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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

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Reading the Bible

Mary Ann Tolbert

No person was ever born knowing how to read, for reading is neither instinctual nor hereditary. It is, instead, a learned skill. Throughout the centuries the people who could read were taught to do so by their societies in the course of public education or private family socialization, and the methods and content of that teaching often varied greatly from culture to culture and from generation to generation. Even in our contemporary world, people are taught to read in many different languages that display varying grammatical conventions, distinct alternatives of expression, and often non-translatable vocabulary. Moreover, learning to read a new language with real understanding always involves also acquiring a wide variety of cultural information about customs, social relationships, and history out of which each different language system grows and upon which it depends. The difficulty of this process is well known to anyone who has studied a “foreign” langauge and is amusingly, if xenophobicly, detailed by the American humorist Mark Twain in his essay, “The Awful German Language.” After listing all of his frustrations in mastering German cases, grammatical gender, and word arrangement, the English-speaking Twain sardonically concludes by asserting, “My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” Of course, a German faced with learning English might argue the reverse of Twain's listing as the more justifiable one! Becoming conversant with any new language is a formidable and time-consuming task, for it actually requires entering a new world of meaning.

The texts of the Bible were not written in English, nor, for that matter, in German or French, but in languages now “dead”: biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and koinē * Meaning “common.” Koinē is the form of Greek commonly used in the Mediterranean world during the few centuries before and after the Common Era. Greek. To make these texts accessible to contemporary audiences who have neither thirty years nor a lifetime to give to language study, translators schooled in these languages have produced the Revised English Bible and other modern language translations. While the benefits of such translations are easy to perceive, however, they also present certain important limitations. Since all languages are deeply embedded in the cultural systems out of which they come, to understand a text written in another language requires some understanding of that other culture as well, and simply reading an English translation does not provide that vital cultural information. Although people taught to read English can easily read this Revised English Bible, if they were to do so as though it were a modern English text coming out of contemporary social experience, they would be seriously mis-reading the ancient narratives, laws, letters, and poetry produced by the ancient authors and editors and understood by the first audiences of the Bible. To comprehend the Bible in ways similar to its original audiences, a modern reader must learn something of the alien and long-dead cultures standing behind these texts, and it is precisely to assist readers with such learning that the articles of this study edition are dedicated.

To speak of people reading the Bible in itself points to one of the most striking, yet often least recognized, differences between the modern reader and the ancient one. While literacy today is widespread and common, in the ancient world of the Hebrew people and even the later world of the Greeks very few people acquired the skills of reading and writing. Consequently, the authors of the biblical documents belonged to a tiny literate elite within largely illiterate societies. Since the majority of the Hebrew people and the early Christians could not read, most of the biblical texts were written primarily to be heard with the ear rather than read with the eye, allowing those few who could read to read aloud for the benefit of the larger group. Hearing a text, rather than seeing it, affected the way ancient material was fashioned; repetition, puns, prologues, and summaries are all prevalent stylistic devices in biblical material because of the requirements of the ear. While modern readers are taught to use chapter titles, tables of contents, paragraphing, and internal headings as ways of orienting themselves in books or articles, these “eye helps” did not exist in ancient writings (the verse numbers in the Bible, for instance, were not added until the sixteenth century C.E. by the famous Parisian printer Stephanus). Stops and starts, the organization of material, and the type (or genre) of writing had to be signaled in ways accessible to the ear for an ancient audience. Thus, repeated opening and closing patterns, sharply defined genres like proverbs, pronouncement stories (a brief narrative scene ending with a direct saying by the major character), hymns, oracles, laws, letters, and straightforward, reliable narration are all important aspects of biblical literature that appear quite differently and much less extensively in modern writing.

Not only were the writings of the Bible composed for the ear, but much of the material in those writings, especially in the Hebrew Bible (or the Christian Old Testament), existed for years, perhaps centuries, as oral tradition before ever being written down. The stories were passed orally from one generation to the next, adapted to new occasions and altered to fit changing social and political circumstances. After a time, collections of these oral stories were made and eventually committed to writing. Some of the materials in the four gospels of the New Testament may also have been part of an oral tradition, though for a much briefer period, before the gospel writers incorporated them into their narratives. Hence, the absence of widespread literacy in antiquity meant that oral communication was the medium of critical importance; in the ancient world, persuasive speech had to be ear-oriented. Therefore, in order to understand the Bible as its first audiences did, modern readers must learn to hear its texts as well as read them.

Even referring to the Bible may encourage contemporary readers to mis-read, for the Bible is not one book but a collection of many books coming from many different centuries and several quite distinct cultures. The Hebrew Bible contains books written from the tenth century B.C.E. to the second century B.C.E., almost a millennium of human history. The present shape of many of these books evolved over centuries of editing and reworking, from the early legends about the origins of the Hebrew people, most of which originally circulated as oral tradition, to the later apocalyptic visions of the end of the world in the Book of Daniel. Because of this complex process of composition, these documents often reflect not only the evolving religious ideas of the Hebrew people but also their changing social and political fortunes in the maelstrom of ancient Near Eastern diplomacy. Yet, since the first audiences were themselves living that political and social history, it generally stands behind the biblical stories as context rather than in them as subject matter; for contemporary readers to understand the stories fully, however, this essential historical information needs to be learned.

