Reading the Bible can be difficult for many people.
It’s set in ancient societies with unfamiliar customs. It is a translation from ancient foreign languages. And depending on the translation, even the English can be archaic and hard to read.
First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge is trying to make it a little easier.
On Oct. 16-17, the Center for Spiritual Formation and Education at First Methodist is offering a seminar with author and professor Ben Witherington III based on his book “Reading and Understanding the Bible,” published by Oxford University Press.
The author indicates that modern ideas can trip up readers.
“My hope would be that the participants in the seminar will begin to grasp the importance of careful contextual reading of the Bible, and the need to avoid anachronism, the practice of reading modern ideas back into the Bible that aren’t there,” he said.
Witherington said the book “is an entry-level textbook meant for college freshmen and other beginning readers of the Bible, though more advanced readers can also get considerable benefit out of it. It teaches the reader how to read the Bible with understanding, which involves reading the Bible in its proper ancient historical, literary, rhetoric, archaeological, social, theological and ethical contexts.”
Witherington said the Jewish and Christian religions “are historical religions that make claims about ancient historical events,” so the Bible has to be read in the context of their history “because our own culture is so radically different from these ancient cultures in so many ways.
“To give one example: ancient peoples believed that group identity was primary and individual identity secondary. You will notice that the persons mentioned in the Gospels do not have last names, rather they are identified by where they came from (Jesus of Nazareth), or what religious group they were part of (Simon the Pharisee), or who their father was (Simon bar-Jonah).
“Geography, gender and parentage were assumed to determine one’s identity, and, in any case, your identity was primarily formed by the group you were part of.”
Reading the Bible is important today, Witherington said, because it is the most-owned and read book in human history; it is the most influential book in the world and is the bestselling book in any year, though it doesn’t appear on the lists.
“It is the very basis of much of Middle Eastern and Western culture,” Witherington said. “There would be no Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ or Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ or Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ or Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ and Shakespeare would look a lot different if there was no Bible.
“Furthermore, the very basis of much of Western law is the Judaeo-Christian ethical code. The very basis of the division of our work week is the way the week is set up in the Bible, and so on and on and on,” he said.
Witherington pointed out that an understanding of literature is also key to understanding Scripture, “having enough savvy to know that different kinds of literature convey different sorts of information — in other words, there are a variety of literary genre in the Bible: law, songs, narratives, saga, wisdom literature, letters, sermons, speeches, prophecy and as a subset of that, apocalyptic or visionary prophecy (see Revelation).”
He said if you simply come to the Bible with modern assumptions about things like history, “you will make many mistakes in interpreting the Bible. For example, if you are a modern person that simply assumes miracles don’t happen, then, of course, you will have a hard time understanding or even accepting large portions of the Bible.”
Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and has emeritus status on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
He authored more than 40 books, including two, “The Jesus Quest” and “The Paul Quest,” selected by Christianity Today as top biblical studies works. He writes for many publications and has a blog at patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/.
In addition to the two days of teaching, Witherington will preach at First United Methodist services at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18, on a passage “that helps us understand the heart of the Christian faith, which has to do with the salvation of human beings,” he said.