by Fr. Thomas Hopko
There has to be some kind of a seeking, some kind of a praying, and some kind of a practicing as you go, because if we are reading and not putting into practice what is clearly stated, that we can understand, well, we’re not going to get very far, and we’re not going to understand the parts that we don’t understand. By the way, that’s simply also a simple rule of life. We come to understand things that we don’t understand on the basis of the things that we have come to understand, but the things that we have come to understand are the simpler things usually, because it’s the simpler things that are easier to understand. So you begin with the simpler things that you can understand and then you go on to the more difficult things that are harder to understand. That’s just, I don’t know—I would call it common sense. Will Rogers or somebody said,
“The problem with common sense is that it’s not so common and not very sensible, usually.”
But it is common sense still.
So I think a person has to approach the texts and try to put into practice what it says. If it says, for example,
“When you fast,”
and teaches, for example, that you should fast, we should try to fast a little bit. You know, not eat so much, not eat very rich foods, not eat and drink. Of course, we have to avoid all types of drunkenness and gluttony and debauchery, and if we’ve got an alcohol problem or a food problem, we’d better go get technical help, because we’ll never understand the Bible if we’re stoned on drugs or drunk on alcohol and stuffed with bad, ugly, yucky food; we’re never going to understand the Bible. So taking care of one’s body…
I know a psychiatrist who won’t take as a patient, as a client, a counselee, any person who does not walk for a half an hour a day and regularly exercise and be very careful with their diet, because this psychiatrist says,
“You can’t deal with a person’s soul and mind if their body is shot. You just can’t do it, that’s all. We are corporal, emotional, mental, spiritual, and psychic people. We’re whole people, wholistic people. We have bodies; we’re not angels.
So those things have to be kept in order also.
Then, of course, just moral things. If we say we want to understand the holy Scripture and are lying and cheating and fornicating and involved in all kinds of sexual, kinky stuff, we’re not going to understand the Bible. So the moral teachings of the Scripture have to also be put into practice when we see what they are, even if it’s just basic, really basic, 101-type level instruction, like the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, honor your parents, and so on. I mean, basically things like that. You might even say the normal moral positions that any reasonable moral person, if they’re an atheist or a believer or a Jew or a Muslim or whatever they are would hold, just the things that are generally human, ethical principles that most rational good-willed human beings would hold. We have to put these things into practice.
But then there are further things that Christ teaches, not just loving your neighbor or loving those who love you, but loving everybody, loving unconditionally, loving in acts, loving by concrete behaviors, works. This is what we have to do.
So anybody who’s going to say,
“I want to read to understand the Bible,”
they have to be living in a certain way or they have to start living in a certain way, according to the Scripture that they actually read and understand.
What I’ve said so far is: You get yourself a good Bible. You get one that’s a real translation. You get one that’s nicely noted. You get one that has good, contemporary English. If possible, you try to get an inter-linear Greek-English to see what it would originally say. You read it regularly. You read it slowly. You begin with Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Then you go on to the other books of the New Testament.
Here, on that point, I would make the following recommendations: Don’t get too hung up on the letter to the Romans. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the hardest ones to understand. We probably should come to that one near the end of our reading of the New Testament, and certainly the Apocalypse. But the Corinthian letters, the Philippian letters, Colossians, Ephesians, the Timothy letters, Philemon letter, Titus—these are pretty straight-forward and pretty easy to understand if we just give them a shot.
Certainly the letters of John. In fact, I had a professor who used to say,
“The very first book in the Bible that any person should read if they want to know whether or not they want to be a Christian is 1 John, the first letter of John.”
Five pages long. That’s all it is. Five chapters, five pages. It’s so simple, so direct, so, in a sense, the easiest to understand.
And you’ve got James and you’ve got Jude. Then, of course, you have the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which may be a bit difficult because of early Christian troubles and because of the miraculous that’s in there and so on, but still the entire New Testament is what we have to begin with. And to do it several times before going on to anything else—with one exception, and that exception would be the Book of Psalms. Here, I believe, that a person who’s even just beginning should read the Psalter daily, one or two psalms, one page or so, not very long. If you do it by a clock, five minutes.
