Since I was new to reading the Bible, a knowledgeable friend advised me to start with one of the Gospels. Each of them is no more than 30 -- 40 pages long. This is short enough to read in one
evening even at my speed. The American Catholic Church uses the New American Bible translation, which is available in most military chapels. At home, I had an old King James, so, I borrowed one from our Chapel in Monterey, California. These translations contain information about the culture and background of each of the books in the Bible. I also found a wealth of information for Catholics on how to properly interpret the Bible.
It was in one of the introductory articles in the New American Bible that I found out how to best go about this newfound study of the Bible. Written and approved by a council of Catholic Bishops, I felt assured they were telling the truth. It started out not with how to effectively study the Bible, but how not to study the Bible.
There were three study methods that are considered the worst ways to understand Biblical scripture. The first is called the "words to live by" approach. This approach searches the Bible for verses that will prove a moral point. Often the person quoting scriptures will assume the role of being more of a moral person than the person whose Bible knowledge is lacking. Usually, this approach takes verses out of context. Context is very important in understanding the Bible. A point made 2000 years ago may apply only to that time. Taking a verse out of context can lead to all kinds of strange attitudes. Many slavery advocates in the 1850s used this method of interpretation to support their anti-abolitionist stance. This is due to many verses telling slaves to be faithful to their masters. In Biblical times, slavery was common practice. So, the verses are taken out of their cultural context.
The next poor way to study the Bible is the "So there!" method. This method also often misquotes the Bible. It uses it as the last word in any argument about history, science, etc. How was the world created? All you have to do is read Genesis. Do you have a problem with your marriage? The Paulian Epistle, Ephisians 5:22, has the answer, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands!" This approach neglects not only context and culture, but literary style as well.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are based, in part, on an ancient pagan myth about world creation. It is not meant to be a scientific document. If I may, allow me to paraphrase a part of the article in the New American Bible called, "Literary Forms of the Bible". The article says, "Genesis strives to show the relationship between God and history. It speaks of a time when eternity touched history. It speaks about a time that cannot possibly be described historically."
Yes, God did create the heavens and the earth, but the how is open to debate. A study of the literary culture in ancient Israel and the literary style of Genesis makes this conclusion apparent. This ancient book of the Old Testament is written as a grand scale epic poem. The Ephisians quote is taken out of context both literally and culturally. Paul continues with the second part of this statement about a wife's submission, "Husbands love your wives!" Even so, this is culturally out of context with today's world, unless read as a whole very carefully. This Ephisians section is the stuff of a whole new essay, however, so maybe you can read it yourself and see what I mean. Biblical quotations must be, for the most part, looked at as a whole and in context with the surrounding text and with the culture and literary style in which it was written.
Finally, the worst way to study the Bible is as just a piece of literature. The Bible contains many beautifully written pieces and many as dull as dirt. To totally omit the spiritually inspired nature of these books is to miss the point entirely.
Studying the Bible allowed me to learn something that I had known all along, but I forgot about it for a little while. It reminded me that God loves me. Jesus, his only begotten son, loves me. The Holy Spirit is yearning to work through me for the good of mankind. I learned about the two greatest Commandments, "To love God with all of your soul, all of your heart and all of your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself." If you love God, you will love yourself and then you can pass that love on to your neighbor.
Studying the Bible has strengthened my faith in God, in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Catholic Church. So, blow off the dust and take yours to bed for some enjoyable and enlightening reading. If you are already an avid reader of the Bible, I say to you, "Congratulations and keep up the good work."
May the love and peace of Christ the Lord be with you always.