Posted by: Jim | April 3, 2009

How Christians Read the Bible


Comments in a recent thread have lead me to a new discussion—that of how Christians read the Bible.


Christians must, by definition, believe that the Bible is “special” in some way. If they believe the stories about Jesus Christ to be true, but do not believe the Koran (as one example) to be true, then none of the extra-Biblical examples typically used by Christians to justify their faith will work. They must associate some “special” power with the Bible. Most Christians do not have a problem with this—in fact they defend it and say that the Bible is 100% “inspired by God” or “God-breathed.”


Yet the Bible is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory passages. Christians will state that this is because men wrote it while trying to interpret what the Holy Spirit was saying to them. The confusion and contradiction may simply be a reflection of the authors’ state of mind while writing. How can men, after all, understand God’s ways? Or they explain the contradictions away by sophistry and irrational arguments. Or, more often, they ignore the weird scriptures (like those that instruct us to kill witches) and cling to the ones they like more (like those that instruct us not to kill period.)


Christians typically read the Bible in three ways.


1. They read it using the common vernacular, apply modern mores and cultural norms, and glean from the words what makes sense by today’s standards. This is how some readers of this blog apparently read the Bible. In a way, this approach to the Bible is the most socially “safe” and least challenging method. Exodus 22:18 (KJV) says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” In today’s society, however, killing a witch is strictly taboo. So people from Group #1 read this scripture and do NOT assume that this is Biblical instruction to kill witches. They will water down the meaning to be exactly the opposite: “We should let witches live” as exemplified in the comments here.

But here are other translations of this scripture, from non-King James versions:
American Standard VersionThou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.”
Amplified Bible: You shall not allow a woman to live who practices sorcery.
Good News Version
: Put to death any woman who practices magic.
Living Bible: A sorceress shall be put to death.
New American Standard Bible: You shall not let a sorceress live.

This is a God-inspired book? A book that says you should not let witches live really means that you should let witches live? Well, alls well that ends well, I guess. Or maybe not.

2. Some people allow religious leaders to interpret God’s intent. These people are probably the worst of all. They are sheep, and while the Bible tends to laud this ovine role, I find it grossly irresponsible for a person to relinquish their will entirely to the teachings of another human. After all, the religious leaders who have the most congregants are people who are able to make their faith “palatable.” Case in point: most religious leaders have absolved their congregation of any witch-killing obligations this scripture might have conferred upon them by indicating that the word “witch” has been misinterpreted by that Witch-o-phobe King James, and that the original word was “poisoner.” So if someone kills another using poison, they should be put to death. However, this reference is often refuted. So, there are those who say that “… the religious injunction is irrelevant in terms of civil law, since we are not under a theocracy.” In other words, we have to obey the laws of our land, so since it is illegal to kill witches, we should not kill witches. However, these wimpy pastors forget that in Acts chapter 5, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men.” Hmm.

So the people in group 2 are often also from group 1—people who cannot stomach a bronze-age form of justice in 2009 and find a myriad of ways to worm around it. So God’s inspiration ends where our squeamishness begins.

Then there are the people in group …

3. The people who read the Bible correctly. By that I mean that they look at the original words and translate them without regard to taboo or social norm in today’s society. These people end up with a non-apologetic sermon that matches the Bible in its words and apparent intent exactly

“In a Christian society that adheres to God’s perfect and eternal Law there would be no witches to speak of because the scripture calls for a swift death to anyone engaging in this forbidden and powerless craft.” And later, ” So many say that our God isn’t ‘tolerant’ enough or something to that humanistic effect but I could care less — do you think that these serpentile witches are tolerant of our Faith or proven scriptures?”

Many Christians from groups 1. and 2. would read these words from Group 3. and say, “This person does not represent what I believe!” My rebuttal to that? Yes. They. Do. If you believe that the Bible is a mystical book, then those of you who choose not to read it accurately will ultimately be lead by those who do. That is why I oppose even a convivial form of Christianity when it enters the public arena.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.



  1. Sorry for the wiggy formatting. WordPress has let me know they “have a problem with some of the content on my blog” and will not allow me to post anything more. It’s probably technical. As soon as I resolve this I will try to make this post more presentable.

  2. OK, WordPress said it was a glitch. Problem solved.

  3. Hmm, aren’t there some Christians that read it simply as the literal Word of God?

  4. Not sure I agree with this:

    “After all, the religious leaders who have the most congregants are people who are able to make their faith “palatable.”

