You need to find a commentary to understand the text, preferably multiple commentaries Any translation in and of itself is a commentary. So reading the Torah without a commentary is like flying blind. The Rabbis of the Talmudic era understood the Torah is not in chronological order. "there is no early or late on the Torah."

    So get yourself a good commentary and have at it. If you are going to read it in English you should use the JPS translation, It is the most faithful to the original Masoretic text. Here are some of my favorite Commentaries:

    The Torah a Modern Commentary

    The Chumash: The Stone Commentary

    Rashi's Torah Commentary

    Onkelos of the Torah

    Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations

    You get a different insight from each one these.

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    Quote Originally Posted by HaRaAYaH View Post
    Look at the death penalty as just one example. The Torah lists 36 capital crimes, Yet, Judaism is opposed to the death penalty..
    This is great !!! I love Hebrew insights

    Keep them coming !!

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    Super Moderator Atheos's Avatar
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    As a non-theist my experience is that proponents of various religions (whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, etc.,) tend to think more highly of their scriptures than those of others.

    Because of this I try to approach the Bible in the same way I approach the scriptures of all other religions. Sauce for the goose, as they say. They are reflections of culture, superstition and creativity of their various authors. Having stood the test of time and popular appeal they have each demonstrated the ability to inspire and awe people. But like the Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian mythology that preceded them they should be recognized as works of art, literature, wisdom and culture. It is only by foregoing the temptation to ascribe some superhuman intelligence to their contents that the real value of them can be appreciated.

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    Formerly Joedad
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    Quote Originally Posted by HaRaAYaH View Post
    Being a theist I find it amusing how little understanding there is about scripture around here. As a Jew, I have very little understanding the new testament. But I want to impress certain things to you guys. First, religion is an interpretation of Torah. So from my point of view where you guys go off the rail is when you assume Judaism = OT. Look at the death penalty as just one example. The Torah lists 36 capital crimes, Yet, Judaism is opposed to the death penalty. The Rabbis of the Talmudic era (the people who made modern Judaism) made it just about impossible to convict anyone of a capital crime. The State of Israel has only convicted 2 people of a capital crime and neither of them were terror related. Again Judaism <> OT.

    It is important to understand the Torah as we have it today was an oral tradition that was compiled at later time. It's also important to understand since it was an oral tradition there is a great deal that is left out. If you read the Torah in the original Hebrew you will see the language is clipped. You need to find a commentary to understand the text, preferably multiple commentaries Any translation in and of itself is a commentary. So reading the Torah without a commentary is like flying blind. The Rabbis of the Talmudic era understood the Torah is not in chronological order. "there is no early or late on the Torah."

    So get yourself a good commentary and have at it. If you are going to read it in English you should use the JPS translation, It is the most faithful to the original Masoretic text. Here are some of my favorite Commentaries:

    The Torah a Modern Commentary

    The Chumash: The Stone Commentary

    Rashi's Torah Commentary

    Onkelos of the Torah

    Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations

    You get a different insight from each one these.
    The same thing can be done with any half decent piece of literature. Torahs and bibles are included therein. These things are historical artifacts with value like anything else.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    I don't apply just a single hermeneutic to reading the Bible (or any other sacred text); I do strongly oppose both literalism and race-centric readings, for reasons we could discuss at length if I imagined it were necessary to elucidate such on a secular forum, but aside from that I enjoy reading secondary literature from a vast array of denominational sources and academic schools. I certainly read the Bible slowly; I don't there is any benefit at all to rushing through just so you can say you've "read it", that's another pet peeve of mine. Meditative literature is meant to be digested, not merely consumed.

    But as a for instance on how I approach things, I've been engaged in an extended study of Paul's letter to the Colossians lately. I started by consulting my Nestle-Aland, and trying to produce my own translation. I then compared it to a large number of other translations. Then came a set of concordances, then the various well-known commentaries. One thing I like to do is take a few key passages and write them down in a few places so that I'll encounter them a couple of times throughout the week, sort of chewing away at them. So this week's passage has been 2:16-17-

    μη ουν τις υμας κρινετω εν βρωσει και εν ποσει η εν μερει εορτης η νεομηνιας η σαββατων α εστιν σκια των μελλοντων το δε σωμα του χριστου

    Roughly paraphrased, "let noone judge your participation or lack thereof in the customs of your society, as these are only a shadow of that which will be completed in Christ."

    Often interpreted as an overtly anti-Semitic passage, and that's where I started also. I've been mulling it over from a number of other directions, though, and especially from a Gnostic point of view. One thing I've noticed all through is that ALL of this letter leads rather differently if you imagine that the author is a Gnostic or proto-Gnostic, because it actually places a huge emphasis on fullness and completion (gk. "pleroma"), a concept which was deeply foundational to Gnostic systematic theology. And since we know next to nothing about theological positions of the original author of this letter even if it is actually Paul (just ask Elaine Pagels about this!), this might not be a coincidence. But I've also been thinking about the whole thing in terms of political history and some of the things that were going on in the Roman world at the time that the passage is thought to have been composed. I've grown up in a world where Islam is often used as though it were a synonym for radical Islam in more conversations than not. How similar or not similar is this to the perception of Jewish festivals at this time? Were Jews even free to practice them for the duration of the rebellion and war? As near as I can tell, no one has a definitive answer for the question. A fourth reading I came up with the other morning has to do with judgement and the role it plays in early Christian thought. The passage also reads differently if you think of it less as contemporary apologetics and more as "what is the appropriate way for someone to discern what they ought to do, if traditional religious authorities are not to be or are no longer to be trusted blindly?"

    You get the general idea. I'm a line-by-line, take-it-to-the-sources-but-leave-room-for-creative-thought, kind of guy.
    Last edited by Politesse; 09-13-2019 at 04:20 PM.

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    It is not about taking past each other. There is no muddle ground.

    Today I listened to a self appointed preacher talking to someone with serious mental issues. It was scary. The preacher went through the bible picking out verses he thought applied. It was scary.

    There is faith physical healing, now it is faith based psychology.

    To me the Holy Babble is ancient oral traditions, myths, and genealogy put to pen centuries apart. Beyond it being one of many ancient traditions and myths there is noting we are missing and nothing for us to 'understand'.

    Read it in the context of other traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Egypt ion mythology, Babylonian mythology, Mayan mythology, Native American mythology.

    To the believer it is the word of god on any and everything. As in the example I gave. Conservative Israelis believe they have mpdern Israel and settlements in Palestine from divine biblical right. Echoed by the words of Netanyahu.

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