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Understanding Sacred Scripture

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

When considering the study of sacred scripture there are many different ways to evaluate the source material. In order to understand the truth claims made in the bible, especially in the Old Testament, there are many considerations that need to penetrate past the immediate literal meaning of the text. This consideration requires a good understanding of what the bible is and the canon that it is comprised of. Once armed with a reasonable conception of the books that make up the bible it is then necessary to focus on how to understand those books.

Knowing which books made up the body of the canon is a very important issue because even today disparate groups cannot agree on exactly what the bible should mean. This means that although different groups use the same words, they are not telling exactly the same story. To take an extreme example, if we compare the canon of Judaism with Catholicism, we can see very large differences and those differences are critical to the understanding of each faith tradition.

If we look at the canon as being solely composed of the Old Testament we are left with an unfulfilled promise and the hope of its fulfillment. We see the foreshadowing of the coming Annointed and discussion about exactly what that coming will entail. In contrast with the Catholic canon that includes both the deuterocanonical and New Testament texts where we see a fulfillment of that divine promise. This difference in canon makes an enormous difference to the creed and cult of both traditions and also the kinds of tools and cultural understanding necessary to make sense of those books. The problem also exists within different forms of Christianity, different groups yield different conclusions based on both their traditions together with their understanding of the canon.

Even presuming we do agree on a canon, textual and historical analysis is critical to understand what the human authors (even if under divine inspiration) were trying to convey to their readers. However, everything the writers and editors wrote were intended to be understood by someone. Coming at ancient texts from a modern point of view is problematic because we lack the cultural and idiomatic understanding of those cultures. Thus, textual criticism is important so that we can attempt to unravel the theological points being made in these texts. We run the risk of misunderstanding people who use their knowledge of the sensible world to convey philosophical ideas without the aid of highly technical philosophical language that we are accustomed to.

In order to study the bible, it is necessary for us to take account of what the bible is. We need to understand what books belong in it and understand the genre and context that those books were written in. We must then further take a step back and try to understand the people who worked on these books and understand it from their perspective as well as we can. If we fail in this, we run the danger of badly misunderstanding the theology that God intends for us to gain through His revelation to us.



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