    It is the extreme forms of Christianity that seem to be growing fastest right now, probably in response to the perceived threat from Islam.

    On subject of this (and witches)

  5. Kingfelix, the palate is changing. In hard times, some religious people want a more hard-line doctrine taught, so pastors either change their stripes or their congregation may wander next door. It’s memetics at its best.

  6. Hmm. I am not so sure. We’ll see what foreign policy platforms they drum up for their favoured political runners for the WH.

    “Hi, I’m Mike Huckabee, and I want you to help me track down and burn latte-drinking Liberal witches in 2012…”

  7. And, in answer to the unasked question of how the residents of Chiggertown, AL, (I kid you not), read the Bible, the answer is:

    “Slowly and with great difficulty”

  8. “Christians must, by definition, believe that the Bible is “special” in some way.”

    No, they mustn’t. The Nicene Creed states only that Jesus’ life and death was in accordance with the scriptures, and that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets. These are vague claims which entail nothing special about the text of the Bible itself. Why are Christians also committed to believing that that text is special in some way above and beyond this, simply in virtue of being Christians? Answer: they’re not. Many of them may believe this – especially in America – but certainly not all. There are plenty of Christians who are perfectly aware that the Bible contains things they don’t agree with, such as instructions to kill witches, and are happy simply to disagree with it. That doesn’t make them not Christians. It just makes them not fundamentalists.

    The argument at the start of the piece about believing the stories about Jesus to be true while not believing the stories about (say) Muhammad to be true makes no sense to me. First, Christians are not committed to believing that all the stories told about Jesus in the Bible are true. Someone can be a perfectly sincere follower of Christ without having to believe that he really amazed the priests in the Temple with his incredible wisdom at the age of 12, or that the devil literally whooshed him to the top of the highest tower. Second, it is possible to believe one text to describe events that really happened, while rejecting another text’s claim to do so, on non-supernatural grounds. I think that Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars describes things that really happened, and that the Morte d’Arthur does not. But that’s not because I think the former is supernaturally inspired and the latter isn’t; it’s because of entirely secular scholarship. In the case of Jesus, there are perfectly good scholarly reasons to think that much of the material in the Gospels is, if not word-for-word accurate, at least tolerably reliable in telling us much about what he said and did. There is no inconsistency at all in someone treating the Bible as a perfectly human, historical text like any other, with all its flaws and biases, and still being a Christian, just as someone could choose to admire and imitate Socrates without having to believe that Plato was divinely inspired to portray him perfectly accurately.

  9. I fully agree with Jonathan nowhere in our creed or our baptismal vows does it say that we must hold the Good Book to be 100% accurate and true…

    Do you reject Satan?

    I do.

    And all his works?

    I do.

    And all his empty promises?

    I do.

    Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?

    I do.

    Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

    I do.

    Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

    I do.

    God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May he also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.


  10. Also in looking at the bible you must interpret the Bible in a “literal” sense, while many fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and others interpret the Bible in a literalist sense.

    The “literal” meaning of a passage of Scripture is the meaning that the author of that passage of Scripture intended to convey. The “literalist” interpretation of a passage of Scripture is: “that’s what it says, that’s what it means.”

    Let me give you an example to illustrate the difference. If you were to read a passage in a book that said it was “raining cats and dogs outside”, how would you interpret that? As Americans, in the 21st Century, you would know that the author was intending to convey the idea that it was raining pretty doggone hard outside. That would be the “literal” interpretation…the interpretation the author intended to convey. On the other hand, what if you made a “literalist” interpretation of the phrase, “it’s raining cats and dogs”?

    The “literalist” interpretation would be that, were you to walk outside, you would actually see cats and dogs falling from the sky like rain. No taking into account the popularly accepted meaning of this phrase. No taking into account the author’s intentions. The words say it was raining cats and dogs, so, by golly, it was raining cats and dogs! That is the literalist, or fundamentalist, way of interpretation.

    If someone 2000 years in the future picked up that same book and read, “It was raining cats and dogs outside,” in order to properly understand that passage in the book, they would need a “literal” interpretation, not a “literalist” interpretation. Now, think about that in the context of interpreting the Bible 2000-3000 years after it was written.

  11. Sorry for some reason the cite was not included above the example was taken from

  12. All these things you believe are amorphous and meaningless without some documented record that you rely upon to define what they are.

    Who is Satan? Who is Jesus? Any definition is fleeting and effete without use of the Bible.

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