Although the New Testament books were written over the much shorter period of about 100 years, from perhaps 41 or 51 C.E. for Paul's earliest letter to as late as 150 C.E. for some of the catholic epistles (or general letters), the political history of that century, containing the war between Rome and the Jews, the subsequent fall of Jerusalem and Qumran, and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, as well as—probably—the destruction of the Christian community in Jerusalem, plays a crucial role in the outward growth of the Christian movement. Actually, the twenty-seven separate letters and books that now compose the official New Testament canon (or authoritative list) are only a small selection from a much larger body of writings by Christians during the first several centuries of the Common Era. Thus, in order to appreciate the full variety and vitality of early Christian history, this larger fund of material—ranging from long-recognized writings like the letters of Clement or The Shepherd of Hermas to recently discovered works like the gnostic documents of Nag Hammadi—needs to be studied and assessed. Moreover, why some of these texts were determined to be authoritative (or canonical) by later third- and fourth-century Christians, while other texts were not, provides insight into the debates that came to shape medieval Christianity and indeed Christianity today.

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the two major divisions of the Bible, clearly display certain similarities in form and content: they both draw upon oral traditions; they are both made up of various types of literature, written at diverse times, directed to separate groups of people for a variety of reasons; they both relate the continuing story of God's involvement with the Jewish people and the surrounding Gentile world; and they often present mutually complementary moral and theological positions. To view these similarities as establishing a uniformity of perspective for the Bible, however, would again be a serious mis-reading of the material, for the cultural matrix informing each set of writings is fundamentally different. The very fact that they were composed in two quite distinct languages, Hebrew (Aramaic, a semitic language similar to Hebrew, also occurs in small sections of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel) and Greek, points to their involvement in two divergent cultural systems. One good illustration of that dissimilarity can be seen in the general worldviews, or conceptions of the universe and the place of humanity and divinity in it, that dominated the thinking of each cultural period.

In the ancient Near Eastern world of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Hebrew people, the universe was an intimate and fairly compact affair, which might be visualized as three stories, separated by the solid firmament of the earth below and of the heavens above. The top story, formed by the heavens, was the abode of the gods and was surrounded at its outermost limits by water, which the gods could allow to fall upon the earth by opening windows in the heavens, a practice engendering considerable anxiety among the human population for fear that the gods might forget or decide not to close those windows and thus flood the earth. The second story, the space between the earth and the heavens, was the location of humanity, while the bottom story with its limits also defined by water, which could rise to the earth above through rivers and oceans, belonged to the spirits of the underworld. All three stories were closely connected to each other; for example, in the sixth century B.C.E. priests estimated the distance between the temple in Jerusalem and the heavenly dwelling of God to be about two miles. In such a small universe, encounters between the divine and human worlds were expected and regular. Only when one element or another was out of place or not performing its assigned tasks (e.g., the gods were asleep or on a journey when they were needed [see 1 Kgs. 18.27 ] or the king refused to rebuild the city walls or the farmer neglected the time of harvest) was the harmony of the entire system put at risk by an eruption of chaos. Order and a strong sense of place created a very secure world, and religion provided the map or contract or set of rules needed to maintain the established order.

By the beginnings of Christianity, that secure, compact universe had exploded. Only a few other periods in the history of Western civilizations can rival the extensive change in perspective that occurred during the Greco-Roman era. Galileo's discoveries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or perhaps Einstein's theories in the contemporary world have initiated similar revolutions in thought and society, but such cataclysmic shifts are rare. The exact causes of that ancient transformation remain unclear, but it was surely influenced by the increasingly sophisticated developments in astronomy, science, and mathematics in Greek circles as well as the growth of large, multi-national urban centers around the Mediterranean basin, where cultural, economic, and religious exchange could flourish. These intellectual and social innovations coupled with the new mobility permitted by the widespread use of koinē Greek as a general language of commerce and the relative stability of Greek and then of Roman rule, extended the limits of the universe far beyond anything imaginable by earlier peoples.

The cosmology conceived during the Greco-Roman period, formally codified by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century C.E., might best be visualized as an expanding series of concentric spheres, all in eternal motion around a tiny, stationary earth. The first seven spheres contained the moon and the fixed stars or planets, each moving in its appointed round and in the process, rubbing against other spheres to produce musical notes (the “music of the spheres” found in hymnody). The planets were not the only inhabitants of each sphere, however, for Greco-Roman people also believed that each sphere housed an order of angels or demons, constantly watching the activities of the human world below, and the closer the sphere to the earth, the nastier were its tenants, with the demons responsible for illness, birth defects, and pains of all kinds lodging in the space between the moon and the earth. It is true that the earth was the stable center of this vast, moving universe, but its centrality was not an assertion of human pride, for like the stationary bull's-eye in a cosmic target the earth was now the focus of active, mobile evil. The intimate, secure universe of the earlier age had disappeared into the vast, threatening reaches of the cosmos, and God no longer dwelt a short distance away but instead resided out beyond the farthest sphere. Religion in such an age existed to help people escape the fears of daily life and to assure them of God's continued care in this world and the next across the outstretched spaces of the stars. Paul's ringing conviction in Rom. 8.38–39 speaks precisely to this situation: “For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Today we live neither in the ancient three-story universe of the Hebrew people nor even in the Ptolemaic universe of the early Christians. In reading about worries over sleeping deities or threatening demonic powers, modern people probably think of metaphorical language or symbolic meanings, for in modern writings those images would surely function in that fashion. The Bible, however, is not a modern book or collection of modern books. The people who told, wrote, and heard these stories faced uncertain and dangerous worlds which they attempted to understand as God's creation in the ways their societies and theories pictured it. In order to read the Bible in a manner similar to the way they might have heard it, we must learn its old language anew and hear its words with ears more attuned to its ancient cadences.


* Meaning “common.” Koinē is the form of Greek commonly used in the Mediterranean world during the few centuries before and after the Common Era.

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