by Fr. Thomas Hopko
Probably the best thing, at least in the New Testament, that a person could do, is learn a little Greek—at least learn the alphabet, learn how to read the words—get an inter-linear, and while reading the texts, go to the inter-linear and just see what it literally is saying. Sometimes it can be a very great help to see how words were left out or words were added or words were changed. But in any case, we have to read it in English.
Here I would say we can generally be confident, certainly with the Old Revised Standard Version. I would even say even with the New King James Version, the one that’s in the Orthodox Study Bible. I’m not particularly fond of that, but it’s probably because I’m not used to it, but I also think that sometimes there there’s things there that are not really… that somehow betray the theological tendencies of the translator. But I think if we take the Old Revised Standard Version, with the notes—and here I would say the notes, 99.9% of the time, the notes are the Orthodox reading. If you use the annotated Old Revised Standard Version…
And by the way, the Old Revised Standard Version has been recently republished by the Roman Catholic publishing company called Ignatius Press; it’s sometimes even called the Ignatius Bible. Why was that? It was because several years ago, many years ago—I don’t know how many; certainly more than 30 or more; I can’t remember exactly—there was a so-called ecumenical edition of the Old Revised Standard Version. It was done by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox together, and the footnotes indicated differences among the different faith traditions, the different Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant ways of dealing with holy Scripture. That particular Old RSV, which the Catholics themselves had given their blessing to and so did the Orthodox, that is now being re-made available again. It’s republished by the Ignatius Press.
So my suggestion would be: Get that Bible. Get that Bible, and I think it’s the most dependable, it’s the easiest to read, it’s a real translation, it’s in pretty modern English, unlike the Old King James which is pretty hard to understand—a lot of the words there even change their meaning. For example, “prevent” in the King James means “to go before”; it doesn’t mean “to stop.” “Press” doesn’t mean the journalist; it means a crowd, etc. The Old King James, maybe some people like it even because of sentimental reasons, but it’s pretty hard for a normal American in the 21st century to understand, certainly younger people who are not used to it.
So I would just suggest: Get that Bible. Get the Old Revised Standard; get the New King James. Maybe get them both. Get a couple. Compare translations. That’s helpful. Compare English translations, and you can see somehow how they differ, and maybe then you can have greater insight into the meaning.
As far as the reading itself goes, I would say that certain things have to be in order before a person begins to read the Scripture. Certainly in the Orthodox tradition, this would be the case. I believe that if a person is going to read and understand the holy Scripture properly and be inspired and illumined and instructed, exhorted, encouraged, and comforted by the words of holy Scripture, they have to do certain things. Number one, they have to want to understand its meaning. They have to not come there with pre-judgments about what it says. They also cannot pick and choose parts that they like and parts that they don’t like. You’ve got to read it all. You’ve got to read it all carefully.
You can’t pick and choose. The word “heresy” means to pick and choose. It doesn’t mean to be mistaken. All heretics are those who have picked and [chosen] their favorite parts of Scripture by leaving out the other parts. Of course, parts of Scripture very often appear on the surface to be very contradictory to each other. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, they are contradictory as far as details and data or historical information is concerned. That’s not a problem for us Orthodox at all. But in any case, it is a problem in some sense, because, reading the Scripture, you’ve got to learn how to deal with that stuff.
Well, the intention has to be that the reader wants to read the Scripture in order to understand it. They have to read it in order to get its God-inspired meaning or, even more accurately, to get the many God-inspired readings that can be found sometimes even in the very same text. Take, for example, the Prodigal Son parable. How many different meanings there are in that one parable! It’s amazing. So there are levels are meaning. There’s depth of meaning. There’s variety of meaning in sometimes the very same books and the very same chapters and the very same paragraphs and the very same sentences of the holy Scripture. But our intention has to be that we want to understand it.
We’re not judging it; we’re trying to let it judge us. We’re not going there to pick it apart, and we’re certainly not going there to sort of prove it wrong or find the contradictions or find what seems outrageous to our moral sensitivities like, I don’t know, God slaughtering all kinds of people in the Old Testament. You can’t go there that way. You’ve got to go there and say,
“What is God Almighty trying to tell me in my life, here and now? What’s he trying to tell me?”
Here, a Christian would add:
“What is he trying to tell me as a Christian?”
