How Should We Read the Bible? with Gordon Fee
In this interview, Dr. Fee discusses common mistakes in the way that people read the Bible.
JMF: It will help all of us to hear a little of the background of how you came to write How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
GF: I’m a little old now, in terms of all the details, okay? But it basically came about because I used to do this in various kinds of adult Sunday school settings, churches, just trying to help people read the Gospels as Gospels, the epistles as the epistles, et cetera. I was invited to be one of the teachers during the era of the Greater Pittsburgh Charismatic Conferences in the 1970s. They had teaching sessions—morning and afternoon—and they had invited me to come. Since I did this regularly in churches and especially in my New Testament survey class, I chose to take four sessions and walk them through the Gospels, Acts, the epistles, and the Revelation.
At the end of this series, there must have been a group of about 35 people, adults who had been in the sessions, and the common denominator of their question was, Why have we never heard this before? How come we don’t know this? Why do I have to be 50 years old and never knew that I should think this way in reading the Bible?
So on the way home, I dashed out the outline for the book—13 chapters, because I was raised in Sunday school, and all the lessons are in 13 chapters for the 13 Sundays of a quarter of the year. So I thought 13 chapters, and outlined the whole thing, and then realized that I could do the Old Testament chapters, but Doug could do them better. So I told him what the program was…
JMF: And you had known Doug for…
GF: We were colleagues. I taught at Gordon-Conwell, and so we were good friends. That’s why I went to him, because he thinks the way I do about teaching Scripture. Unfortunately, it took two years for him to get a sabbatical so he could write his chapters, but once he did, then it was sent off—and it was bad timing, because it was between the big push before the beginning of school year, and somewhere in that lull period for Zondervan.
I had chosen Zondervan as a publisher, and we had a former student who was working as an editor at Zondervan. He saw that the book was going to fall between the cracks, and he took the manuscript, got it after it was published, and sent it to everybody who teaches Bible everywhere in North America. I don’t know how many hundreds of copies he sent, but within a year the sales went off the charts. The reason was: it was trying to help people to get at reading Scripture sensibly instead of “every verse a paragraph” that is so destroying. Over a million of these are now in print. This is the third edition, and there’s over a half million of this edition.
JMF: This was the one I remember reading.
GF: Yeah. That’s the first edition.
JMF: Now we’re already in the third edition.
GF: So they went over a million. It met a need because people would like to know how to read the Bible well. Doug is responsible for the title. He’s clever in these ways. I always had some dumb title — “On Understanding the Bible” or something dull like that. He sat down and wrote out a whole page in two columns of proposed titles. The third one down was this one—How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. I knew I didn’t have to read any further—it was obviously the title that was going to make the book work. That’s how it came about.
JMF: You mentioned paragraphs. People read the Bible—the verses appear to be paragraphs. What’s wrong with that?
GF: What’s wrong is they wouldn’t read anything else on earth that way. The Bible wasn’t written in single-verse paragraphs. The Bible was written in poetry—which is four lines, usually two, two, and in the Proverbs the same way—two or four. The narratives are narratives. You break up the narratives the way you would break up any narrative. The epistles are letters. When the subject makes a slight change, you paragraph it there.
It’s common sense to read the Bible the way you would read any other piece of literature. Yet for some reason, people think that every verse a paragraph is sacred—it came down from heaven that way or something, when in fact, it happened because Robert Estienne was riding a horse across Europe and put the numbers in, half of them in the wrong places. We get stuck with that. Notice that the title is how to How to Read the Bible. Studying is a different thing. My problem is that most people do not read their Bibles well. That’s what this book is for.
JMF: Let’s take, just case in point, you mentioned epistles and Gospels. What is different about an epistle from a Gospel, and how would you read Gospels differently from the way you would read an epistle?