If some of the psalms are longer, like, for example, Psalm 118 (119)—you know, there’s different numbers of the Psalms with the Greek version and the Hebrew version—there’s the real long one that’s 170-some verses: you might read part of it. Divide it up into three parts, and read a part a day. But read the Psalter regularly, because the Psalter, as one wonderful Calvinist linguist scholar said,
“The Psalter is the whole Bible in miniature.”
It’s the whole Bible in miniature. But the Psalter is not only the Bible in miniature, it’s the Bible in doxology. It’s the Bible in poetry. It’s the Bible in prayer. It’s the Bible not simply informationally or prosaically; it’s the Bible poetically before the face of God.
So familiarity with the Psalter is crucial. I mentioned earlier how the Orthodox Church even has a canon, the second canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council says that no man cannot be made a bishop who cannot recite the entire Psalter by heart. So the Psalter is central. Orthodox Church services are probably 80% psalms. If you take the entire liturgical offices of the Orthodox Church—the vespers, the matins, and the four hours of the day, and the compline, not even counting the Divine Liturgy—it’s almost all psalms. If you take the Divine Liturgy, the first part is psalms. All the prokeimena and the verses are all psalms verses, but they’re all connected to Jesus.
I would say the New Testament and the Psalms is where one begins. Then one would branch out slowly I would say to the rest of the Old Testament. Here I would mention five books, for five books that are crucial. Genesis is crucial. In general the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, are crucial. Deuteronomy is certainly one to be read carefully. In fact, Deuteronomy is the most-quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. It’s interesting that in the Qumran Scrolls, the Dead Sea Scrolls, where they discovered all these Scriptures in the 1940s, there were more texts of Deuteronomy there than any other from the canonical Scripture, and more references to Deuteronomy in the writings that were not canonical Scripture than any other. So Deuteronomy is a very, very important book.
Then you have the prophecies, like Isaiah, generally all the prophets, but beginning with Isaiah, especially the second part of Isaiah, which refers to Christ very specifically more than others. So I would say: Genesis and the first five books of the Bible, emphasizing Deuteronomy. Then I would say: the prophetic books like Isaiah. And then in addition to the Psalter, you could read the Proverbs, because the Proverbs are really simple to read.
Here I would also just mention, according to Orthodox tradition: Genesis, the Proverbs, and Isaiah are the three books that are read in the Orthodox Church during Great Lent at the services. So probably the Church tradition is saying to us: These are three really important Old Testament books that we ought to be familiar with. Then, of course, during Lent the Psalm-reading is doubled in the monasteries. So if you took Genesis, Isaiah, Proverbs, and Psalter, that would be what you really want to really get into first and continuously in the Old Testament. Then little by little you branch out into the historical books, you branch out into the various prophetic books, and then that’s how it’s read. There’s other wisdom books like Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiastes.
Then you read these books, but what you don’t do is start in the beginning and read right straight through. You’ve got to begin with the New Testament. The other thing that you do not do is jump around. You don’t read this, read that, read this. Another thing you do is you don’t jump to conclusions. You don’t read—I don’t know—something in the Book of Judges and say, “This is stupid,” and shut the Bible and never pick it up again. That’s madness, if you’re a serious person. What you don’t do is read a whole lot at once and then not read a lot for a long time. What you do do is read it slowly, carefully, methodically, simply, taking all the time you need in a very particular order. This is what I would suggest.
Then there’s one last thing, at least for this very, very introductory little presentation, and that would be this: You read the Old Testament in the light of the New. You begin with the thesis, the hypo-thesis, the hypothesis, that every word of the Bible is ultimately about Jesus. You begin [with the thesis] that every story in the Old Testament is ultimately about Jesus. In other words, ancient Christians read the Bible Christologically, Christocentrically, through the lens of Christ, crucified and glorified.
