Question: How can one best read and understand the scriptures?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: How can one best read and understand the scriptures?

First, we should understand the nature of revelation

The scriptures won't be understood if we don't understand the nature of revelation. This is addressed here.

To best understand the scriptures, you must read them in context

When trying to understand the scriptures and interpret them correctly, one must read them from the perspective of the people who wrote them. Many LDS prophets and apostles have spoken about reading passages in context. Statements may be found here. Additionally, the scriptures themselves indicate the danger of wresting their meaning including 2 Peter 3:16 Alma 13:20, Alma 41:1 , and D&C 10:63

Brigham Young stated:

Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households. You may understand what the Prophets understood and thought—what they designed and planned to bring forth to their brethren for their good.” Journal of Discourses 7: 333

There are four types of context that should be established while reading any given scripture

1. Genre

The Bible in particular contains different “genres” of scripture as it is understood by scholars. This includes historical narratives such as Exodus, Joshua, Kings, Samuel, and so forth, poetry as in the Book of Psalms or Proverbs, Prophetic books such as Isaiah, Obadiah, Jeremiah, etc.

2. Historical

We know that there is no revelation that exists without a historical context given to it. The historical context includes a time that something is written and by the same token the authorship. The scriptures are mostly written in the third person which may suggest that an author is either reminiscing about an event from the past, that he/she may be using different sources like a historian to reconstruct elements from the past, or perhaps that he/she is constructing an etiology to describe different phenomena present in the world.

Sometimes, the authors and prophets of the scriptures will use phrases that they know are familiar to their immediate audience but which fly over our heads when reading scripture. The confusion is brought out because we don’t know what they are referring to.

LDS Scholar Ben Spackman elaborates:

Things go without being said. And this is because, again, the authors and preachers in the Old Testament were talking to contemporaries. If I get up in sacrament meeting and I say ‘You know I went to Paris last summer by plane—by the way a plane is a kind of conveyance that travels at great speed through the air and Paris is the capital city of a country in Europe which is far east of here…’ I don’t bother explaining what I assume you already know. The Old Testament authors assumed that their contemporaries understood these things. So when you get into Isaiah and it is just full, I mean, he is name dropping and place dropping and talking about stuff, he assumes everyone understands that because he’s talking to contemporaries. And we’re not contemporaries so we don’t. One example, there’s the phrase ‘From Dan to Beersheba’ that shows up sometimes in the Old Testament. Beersheba was the southernmost border of Israel and Dan the northernmost. So saying ‘Dan to Beersheba’ is kind of like saying ‘coast to coast’ ‘from New York to L.A.’. But unless you can place those on a map, you don’t understand the significance that lies behind that phrase. So there is a knowledge gap between us and the Old Testament that we need to fill.”[1]

3. Textual

The utterances in the scriptures are full of thought units that are many times logically connected with many verses. Any verse should be read within the context of the verses preceding and succeeding it. This will help us to better understand what an author or prophet is saying.

4. Linguistic

Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament in Greek, we need to understand the meaning of the words used to write scripture in order to properly catch their meaning. Additionally, when reading the KJV, there are many words that have changed meaning over time. Words are diachronic. That is, they can change meaning with time. An example of this is the word “virtue” in the Bible

In Ruth 3:11 we read “And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requires: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.”

And in Proverbs 31:10 we read:

“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. “

With these verses we might easily conclude that the King James translators were referring to virtue as we understand it today which would be to be of a clean mind and heart as it came to chastity. However, a confusing case arises in the New Testament

Luke 6:19 reads “And the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all.”

So, virtue left Jesus’ body after a woman touched him? Or is our definition of virtue perhaps different than that of the King James translators? The definition was closer to power than chaste thinking as we would understand it today.

As we understand both the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek term and the English term translated into our King James Version, the better we will be able to understand the scriptures as the ancients understood them, per Brigham Young’s and many others' council.

To understand all of these contextual matters, many Latter-day Saints have found use in using scriptural commentaries and study bibles such as the Harper Collins Study Bible, the Oxford Annotated Study Bible, and the Jewish Study Bible. These study bibles contain essays at the beginning of each book to help explain authorship, historical place in canon, historical context in which the book was written, and literary value before allowing the reader to move forward with their study. The bibles also contain explanatory footnotes which allow the reader to see how an author is alluding to other passages of scripture and how one can best understand such phenomena. For Latter-day Saint scripture, members have enjoyed reading similar analytical commentaries such as Brant Gardner's Second Witness for the Book of Mormon or the Church's new volume on the Doctrine and Covenants "Revelations in Context" available on lds.org

Scripture must be read holistically. Both to understand what we need to defend and to understand all that the Lord wants us to understand about any given topic.

If we are to understand scripture, then it must be taken in stride with other revelation on the topic. For example, to understand creation we should both read the creation accounts contained in scripture and understand that the Lord has not revealed all things pertaining to creation but will reveal them at his coming (D&C 101:32-34). This will help us to not get caught in too much doctrinal unraveling in the future. This caution is demonstrated in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

Latter-day Saints recognize Bible scholarship and intellectual study of the biblical text. Joseph Smith and his associates studied Greek and Hebrew and taught that religious knowledge is to be obtained by study as well as by faith (D&C 88:118). However, Latter-day Saints prefer to use Bible scholarship rather than be driven or controlled by it."[2]

Reading scripture holistically also helps us to understand everything that the Lord wants us to understand on a given topic. Such is why we have tools such as the Topical Guide, Index, and Guide to the Scriptures to help us do that. One can also use concordances of the scriptures which were designed for the very purpose of evaluating scripture holistically. Such exist for the Bible (e.g. Strong's Concordance) and for Latter-day Saint scripture (Eldin Ricks' Concordance). Some tools can help us read a book of scripture both contextually and holistically at the same time. That was the design for scriptural dictionaries such as Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, Dennis Largey's Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price Reference Companions which can be found for purchase online.

Scripture, if making a scientific claim, should be weighed with science

Our theology is not threatened by science. It welcomes it. If we have properly contextualized and interpreted scripture and if the scripture is making a scientific claim, we should weigh that with science to be more perfectly instructed in that doctrine, principle, or theory. D&C 88:77-79 reads

77 And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.
78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;

79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are. Things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms

Science can, should, and does support revelation on many particulars. We should welcome its voice to our spiritual reasoning when determining what God is trying to reveal to us or what he may reveal to us. This isn’t to say that current science will always agree with revelation nor that revelation will eventually change to fit the demands of the scientific community, but that revelation and science should not fight against each other nor be compartmentalized in our understanding of truth. Science will generally reveal the physical laws of God, while revelation will generally reveal God’s spiritual laws.


Notes

  1. Spackman, T. Ben "Using Context to Unlock the Old Testament Library" Sperry Symposium 2017 [1]
  2. Robinson, Stephen R. "Biblical Scholarship." Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York City: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2007. Online.