What Christians believe about Bible

Reading and studying the bible:

In Victorian England theological students were given the following declaration on the Bible is from an instruction manual they used as they began their theological studies:

In the Bible every scientific statement is infallibly accurate, all its history and narrations of every kind are without any inaccuracy.

It was in the eighteenth century that this kind of thinking began to be seriously challenged. Some of the important questions asked were:

If the Bible is the word of God, in what way is this so?
Is the Bible any different to other books? If so, how?
Is it true?
Is it accurate in all of its details?

It was the search for answers to these and other questions that led to the growth of biblical scholarship. One of the most important starting points in biblical study is asking the right question. In the past (and still with some groups today) the questions asked were: is this true? Did it really happen in this way? Is there a possible explanation for this thing? And so, for example, people asked whether or not the creation story in Genesis could be aligned with science. Was it possible for the Hebrews to cross the Red Sea without getting their feet wet? Did Moses really write the books that are attributed to him and did Jesus really change water into wine?

The answer to these questions, and others like them, was used by many to determine the value and truth of the entire Bible. At the heart of this process was the desire of some to try and measure the Bible's meaning in terms of other fields of study. If they could prove that creation was not made in six days, then they could cast doubt on everything else in the Bible as well.

But this was doomed in terms of understanding the Bible because it failed to understand the Bible as literature in the light of its cultural and historical setting. Biblical criticism then began to look more closely at the world in which the books of the Bible were written. They began to read the texts as they might have been understood in Palestine in tenth century BC, or as the exiles in Babylon might have heard them. When reading Paul's letter to the Corinthians, they were forced to go back and try and work out what life in first century Roman Corinth was like.

Can we trust the texts we have?

Biblical Criticism Biblical criticism is the term used for the study of the Bible. This is not criticism in the sense of being negative about the Bible but rather in the sense of studying in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible. It does this through examining and explaining its form, content and background, all in the light of other sciences and fields of study.

One of the problems that we have today is that we stand some 1900 years after the last book of the Bible had been completed and we have none of the original texts in our possession. As printing only came into the equation in the fifteenth century, we have centuries in which the texts were copied by hand. This was sometimes done by a single scribe and at other times they were copied in a scriptorium where someone would read the text and a number of scribes would write it down. These ancient texts were written with no space between word and often words that were repeated were written in shorthand, with abbreviations. In such situations it is easy to see how mistakes could be made. There are also examples where the scribes have deliberately changed the texts in order to correct them or to make the message clearer to those reading it. Over the 1800 years of transcribing, a large number of texts have been produced and the science of working through these to establish the most likely text is called textual criticism.

New Testament Textual Criticism:

If we look at a written work like Homer's Illiad, we can see that there are around 650 manuscripts of different kinds. When it comes to the New Testament we have to deal with some 5,000 extant manuscripts! Some of these are partial texts, sometimes not more than a few verses but they form a rich source from which scholars can work in establishing the most likely text for today's Bible. One of the things that such a rich collection of source material tells us is that the Bible has not been seriously tampered with down through the centuries. What we have today is fundamentally what was handed on to the Church. On the other hand, what we find is that there are variations between these texts and we need to be able to establish which is the most likely reading.

Textual Criticism: Manuscripts

Dating: Dating manuscripts is done by study of their language, culture, history and content. Carbon dating is also being used. When classified they are given referred to by a letter or a number.

Papyri: The oldest text is from the early second century and is a fragment of John's Gospel. It is only a few verses but there are many papyri (80 plus) that contain most of the New Testament dating from the third to seventh century.

Unicals: These are parchments and there are many more of these. Most important of these were written during the 4th to 10th century. The most important of these are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. There are 250 unical manuscripts surviving.

Minuscules: In the 9th century cursive script was introduced and allowed more books to be copied. There are over 2,500 of these.

Choosing the right text:

Manuscripts are grouped together into families so that the critic can establish what manuscript a text was copied from. An example of this is when an obvious mistake is found at the same point in the text of two different manuscripts. If each of these was copied from only one manuscript, we can presume that they had a common ancestry. Manuscripts that were written after this point can then be discarded in the search for the most reliable text. There are four major groupings of these and they are put together in geographical arrangements.

a. Syrian... This is from the Byzantine Empire and has been used by Protestant translations up until the emergence of the Revised Version.

b. Western... This is an early grouping and it tends to use a lot more paraphrasing.

c. Alexandrian... This was influenced by communities in and around Alexandria, a cultural centre of learning and the arts in Egypt.

d. The neutral... These include the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus and are called "neutral" as they are considered to be nearest to the original texts.

In all of these texts mistakes are made in the transmission and decisions must be made as to which is the more likely reading. The methods used in this is the same as those used in the translation of all ancient writings. Two of the key ways of discerning are:

1. The more difficult reading: Scribes would sometimes seek to make the text they had before them more understandable and so scholars tend to believe that the more difficult text is likely to be the more original text.

2. Assimilation: If we look at the first three Gospels, we find that there are many stories that are similar to each other. In these cases we find that some scribes would alter the less familiar language of Luke (for example) to bring it into line with what Matthew might have written, language with which he is more familiar. In these cases the divergent text is more likely to be the earlier (more original?).

All of that might sound a bit technical and of little value to the ordinary reader but a few examples of what this means might help us to appreciate the problem of interpretation. If we were to take the King James version of the Bible and compare it to a more modern version (The NIV or the Jerusalem) we will find the following variations.

  1. The last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark were not apart of the original text of Mark. They were added at a later date. The Gospel ended at Mark 16:8 (or was lost).
  2. John 7:53-8:11 (the story of the woman taken in adultery) has been added to the original Gospel of John. While it may be an authentic story in its own right, it has been added to the original text from another source.
  3. 1 John 5:7 is a late addition and scholars suspect that it was a scribal comment that was originally written in the margin and later incorporated into the text itself.

These are more significant differences but most variations are of lesser significance and often do not make a great deal of difference to the actual meaning.

Old Testament Textual Criticism

Canon of the Bible

Canon is a transliteration of the Greek word kanon meaning rule. In its general sense, canon denotes a collection or list of books accepted as an authoritative rule of faith and practice. The Christian canon varies according to whether or not the Hebrew or Greek Old Testament is followed.

