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

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

Introduction to Question

The proper interpretation and understanding of scripture is essential to the continued health and vitality of every Latter-day Saint's faith for a number of reasons.

This article aims to outline principles and procedures one can follow to properly understand the scriptures and gain accurate doctrinal understanding.

Response to Question

1. Understand the Nature of Revelation

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

2. Read Them Contextually

Exegesis is an interpretation or explanation of scripture. Usually, when we’re speaking of exegesis, we are referring to a historical-grammatical method of exegesis. That is, trying to understand how the first hearers/readers of those scriptures understood the text. When we perform historical-grammatical exegesis, we are looking for the correct interpretation of scripture by assuming that something about the historical background of that scripture can tell us about how to interpret it.

The interpretation of a text is subject to the constraints added on by the three stages of a text's transmission:

  1. The author’s intent or purpose in what he or she wrote. The text exists in the author's mind at some point and they had something that they intended to communicate to us.
  2. What the author actually wrote separate from that purpose/intent.
  3. How we, as readers, interpret or react to that text today.

The historical-grammatical method of exegesis helps us to try and get a more accurate understanding of the first two stages of transmission so that the interpretation made at the last stage of transmission can be best informed.

Latter-day Saints are admonished to seek to understand scripture in its original context. Scripture contains several admonitions to not wrest it.[1] Nephi in the Book of Mormon has to pause his quotation of/commentary on Isaiah in order to explain "the manner of prophesying among the Jews" so that his people could understand Isaiah.[2] This suggests that we, too, should understand scripture in its historical and cultural context in order to glean the most accurate understanding from it.

President 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

To perform historical-grammatical exegesis, one should seek to establish four types of context for scripture: generical, historical, textual, and linguistic.

  1. Generical: Scripture has many genres of writing. There is legal code, historical texts, narratives, poetry, and more. Understanding the genre of scripture can help us in interpreting that scripture.
  2. Historical: Scripture was written at a particular time and in a particular culture. We often need a lot of tools to help us understand when scripture was written and under what cultural filters. Scholars for many years have created study bibles in order to help lay readers recreate this context in their minds. This author recommends The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible and the Jewish Study Bible to gain a better understanding of Scripture's historical context.
  3. Textual: Any verse is going to be embedded in a series of other verses where the author is talking about a particular topic. We should read the verses preceding and succeeding our verse in question in order to understand what the author is talking about.
  4. Linguistic: words obviously have meaning. They can have different meanings to different people at different times. Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament in Koine Greek, we will need to understand these languages somehow in order to understand what the translated English word might be getting at. Even English words as contained in the King James Bible (the Church’s officially preferred translation for English readers) are going to be hard to understand because they either aren’t in common use anymore or because they are diachronic. That is: they can change in meaning over time. What an English word meant to the King James translators; what it meant to Joseph Smith when he gave us the revelations/translations/narrations recorded in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price; and what it means to us today in our common parlance can be different--even starkly different.

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 sometimes use it today which would be "to be chaste." 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, chastity 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 of "virtue" for the King James translators was closer to "power" than "chastity."

As we understand both the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek term and the English term translated into our King James Version—as well as the definition of an English word in Joseph Smith's time— the better we will be able to understand the scriptures as the first people who heard those revelations understood them and how we, today, are commanded to understand them (as observed above).

For understanding the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the author recommends either making an effort to learning those languages or using the features at netbible.org that allow readers to click on the tab that gives the original Greek or Hebrew text, hover over the text to see the word that was translated, and then use the pop-up dictionaries. For understanding confusing King Jamesian English, the author recommends using the resources found at kingjamesbibledictionary.com. For understanding the meaning of a word in Joseph Smith's time, one should probably consult the King James Bible Dictionary (link above), 1828 Webster's Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary. The reason that one should consult all three including the OED is because, as Stanford Carmack has persuasively argued, the 1828 Webster's Dictionary lacks important possibilities for how Joseph Smith might have defined a word in his mind when giving us all his scriptural productions.[3]

The goal of all this work is to establish that one has the superior interpretation of scripture or, in other words, the one that is most likely the correct one. Thus, one should seek for and document as much support for their interpretation of scripture as possible.

