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How to Get More Out of Your Bible Reading

How to Get More Out of Your Bible Reading

David Instone-Brewer has studied the Bible for most of his adult life. And gotten paid to do it.

After getting a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, he worked as a pastor at a Baptist church. But God led him into the academic world, and he took a job at Tyndale House in Cambridge, one of the world’s top research libraries for biblical studies. He has been there since the late 1990s.

“Most academics deal with tiny, minute problems that really don't affect anyone,” he says. But God had different plans for Instone-Brewer, plans that started before he got to Tyndale House.

How We Interpret the Bible: The Issue of Divorce

When Instone-Brewer was a pastor, several people who had been through a divorce came to him with a question: Can we get remarried in your church? These people could not get remarried in their “home” churches because those churches’ denominations – such as Anglican and Catholic – did not allow divorced people to remarry.

“One man was really angry,” recalls Instone-Brewer. “He said, ‘My priest told me that, if I murdered my previous wife, then I could marry another one. But I can't marry another one because my previous wife is still alive.’”

Instone-Brewer wasn’t sure how to respond. He knew that most churches teach that Christians cannot get divorced – “except perhaps for adultery” – and, if they do, then they cannot remarry. Those teachings are based on what Jesus said about divorce in the Gospels. Jesus, of course, was a Jewish rabbi, and his teachings, including teachings on divorce, were in the context of what other rabbis taught.

“My Ph.D. was on what the ancient rabbis taught,” says Instone-Brewer. “I'd read pretty much everything they'd written. I realized that, when people in the first century heard what Jesus said about divorce, they heard it completely differently from how we hear it today.”

Jesus’s Teaching: First Century vs. Today

A few decades before Jesus began his ministry, rabbis passed what Instone-Brewer calls the “any cause” divorce law. Deuteronomy 24 allows a man to divorce his wife for a cause of indecency. The traditional interpretation was sexual indecency, namely adultery, but some rabbis decided to interpret “cause” much more broadly. She has wrinkles and is less attractive? That’s a cause. She burned last night’s dinner? Another cause.

The term “cause of indecency” became, essentially, “any cause.” And “any cause” divorce became wildly popular. You didn’t even have to go to court to get such a divorce, because there was no need to prove you had a cause. 

“They weren’t asking Jesus if there were any valid reasons for getting a divorce,” says Instone-Brewer. “They were asking him what he thought of the ‘any cause’ divorce.”

Instone-Brewer turned his research into a book for other Bible scholars, but he recognized that there was a broader audience for it. “There's a whole world of people out there who just don't understand the practical consequences of the Bible and don't understand how to read it,” he says. With the help of a friend, he converted his academic book into one for the general public.

It ruffled some feathers, including those of John Piper. And it changed Instone-Brewer’s approach to his work.

“It opened my eyes to see that, when we read the Bible, we have to read it through the eyes of the people for whom that it was first written,” he says. “It’s not enough just to translate it from the original language. We also have to put ourselves in the place of those first-century readers, to better understand what was said and written.”

That’s a challenge for people who study the Bible for a living. So, what are we mere mortal men to do? Instone-Brewer has two recommendations.

Understanding the New Testament World

One way to put yourself in the place of people in the first century is to start outside the Bible.

“I suggest reading novels that are set in the first century,” says Instone-Brewer. He cites books by Lindsey Davis, who writes detective fiction set in that time period. The protagonist of her books is a Roman investigator, whom Instone-Brewer describes as a Marlowe of the first century.

“It’s great fiction,” he says. “And it's always accurate.” In one book, Davis mentions that, near the Colosseum in Rome, they were 47 brothels. Instone-Brewer doubted that until he found an historical source that confirmed that there were, indeed, 47 brothels near the Colosseum.

Instone-Brewer’s second recommendation is to use your imagination. When you are reading a New Testament book, he says, try to put yourself in the position of the person who is writing, and more importantly, the person who is reading that book.

“The person who is writing knows roughly what the people reading it are going to know and what they're going to think,” he explains. “But, of course, they're first century people. They’re not us. They're using phrases that first-century people understand, and they're talking about lifestyle things in the first century. They can't say anything about automobiles or the terrible sins of the of the 21st century, such as online porn. That's completely outside their ken.”

Translations, Translations

If you haven’t done a lot of Bible reading on your own, then Instone-Brewer recommends that you start with the Gospels, or biographies of Jesus. “But you have to ditch everything you've been taught about the Gospels,” he says. “We need to read the Gospels through the eyes of a first-century Jew. There was this scruffy rabbi wandering around the countryside, speaking to even scruffier people, and annoying all the religious establishment. I'm sure that he would annoy most of our church leaders today.”

Read slowly and carefully, he recommends. One way to do that is to read several translations of the same passage. When you do that, you are likely to see differences. Those are not mistakes, he argues, but are due to nuances of the original language of the text.

How can you gain confidence in the accuracy of today’s Bible translations? Instone-Brewer recommends getting into the languages in which the Bible was written originally – Greek and Hebrew – without learning those languages. To do that, you need a tool, such as Scripture Tools for Every Person (STEP, available at STEPBible.org), a free online resource that Instone-Brewer developed.

“As you read a Bible passage in STEP, you can hover over a word or phrase and see the Greek and Hebrew there,” he says. “When you click on the word or phrase, you get even more information on the Greek and Hebrew. You can even go and see what the grammatical breakdown is of the word. You don't have to know anything about grammar – the tool explains what grammar terms, such as ‘imperfect,’ mean.

“You can dig as deep as you like. As you read more and learn more, you’ll start to understand more, and it gives you the confidence when you see the originals underneath the translations. You can compare different translations – NIV, ESV, NASB, KJV – of the same passage.”

Tough Topics

What about challenging topics, such as divorce? How can we gain a better understanding of what the Bible says about these subjects? Once again, Instone-Brewer has a helpful resource.

“I wrote a book to address the moral issues that are difficult to work out from the Bible,” he says. “One of the most difficult things to figure out is whether a rule in the Bible is timeless or something that depends on the culture that it sits in. Topics that I cover include abortion, rebellious children, childlessness, educating girls, sexual immorality, homosexuality, sex during singleness, polygamy, no-fault divorce, marrying non-believers, and wifely submission.”

Every week, Instone-Brewer publishes a different chapter from the book Moral Questions of the Bible on the Web (BibleContexts.com) and on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

He plans to continue offering resources for everyone who wants to get more out of Bible reading. And, most likely, sparking a few debates along the way.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Pureradiancephoto 


Chris Bolinger is the author of three men’s devotionals – 52 Weeks of Strength for MenDaily Strength for Men, and Fuerzas para Cada Día para el Hombre – and the co-host of the Empowered Manhood podcast. He splits his time between northeast Ohio and southwest Florida. Against the advice of medical professionals, he remains a die-hard fan of Cleveland pro sports teams. Find him at mensdevotionals.com



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