How to Read the Bible
Why write an article on how to read the Bible?
Because too many people get lost when they start to read it!
They begin with good intentions, but then they read something that doesn’t make sense. Or they just don’t see any deeper meaning in it.
So they stop.
Don’t let that happen to you! You can successfully read Scripture!
This article will give you some basic “tools” for reading the Bible. There are a few simple things to know and do when you read. They will make Scripture accessible, interesting, and best of all — incredibly fruitful.
Your spiritual life will grow when you read Scripture. Nothing else you can study even comes close to the power of the Bible.
You do not need any academic background, or anything beyond basic reading and thinking skills.
So let’s dig in!
What are you reading for?
The first thing to know is that people read the Bible for different reasons.
When you start to read Scripture, it’s best to pick one primary reason. This will help you focus your reading, and will keep you from getting bogged down.
Some common reasons are:
- Getting to know Christ better
- Learning our Catholic Christian faith
- Understanding how to live as a Christian
- Learning about history (the Bible contains a rich and accurate history of ancient Israel, and of Jesus and his Apostles)
- Understanding the ancient Jews, who are the roots of Christianity
All of these — and more! — are important.
But for the beginning Catholic, I’d recommend sticking to the first several reasons listed. Especially prayer, and getting to know Christ. Those two are of fundamental importance!
Four basic steps
Of course, understanding something is not a mechanical process.
Even the simplest parts of the Bible are profoundly rich. There is no magic system that will let us follow a few steps and understand it perfectly. Learning, reason, and intuition will always play a significant role.
Still, there are a few easy guidelines we can follow. They make Scripture more approachable, and help us to read it in a satisfying way that yields solid knowledge.
Here are the basic steps:
- Understand the scene
- Imagine the scene, in all its detail
- Consider a specific aspect of the scene
- Draw conclusions about that specific aspect of the scene
Repeat these steps (considering a different aspect each time) until you don’t get anything more out of the scene, or you’re out of time.
Note: If you’re using the book Following Christ Through The Gospels, Fr. Basset combines the first two steps into one. He still uses the same essential process, though.
(Speaking of that book—Fr. Basset wrote it to help people meet Christ in the Bible, understand the Gospels, and develop a solid prayer life. It’s offered through the Catholic Spiritual Treasures program.)
Now let’s see how to use this method, step by step.
Step 1: Understand the scene
Focus on one scene, or brief passage, at a time.
It’s tempting to plow through as quickly as possible, but don’t! Read it slowly. God is trying to tell you something in every passage, if not in every line. Give him a chance. Listen to each word.
The first thing to do is just to make sure you basically “get” what is going on in the scene.
Make sure you know who is speaking, who is present in the scene, and the context of the passage.
A good Catholic Bible commentary is invaluable here. I use the Navarre Bible. Its commentary is simply outstanding.
(I love the Navarre Bible. It has helped me learn to read the Bible in a meaningful way. Too many other commentaries I’ve seen focus on academic, historical criticism — and frankly, that’s just not helpful to me. The Navarre Bible is a refreshing change from that. It’s been my trusted guide in discovering the wisdom and richness of Scripture.)
Now, you don’t always have to understand every little detail of the scene. You can usually tell when something is important, and when it’s not. Just make sure that the basics are clear, and then move on.
Step 2: Imagine the scene in detail
Once you understand the scene, take a few minutes and really bring it to life. Use your imagination and walk around in it. Talk to people. See things from several viewpoints.
Remember that it’s critical to keep your imagined scene within the bounds of a faithful reading of the scene. We all have a tendency to “read into” the Bible, trying to make it say something we would like it to say! Keep it real.
Imagination is a powerful thing. It’s also a important part of mental prayer, or Christian meditation.
By using our imagination in this way, we can experience the attitudes and dispositions of people who seek Jesus in the Gospel scenes. This is a great help in making these dispositions our own.
Imagining a scene also lets us understand the ways in which our Lord interacts with people. That’s important if we, too, are going to interact with him on a daily basis.
Step 3: Consider a specific aspect of the scene
The reason a lot of people get stuck when they try to read the Bible is…
…they don’t know where to begin!
This method helps because it gives you some structure:
- You focus on one specific thing at a time
- You draw specific conclusions
- It trains you to look for common types of meaning
- You quickly gain experience and understanding
Limit yourself to looking for one specific aspect of a scene at a time. This is one of the most important skills for reading Scripture!
So… exactly what are these “aspects”?
There are quite a number of them. I don’t know if we could even list them all! But here are the main ones that I use:
- Attitudes or dispositions
- Motivation (what motivates people to behave this way?)
- Doctrine (does this scene help us to understand some part of the faith?)
- How to live (what lessons can this tell us about living as Christians?)
- What is God like? (Characteristics)
- How does God act in the world?
- Environment (what are the surroundings & context? How does this influence the other aspects?)
For most of these, it’s important to consider both what is done, and what is not done. For example, the fact that Jesus does not get angry with someone is an important point to note about his attitude in many scenes.
Of course, we consider each aspect for a purpose…
Step 4: Draw conclusions
When you look at a Bible passage with one specific aspect in mind, you should draw specific conclusions. The conclusions will be related to that aspect of meaning.
Make the conclusions:
- Grounded in Scripture
Your goal here is to have a specific idea that you can use to reason about the faith. This is called a proposition in logic — a fact or point that you can use in your reasoning process.
You want to move beyond thinking, “Gee, this is a nice passage,” and into thinking exactly how you can learn from the passage.
You want to learn…
…how it can change your life!
Here are examples of good, specific conclusions:
- Jesus offers mercy to everyone, without exception.
- Christ tells us to avoid sin at all cost.
- Humility is an essential disposition for coming to Christ.
Conclusions like these give you a solid foundation for your faith. You simply must have that foundation to advance in the spiritual life.
And now you have all that’s needed to form specific conclusions like those from Scripture!
After considering one aspect of a passage, you just repeat the same process again for another aspect.
Keep going until you’ve gotten everything you can from that passage, or until you’re out of time.
This method of reading Scripture really works!
Like anything new, it may feel awkward the first couple of times. But very quickly, it’ll become second nature. Then you’ll be able to unlock the enormous treasure stored in the Bible.
So give it a good try!
To help you get started, I’ve put together some extensive examples of using this method. They’re in the article Learn About Jesus in Scripture. And of course, Fr. Basset’s book Following Christ Through The Gospels is a detailed, step-by-step guide to praying through more than 200 Gospel passages.
And finally, we have a free eBook called How To Read The Parables to help you unlock the many parables in the Gospels. How To Read The Parables is written by a renowned Scripture scholar, and it’s invaluable for learning to understand the parables.
So what are you waiting for?