I said that already and I’m going to say it again and stress it strongly. For us, it’s all about Christ. For the Bible itself, it’s all about Christ, once you get to see it for what it is. There are different levels, different stories, different interactions, different weavings, but ultimately it’s all about Christ. The meaning of it is all about Christ.
Now, here we would say that the whole purpose, as we said already, is to get the meaning, and the meaning is about everything related to God. It’s first about God, and then it’s about creation, and it’s about humanity, then it’s about myself, then it’s about my neighbor, then it’s about my world, then it’s about the birds on my birdfeeder outside—there’s a nice chickadee there right now, and here comes a fantastic woodpecker, then there’s another bird I can’t identify. It’s all about those birds. It’s about the trees, where the leaves are all falling down. It’s about everything, and ultimately it’s about Christ because Christ is about everything. Christ is everything. He’s all and in all, “everything to everyone,” as St. Paul says.
It’s all about Christ, so we’ve got to read it intentionally, purposefully Christologically, and that would mean that, for example, the Adam story in Genesis is about the ultimate Adam, who is Jesus. The Passover Exodus is about the ultimate Passover Exodus, which is about the death and resurrection of Christ. All the elements in that Passover Exodus story—the lamb that is slain, the blood, the bread from heaven, the parting of the Red Sea, the going into the desert, the crossing the Jordan—that’s all about Christ.
The Jordan River is all about the fact that Christ is baptized in the Jordan. Everything there—the wars are about the ultimate victory that Christ makes over all God’s enemies on the Cross. The kingship is all about Christ as the ultimate, final King. The priesthood and the temple is all about Christ as the High Priest and the Temple himself. The sacrificial systems of Leviticus are all about the sacrifice that Jesus recapitulates and realizes and actualizes and fulfills when he’s being crucified on the cross. The festivals of the Torah—Pascha, Pentecost, Sukkot, Booths, Tabernacles, Lights—they’re all about what Christ fulfills in the new Pascha, the new Feast of Lights, which is his birth and coming into the world, his Theophany on the Jordan. The new Transfiguration of Christ which is the new Feast of Booths.
So we read the [Old] Testament as a paedagogos to find its meaning. Sometimes the Fathers would call it its “deeper meaning.” In Latin, they said, “sensus plenior”: the fuller meaning, the deeper meaning. The Philokalia Fathers would call it the spiritual reading, the mystical reading, that you find in those Old Testament writings that are allegorical, spiritual, moral, and typological—typoses, figures, prefigurations, foreshadowings—for everything that is fulfilled perfectly in Jesus Christ, in his ministry, and especially in his passion, his suffering, his crucifixion, his death, his resurrection, his enthronement, and his glorification and his coming again in glory at the end of the earth to bring the real Jerusalem from above, which is our mother, since the old Jerusalem, as we will learn from the Scriptures, is not anything better than Sodom and Egypt, the place where Christ was crucified.
You have all this biblical allegory, biblical typology, biblical prefiguration, biblical foreshadowing, biblical preparation that are in the Old Testament Scriptures. So we go back and forth when we read. We read the Old Testament and then apply it as a lens through which we can understand the New. And then we read the New and be illumined by the Old, and then see how the New itself illumines the Old. As St. Augustine said, “All the truths of God are lying hidden in the Old and are revealed clearly in the New.” And all the Church Fathers said that. Gregory the Theologian said that; they all say that. That’s a classic teaching of the Christian saints. The New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New. You have a symbiotic relationship between the Old and the New, and that’s how we read it, and we go back and forth.
These would be my concrete suggestions. One more that I would add, if a person really wants to go, so to speak, all the way. I would definitely suggest to a person who wants to understand the Bible to go to Orthodox church services, just to go to Orthodox church services: to listen to the Psalter being read, to listen to the hymns, to listen to the Scripture readings, to see what’s read when and why. Go to the festal days and hear the readings. Go to the Paschal vigil, for example, and hear the two canticles that are sung of Moses and of the boys in the fiery furnace. Go to church. Stand in church. Listen to what is said there. Listen to see how it’s all biblical. Let that worship of church, doxology and thanksgiving of church, be the context within which setting, like the schoolmaster, you read the Bible.