There are similar kinds of arguments used in the examination of the Old Testament but it is worth noting two key points.

a. The Massoretic text: After a long period of disruption and division, there was a move towards the end of the first century AD to both purify Israel and to establish a normative set of biblical texts. The scholars who were responsible for this examined carefully all of the material they had at hand and presented their own canon and added to it a series of commentaries (called massorah). When this commentary was first given, it was presented in oral form. It was then added to the margins. This commentary included a range of notes on how to interpret the text under study as well as statistical information on the words used. These scholars were called the Massoretes and so the Hebrew text of what we call the Old Testament is called the Massoretic text.

b. Other texts: Before this unification under the Massoretes there were a number of texts in usage. In the Qumran community we find a different collection of texts that are different to the Massoretic text. At Qumran a large range of texts were discovered, some of them from liturgy and others for spiritual reading and as texts of scripture. Because they believed that the biblical texts were too sacred to be thrown away, they stored all of their older texts in vases and placed them into caves. Some of these texts goes back to the second century BC. There were also Greek translations (the Septuagint) and Samaritan versions of the Law. There are Syriac texts (called Peshitta) that predate the earliest Massoretic versions. None of these question the integrity of the text that we now use.

Who wrote the Bible?

Once we have established our text, there are other questions that need to be answered about their origin and the background which gave birth to the texts. Who wrote them? At what time were they written and in what circumstances?

External evidence: Commentators have long attached names to the authors of various books of the Bible. For example, up until modern times Moses was accepted as the author of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible).

Changing the way we read the Bible:

We need to understand that it is our ability to see that affects the way we read. When we gaze on the world around us, we are always, inevitably, looking through lenses of one kind or another. This creates a problem for people today as we have a new range of lenses through which we look at life and understand the world around us. In the past, the Bible was seen as a light to guide the individual through life's moments of darkness, illuminating the way to life eternal.

Bible-believing Christians see the Bible as being without error, the infallible Word of God. For them, the Bible comes from God. As a car bumper sticker puts it so succinctly: God said it. I believe it. That settles it. Unless the text is clearly meant to metaphorical (the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like yearling sheep) it is to be taken seriously and every step is to be taken to ensure that it is not watered down.

Other Christians understand that the Bible was never meant to be taken literally. It is not historically accurate in every detail and is not the express will of God. This group is not sure what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of God or that it is inspired by God. They reject the idea that it is infallible and struggle to come to grips with the idea of biblical authority.

Qumran scrolls

Qumran is given to the ruins of an Essene community on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea, first occupied around 150 BC and destroyed by the Romans during the first Jewish uprising. The scrolls were a collection of parchments and papyrus scrolls, written in Greek, Aramaic and Greek and discovered between 1947 and 1956. These are of great value for Biblical studies because they contained older biblical texts and fragments of texts that were alternative versions of texts already in use as well as containing nonbiblical texts that add to our knowledge of older Judaism and other movements of the time.

The seeds of conflict:

At the heart of the problem is the difficulty of understanding what it means to say that the Bible is authoritative and is true because it comes from God. Our modern struggle between evangelicals and modernists goes back to the time of the Reformation where the reformers replaced the authority of the Church (and Church history/tradition) with the authority of the Bible. By the time of the second or third generation of reformers, this had grown to mean that the Bible was infallible. This was called Plenary inspiration which means that the words of the Bible were dictated by God. This was why they were without error. To claim that it contained mistakes was to say that God made mistakes.

How the bible used to be read:

It is only in recent times that the Bible has been available in languages other than Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Bibles themselves were rare and expensive and not generally in the possession of the ordinary Christian man or woman. This was changed dramatically with two events. The first was the development of the printing press (mid 1400's) and the translation of the Bible into local languages. These both happened around the same time.

One of the interesting side affects of the mass production of the Bible was that for the first time it was regularly bound together as a single book rather than as a collection of independent manuscripts. It thus became The Scriptures, a single book with a single divine author.

What this meant was that the Bible came to be the normal way of viewing the world and all human relationships and activities. It was natural for people to read the Bible as being literally true and it created no problems for them. If it was from God, then it was true. This is referred to as natural literalism.

Others read the Bible with a conscious literalism. These readers are aware of the problems faced with a literal reading but go ahead and accept it as being infallible anyway. Unlike the earlier natural literalists, they have to make a choice to read it in this way as the world has changed significantly since the time of the Reformation. They call on the gift of faith to accept what they have difficulty in understanding.

These two reading lenses lead to the following conclusions about the Bible:

  1. Origin: The Bible is of divine origin. The Bible is God's Word that has come to us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is sacred scripture. It is not a product of human skill or intellect.
  2. Authority: Because of its divine origins, the Bible is true and authoritative. What is read in the Bible must be taken seriously and obeyed because it is true and speaks to the Truth. It tells the believer what to believe and the way they must live.
  3. Interpretation: The Bible is both historically and factually true. If the Bible says something happened, then it really did happen. The only exception to this is when the language is unmistakably metaphorical (the mountains clapping their hands with joy). If the Bible said something happened, then it happened. Simple as that. If the Bible said that the Red Sea parted before Moses and the Hebrews, then it did separate to give them a dry way through to freedom. If it says Jesus changed water into wine, then it happened.

How people traditionally understood Christianity:

This way of understanding the Bible was a reflection of the way that believers understood Christianity. The two were linked as the bible was the foundational document of the Church and was compiled and canonized by the Church. We can summarize this view of the Church under six headings:

  1. Literalistic: The Christian Church has long been a literalistic faith community reading and understanding the Bible as the direct Word from God.
  2. Doctrinal: Being a Christian meant a sharing of some fundamental doctrines and beliefs. These were presented in the Creeds.
  3. Moralistic: Christianity was always about a way of life that was spelled out by the moral codes of the Bible. God had a Law and had handed that Law onto us through the Old Testament commandments and the moral instructions of Jesus. This also meant that there had to be an emphasis on the forgiveness of sins for no one could obey all of the laws. Both sin and forgiveness are essential parts of Christian life.
  4. Patriarchal: The language used of God was masculine and reflecting this the leadership of the Church was male.
  5. Exclusivist: Christians believe that Jesus is the way to life eternal and thus Christianity is the only true religion.
  6. Afterlife-oriented: The whole point of Christian living was to get to heaven. That is the message that is taught to believers from Sunday school onwards.

How is today's world different in outlook:

One of the characteristics of human communities today is that we are all much more aware of historical and cultural differences between people and nations. We also understand that the way people think and act is very much shaped by when they are living, where they live, the circumstances of their lives and by what is going on around them. All that we do - our language, our knowledge, beliefs and customs are shaped by culture. The way we live, think and act are culturally formed which is one reason why people find it difficult to envisage the concept of a set of absolute truths or universal ways of living.