An Orthodox would add:
“What is he trying to tell me as a member of the Orthodox Church, with all that that entails?”
This leads to a next point, and that is: Ancient Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, would certainly hold that you can’t understand the Scriptures. You can’t understand the Old Testament for sure. You can’t understand the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets exceptthrough the illumination of Christ. Christ is the light that illumines all. In fact, when we read the Scripture in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, that’s what we say:
“The light of Christ illumines all.”
All things, and certainly the Scripture.
Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Christ, as well as the Lord’s teachings, are the key to understanding the entire Scripture. We know that in the Scripture itself, in the gospel of St. Luke, for example, it says very specifically that the risen Christ opened their minds to the understanding of the Scripture, that they didn’t understand the Scripture until they realized that the crucifed One had to be raised and glorified. St. Paul says several places—Colossians and, of course, the letter to the Hebrews says the same thing—that the Old Covenant Scriptures are a shadow. They’re a paedagagos; they’re a preparation for Christ. It’s only in Christ that the veil is taken away. St. Paul will say in Colossians that outside of Christ when you read the Scriptures, a veil hangs over your eyes. There’s no way that you can understand it.
What the Orthodox tradition would say is: A person has to believe in Christ, crucified and glorified, has to believe that Christ has been raised from the dead by God and is the revealer of God. There has to be faith in order to understand what the Scriptures are all about and what the meaning is given to us and to everyone in those particular writings. Here I would go even a little more modestly and say that if the person doesn’t believe that, if they’re having trouble believing that—maybe that’s even why they’re believing the Bible and the New Testament in the first place—they have to at least hold as a hypothesis that the key to understanding all the Bible is Christ.
If they’re unwilling to hold that even as a hypothesis—in other words, if they’re willing to say,
“I’m going to try to understand the Bible, but I’m not going to do this by first trying to understand Christ and trying to see who Christ is”
—well, we Orthodox and ancient Christians would say,
“Well, you’re never going to understand it, then, because you can’t do it that way.”
It’s just impossible to be done that way. It’s simply impossible to be done that way.
Here I think it would not be inaccurate to say that most people nowadays that I know—in fact, I would say just about everybody who’s not Jewish—the only reason they would read the Bible is because of Christ. Certainly we the Gentiles have no interest in reading the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures—we wouldn’t have any unless it was sheer curiosity—if we didn’t think that doing that would help us understand what the Christ event is about, who the Person of Christ is, how Christ is, why Christ is, what Christ does. In other words, Christ has to be an element in our desire to read the Scriptures in order to understand them. If Christ is not an element in that, then I think the effort is doomed. I would even say I’m sure that the effort would be doomed; you’d never get anywhere. You’d be spinning around in circles and say that it’s a lot of baloney and that would be the end of it.
At least hypothetically a person has to say, “I’m going to read on the basis that Jesus of Nazareth is the key to the whole thing. And I’m going to read on the basis that his being crucified is even more specifically the key to the whole thing. And I’m going to read on the hypothetical basis that his Person, his crucifixion and his resurrection and his glorification is really the key to understanding the whole thing.” So that’s where I’m going to begin my investigation. Simply put, that’s where I’m going to begin my reading.
So my suggestion would be, to good-willed people, that they would begin reading the New Testament, in fact, that they would begin reading the gospels. Here I would even say more specifically, they would begin by reading the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in that order: Mark first, then Matthew, then Luke. Mark as the basic gospel, the apocalyptic, sharp gospel; Matthew as the Jewish gospel, the Torah gospel; and Luke as the Gentile, historical, universal gospel. That’s what I would suggest that they do. They would get the Old Revised Standard, a real translation; they would get the notes, and they would carefully and slowly read through those first three gospels.
Here I would even suggest… I don’t think there’s any reason to suggest haste. There’s no reason to hurry here at all. I mean, we’ve got all the time we need. If time runs out, that’s okay, because then it doesn’t matter whether we read the Bible or not. If we die or Christ comes, it doesn’t matter. So let’s do it slowly. As Isaiah says in the Scripture itself, “Those who wait on the Lord do not hasten.” They do not rush. They’re not in a hurry. They take their time. So we have to take our time. We have to spend the time.