I would definitely suggest to a person, if they’re really serious, that at some point they start going to an Orthodox church and start listening and watching and paying attention, and even looking at the icons, because the icons are in painting what is in the Bible in writing. We even say “write an icon”; of course, that’s a little barbarous in English, because in most languages the word for “write” and the word for “draw” or “paint” is the same word: pisats, eikono pisits; graphos, eikono graphos. But in any case, the icons are there; they’re living images into what is in Scripture. St. John of Damascus even said, for people who are illiterate, you show them the icons and the frescoes in the church, and then they see all the biblical events and they can contemplate them in their depiction, in their artistic depiction in frescoes or paintings or bas-reliefs or whatever other works there are that can proclaim God’s truth and God’s Gospel.
Go to church. Pray. Practice silence. Do good deeds. Live a moral life. Read slowly. Begin with the New Testament. Begin with Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Then go on carefully to the rest. Bracket what you don’t understand. Maybe leave Romans and Galatians and, I don’t know, Book of Revelation to the end. Then go to the Old Testament, but begin right from the beginning, going through the Psalms, carefully through the Psalms. In the Psalms, when you hear “king,” think of Jesus. When you hear “victim” and “poor” and “needy,” think of Jesus. When you hear “those who are oppressed and exiled and ridiculed and mocked,” think of Jesus. When you go thinking of the armies and the wars and victories, think of Jesus. When you go there hearing about the sacrifices and the victims and the lambs who are slain, think of Jesus.
Think of Jesus all the time. Just get Mark, Matthew, Luke straight, and think of Jesus all the time. Then go on to John, then be reading the Psalter, and finish slowly, slowly, reading the New Testament. Then go to the Torah of Moses. Go to Genesis and Exodus. Go to Deuteronomy. Maybe you don’t need to spend too much time in Leviticus and Numbers, but that’s good to do, too. Then go through the historical books and the prophetic books and the wisdom writings. Do it slowly; don’t hurry, but do it in order to understand, and do it in order to do.
And don’t go there looking for biological information or archaeological information or historical information. Don’t go there at all with wanting to find things about actual data history or biological, scientific stuff. That’s not what the Bible is about. It’s just not about that. It’s about God and our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us. In fact, the Bible is not even man’s understanding about God. It’s God’s understanding about man. It’s not human beings trying to figure out God; it’s God trying to reveal humanity to human beings so they would know—we would know—who we are.
These are the suggestions that I would make about reading the Bible, and I believe that this is the way that the Bible was read in the earliest Church. In fact, this is the way that the Bible was read by the Jews themselves. That’s why the first Christians were Jews and many Jews were first Christians. And this is the way it’s done. And this is the way it’s done in Orthodoxy through the centuries. And this is the way that Orthodox Christians, who follow the ancient path, this is the way that we believe that we should do it today.
So these would be my suggestions to you. God bless you. It’s an effort. It’s not easy. In fact, when you read the Bible as the word of God, it lacerates you, it judges you, it depresses you sometimes. You get despondent: “How can I ever do this and how can I ever understand this?” and all this kind of stuff. Well, the fact of the matter is that ultimately it’s simple. We’re the ones who are complicated. We have the complexes, not the Scriptures. But do it. Just do it. Do it with a pure heart. Do it with an open mind. Do it with the desire to understand. Do it with an attitude of seeking, even of calling upon the God that you may not believe in. And do it in the proper taxis, in the proper order.
Then whatever happens, happens. And that would be between you and God, and God and you. But for anything to happen between God and you and you and God, a central part of it, for many of us—not all, necessarily, but certainly many of us—is the reading of the holy Scriptures. So many of us are interested in it, and what I have just told you is the way, I believe, we are instructed to do it.