One of the difficulties that we face in reading the Bible and locating it in our lives is that we live in a modern western world. From the time of the Enlightenment onwards (17th century) our world has seen reality in very different ways. We live in a scientific world and all of the great medical and scientific discoveries that have transformed human living began at the time of the Enlightenment. In this world, in order for something to be true, it has to be able to be proved and verified.

Another way of saying this is that our world today has a Newtonian worldview. This view holds that reality is made up of matter and energy that relate to each other according to natural laws. The way to understand all of these things is to see the world in terms of cause and effect.

This partially explains why there is a suspicion of the spiritual and spiritual realities. It is difficult to find a place in this world for God. Our scientific outlook on life and what we understand to be reality has to be scientifically verifiable and historically factual. If these things are not able to be proved, then the subject under discussion is not true.

This kind of worldview has posed enormous problems for Biblical studies and has left many Christians caught between literalism and what is called reductionism: the desire to reduce the Bible and Christianity to what makes sense in our own world. Divisions were formed within the Church along these lines (sometimes called traditionalists and liberals) and the openness to believe in the truths of the Bible became a challenge to faith. If it was not believed in its fullness, then you could not possibly be a Christian.

This is an important change in the life of the Church. Up until the time of the Enlightenment, the question of the truth of the Bible was rarely raised. People believed it to be true. It was not a matter of faith, just reality. Faith was limited to the fundamental challenge to believe in God.


The world we live in today is sometimes now being referred to as postmodernity, a time that can be outlined in the following way:

  1. Importantly, people are understanding that our world is culturally conditioned and relative to specific times in history. Our world is not the final comment on human life. Humanity will continue to grow, to expand and to change.
  2. Human experiences are given much more of an emphasis in the postmodern world. While people are suspect of religious truths, they are much more open to believing that which they can experience. This is why there is something of a resurgence in the pursuit of spiritual learning.
  3. The postmodern world is moving beyond what is sometimes called fact fundamentalism. Something can be accepted as true without it being literally and factually true. This is why metaphor has grown significantly in theological circles as a way of coming to know and understand God and religious living. A metaphor can be true without it being factually or metaphorically true.


As we seek to come to a more energizing understanding of the Bible, we need to be able to answer the question: Does the Bible come from God or is it a human production? We have always understood that the Bible was written under the guiding hand of God. That it is an expression of the will of God. If this is not true, then it means that it is the result of human initiatives.

This second position worries us because it seems to suggest that God is not real or if he is real then he is not interacting with his creation. This is far from the truth for it also means that God can be experienced, that he is real and that he can be found in all human activities. It is from these experiences of the divine that the Bible emerged as people struggled to put their faith in a living God into the context of the events unfolding all around them. One scholar presented this understanding in the following way:

I see the Bible as a human response to God. Rather than seeing God as scripture's ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to their experience of God. As such, it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God's character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves. As the produce of these two communities, the Bible thus tell us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things (Marcus Borg).

We need a perspective on the Bible:

Language is always important and when we discuss the role of the Bible in our lives, it is equally important that we clarify how we understand its place in our lives with God. Anyone who has listened to televangelists will have heard comments such as: Let's see what God says about that.....". This would be followed up with quotation from some biblical texts. This says something significant about both God and the Bible and we are left with the question: Does this text (or any text) tell us the thoughts of God on this particular problem or does it tell us about Paul's thoughts on the problem?

Another example of the problems with this kind of approach can be found in the Genesis story of creation. If the Bible comes from God's hand then the story of creation is his story and so cannot be wrong. Continuing further down this path we end up with having to defend a creationism approach to science whereby God actually did create the world in six days and then rested on the seventh day. If, on the other hand, we understand the Bible as being a human product, we read those stories as being Hebrew faith reflections on the origin of all things and on the relationship of creation to the creator. They are metaphorical or symbolic stories that speak to everyday life rather than scientific presentations.

When we come to the laws of the Bible, we face even greater difficulties if we take them as being laws initiated by God. Using a contemporary problem, the Book of Leviticus makes it clear that you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Then, a little further on it speaks of the death penalty being applied....they must die, their blood shall be on their own heads. This would be a position that is supported by many fundamentalist Christians today (possibly minus the death penalty). Approaching this law from a different angle, as being a law that represents life in ancient Israel, we can then ask what it might mean in today's world. In that same section there are laws that forbid the people from planting two different kinds of seeds in the one garden or make clothes out of two different kinds of material. Both of these we would reject but on what grounds? What would make some divine laws mandatory and others able to be ignored?

We also have to deal with stories that challenge our understanding of God. In Exodus 4:24- 26 there is the story of Moses, his wife and their son on their way back to Egypt. They were obeying God's command and the stage was being set for leading the Hebrews to freedom in the Exodus. How do we deal with this line: On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. It is impossible to escape the fact that the text tells us that God sets out to kill Moses. It is true that Moses is uncircumcised and that his son is also uncircumcised and that is contrary to God's will. Sarah knows this and so she circumcises her son and by touching her husband with the foreskin symbolically circumcises him. But we are still left with the image of God murdering his servant. This is a malevolent God and while the divine ways are not the same as human ways, it is difficult to reconcile this kind of God with the God we have come to know and obey.

If we look at the New Testament then we find similar difficulties. A well known example is found in 1 Timothy 2:9-15

9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Is this how God actually sees the reality of creation and the role of men and women? It goes beyond just the question of whether or not women should hold authority over men. We are also told that they should not braid their hair, wear pearls or gold and should avoid the wearing of expensive clothing. The letter also asserts that it is women who are responsible for original sin. The woman was deceived by the snake and sinned. Her punishment was the pain of childbirth and it was through this childbearing that she would find salvation. If this represents the will of God then all of us would have difficulties in living faithfully. However, if we see it as a culturally specific document, one that was written by a male in a patriarchal society, we can then sit down and work out how we might faithfully respond to what the letter is saying about God and about men and women.

What are we saying? - Bible is either from God or from man?

It is tempting to suggest that some texts are from God while others are from human hands. That leaves us with the problem of trying to establish what ones come from God and what are of human origin. If they are from God then they must be obeyed and are authoritative. If they are from man then they there is room for discretion and adaption. What will happen in the end is that the things that are important to us become the teachings from God, while all of the rest has a human origin.

