I was in college and working part-time at a Christian bookstore in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a beautiful two-story bookstore with a stone fireplace and a honey-pecan-stained hardwood staircase. People came from all around just to see the store, and on this particular day, a woman walked in. I can’t remember what she looked like, but I’ll never forget what she said, with anger in her voice, as she left the store. 

After grabbing an item or two from the gift section, she walked into the Bibles section. We sold so many Bibles. We had nearly every type of cover you could imagine. Real leather. Paperback. Hardback. Duotone. Faux leather. We had children’s Bibles. Bibles for those in the military. Bibles for people who like to hunt. Study Bibles for pastors.

We engraved Bibles with people’s names in either silver or gold ribbon. We had Bible covers and special bookmarks for Bibles and Bible ribbons. And, we had nearly every translation. The KJV, NIV, NASB, NLT, ESV, CSB, NRSV, NKJV, and even older translations like the King James 1611 version. That was the Bible this woman was looking for. 

If you’re not familiar with it, the KJV 1611 was commissioned in the year 1604 by King James hence the title: the King James Version. It includes not only the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 Books of the New Testament, but also the 14 books of The Apocrypha. It became a hugely important part of English culture and was a literary masterpiece. And for the woman that day in the bookstore, it was the only true version of the Bible.

She called over a coworker. 

“Do you have the 1611 KJV?” 

“We do,” my coworker answered, grabbing the leather-bound Bible, covered in shrink wrap, from the top shelf.

“Just so you know,” the woman said, “all of these other translations have changed the word of God.”

My coworker took a breath, “I don’t see it that way.” 

Evidently, the woman became quite angry, trying to begin a debate. She was frustrated we had other translations, in her mind, mistranslations of the Bible. She felt the need to defend what she called “God’s word.” Many of us feel that way sometimes.   

She ended up setting down the gift items she’d picked up, and on the way out the door, she said something I’ll never forget. “If the KJV 1611 was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” And she meant it.

I remember being so confused because I had never heard this before. Why did she think Jesus read the 1611 KJV… or anything in English? Did she have a pastor who told her the 1611 was the version Jesus used? Did she know most synagogues in Jesus’s day would’ve only contained collections of a few scrolls from what we now call the Old Testament? I don’t know. I just know that I grew up differently and had been taught the NASB was the “best” translation. Yet, I had friends who believed the NIV was the best translation. And my wife’s grandfather read a translation in Spanish.   

But, when I drove the 2-hour trip home from college to visit my family, I passed a small church with a sign that read, “KJV 1611 Only,” and I knew she wasn’t alone.

If we read the Bible, many of us have a preferred translation, and some of us are more intense about that preference than others. Perhaps you’ve heard the nickname for the ESV—the Extra Special Version? We could have a nickname like this for every version! It’s okay to have a go-to translation, but when our primary reason for reading a certain Bible becomes overly technical, perhaps we’re starting to miss the point.   

The Bible is considered by many to be the most important book of all time, and many people say it’s the #1 best-selling book of all time. For people like me, we grew up in homes where it was revered and respected. Pastors often referred to the Bible’s “authority” in all matters. And some people would say, “The Bible, only the Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” Or in reference to the Bible, they would say “God says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

But then people like me, who heard how important the Bible is or was, would try to read it. And sometimes it was easy: don’t lie. Got it! Don’t murder. Got it! But then I’d read something like what God asked Abraham, “Sacrifice your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.” Wait, what?! 

In those moments the Bible felt so foreign to me. And so uncomfortable. Then I’d read something about the Israelites, and I felt even more pushed out of the Biblical story because I’m not Jewish. And then I’d read books like Leviticus, and hardly understand any of it. The Bible would feel ancient, irrelevant, and outdated. Yet, the trustworthy people in my life said I should be reading it. Even more so, I should be applying it.

It was only in the past few years I realized the problem. So many people told me it was important to read, but looking back, no one ever stopped to answer two crucial questions about the Bible: what type of book is it? And, how should we read it?