GF: What’s the difference between a short story and a poem? You don’t read a poem the way you read a short story, or a short story the way you read a poem. That’s the difference between the Psalms and a narrative. Between an epistle and a Gospel: one is a narrative about Jesus and his mighty deeds; an epistle is a letter. The epistles (letters) and Gospels aren’t even in the same league in terms of kind of literature. Why anyone would ever want to level that out as if it didn’t make any difference…. It makes all the difference in the world. God chose to do it this way. This isn’t Gordon’s discovery. God did this. We need to get in touch with what God did.
JMF: So if I’m going to read the Bible…let’s say when I was 10 years old and I see all these chapters and verses, and I go to a Gospel—let’s say Luke (I’m opening at random) chapter 7, verse 5, “For he loveth our nation and he hath built us a synagogue.” Then I might look at 1 Corinthians, which is a letter, chapter 8, verse 2, “If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.”
This one sounds like it has the same…because it’s got a chapter and a verse and a number by it, it has the same power and merit if I put it up on the wall as this one does, if I set it up next to it, and I could use those two without anything else around them, to come to some conclusions about what I think they mean.
GF: You would have to do that thoughtlessly – carelessly, I mean…
JMF: Any way you slice it, if there’s a verse on the wall, [someone could say], “oh, that’s God’s word.”
GF: Yes, it is God’s word.
JMF: Am I going to understand it just by looking at that verse all by itself like that?
GF: Let’s let God have the say, and he didn’t give us a verse, he gave us the Gospel. He gave us the epistle, not a verse.
JMF: If I pick up the newspaper, would I find a couple of lines in the middle of the article, pull them out and understand what the article’s about?
GF: No, but I think people tend to do that all the time. (laughing)
JMF: You’re right – I guess we do that with everything to some degree. (laughing)
GF: If it’s a person you disagree with, you read the whole article and you take out two sentences you disagree with and post that somewhere.
JMF: With the Bible we’ll take out two verses against people we disagree with and then use it as a weapon against them. But you’re pointing out the importance of reading things the way they’re written, and the way they’re intended for the people that they’re written to.
We don’t get a letter from somebody we care about… let’s say an email, and we don’t divide it up and just take out two lines and pretend like that has the same merit and meaning and power as the two lines earlier. We read the whole thing together…the message of the whole thing.
GF: Exactly. That’s the great problem.… I tell students over the years that the first thing you have to do is get rid of the numbers. You don’t go through your Bible and scratch out the numbers – just get rid of them in your head. Get rid of them because they’re not there. Then get rid of the paragraphs—that is, every verse a paragraph. Get a Bible that’s got it right in terms of paragraphing. There will be some differences, mostly for the sake of the readership. If the Bible is being prepared for 10th graders or below, you put more paragraphs in. If it’s for older folk, you can put fewer paragraphs in. The paragraphing is not sacred – it’s a way of helping the people read well. None of that is divinely given – it’s a translator’s or an editor’s choice.
JMF: The reason for verses is just to help us find a spot so we know what we’re talking about.
GF: On the ancient manuscripts (which was my first specialty in New Testament studies), they didn’t have any of that. They had little indications of where you were in the text, the Gospel or the epistle. In this inner column, they’d have a little Roman numeral III or an VIII or something like that, and those numbers represented where they were in the document. It goes way back to the 2nd, 3rd century, but this is a convenience for people to find things.
JMF: But it tends to break up our understanding.
GF: It intrudes. It intrudes all the time.
JMF: We typically memorize verses and spout them, and sometimes the point is clear from the verse, just one verse, but often without the rest of the context, you can easily misunderstand what the verse is really about in the middle of the context where it belongs.
GF: There’s a famous story about the person who was doing this—“Judas hanged himself” [Matthew 27:5] and then, “Go thou and do likewise” [Luke 10:37]. That’s the story that is associated with that kind of reading of the text, which is not reading. It’s nonsense.
JMF: Let’s go to How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour—you also worked with Douglas Stuart on that one.