The better way of viewing this is that the Bible comes from a human faith community and is a response to their experience of God working within them. The question we should be asking of every text is not: Why did God say this? It should be, what is this text telling us about how those people were experiencing the living God in their midst?

Is the Bible Sacred Scripture?

A good starting point for these reflections would be to ask whether Paul considered the letters he was writing to the different Churches as being sacred. They were not sacred scripture at the time of writing. That was a process that took place over time, a process we call canonization. This process took place without councils, without declarations and over a long period of time. It was a gradual process that unfolded within the faith community of Israel and within the Church.

The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible often referred to as the Torah) was considered to be sacred for about 400 years before the time of Jesus. The writings of the prophets took a little longer, being considered as authoritative by 200 BC. The rest of the books (called the Writings) were not a part of the canon until 100 years after the time of Jesus. When we turn to the New Testament we have a similar process, with the Church not having a set of scriptures for around 300 years. The New Testament writings were all completed by the year 100 and yet when we read the contemporary writings, it is not until 367 that we have a list of books that were considered as being the authoritative New Testament.

What is important about this? It suggests that what makes the Bible sacred is that they are held as being sacred by a faith community. The Bible is a Church document and came into existence in the Church, through the Church and as a part of the life of the Church in its mission. It is not a gift from God that came already formed. They are documents that define who we are in terms of our relationship with God. Who we are as a community and who we are as individuals. We are shaped by the Bible and the Bible was shaped through our relationship with God.

Biblical Authority:

The Bible has been given authority because it was understood as having its origin in God. It was God as divine author that made it sacred and gave it the authority it had come to have in the life of the Church and the faith community of Israel. This has been described as being a monarchical function. Like an ancient king, the Bible ruled over us, declaring what we could do and could not do and telling us what to believe. The alternative view would be to understand the Bible as a dynamic that is within us, that is a grace that animates how we are living on a day to day, moment to moment basis. It is in our dialogue with the Bible that we find a way forward. We are formed as Christians through this conversation with the Scriptures; not so much as individuals but as a faith community in which the Spirit of God is at work. In this dialogue we are then able to work out which of the texts or laws reflect a culturally and historically limited writing and which are meant for live today (eg. Women must wear hats to Church).

In this conversation we are allowing the Bible to shape us and to act as a judge. It is not applying the written word and using it as a kind of blueprint against which we asses what we are doing. It is in dialogue, as we actually listen to what God is most certainly saying to us, that the authority of the Bible becomes clear. Any dialogue involves not just speaking but just as importantly - listening.

To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible. We are to listen to it well and let its central stories shape our vision of God, our identity, and our sense of what faithfulness to God means. It is to shape our imagination, that part of our psyches in which our foundational images of reality and life reside. We are to be a community shaped by scripture. The purpose of our continuing dialogue with the Bible as sacred scripture is nothing less that that. Rowan Greer

Reading the Bible as History and Metaphor:

When we speak of the Bible as history the key question is: what did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written. When we look at the Bible from a metaphorical perspective we are asking what does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical setting.

The Historical setting leads us to look at the original context of the reading. What was happening at the time of its writing/editing, why was it written and what did it mean for those people? These are important questions as it is the context in which these things were written and statements declared that we can discover "meaning". This recognizes the reality that these texts are texts of the distant past. The Old Testament began to be written and edited around 1000 BC and was completed by the middle of the second century AD. The New Testament began to be composed and written around 50 AD and was finished by 100 AD. Clearly they were written a long time ago in a very different world.

This does not mean that they are irrelevant for today's world. They come alive when we are able to read them as they were written, in their context. By understanding this perspective we have some insights into the power that these writings offer. We are not reading them in the light of current tensions and popular agendas but allowing the texts top speak for themselves.

The metaphorical approach begins by understanding that there is more to a text than just what it meant in its historical setting. A metaphor is more than just drawing attention to the similarities between situations. A commonly used example is: my love is like a red, red rose. This is a simile. But if I say my love is a red, red rose I am using a metaphor. When I make that statement, I am saying that my love is a rose and at the same time my love is not a rose. My love can be understood as being in some way like a red rose. The task then is to try and work out what the rose can tell me about my love. This likeness cannot be limited to a single meaning. There will always be a range of associations that I could make about my love and the red rose, none of which will be complete in itself.

When we take this and apply it to a Biblical example, I could say that I look at my life in the present and the future in terms of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. I see my life as an Exodus event and that the journey tells me about God, his people, vocation and divine love and mercy.

When we talk of metaphor we can say that a metaphor is true. It is not literally true but it is, nevertheless, true.

Textual Criticism:

A read through a good bible will show that in any given text there are often variations offered for words and sentences. These generally go: other ancient authorities add ..... The word referred to may not appear in any of the ancient translations but has been added by the translator because he believes that the ancient scribe left the word out or altered the text he was copying.

These kind of variations appear throughout our bibles which leaves us with a significant question: what text is our original text of scripture?

Remember that we have no original bible texts or manuscripts. The oldest OT text comes from around the third century BC and the oldest of our NT texts dates from the seventh century AD. At the same time, we do have thousands of ancient manuscripts, some of which are complete Hebrew or New Testament bibles yet none of these manuscripts are identical in each and every detail. Further to this, the OT was first translated into Greek, then Latin and Syriac in the third century BC and the NT was translated Syriac, Latin, Coptic and other languages very early on. Yet, again, within these translations there are a range of various readings. There are even significant differences between the Hebrew text and the Greek (Septuagint) text of the OT.

There are reasons for this. Originally, many of the variations came about because the scribes were writing from memory and because human scribes have always been fallible. Some of the changes were unintentional. These happen because the copyists make mistakes in either hearing the text read aloud or in wrongly reading a text. In the ancient world, multiple copies of a text could be produced by having a number of scribes in a room all listening to the text being read aloud. They would then write down what they heard. As can be imagined, what the copyist was hearing was not always exactly the same as what the reader was saying. Alternatively he might have heard one thing but written another. When the copyist was writing from a text in front of him, he could have simply misread a word, his eye skipped to another line or repeated a line he has already written. There are examples where he has written a word incorrectly, changed the order of the letters of a single word or the order of the words in a single sentence. We also find that he has included into his text notes and comments that were probably written in the margins of the text from which he was copying. These are the main examples and are all found throughout the bible.

