How we read the Bible

Matthew 5:21-37, 16 Feb 2020

How we read the bible

You have heard it said … but I say to you …’ Wow, what is going on here!? This phrase is repeated half a dozen times in Matthew Chap 5. Is Jesus saying that the original Old Testament writers of these commandments got it wrong? Well, not exactly - because immediately prior to these passages, Jesus had affirmed the validity of the Old Testament and indicated that he came to fulfill the Old Testament law.

Jesus’ concern is that the religious leaders were reading, interpreting and applying certain rabbinic laws in a shallow, literal and legalistic way. They applied the laws at a shallow level – rigidly and (as we say) to the ‘letter of the law’. But Jesus indicates that righteousness must go beyond formal pharisaical obedience - we must go deeper and look for the ‘spirit of the law’, or what God’s intention is behind this law.

Now, I don’t intend explaining what Jesus is specifically saying about the laws on murder, adultery, divorce or oaths. I am sure that you have had this explained to you in numerous sermons over the past years. Nor do I intend to use these verses to demonstrate Jesus’ authority – as we often do. Instead, today I want to look at what these verses can teach us about how we read the bible.

One way to go deeper in our bible reading is to read the text in a contemplative manner, such as derived from the Catholic Benedictine or Carmelite traditions. This may involve contemplating or meditating upon the verses until the word ‘takes life’ in the reader. For example, St Therese of Avilla and John of the Cross would seek, through there contemplative reading, to find themselves in the Word of God, through finding Jesus in the text.

Anglicans and Protestants have generally tended to apply a more analytic way of reading the bible such as you will be familiar with from past Bible Studies. This is called ‘exegesis’ - a process in which we seek to bring out the meaning of the text.

Exegesis is a very useful process because it can provide understanding where it didn’t previously exist, or it may be used to test our pre-understanding of the text, or it can enhance, deepen or enlighten our previous understanding of the passage - as with the laws being addressed by Jesus. The simple literal reading applied by the religious leaders to today’s text has missed the point. Good exegesis can bring a whole new understanding and we may even discover that an assumed, or inherited understanding is not the only possibility.

Why might we misunderstand some Biblical texts? Well let me suggest five possible reasons:

1. The text may lack clarity because of the way that it has been conveyed down through the generations. Much of the biblical scriptures would have originally been conveyed by word of mouth. When it was eventually written down it may have drawn upon different sources and have applied some form of editing process. Bible scholars now believe for example that Matthew drew upon Mark’s gospel quite a lot, and Mark drew upon other sources that are generally referred to as ‘Q’.

2. Then we have the problems of translating from one language to another where a Hebrew or Greek word could be translated into English in many different ways. Sometimes there is no direct equivalent word. And even within a single language the meanings and use of words change over time.

Even slightly different nuances in understanding can have major implications. An example arising from the law on divorce that Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel passage is, how do we understand the words ‘something indecent’. It was based upon these words that the law on divorce was applied. Was it referring only to unchastity (as applied by the rabbinic Judaism conservative school of Shammai), or could it include burning your toast at breakfast (as allowed by the rabbinic Judaism liberal school of Hillel)?

3. A third reason is that biblical texts are expressions of beliefs, values, rituals and world views of particular persons in communities of faith that were very different linguistically, culturally, ethnically , and maybe also socioeconomically to our own. For example, we know that the scriptures, both old and new, were written in the context of cultures that considered women to be inferior and possessions of men, and cultures that considered slavery to be acceptable. It was a different world back then, and this can make it difficult to understand what was intended by the original writer.

4. The historical situation also needs to be taken into account. We need to ask, “what was going on back then that prompted this prophesy, command or teaching from God?” The distinction between what the text meant in its historical context is one thing – what it means and how we apply it today may be quite different.

5. A fifth reason why we might misunderstand a text is because its original intent may have been forgotten. This can lead to a tendency to read the text as private theology - “this is what it is saying to me”. And this understanding may well be quite different to the original intent.

Of course, none of this is to deny that God, through the Holy Spirit, may choose to convey a new message through the text. The Holy Spirit is continually at work illuminating our understanding of the scriptures. This is demonstrated very clearly by the passage from Matthew 5 read today where we have Jesus bringing a new and deeper understanding of certain scriptures. ‘You have heard it said … but I say to you …’

Transition. So, the understanding that we bring to the text may be enriched, corrected, or confirmed by God if we apply good exegesis. This should be an ongoing process of growth in perception and understanding of God’s word, both personally and for the entire church. To ensure this continued growth, we may need to re-examine how we are reading the bible.

Firstly, I suggest that we should read biblical texts with an open mind to the possibility that our pre-understanding may be lacking, or even be completely wrong. And we need to be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit may bring a new or different understanding. Certainly, Jesus has indicated in todays gospel passage that we can’t necessarily take a verse from the bible and read it literally, i.e. as being ‘black and white’. Many times, Jesus would ‘read between the lines’ (as we say) to find and follow God’s mercy, inclusion, and compassionate justice.

We may also have to rethink or clarify what we understand by the scriptures being inspired by God. (If you want to explore that a bit more, I have written a short article on that in the discussion section of our website.)

The way we read the bible has profound implications. In my early years in a fundamental evangelical church (not an Anglican Church), the Bible sat at the centre of the teaching and worship. Every word was taken literally. I now think that we actually worshipped the bible (the written word) as being a higher authority then Jesus (the living word).

Giving more authority to literal readings of the bible than to either Jesus’ example of living as a Christian as recorded in the Gospels, or consideration of the circumstances and situation when the texts were originally written, has (in my view) led to many societal injustices through history. Many of these views, passed down through the generations, are still held as cherished beliefs by some Christians today and are used to justify violence, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

We might think of examples such as:

· subordination and physical, emotional and sexual abuse of women (yes, I have experienced Christian men who justify their abuse of their wife based upon a literal reading of certain bible verses without regard for good exegesis),

· continuing inequality of women when it comes to payment for labour, insurance and superannuation,

· the rejection and marginalisation of people who are different or don’t conform,

· the subjugation of people seen as inferior (including treatment of aborigines in our own country) and

· exploitation and pollution of God’s creation.

Is it any wonder that people are turning away from religious institutions and rejecting the church!

Yet, the most consistent message throughout the bible, and as lived out in Jesus’ life, is that we have a merciful, compassionate, forgiving and loving God. Jesus preached these qualities and demonstrated tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and not judging others.

But sadly, many Christians today still seem to give precedence to literal readings of the bible over Jesus example! As shown in his life, and in the Gospel passage for today, Jesus proposed a deeper, more heartfelt spirituality in which we are encouraged to look beyond the particular action, commandment or statement to the heart of the text – and to the heart of God.

Let me conclude with this quote: ‘When we look for rules to follow rather than act from love in all choices, we fall into a legalism that ultimately makes our world smaller. (Jesus invites us) into the expansive messiness of life that demands discernment and listening and the risk we may be wrong.’[1]


  1. [1]Source unknown!