All reading is interpretation. This is particularly true when reading the Bible.

Most of the documents we now know as “the Bible” began life as oral tradition. The stories, traditions, and wisdom teachings that make up the Bible were told and retold from person to person before finally being written down. Even the events of Jesus’ life were not set down in the form we read them today until, at the earliest, thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The Bible was written over a span of at least 1,000 year. It was written in three ancient languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and koine Greek and was completed nearly 2,000 years ago. It is a library containing the works of at least 40 different authors writing from 10 different countries and did not reach its final form until the late 4th Century CE.

So, anyone reading the Bible in English today is reading an interpretation of an archaic language found in an ancient document written in the context of a culture vastly different from that with which we are familiar today.

There are no absolutely objective readers of the Bible.  What we find when we read Scripture is always shaped to some degree by the culture in which we have been taught to read the Bible. We will always tend to find in the Bible what we hope to find, or think we will find, or have been taught to find.  When we read the Bible we bring with us our history, our prejudices, our preconditioned temperament, our childhood upbringing, and all our experiences of God, faith, life, and church.

None of this means that the Bible is not a uniquely powerful and important sacred text that deserves to be taken seriously and read with reverence. But it does mean that we must read the Bible carefully and with deep humility.

Here are some guidelines that will help us in our reading of the sacred texts of the Christian tradition.


1.  Always remember that every passage of Scripture is written in a particular form of literature: poetry, history, letter, allegory, etc. The principles guiding our interpretation when reading one genre of literature will be different when we switch to another genre.  If we read poetry as if it were history, we will always do violence to the intention of the text. There may be disagreement about which genre in which a particular text should be categorized making agreement on the meaning of the text difficult.

2.  Every passage should be read in the widest possible context. The widest possible context for reading the Bible is

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (I John 4:16)

If we assess all interpretations of Scripture against John’s vision of God as love, we will be less likely to come to a damaging conclusion. The reading of any text that might tend to encourage harm or the diminishment of any other person or dimension of God’s creation, is automatically disqualified.

3.  Every passage is written within a certain historical, social, cultural, and religious context. When we refuse to acknowledge this context, we risk abusing the text.

The reader needs to be aware that a passage may work on two levels:

  • The passage is concerned with specific issues that are unique to the context in which the writer wrote.  These specifics may not be equally applicable in a different time and context.
  • Beneath the specifics of the context the writer was addressing there are universal principles applicable in all times and all places.

For example the concern behind some of the New Testament teaching on the role of women in the church and in society emerge from a concern the society should be well-ordered. While we may not want to apply all the specifics of the order laid out in New Testament, the concern for some kind of ordering principles for the conduct of human community is entirely legitimate.

4. All Scripture needs to be read as a conversation. We are in conversation with ancient voices when we read the Bible. But we also need to acknowledge that our interpretation must stand in conversation with our current cultural context and with contemporary voices and their different understandings of the text.

5. We are more likely to hear the Voice of Truth/God when we approach the text with an open listening heart and, as much as possible, put aside our own prejudices, agendas and preconceived notions.

6. We should always be willing to acknowledge that any reading of the text is provisional. We remain open to the possibility of further insight and changing understanding. We hold our convictions firmly but with humility and gentleness.