Then there are intentional changes. The scribe might realize that a mistake has been made in a word or sentence and correct it. He could sort out the grammar, the word order and other things and thus would introduce a variation that might not be repeated in other copies. They would also change the sentence around and add or subtract words and material in order to correct what they saw as being mistakes or oversights and so improve the end text. Sometimes they changed the texts for theological or doctrinal reasons. If there was a statement with which the scribe disagreed it could be changed to make it more acceptable to the orthodoxy of his time. Ancient Hebrew scribes already noted that the sacred texts had been altered on eighteen occasions for these "theological" reasons. Some of these scribes simply left out the offending word or passage altogether!

Historical Criticism

When we speak of history and the bible, we are using that term in two ways: there is the history that is in the text as well as being concerned about the history of the text. The first leads us to explore the history of the events that are recorded in the bible stories. It is the history of people, places, ideas and activities that are preserved in the writings. The second historical perspective is the how, what, where, when and why the text was written in the first place and the story of its evolution to the point where it became scripture. It asks questions such as: who wrote it? Why did they write it? What were the circumstances in which it was written and the situation that was being addressed? Was it edited? Who edited it? What were the influences that had an impact on its formation and the editorial process?

These are important considerations. Early interpreters failed to appreciate that the texts before them were composites, the end result of history, editing and interpretations that emerged from differing circumstances. They were not single author books. While they acknowledged the history in the text, they did not study the history of the text...Exegesis based on such a view of the text failed to appreciate that the Bible is an anthology of writings, deriving from different historical contexts and cultural situations, produced and collected over centuries (Hayes, Holliday).

The Book of Daniel is a good example of this. The events in the book cover the period from the 6th to the 2nd century B.C. The book itself, however, was written around the middle of the second century B.C. To study the book, then, the reader will need to have an understanding of life in the 6th century, which is the era described in the book, as well as circumstances in the mid-2nd century which was the time in which it was written.

The same can be said of the Gospels. To appreciate their message, it is important to understand what life was like in the time of Jesus as well as life in that part of the Roman Empire in the last quarter of the first century A.D., which is the time when most of them were written. One example - Matthew 23, which is a polemic against the Pharisees. This needs to be interpreted in the light of Jewish-Christian relationships after 70 A.D., that is, reflecting on what happened after the Jewish uprising and the resultant destruction of the temple.

One of the mistakes that novice interpreters make is to presume that a book that comes under the name of a single author, was in fact written by that person and that the contents of the books are the work of that single writer. This is a mistake. The books of Isaiah, Matthew and Paul are good examples. Isaiah is a work of three "schools" of writers and editors and include works written before the exile, during the exile and reflecting on life for the Hebrews after the exile. The N.T. assigns thirteen letters to Paul. They carry his name and yet scholars dispute whether or not six of those were in fact written by him.

When you have a book that is a composite (eg. Isaiah) where the final form of the book comes into being at the end of a long period of editing, it will more than likely hold sections and passages that do not readily fit into an organized pattern. They have been inserted, for reasons that made sense to the editor but may not always be apparent some twenty-five hundred years later. It is not uncommon, in the O.T. to find oracles and prophecies inserted into historical narratives and it is necessary to work out why it was inserted. There is also evidence that some of Paul's letters are composite works, with fragments and sections of smaller letters included in the final letter. It is necessary to make an attempt to work out the historical setting for both the inserts as well as the final letter.

The way history is understood in the bible is seen when we have two books covering the same historical period but writing from different theological perspectives and needs. The Book of Chronicles needs to be read as a retelling of the stories covered by the Books of Kings. Matthew and Luke both built up their gospels using Mark as a basis, along with their own particular sources. It was the same story but told from a different perspective.

It is important then, to understand that the authors of biblical texts were not only writing original works of scripture, they were also collecting, interpreting and passing on older existing traditions. This process continued long after the canon of scripture was closed. Believers today continue to take up the interpretations of the past, adapt them, reinterpret them and pass them on to coming generations. It is almost impossible to come to a text without some kind of pre-existing understanding.

Literary Criticism:

This is a broad critical approach, looking at anything that arise in relation to the text; who wrote it, the historical setting, language used, the text itself - its structure, character of the text, techniques of style, the way the authors use images, symbols and particular concepts, dramatic styles and more.

Most biblical literature is "purposeful literature", seeking to persuade the reader about the positions put in the document. It is for this reason that most of what we find in the Bible was written for specific circumstances and working out those circumstances is essential for an analysis of what is presented in the text. We need to recognize that a text, a part of a text or a passage from a text are a part of a whole document. These derive their meaning from whole text and as well contribute to the meaning of the whole text. The reader must therefore appreciate what goes before the passage under question as well as what comes after it. We should also ask where the text is located within the work and the contribution it makes there. It is a part of a larger unit or a sub-unit.

Form Criticism:

Form criticism puts a focus onto smaller literary sections (pericopes). It looks at the form, content and function of a unit of text and asks whether these are definite enough and typical enough for the unit to be classified and interpreted as belonging to a particular genre (eg. prophecy, oracle, miracle, etc). Knowing the kind of genre allows the reader to ask appropriate questions. There is no value in asking legal questions of a document that is a parable. Form criticism is also interested in establishing the situation in life (usually referred to as the Sitz im Leben) that gave rise to the document - where it was produced, shaped and used. This is important as it recognizes that the text relates to a specific living situation and it is the situation that helps determine the kind of literary form that is used. For example, the description of a property that we read in the newspaper classified section will be worded differently from the description that is found in a legal deed dealing with the same property. We would expect that newspaper advertisement that is seeking to sell the property will engage in a little more hyperbole than would the legal document. Knowing the circumstances of the document we are reading is therefore of some importance when we sit down to read it.

Redaction Criticism:

Redaction criticism is the process of examining the editorial stages behind a text. It begins with the presumption that every text has a pre-history and that this pre-history can be detected and reconstructed. It looks at the various ways in which a given story or tradition changes as it is transmitted from person to person or from generation to generation or from one document to another. Redaction criticism looks at these changes affect and illuminate the meaning of the story or tradition in its latest form or version.

Redaction criticism works when it is looking at the way a biblical text has taken an existing tradition or story, for it seeks to establish the way that tradition was used. This is of great value when studying a Gospel text. A quick reading of any of the Gospels will show that stories that are in one Gospel, when taken up in another Gospel, will show often slight but sometimes significant changes in the way the story is told.