GF: I wrote that book, and Doug edited the Old Testament portions. The publishers wanted us to do it. They asked us to do a combined Old Testament and New Testament survey. Neither Doug nor myself could get interested in it. We just couldn’t do it.
So he sat down one day and did what is very much like the Genesis chapter in this book. It was much too long and therefore the book would have been much too long, and it was a little heavy. But the moment I saw it, I said yes! So I did a couple of New Testament books.
The sections are a slight overview of what the whole thing’s about, and then a little more of what you need to know in order to read this well, and then we take the reader by the hand and say, “Look, now look, now look,” and guide them through it without trying to interpret anything, just let them know what they’re reading and when they need to pause… I ended up writing the whole book with Doug making sure that the Old Testament was up to speed, because this turned out to be an extremely useful book for an awful lot of Christians.
JMF: It’s a wonderful follow-up to How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It’s longer because you deal with every book.
GF: Again, we’re trying to help people be good readers of the Bible. I’m amazed at how few people read their Bibles well. It’s the same reason a lot of people don’t read their Bibles. Because they don’t know how to read them well – they get bogged down and weary of it. These books are attempts to say the Bible is good, readable, material. Do it this way and see if it doesn’t help.
I had surgery that put me on the shelf for several months when we were doing the second book. My wife Maudine and I read every bit of that book aloud to one another, and then all of the biblical text over a two-month period when I was recuperating from surgery. We had all day to sit around, as it were.
JMF: You would have never done that if you hadn’t had the surgery.
GF: Exactly. In part, the book reads well because we did that. Because we’re listening to one another read aloud, and when you stumble over a sentence when it goes four lines, you’ve got to stop and do something else. I don’t want to go through the surgery again, but it was a gift, so we took it.
JMF: [In the first book] you mentioned the 13 chapters, and you have the epistles, the Old Testament narratives, Acts, the Gospels, and one chapter on parables, and one on the law. I’d like to talk about parables first. How is a parable different from a narrative?
GF: They’re not terribly different, because a narrative and a parable, excuse me, there is more than one kind of parable—that’s the first thing people have to hear. Often, when people hear the word parable, they’ll think of the Good Samaritan. That’s good. That’s right. It’s a story. The story tells the story. But the parables get listed under brief sayings, the very brief kind—the kingdom of God is like….
JMF: …the treasure hidden in the field.
GF: Yes. So you’ve got that kind, and then you’ve got the story parable. People need to know they’re both parables, but they’re different kinds. One is something is like something else; the other one is also sort of like something else, but the parables are intended to “catch” a person. At the end, the people have egg in their face or whatever the parable is intended to do, particularly the one with the Good Samaritan, where the guy who asks the question gets blown away because the good guy turns out to be the people they hate, the Samaritans. That’s purposeful, in your face, listen to what God is doing in the world thing.
A parable can do that in ways that straight prose can’t do. Jesus could have said, love your enemies. He did say that, but he also told the story. Oh, you mean Samaritans? The story does it far better. People who can tell stories well always get their point across better than people that, like myself, would just do plain prose. I admire them, but I’m not one of them.
JMF: I’ve heard people say that all parables that Jesus told are true stories, but a parable doesn’t have to be a so-called true story…
GF: What you mean is an actual event.
JMF: Yes, an actual event.
GF: I don’t know why people feel that way—that somehow to tell a story to make a point…, an illustration, …you tell a story to make a point. That’s not lying, that’s not being false. The point is what you’re after. But there are some people who just think that that’s deception or something. My wonderful in-laws, now deceased, couldn’t handle me at this point because for them, if it wasn’t true (meaning it didn’t actually happen), then it’s not true. I had no categories for that view of what Scripture is about, so I just didn’t get into those conversations.
JMF: When I was younger, there were people who felt that fiction was wrong for kids to read because it’s not of true, actual events.
GF: It’s not true (laughing). Good fiction is the best way to find truth.