So, let’s begin by answering the first question: what type of book is the Bible?

Is it a history book? Is it a handbook with Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth? Is it a love letter? Is it an ancient mythology? Is it an answer book? Is it a scientific textbook? Will it really answer all my questions and solve all my problems? 

The Bible is a collection of ancient texts, filled with different genres of literature (law, history, prophecy, narratives, poetry, wisdom literature, letters, gospels, apocalypse). It tells the overarching story of God’s authority at work in redeeming the world and pursuing a relationship with people. The Bible tells Israel’s story, which ends up being a story about Jesus, which ends up being a story about us, which ends up being a story about God with us.

As a result, it can be said that all of the Bible is for us, but not all of the Bible is to us. There were real people who were the recipients of different pieces of the Bible and could be considered the primary audiences (i.e. when Paul writes a letter to people in Corinth or when Hosea writes a prophetic letter to people in the Northern Kingdom of Israel). We are the secondary audience and are receiving an amazing gift—the historic church has collected and passed down to us this collection of texts, so we can learn about who God is and how much he loves us. The ancient narrative assures us over and over again, that we’re God’s people with the commission to share the news that all are invited into the story.

This story is everyone’s story, and it’s a story that liberates human beings to become fully human in the way God intended in the first few pages of the Bible. In fact, that’s how the story ends, people from all nations, tribes, and tongues in a face-to-face, close relationship with God again (Revelation 7:9) just like they were in the Garden of Eden.  

It’s also helpful to note the Bible wasn’t “written” in the way we typically think of writing. Today, we have unprecedented access to pens, journals, computers, and devices that empower us to capture words on paper or screens. Most of the Bible was passed down orally to people who couldn’t read. When it was “written,” it was meant to be heard by a congregation of people who didn’t have access to books. Access to the whole collection is also historically recent. In Old Testament times, many synagogues only had a few scrolls. In New Testament times, some people’s only exposure to Jesus was through just one of the gospels or one of Paul’s letters. The Bible, in the sense of existing as a collection of books, is a recent invention compared to the history of the story it tells.

These things also help us recognize what the Bible is not. The Bible is not a rule book meant to control people or churches. Most of the Bible doesn’t consist of rules, regulations, or lists of commands to be obeyed, although there are some. Most of the Bible doesn’t consist of creeds, or lists of things that must be believed, although there are some. The Bible also isn’t a collection of answers to all of life’s questions, although it does provide a lot of wisdom. The Bible includes some history, but it’s not a history book. It wasn’t written to provide a comprehensive, detailed, and accurate account of the history of the world, especially in light of how much history it intentionally leaves out (i.e., major chunks of Babylonian history, Egyptian history, and Roman history). Instead, it focuses on one small people group for a few thousand years and only mentions other cultures when they intersect with the lives of the featured people in the story. If anything, it could be a theological history (the development of the Jewish and then Christian faiths), but it’s not that either, as none of the authors sat down to provide a historical systematic theology (the closest might be Paul’s letters to Romans or Galatians, but even those are first and foremost ancient letters).

The Bible is a collection of texts, creating a collection of stories, that tells one story about God’s pursuit of a relationship with human beings.


With that in mind, how do we read this book?

When the Bible is used in any way other than telling God’s story, I believe it belittles the Bible, and tries to make the Bible into something it’s not. Theologian N.T. Wright suggests, in his article, How Can The Bible Be Authoritative, these misuses imply that “God gave us the wrong sort of book, and it’s our job to make it the right sort of book.” As a result, we should stay away from, “What so-and-so really meant here, was…” If something isn’t coming together in a nice bow, don’t make it tie up in a nice bow. Let it be messy. It’s alright to be uncomfortable, or to shrug your shoulders and say, “I don’t know why that story is in here or what it means.” It might be tempting to try to come up with an explanation or defense for every little thing in the Bible, but it’s much more honest to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Reading analysis from trusted sources or trying to understand a passage from the point of view of a historical context can be helpful, but even this won’t answer all of our concerns. While God passed these passages down for a reason, it’s not your job to read his mind, or explain it for him. There can be comfort in mystery and peace in the unknown.