Redaction criticism enables the reader to place the Gospels along an historical continuum. So, for example, we understand that Mark was more than likely the first of the written Gospels and that both Matthew and Luke used the Marcan text in their own works. This means that we can study a story that is in Mark and compare it to what we find in Matthew or Luke and note the differences. This is done through looking at a Synopsis, which is a book that lines up the Gospels in parallel columns, making it possible to compare versions of a text, noting differences and similarities.

The Passion narrative is a section of scripture that is found in all four Gospels. It is clear here that both Luke and Matthew used Mark's text for their own telling of the story. In comparing these texts it is possible to work out the history of the development of the tradition. Once the variations have been established it is then possible to interpret the text in the light of what has been edited or redacted. It is in the differences that the text can often speak most eloquently.

This exegetical tool is important because it makes sure that we look at a text within the context of the whole literary work. It is the whole of the Gospel that is important and not a specific, single text. What is important is what these isolated texts say to us when they are collected together into a whole. They see it important to read the Gospel of Luke in the light of Luke's theology and Luke's overall intent rather than try and establish a Gospel message from a singe text.

Two important presuppositions in Biblical studies:

The basic presupposition of Biblical studies is that whatever else the Bible might be, it is a collection of human documents that were written by human beings, in human language, in living human situations. It is therefore subject to the same processes of interpretation that apply to all other human documents. We should be able to study the Bible using the same literary and historical skills used in non-Biblical works. What this means is that we should approach serious study with as few preconceived ideas as possible. We should not begin our study with set ideas about the origin, nature, content, meaning and relevance of the text for today. These should emerge from our study of the text.

The other important presupposition is that the starting point of our study is not what the text might mean for us today but what the text meant for the people for whom it was written. It is the historical and cultural context from which it emerged that is the essential starting point. We should be asking what was in the mind of the author; did this material exist in the faith community in oral form before it was written? Did it exist in other forms? The big question is not "what does it mean today?" but "what did it mean then?".

The Synoptic Problem:

A reading of the four Gospels will quickly show that there is a strong similarity between the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and that these are all very different from John. Because these Gospels are so alike that there is a general agreement that there is a common source behind these writings. This is why they are called the Synoptic Gospels - synopsis comes from the Greek meaning "a common perspective".

The similarities between the Gospels are so great that they cannot be coincidental. They are not, however, identical. There are differences of perspective, content, arrangement and wording and both Matthew and Luke are much longer versions than Mark. This also means that both of these Gospels have material that is not found in Mark and both Matthew and Luke have material that is particular to themselves. The "Synoptic Problem" is the attempts to explain these similarities and differences and the most widely accepted proposal is:

• Mark's Gospel was written first and was used by Mark and Luke. 
• The authors of Matthew and Luke had a second source of materials common to both that was not used by Mark. 
• The authors of Matthew and Luke utilized materials (or created materials) that were unique to each of their Gospels.

This process can be put into a pictorial form in the following traditional way: 

The priority of Mark: 

With the exception of six short passages (totalling about twenty verses) the entire Gospel of Mark is reproduced in Matthew and Luke. Mark contains 661 verses; Matthew reproduces about 600 of these, Luke about 300. If Mark depended on Matthew and Luke, it would be almost impossible to explain why so much was left out. The sequence of the three Gospels suggests a dependence on Mark. In the material that is common to all three, Matthew and Luke agree in sequence to Mark. When they diverge from Mark they each go in separate ways in their own stories. Matthew and Luke never agree when they move away from Mark's ordering. Even in language and word choice, Matthew and Luke appear dependent on Mark (though at times they correct his Greek). 

The Material common to Matthew and Luke: 

Only about one half of Matthew and Luke are taken from or are dependent on Mark. Matthew and Luke have only 200 verses that they share in common but that do not occur in Mark. This material is often almost identical in form and content: 

cf. Matt 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46 

The most common explanation for this is the assumption that behind Matthew and Luke there is a common document. This non-Marcan material shared buy Matthew and Luke is referred to as the Q source (from the German Quelle meaning source). There is no evidence that such a source document existed as an independent written document and it is not to be found in any of the extra-biblical material. It is quite likely that the non-Marcan material that is common to Luke and Matthew came from fixed oral traditions that were common. 

Material unique to Matthew and Luke: 

Once the Macan material and the Q material has been removed, what remains is the material that is unique to Matthew and to Luke (sometimes referred to as M and L respectively). The nature of this material is not clear and there is no unanimity between scholars. Most likely, though, is that this material existed in oral form in their own communities. It is also possible that some of it was drawn up by the Gospel writers themselves.

45 Books of the Old Testament

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, First Maccabees, Second, Maccabees, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi 

Our Bible and its Testaments: 

The word "bible" comes from the Greek word meaning "the books". It is made up of what we Christians call the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). This word "testament" is a translation of the Latin word testamentum which is itself a translation of the Hebrew word for "covenant". This is quite a helpful way of describing the bible as it reminds us that it is full of the stories of the covenants that God has made with his people. It is about what God is doing and not about what the Hebrews are doing or about what Christians are doing. It is all about the actions and initiatives of God and how people have responded or are called to respond to those divine actions. 

We also call them the "scriptures" which is again a helpful word to use. It helps us to understand that what we have in the Bible is the written word of God. But we also need to remember that God has spoken in more ways than just what we have in print. What we have in the Bible is a unique form of divine revelation but not the only revelation of God. God, of course, also speaks through the Church and has revealed his will through his people and to his people in all kinds of ways. 

Notice also, that if they are written, it is the spoken word that comes first. Writing is always later in time and this will be important later when we being to try and work on interpreting the texts. 

That list of books 

The books of the Old Testament are common to both Jews and Christians, though for the Jews it is not called the old testament as there is no other bible. The Jews (followed by many Protestants) only accept the books written in Hebrew and there are forty of those. Catholics and others recognise six extra books that were written in Greek. The Jewish faithful refer to their bible as being the TaNaK, an acronym for: Torah : first five books of the Bible, which is often referred to as the Penteteuch. Nebiim: the prophets - made up of the former prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the latter prophets with whom we are more familiar as being prophets. Finally, there are the Wrtings (Ketubim) which are what we classify as the wisdom books and the psalms.

For centuries there were many versions of the various elements of the bible being used and it was only after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans that efforts were made to standardize the bible into a single authoritative text. This was done and the text we use today is called the Masoretic text, named after the school of scholars who meticulously worked their way through all of the material that was available and standardized the form of writing, the pronunciation and the texts themselves (around 500AD). 