To aid in doing exegesis, members might simply consult any one of the literally hundreds of scholarly commentaries that have been produced to interpret different books of the New and Old Testament as well as the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Many Latter-day Saints have been benefitted in using scriptural commentaries and study bibles such as the Harper Collins Study Bible, the New Oxford Annotated 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, and historical context in which a particular book of scripture was written 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 as well as understand how to interpret certain verses. For Latter-day Saint scripture, members have enjoyed reading similar analytical commentaries such as Brant Gardner's Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon for the Book of Mormon; Steven Harper's Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations for the Doctrine & Covenants; and the resources at Pearl of Great Price Central for the Pearl of Great Price. One might find the resources at Book of Mormon Central and Doctrine and Covenants Central very useful.

Another resource for understanding the geography of scripture is The Scriptures Mapped. Scriptures tend to name locations that are unfamiliar to modern readers. Two professors at BYU, Stephen Liddle and Taylor Halverson, created this resource to help know what locations the scriptures are referring to.

3. Read Them Holistically

As the Lord says five times in the Doctrine & Covenants, "what [he says] unto one [he says] unto all."[4] Scripture must be read holistically. If we are to understand it, then it must be understood as a whole. This so we can understand how the scriptures complement, supplement, expand, update, retract, and/or revise each other.

To read scripture holistically, one should first have very clear in mind what topic they want to explore or question that they want answered. For instance, they could want to study the topic of charity in the scriptures. Next, they should try and imagine the constellation of terms that touch on that topic. For instance, the scriptures contain over 600 occurrences of the words “charity,” “charitable,” “love,” “loved,” “loves,” “lovest,” “loving,” “loving kindness,” and “loving kindnesses.” Finally, they should read every occurence of those words contextually (following the steps laid out below).

There may be topics that don't fall so easily under identifiable word clusters. For instance, to learn about the Creation we need to read/see the four creation accounts in Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the Temple. We should understand that the Lord has not revealed all things pertaining to creation but will reveal them at his second coming.[5] In cases such as these, one might consult good doctrinal resources such as scriptural dictionaries. For the Bible, one might consult Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible; for the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon Reference Companion; for the Doctrine & Covenants, the Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion; and for the Pearl of Great Price, the Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion. These are great resources for reading scripture contextually and holistically.

For other great resources on reading scripture holistically, see the Topical Guide, Index to the Triple Combination, the Guide to the Scriptures, the search function on the Gospel Library app, the search function on churchofjesuschrist.org, Eldin Ricks's Thorough Concordance of the LDS Standard Works (or Gary Shapiro's concordance), and Strong's Exhaustive Concordance for the King James Version of the Bible.

One should also strongly consider what top Latter-day Saint leaders have said about the passages of scripture that they're going to exegete. The Scripture Citation Index is a fantastic resource for this.

Finally, one should review what else top Latter-day Saint leaders have said about the topic in places like General Conference. The LDS General Conference Corpus is an excellent resource to consult in order to accomplish that.

4. If Scripture is Making a Scientific Claim, Weigh it with Science

Our theology is not threatened by science. It welcomes it. If we have properly contextualized and interpreted scripture and if scripture is making a scientific claim, we should weigh scripture 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.

There may be some unresolved difficulties when weighing science and scripture. We can take a lack of archaeological evidence for the Canaanite conquest as depicted in the Bible. Does the lack of evidence mean that the conquest didn’t happen as depicted in the Bible or that God made it so that that kind of evidence wasn’t available to us? It’s an unanswerable question and many like these will arise during the course of weighing scripture and science. Keep in mind that God not allowing the evidence to exist doesn’t necessarily make him deceitful nor a trickster. It just means that there needs to be a degree of evidentiary separation between him and us so that we can come into relationship freely with him instead of being coerced into it by overwhelming proof of his existence. Who really knows how exactly he could have bent time and space in order to make these miraculous events of scripture happen and then to not leave sufficient evidence of their happening?

Conclusion

The foregoing framework for understanding scripture should help all of us in guarding against temptation and deception, as well as unifying the Saints: making us more "of one heart and one mind."[6] It will help us avoid those ideas that are the philosophies of men mingled with scripture and embrace those that are "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy[.]"[7]

Continued practice of this method may reveal other important insights about reading and understanding scripture. It is the author’s prayer that those searching for those insights will do so with a patient, humble, soft, and diligent heart engaged in prayer always.


Notes

  1. 2 Peter 3:16; Alma 13:20; 41:1; Doctrine & Covenants 10:63; 88:77-79
  2. 2 Nephi 25:1
  3. Stanford Carmack, "Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828)," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 15 (2015): 65–77.
  4. Doctrine & Covenants 61:18, 36; 82:5; 92:1; 93:49.
  5. Doctrine & Covenants 101:32–34.
  6. Philippians 2:2; 1 Peter 3:15; Moses 7:18.
  7. Articles of Faith 1:13