10 Tips for Catholics Who Want to Understand the Bible

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This is the first post in a three-part series about the Bible.

St. Jerome said, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Catholics, unfortunately, have the reputation of not reading the Bible as often as they should. On one hand, a Catholic who attends Mass regularly will be exposed to a large amount of the Bible, but we also should take some personal initiative in reading the Bible. However, simply reading the Bible isn’t enough to combat ignorance; you also need to seek to understand it. Here are some things to keep in mind as you try to enhance your understanding Scripture.

St. Jerome said, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Click To Tweet

All verses below are taken from the NABRE translation.

  1. God is the author. Man wrote the Bible through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While what we’re reading may seem confusing or frustrating or ridiculous (trust me, I just worked my way through Leviticus), there is a reason it is there.
  2. The Bible isn’t just one book; it is a collection of books from a variety of genres and literary styles. We can’t look at the gospels with the same view as the Psalms. Though both are beautiful and true in their own right, that truth is articulated in different ways.
  3. Every word in the Bible isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church*, we find that Scripture is interpreted in two senses: literal and spiritual. From the spiritual, we break it down into allegorical, moral, and anagogical (CCC 115-118).
  4. Temporal and cultural context matters. There are three time periods we must consider: 1) when the events being described occurred 2) when the events were recorded 3) how they apply now. We also need to recognize that the culture in the Bible was very different from our current culture. One example is the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). In verse 20, we hear that the father ran to him. While it is easy in our modern context to find it odd that a grown man would run to his son, this would be really weird in the culture of that time to have a patriarch do something so utterly undignified. Another example is the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, specifically, verses 51-58.

    “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

    The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

    What Jesus is saying is radical to anyone who is reading it; he is telling people to eat his flesh for crying out loud. For the Jewish people, this was an absolutely insane request because God had strictly forbidden them from eating flesh with blood in it (Deuteronomy 12:23). When we recognize that, it adds an extra level of extremeness to it for the original recipients of the message.

  5. We need to understand the context within Scripture as a whole. We can’t just look at single, isolated verses aka cherry-picking.  Saint Augustine says “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New.” This unity of all Sacred Scripture is important, but even a simple passage can take on different meanings when we don’t look at it in its proper context. For example, consider this often quoted verse “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). If we are just to read that, anyone would be shocked that Christians call out sin. However, just a few verses later (verse 5), it is written “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” When we read this passage in full, we understand that we should be helping our brother (or sister) avoid sin, but we must first be cognizant of our own sin because we can’t help them properly until we do so.  We need to understand the context within Scripture as a whole. Click To Tweet
  6. Following the teachings of the Bible doesn’t mean that we try to live every single verse, especially when looking at the Old Testament.  I will explain this in more detail in my post next week based on the different covenants, but a simple answer, for now, is that some things in the Bible were simply recorded, but that doesn’t mean they are given to us as requirements.
  7. Though the number of translations hasn’t reduced the accuracy of Scripture, we sometimes need to look back at the Greek or Hebrew to better understand what the full message is. The most straightforward example is the word “love.” We have one word for that while the Greeks had a number of different words for love to reflect the different types. We can look at John 21:15-17 where Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him.

    When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep.” 

    However, when we look at the Greek, Jesus is referencing agape, the highest, purest form of love the first and second time he questions Peter, while Peter is responding with philia, brotherly love. The last time it is asked, Jesus uses philia, too.

  8. The translation you use does matter. First, you really should be reading the Bible in its entirety, meaning it contains the Deuterocanonical books. If you are coming from a Protestant background, here are two helpful links (1 & 2) on why these books are important. Second, there are differences between complete equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Depending on what you are looking for, one may suit your needs better than another. For example, this year, I am reading the Bible in its entirety and am more focused on the overall meaning so I use a dynamic equivalence translation. If I were to do a more in-depth study, I would look at a complete equivalence with commentary. Third, there are some translations that take a dynamic equivalence too far and turn it into a bad paraphrase things like The Message. For another good explanation on translations, check out this article by Catholic Answers.
  9. Our personal interpretations can be wrong. It is possible that our own perceptions can overshadow the true meaning of a passage. Fortunately, God is aware of our weaknesses and allows for guidance in Scriptural interpretation. An instructor for a course I was taking on the Creed shared a story about his friend who used to be a Protestant minister.When the minister was leading a Bible study, two men got into an argument about the meaning of a particular verse. One man declared that he was guided by the Holy Spirit due to the gifts he received at baptism so his interpretation was right. The other man responded by saying that he was guided by the Holy Spirit due to the gifts he received at baptism so his interpretation was right. At that point, the minister realized he could not remain a Protestant; he realized he needed to become Catholic. Here are two helpful resources for more information on the authority of Biblical interpretation (1 & 2).
  10. There is always something new you can get from the Bible. It is impossible to read the Bible too many times. The Bible is the only book where we are in constant and direct communication with the author. It is the living word of God. Take advantage of that and find ways to go deeper into Scripture be it praying through particular verses, looking at reputable commentaries, or seeking more information about it. The Bible is is the living word of God. Click To Tweet

What things have helped you to better understand Scripture?

*You can access the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church for free online from the Vatican’s website. However, if you would like to purchase a physical copy, here are some options:

“Big Green”:

A more condensed version:

 

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