New Testament

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

The Greek Bible: 

The "extra books" that we have in many Christian bibles are sometimes called the apocrypha and they come to us from the Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 the Jews were scattered and their centre outside of Jerusalem was located in Alexandria, a Greek speaking city. It was not long before the need arose for a Greek translation, as most of the Jews neither spoke nor understood Hebrew. The tradition is that seventy-two men translated the Hebrew bible into Greek in seventy-two days on the island of Pharos (c.250BC). 

The Greek word Septuagint means seventy which is the number of the elders who accompanied Moses To the top of Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments and so the seventy-two became seventy. This work is usually referred to by the Latin numerals for seventy - LXX - hence the English name for the book: The Septuagint. It is a significant bible of great importance in studying scripture and is the most quoted biblical text found in our NT. 

The Languages of the Bible: 

There is no single language of the Bible, though most of the OT is written in Hebrew and the NT is in the common Greek of its time. 


With the exception of Daniel and Ezra, which were written in Aramaic, the language of the OT is Hebrew (though it is never called Hebrew in the OT). By the time of Jesus, Hebrew had almost disappeared as a spoken language. Translators were needed in the synagogues to explain the bible passages when they were read out (cf. Lk 4:15ff) or no one would know what was being said. 

While Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, it was Greek that was generally spoken on the streets of Rome and the major centres of the empire. This made preaching the Gospel so much easier for the NT Church as it could write, celebrate the liturgy and preach the Good News in the common language of the communities in which they were ministering. The contemporary Greek of the NT is called Koine Greek and it is influenced by Latin and Aramaic as well as the Hebrew OT and its Greek translation, the Septuagint. 


Then, of course, there is English. The first attempt to translate the bible from Latin (called the Vulgate) into English was made by Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne. He translated the psalter into Anglo-Saxon around AD 700. The first official translation was done by John Wycliffe in 1380 and there have been hundreds of successors since then. Indeed, in the short period between 1900 and 1982 there were 109 major translations of the New Testament and the full bible! Which of course leaves us with the difficult choice of deciding on just what bible we might like to use as our personal study bible. We need to remember that every translation is necessarily inadequate as it represents a particular way of interpreting the original texts. God's Word came to us in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic and any other language will be a lesser form as they try and translate that original text into contemporary cultures and languages. This, of course, makes nonsense of any notion of a literal interpretation of the English text. Not only do we not have any of the original texts in Greek and Hebrew, one translators understanding of a passage can vary enormously from another's. Whose is literally correct? 

But we cannot all learn the biblical languages so we must expose ourselves to the revealed word in English. Any serious student of the Bible will usually need at least two bibles, preferably more. One is the bible they may use for spiritual reading, it is the one with which they feel most comfortable, most at home. That is the bible for meditation and prayer. But that may not be the most scholarly bible available. It is simply the bible with which the person is comfortable. 

And so we come to our study bible. There is not "best" version. Each has its own value and each can make a contribution to our studies. The only qualification I would add to that is that over the last one hundred years, we have made enormous advances on textual criticism (the science of working out what is the best and most reliable Greek and Hebrew text to use) as have discoveries in archaeology and anthropology. All of these have had an impact on bible translation. While we might love the language of a bible like the King James version, it is not really a bible suitable for the serious student. I would make the following suggestions for a bible to be used for study purposes. Having said that, I would also recommend that we have at least two study bibles so that we are not relying on a single translation. It is often amazing what a comparison of two or more translations will bring out of the text under consideration. 

New International Version (NIV): 

In translating this Bible, the scholars tried to combine accuracy with readability and avoided many theological controversies by having translators from a range of evangelical denominations. It is not a word for word translation though it is widely recognized as being accurate and that is what we want in any translation. It does need the apocryphal books to be a complete bible but it is very readable English and comes with extensive and helpful footnotes. Well worth having and should be one of the bibles we have on our shelves. 

The Jerusalem Bible (JB) 

This translation comes from the Roman Catholic Church and so has the apocryphal books placed among the other books. The English is very good and readable and it has extensive footnotes and introductions. It is based on sound biblical scholarship and comes out in study version. This is a "must" for English bible students. 

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

This is a very good bible for the student and is another "must" for the shelves. It is accurate, readable even though there are some questions over specific texts. It is not really designed for reading out loud in worship and is does not have the same poetic feel about the language. But it is as good as any "close-to-literal" translation can get and still be a good read. 


What does it mean to say that the Scriptures are inspired? There was, and still is in some parts of the Church, an understanding of scripture that sees it as being a work written by men who were under the direct influence of God. This is often likened to a pipeline, where information can be passed on from God, to the human writers, without corruption. This is the dictation theory of inspiration. If this were not the case, they hold, the scriptures would be filled with errors. 

There are many difficulties with this, one of them simply being that there are factual and historical inaccuracies in the Bible. Further, each book discloses much of the psychology and personality of its author and all of them are riddled with grammatical errors and obscurities. If God merely dictated the works, one could reasonably expect them to be free of error and of the same style. There are two classic texts that help us to understand what inspiration might mean: 

2 Timothy 3:16-17 

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 

The Authorized Version (and others) notes an alternative translation: every scripture inspired by God is also profitable.... But whatever of the differences that come with those variations, we also have to work out what "God-breathed" means. Is it a breath at work in the original writing or a divine activity that is operating as the word is read and proclaimed today? God's breath is what was imparted to the human creation so that it became alive and death is what happens when that breath of God departs (Eccles 212.7). If we understand inspiration in this way, it means that the Bible has a life that is given to it by God and is a gift that imparts life. God's breath comes to us through the words of Scripture. 

Similarly, the Bible writes of the prophets speaking through the spirit of God and that the breath of God (in Hebrew the word used for spirit and breath is the same) is within them. It is this Spirit that flows out through their words and in their actions. 

Further on this passage, it is important to notice what this text does not say. It does not say that the bible is inerrant or that it is infallible. It does not show any interest in whether or not the bible is historically accurate. In fact, this kind of questioning is quite foreign to the biblical world and it would be wrong for us to look to the bible for answers to questions its authors and the people to whom it was directed would never ask. 

What the text is saying is that the Scriptures, because they are inspired, are helpful in our struggle to be faithful disciples. The word used by 2 Timothy is useful or profitable, neither of which is a terribly strong word. There is no hint here of it being the absolute measure of all Christian living. He goes on to say that they are useful or they are able to teach not that they are to be interpreted in any kind of literal way. 