To let you in on my own personal bias, as a Christian, I believe the story of the Bible points to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as the climax of a story that only gets better from there. In Hebrews, the author suggests that God spoke in Old Testament times through prophets and leaders, but in the New Testament era, he spoke through his Son, Jesus (Hebrew 1:1-4). Jesus was also quoted saying things like, “If you know me, you know the Father…if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:7-9). Paul wrote that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:16).

These are important and helpful ideas in guiding how we read the Scriptures. As a Christian, I believe Jesus is the best and most clear image of God the Father we have. We can focus on Jesus by getting to know what he said, how he treated others, and what he set out to accomplish. And then, as we read the rest of the Bible, we can use the life and teachings of Jesus to interpret the rest of the story. 

Jesus offers a beautiful picture of the heart of God, and as we get to know him, we can then look through the rest of the Scriptures for the heart of God as revealed in Jesus. If we run into passages that don’t line up with who Jesus is, or what he taught, don’t feel that you need to justify those passages away or ignore them. Be comfortable saying something like, “Well, I know Jesus said this and did this, and I’m still struggling to reconcile what I see in Jesus with what I see in that story.” Over time, the Holy Spirit may offer you a perspective that helps you understand more clearly. Then again, maybe not.


In summary, here are a few of the questions I ask myself when I think I understand what the Bible is saying…

  1. What’s the context of this passage, and did I honor the context in my interpretation?

 (Helpful context questions: From what genre is this passage? What are the characteristics of this genre? Who are the characters? What are they like? What are the smells, sounds and sights surrounding this passage? Where does it fall in the overall narrative arc of the Bible [Creation, Relationships, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Cross & Resurrection, Early Church, Now, Future]?)

  1. Does my interpretation illustrate the loving heart of our good and loving Father, as demonstrated in the life and teachings of Jesus?
  2. Could my interpretation be summarized as “do better”? If so, I may be missing the Gospel-focus where Jesus offers grace and mercy and rescues us, despite what we do. 
  3. Does my interpretation fit within the overall narrative arc of the Bible? 
  4. Am I trying to tie a bow where there’s no bow? Or clean up a mess that should be left messy?
  5. Does this remind people they were made by God and belong to God—they are his people? Does it emphasize they are his children?
  6. Does my interpretation send Christians into the world better equipped to spread the good news that God loves the world and paid the price so the whole world can be saved (1 John 2:2)?
  7. Did I take a beautiful, mysterious, and intriguing story and strip it of its mystery? Did I summarize something that can’t be summarized? Did I water something complex down into a few points?
  8. Did I hold this understanding up as a mirror for myself? 
  9. Does this promote hypocrisy—living a different story or in a way that is not true to the story the Bible tells (i.e. prosperity gospel)?
  10. Does this help people stand humbly before God?
  11. Is there anything here that would exclude someone from being able to join  God’s story?
  12. Does my interpretation work in all cultures and with all peoples of the world? If what I’m saying the Bible says doesn’t work in another cultural context, it’s probably not accurate.
  13. Am I saying the Bible says something that it could never have meant in its own time and to the original audience who received it?


None of this is foolproof, and I still often discover ways in which I’ve misinterpreted the Scriptures. But taking the time to think about what type of book the Bible is, and how to read it, are important steps worth taking before we crack open the pages or assume it’s just like every other book we read.

The Bible is so important and life-giving. It offers wisdom and perspective that is truly life-changing. It introduces us to a God who wants to have a close relationship with us. And my hope is that, by engaging with this article, you’ll feel a little better equipped to engage the Scriptures for what they are and not for what we assume, or want, them to be.