JMF: Yeah, to get across a point. The stories have always been a way…
GF: They’ve always been useful that way. Even in the Old Testament, some of the best moments in the narratives are when somebody tells a story and a person gets zapped by the story. That’s just the way it is.
JMF: Yeah. David, when Nathan the prophet came and told about the man with the sheep and [2 Sam. 12:1-10].
JMF: One of the books is this one, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth. Many people don’t think in terms of the variety of translations—they either have a King James or …the New International Version is popular and widespread…
GF: Most common…
JMF: …best selling. There isn’t much thought as to the differences between translations and what makes one translation superior for whatever the particular purpose may be over another one, and this book gets into that.
GF: You’ll notice it’s a different co-author in this case.
JMF: Yes. Mark Strauss.
GF: I had been asked to write this book by Zondervan, and it became very clear to me early on that we didn’t need Old and New at this point, we needed old and young. I’m old, and Mark is a New Testament scholar who teaches at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, and we’re on the TNIV, the NIV committee together.
JMF: The TNIV being…
GF: Today’s New International Version. We’re on this committee together, we’re good friends, and when I was asked to write this book, I realized I didn’t need an Old Testament person, I needed a younger person. I needed somebody who knew what was going on in the world of language, and he’s a marvelous linguist. So I am totally indebted to him for this book. When we go to conferences and we present the book, he’s the one who does it. He’s got it all on PowerPoint and the whole bit, and he’s a marvelous communicator.
We had a lot of fun writing that book. The chapters are pretty evenly divided as to our specialties, but just trying to help people to recognize that if you can’t read the Greek or the Hebrew, you’re dependent on the people who can, and who try to put it into English.
There’s a whole group of people out there who think loyalty to the biblical language means to be as close to that language as you can possibly be, both in form and in words. No good translator would ever think that. They would never translate a German book into something that looked more like German than English. You wouldn’t do that. I cannot understand why people think that so-called literal is better when, in fact, literal is not good English.
What we’re after is an English version of what the Greek and Hebrew say. But we’ve not taken sides on translations. At one point we have a chart showing from literal to the freest of the free and indicate that the middling area is the place that people ought to be for their Bible of choice.
But for some reason, people think that some of these more so-called literal translation have better translations. Actually, they’re poorer translations. They are, my term for it, Greek-lish. They’re neither English nor Greek. You can understand it in English, but nobody would ever speak that English. So why not take the Greek and put it into English, which is what most good translations do. We have them all listed there in terms of various usefulness, and audiences for whom they’re useful.
JMF: For your own reading, which translation do you like to use?
GF: We use what is currently the TNIV, but in 2011 will become revised to become the NIV altogether. The present NIV is going to be taken up into all of the changes that have been made over the years and will be the NIV.
JMF: How will it be designated?
GF: NIV updated, whatever. This happens regularly with translations. What a lot of people don’t know is that the NIV they’re reading is a 1978 version of something that happened much earlier and has scores of changes from the earlier expression of it. This is not a new thing for this particular tradition of translation.
Some people use just the NASB and NASU now. That’s fine, but nobody would ever speak that English. You would never speak it in the pulpit. It’s Greek-lish, not English. It does very nicely put the Greek into the English language, but you’re reading what the Greek looks like, not what English looks like.
This is a universal view of translation. This is not one scholar’s view. If you’re going to translate Luther into English, you just can’t keep the German sentences. It can’t be done. In the old story, the American on tour in Germany and he kept asking the translator, “What’s he saying? What’s he saying?” He said, “I don’t know, he hasn’t come to the verb yet.” Because the verb is the very end of [German sentences]. (laughing). You have to translate the whole sentence.
JMF: Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of our time. We appreciate very much you being here, and thanks so much on behalf of everybody who has used these books and benefited from them, as they have been such a tremendous help—How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, and How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth. Thanks for your good work and thanks for sharing your time with us.