As students of the bible we will not want to read this passage in isolation. It is a part of a section of the NT that we call the Pastoral Epistles, which are letters that are aimed at helping those early Christians to put some order into the Church and to steer it through difficult times. When 2 Timothy speaks of all scripture what does he have in mind? Surely not the OT that we have today and not the 27 books that make up our NT. There was no NT at the time of this writing and there was no finalized OT either. It is quite likely that he also included books that were later on not included in the final OT canon. It is also possible that he even rejected some books of the OT that would today be seen as being a part of our bible. But whatever of the exact details, it is clear that the notion of scripture used by 2 Timothy was not the same as the way we would understand scripture today. 

We need to understand the inspiration of scripture in a more dynamic way than do the fundamentalists who tend to use a pipeline understanding. God is not going to be tied down to human language and human writing. The Bible remains the foundation of our life as disciples and it is for us the Word of God, a word that is alive and active and which cuts like a two edged sword. But it is easily abused and down through the ages its words have even been turned into some kind of idol that controls and dominates the thinking and reasoning of men and women. In our studies we must constantly remind ourselves that the Bible is a gift to the Church for the mission and ministry of all believers. 

Christian writings and the Scriptures:

There were many, many Christian writings but not all of them found their way into our NT. The only biblical books are those which have become part of the canon of scripture. The word canon means a measure or a list and it is the way we acknowledge which books are to be considered scripture. The first list of biblical books was put together by Marcion (died around 160). He rejected the OT, most of the letters and the Gospels. He only accepted those letters clearly written by Paul and part of Luke. But other writers, like Irenaeus and Clement recognized that God was working through many Christian writings and that there was truth to be found in them. Clement quotes extensively from writings that did not find their way into our final version of the NT and their lists of the NT were far longer than ours.

In the end it was up to the Church to decide what books were to be considered as being scripture and which were lesser books. This is important because it is sometimes presumed that the bible existed before there was a church. The opposite is in fact the truth. The Bible grew out of the Church as a gift for the Church and it was the Church, under the Holy Spirit, which decided what was scripture and what was not. It was the Church, under the Spirit, which produced the Bible. This is why the final interpretive voice on scripture has to be the way the Church has understood the particular text over the last two thousand years. An individual interpretation of a text is nothing more than a personal interpretation and cannot be considered to be authoritative. It has to be tested by the Church (which is not the same as saying that the Church authorities have to authorize an interpretation). God did not hand over to the Church a bible. The scriptures emerged as the faithful sought to live out their vocation as disciples and as communities of disciples. 

The five rules for choosing a Biblical book 

The following four guides were helps in determining a book as being canonical: 
  1. It had to be written by an apostle or a colleague of an apostle. 
  2. The book must be orthodox in its teachings. 
  3. The book had to be suitable for public reading and worship. 
  4. The book must be accepted by the Church. 

In 397 a Church council was held in Carthage (North Africa) and it produced a list of books that were to be accepted as the authoritative texts for the NT. These was the same list as we have today. In 382 the Bishop of Rome asked the great biblical scholar Jerome to translate the whole of the bible into Latin. It took him twenty-two years to complete and his work is called the Vulgate (which was the only Bible the western church had available to them for over a thousand years). He did not believe that Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, James or Revelation should be included but he did what his bishop asked and it is Jerome's bible that is our bible. 

The Bible needs to be interpreted if we are to have it make any sense in our lives and there are two important words that relate to the art of interpretation. The first is exegesis: This means taking out of the text what is already in it. A true exegesis will be able to substantiate all of its interpretations from the text itself. One of the great dangers in biblical interpretation is that of eisegesis. This literally means to read something into the text. That is, we bring to the text something from our own lives or expectations and seek to justify it by a reading of the passage. It is a common mistake. Each time we examine a scriptural text, we should try and presume that we are in fact reading it for the very first time and have no idea as to its meaning. 


Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting and applying the results of our exegesis to life. While the exegesis sets out to try and find out what the text actually says, in the hermeneutics we try and say what we think the text means for our lives as disciples. However, it is important to make sure that all of our hermeneutical conclusions can be justified by our exegesis. 

Whatever conclusions we come up with out of our studies of the text, must be supported by the text itself. We should also ask: how can this be justified from the passage? 

Doing an exegesis step by step: 

Step 1.... Make a paraphrase of the text: 

First of all read through the text at least twice. As you read keep these two questions at the back of your mind: 
  1. What did the author say? 
  2. What did the author mean? 

For this stage it is helpful to have a translation that is the most literal (Greek or Hebrew would be the best!). Read it through again and this time make your own paraphrase of the text, putting it into words that help to tell the story in words that are most helpful. 

2....Decide on the best text that you can find: 

Most textual variations are unimportant and can be dismissed but sometimes there are variations that do offer either insights or alternative directions to go. A good study Bible will have the variants listed somewhere, either at the side of the text or below in footnotes. 

3.....List the theologically significant words: 

The key word here is "theologically" significant, so it does not mean that every word becomes significant. A judgment must be made. For example, if the word God appears, t may or may not be significant. 

4....Study the way that the passage is put together (syntax): 

This would include especially things like the tense of the words, the structure of the sentences, the connections that are made between phrases and words; it should also note important things like indications of time. 

At this stage it would be helpful to compare the translations in a number of different English translations to see how the various versions deal with the same material. Note the differences. 

5.....Note the actors and who is doing/saying what to whom/what. 

It is important to work out who the characters are in the story/passage. It could be God, Jesus, Israel, disciples, the crowd, a sick person and the like. Write these down on your paper and draw lines showing the connections. 

6....What were the consequences of what was said/done? 

Did people respond? What happened? Are these what were meant to happen or is there something that is a bit of a surprise here? Did people fail to act? What are the consequences of that failure? 

7....What is the context of the passage?.... 

The context here is the immediate context of the passage (what goes before it and after it) as well as where it fits into the overall scheme of the book. Ask yourself how the context might have an impact on the text (or not). 

8...Look at the passage from an historical perspective.. 

This is the point at which it is helpful to go to a commentary and ask the following questions: 
  • What is the life setting, the historical situation in which it is written and in which it is unfolding? 
  • Was the writer using an earlier tradition? If there are indications of earlier/other texts, how were they changed? How do the changes give an insight into what the writer might have been trying to say? 
  • How does this passage fit into the overall situation in which the book in which it occurs was written?