Here I would suggest that the good-willed person who really is open to understanding the meaning of the Scripture would begin by reading Mark and Matthew and Luke. I would even suggest that they do it a couple of times, maybe two or three times, before going to any other part of the Bible; that they would just take the time and read that two or three times before going to any other place in the Bible. Here I would even say that committed Orthodox Christians, baptized people who go to church, that they ought to be constantly reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke with the Church year over and over again every year of their life. You just read it every day. Then between Easter and Pentecost, between Pascha and Pentecost, we read John. During that time, we also read the letters of the Apostle Paul. But for now I would say let’s bracket the letters of the Apostle Paul. Let’s just stick with beginning with Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Then I would suggest that then we go on, and again that we would read very slowly, several times, maybe two or three times, a little bit every day, the rest of the New Testament. Here I would suggest even that we don’t even go to the Old Testament (with one exception which I’ll mention in a second) until we have read through two or three times the entire New Testament, beginning with Mark and ending with the Book of Revelation.
Here I would even recommend the Book of Revelation as a part of the New Testament. It’s a very hard book; it’s difficult, but I think that people should see the entire New Testament corpus, the 28 books, if they’re really interested in Bible reading. But they should do it slowly, carefully, and two or three times, no matter how long it takes. That is what I would suggest.
Now, while doing that, I would have some other suggestions. I would suggest the following. Number one, don’t worry about the parts you don’t understand. Let them go. Maybe you could make a note of them, maybe you might ask somebody about it, but don’t get hung up on the parts you don’t understand. Don’t get hung up on the parts that scandalize you either, because you’re going to be scandalized. I mean, you’re going to read stuff there that’s just going to blow your mind, and you’re going to think,
“This is just outrageous.”
You might even consider it immoral. You know:
“Unless you hate your father, brother, mother, sister, you can’t be my disciple.”
I mean, you’re going to read sentences like that. But in any case, I would say: Give it a chance. Don’t jump to conclusions, and what you don’t understand, just let it go. Just let it go.
I would say also, I would suggest very strongly, however, something else. I would suggest that the parts you do understand, thatdo seem clear to you, you try to put them into practice. You try to make them part of your life. For example, many of the teachings of Jesus are clear that you can understand. Love your neighbor, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. They strike you on the one cheek, give them the other. Give to other people when they ask you. Give in secret.
Another thing I think that’s clearly understood is that Jesus tells you to pray. Here I would say, absolutely, that anybody who’s going to understand the Bible has to be a praying person, even if they’re praying “to whom it may concern,” even if they’re saying,
“God, if you are there, guide me,”
but there has to be some kind of seeking so to speak before the face of Almighty God, even if you don’t know who that God is or even if that God is, there has to be a kind of a hypothetical placing of yourself in that context, in that condition. So I think the seeking person who is not a believer has to somehow act like a believer or say,
“Lord, if you want me to be a believer, make me a believer, or lead me into faith if that’s what I should do, if that’s the truth.”
But you have to be open to it. You can’t be closed to it. You can’t read it and say,
“I’ll never believe it, no matter what.”
You can’t read it and say,
“This is a pile of garbage and baloney filled with contradictions, and that’s the end of it.”
You just can’t do that. If you do that, forget it; nothing’s going to happen. Absolutely nothing’s going to happen.
Here I don’t think that that’s a particularly, how can you say, startling position to hold, because, I don’t know, if I wanted to learn music and I’d say, “I really want to understand Bach’s and Mozart’s compositions, but I don’t ever want to listen to them, and I think that they’re stupid and I can’t stand them and when I listen to the music I just want to turn it off.” No, if I really want to understand it, I’ve got to give it a shot. In the end, I may say,
“Well, I don’t really like this very much,”
and in fact, at least hypothetically you could say a person who reads the Bible in the end, during the process they can come and say,
“I’m just not inspired to do this any more. I just can’t,”
for whatever reasons, well, if that happens, it happens.
Who are we to say that it won’t or can’t or won’t or whatever; it might, but in any case, you can’t begin with that attitude. You can’t begin with skepticism. You can’t begin with doubting. You can’t begin with a chip on your shoulder. You can’t begin with what some scholarly people call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” in other words, where you approach the text, reading the text to find out what’s wrong with it rather than what’s right with it, or what may be meaningful in it.