People are increasingly frustrated when it comes to reading the Bible these days. One side says, “I believe every word of the Bible, just as it reads!” Others reply “No one reads the Bible literally anymore!” Sincere believers can be found on both sides. Both positions have merit, but both arguments can be misused, badly.

On the “I believe it just as it reads” side are those who ignore the simple fact that none of the Bible was written in English, and that precise, word-for-word translation from any language into any other is impossible. They also fail to take into account the changing understanding of the various Bible authors, who wrote over a 1500 year time span in very different cultures and circumstances. Not to mention that, in any language, the difference between what the words say and what the author meant can be miles apart. For example, we might tell someone to “Look out!” when meaning that they should pull their heads inside the car, not “look out ” of it. And don’t even think about “keep an eye peeled for the weather.”

By contrast, some on the “No one reads it literally anymore” side have used that as a means of reading it however it pleases them, usually to fit with the cultural tastes of the moment. While it is true that no one reads the Bible literally, it often leaves others asking “Does the Bible mean what it says, or not?” Of course, the answer is, the Bible authors meant what they said! But they said something to a particular audience. The Bible was not written for scholars, but for every day people. Every day people living in their day.

So that’s the task set to any of us who read the Bible, scholar or not.What did the author –the human author– expect the people of his day, whether 1400 B.C. or A.D. 98, get out of what was written? That’s literacy.

If I write, “Be on the lookout for false teachers,” I do not expect you to set up a religious “community watch,” patrolling the neighborhood–or your church’s pews–for false teachers. That’s literalism. Of course, what I mean is, “be alert.”

Now, it may sound relatively simple to say, “We need to read the Bible looking for what the human author expected his audience to understand,” and, in one way, it is. But you probably realize that many important things are simple without being easy. When we read, for example, “If you love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15),” we readily assume that Jesus means that anyone who really loves him will keep the Ten Commandments. I mean, they are God’s commandments, aren’t they? And Jesus is God. What else could it mean?

If you re178410826-720x480ad the whole passage, which stretches from ch. 13 through the end of ch. 18, you will find that Jesus tells us exactly what his commandment is: that we love one another. And reading the whole passage, you will see that theme again and again: Those who truly love Jesus will love one another. In fact, it is the identifying factor (John 13:35). Does this mean we can ignore the Ten Commandments? This passage does not address that topic at all so the faithful reader will not jump to any conclusions about the Ten Commandments, at all, based on this passage.

So, reading the Bible trying to find out what the original human author expected his audience to understand is not easy, but it is not terribly difficult, either. We just have to learn to ask questions of ourselves and of the text, as we read. It’s not particle physics, or advanced mathematics; anyone can do it. And the results are worth it. Because every time I approach scripture in this way, I discover riches I had not seen before, had not expected. Every reading becomes an adventure, a search for treasure, which deepens my appreciation for the gift of scripture, and the God who gave it.