How Should Catholics Read the Bible?
There are a number of ways to read the Bible. One of the first things Catholics should look for is good footnotes at the bottom of the page that are indexed to other similar texts in the Bible. This helps the reader to understand the particular verse in context, rather than in isolation. The Bible is meant to be read in its entirety, and never to be taken out of context. That is what satan tried to do to Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4 – Taking individual verses out of context, trying to use them to mean something they really don’t.
That method is still used today, by well meaning, but misguided, non-Catholics. By using the footnotes at the bottom of the page, you can turn to a similar verse and see how it is used. Another rule to follow is that you must read the bible with a sense of Tradition, what the original author meant to say, not what you think it means. If you were the author of “Gone with the Wind”, you surely wouldn’t want someone 2000 years from now to come up with an interpretation that Scarlett was a Yankee! Likewise, neither should we come up with interpretations based on what we “think”, or what we “feel” today. The third rule to follow is that no interpretation of the bible can contradict Church teaching, since the Bible is a product of the Church. That would be like saying that a government document contradicts the government agency that issued the document.
In a lot of cases, the New Testament reading is prefigured in the Old Testament. For instance, when one reads that Jesus’ face shone like the sun in Matthew 17, you can flip way back in the Old Testament and see that Moses’ face also shone (Exodus 34). The deeper meaning here is that Moses was a biblical “type”, or foreshadowing of Jesus – Moses was the lawgiver in the Old Testament; Jesus is the lawgiver of the New Testament. Moses went up the mountain and brought down the Word of God to the people for the Old Covenant in Exodus 34; Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, which is the Word of God for the New Covenant.
There are numerous examples of Old Testament types of Jesus. For instance, Jesus is called the Son of David in Matthew 1. David was a Jewish King, Jesus is a Jewish King. The Bible says that David was a shepherd (1 Samuel 16) and was 30 years old (2 Samuel 5) when he became the King of the Jews. David was also from Bethlehem (1 Samuel 17). This foreshadows Jesus exactly, who was also the Good Shepherd of us all (John 10), was 30 years old when he began His public ministry (Luke 3), and who was also born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). The Old Testament, in Genesis 37, tells the story of Joseph, who was stripped of his garments by his own brothers, and sold to the pagan authorities. Later on, Joseph forgave the very people who had sold him into slavery. Jesus was also sold to the pagan authorities by his own people (Matthew 26), and stripped of his garments (Matthew 27). Jesus also forgave the people who killed him. The innocent Joseph was thrown in jail; the innocent Jesus was thrown in jail. Joseph became Pharaoh’s right hand man; Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. Joseph gave bread to Israel to save his brothers; Jesus gives us the Eucharist to save us, his brothers. In other words, the people and events of the Old Testament all point to Jesus as Messiah. There are numerous other examples of typology in the Bible. A Bible with lots of good footnotes will point all of these out.
Numerology is also used in the Bible. The number seven (the day God rested from His Creation in Genesis) is the number of perfection. The number 6 is the number of imperfection. We see that Jesus changed the water into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana on the seventh day of the story, in John 2. John, who starts his Gospel out with the same 3 words that Genesis started out with “In the beginning” is trying to tell us here that Jesus is God, and that there is now a new Covenant, a new creation. The number 6 is used to imply the name of the beast in Revelation 13 (Caesar Nero). Goliath was 6 cubits high (1 Samuel 17).
There are 4 basic levels of scripture to understand:
The literal sense, the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense. The literal sense is what most people stop at when they read the bible. The literal sense when one reads about a temple in the bible is a big building where everyone went to worship. This is what the Pharisee thought that Jesus was talking about in John 2 when Jesus said “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in 3 days.”
However, Jesus was talking about the allegorical sense (how the text refers to Jesus) and the fact that His Body is the new Temple.
The moral sense of scripture is how the verse applies to us and our personal morality. Since the bible says that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 6, then we should not spend one second desecrating our temple by getting drunk, watching impure movies, having an abortion, cursing, etc. The desecration of the temple is what started the whole Maccabean revolt in 1 Maccabees.
The last method, the anagogical sense, refers to the heavenly sense. We know that after the second coming there will be a new heavenly temple (Revelation 21), and the old earth and all of its churches and temples will pass away.
The average bible reader will be very enriched if they concentrate on the moral sense – How the bible verse applies to you personally. For example, when Mary presents the Baby Jesus to God the Father in the Temple (Luke 2), are you personally ready for Mary to present you to God the Father? When Mary and Joseph lose Jesus and find Him in the Temple (Luke 2), do you seek out Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at Church when you feel lost and forsaken? When Jesus is blinded by his own blood and sweat following the crowning with thorns, do we realize how sinful thoughts in our own head blind us to the saving power of Jesus’ blood and the water from His side at the cross? The list is endless.
And last, we should never put our own personal interpretation on scripture, unless it agrees with the Tradition of the Catholic Church. St. Peter himself warns against this practice in 2 Peter 1 and 2 Peter 3. After over 1600 years of Catholic Biblical history (Pope Damasus I and the Catholic Church approved the canon of the bible in the late fourth Century), the great scholars of the bible like St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas have already got everything figured out for you. Believing that our small 21rst century minds can figure out 4000 year old verses that were written in a very different language and culture, in a very different time, and with very different idiomatic expressions and meanings is the height of pride. You might as well say that you can understand physics on your own without first reading the writings of Einstein and Newton. That is why the Magesterium is needed to interpret scripture.
A good example of why an interpreter of scripture is needed would be the following sentence: “I never said you didn’t have to give me lots of money”. The intent of the writer could mean that I never said it, but I thought it. It could also mean that I expected you to pay me back with a favor instead of money. It could also mean that I never said it, but he did. It could also mean that I expected a loan of money, rather than a gift. It could also mean that I expected a little money, but not a lot. Without the Magesterium interpreting scripture for us through the lens of Sacred Tradition, there are all kinds of ways to misinterpret what the original authors had in mind. For instance, what would the proper meaning of this sentence be: “You never said not to take the bat down”. It would all depend on where the accent is in the sentence – “You never said not to take the bat down” (but your mom did). Or, “You never said not to take the bat down” (but you did write it down for me). Or “You never said not to take the bat down” (but you did say to leave it alone). And what kind of bat is it exactly? A flying rodent, or a baseball bat? Without a proper interpreter of that one sentence, it is impossible to know what the author had in mind. Now multiply that one sentence by the entire Bible!
So get a good Catholic Bible with great indexed footnotes. Read the Bible like Jesus is talking to you personally. Look for Biblical types of Jesus in the Old Testament like Adam, Moses, and Joseph. Don’t take scripture verses out of context. And if studying the Bible doesn’t make you a more loving, kind, and gentle person, then you are doing something wrong. The end result of your scripture study should not make you into a know-it-all arrogant person. It should make you more like Jesus.