There are some books I have read multiple times. Through college I probably read The Lord of the Rings every year from the time I was ten, and I have read it through a few times since then.
Growing up in a small Southern Baptist Church the book that we talked the most about, of course, was the Bible. The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me… Talked the most about, read might be a different story.
In my career I have found that to be pretty consistent across the spectrum. People have been told what the Bible says, they think they know what the Bible says, and so when they read it, if they read it, they do not engage with the text in any meaningful way.
When we do sometimes we sometimes find a discrepancy between what the text says and our experience of God or our understanding of the rest of scripture. This leads either to tension between two conflicting ideas that we never really resolve or it leads to dismissing scripture as irrelevant.
There is a third possibility. Maybe we misunderstood it in the first place. The tools the modern student of the Bible has are vast and easy to access if we are willing to do a little work.
Let us take a simple one that is not going to cause much grief.
Exodus 22:18 “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live” in the KJV. King James, in case you did not know, was an avid witch hunter. This passage, almost exactly the same as the Latin Vulgates version that predated it, led to massive witch hunts across England, Europe, and America of which the Salem Witch Trials are only the smallest example. Estimates from the height of persecution estimate that as many as 50,000 people were killed or tortured for the crime of witchcraft, about 80% were women.
The Hebrew word rendered “witch” is mekhashepha and is a hard one to parse. The writers of the Septuigent, the Greek version of the Old Testament that almost all the writers of the New Testament use for their quotations, rendered the word as pharmakeia, or herbalist. It is from this word we get “pharmacist.”
Now imagine the translation “Thou shalt not suffer a pharmacist to live” and Western history becomes a very different thing.
However, even around the time the King James Version was produced another translation was offered based on the scholarship of the writers of the Septuagint: “poisoner.”
From here we could go down a rabbit hole of linguistic obscurities, not something I want to do. I just wanted to point out that there is a passage that everyone is sure they understand that might mean something else.
So what does that have to do with you?
You might be getting some things in your theology wrong because you haven’t been willing to push aside the cultural understandings of the Bible and actually do the hard work of figuring it out.
But, you say, I do not have the resources or training to do what you just did!
Fair enough. So how about this instead: try not to shut down when someone else suggests there is a different way to read the Bible than the one you have learned. Remember, while we think culture and theology should be based on our understanding of the Bible, it is often the other way around. You can read different versions of the Bible in English (biblegateway.com has lots) and you can read commentaries and you can look up a few different understandings. You can, in short, engage with the text rather than passively accepting it.