On Approaching Difficult Bible Passages

Bible DifficultiesNothing can be more frustrating (or worrisome) as reading something in the Bible and a) not understanding what is going on or b) finding some sort of apparent contradiction in the text. Below are some suggestions on how to best to approach and make sense of these difficult passages.

1. Context is key. Before trying to make sense of a passage, it is imperative that you understand its context. This means never reading a single, solitary Bible verse, but always at least a paragraph. Reading in context also means that you should try to understand passages wider literary, theological, and historical contexts as well. Understanding why Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, the everyday situation of Christians living in first century Corinth, and what ancient Corinth looked like can go a long way in making sense of First Corinthians.

2. Consult others who may have encountered this issue before. People have been reading the writings within your Bible for (at least) 1,900 years. You are not the first person to have trouble understanding and interpreting a passage. Accordingly, there are plenty of people whom you can consult on how to best make sense of the issue at hand. Your pastor would be a good place to start. Depending on your desire to engage the academic aspects of Biblical Studies, there are also a plethora of resources available online and in print from Christians who have gone before you and made sense of the Bibles’ complexities.

3. Read canonically. This is especially important to remember when reading passages which have parallels elsewhere (certain Old Testament histories, the Gospels, Paul in Acts and his epistles). Recognize that each book is going to engage an event or message in a certain way and that certain other books may have different perspectives on the same events. This does not necessarily mean that one perspective is right and the other is wrong. Consider is harmonization is possible, and why each author may have highlighted the event in question the way that they did. Realize that not everything that immediately looks like a contradiction may actually be, well, a contradiction.

Jensen Memorial Library4. Use the resources available to you. This means in print and online. There are TONS of Bible translations, Bibles in the original languages, insights into textual criticism, early Bible manuscripts, maps, commentaries, concordances, and Bible information sites, and scholarly resources online and available for you to utilize (there are even friends who are getting their PhD’s in the history of Christianity who might be able to help and/or point you toward some resources). Recognize that not all resources are created equal, and that there are contested claims that you might need to be aware of. Again, this is where consulting your fellow Christians is helpful.

5. Look at ALL of the evidence. Don’t just take the word of one scholar, book, or TV show and run with it. At the same time, don’t just accept to easy answers that people sometimes provide. Look at the totality of the evidence, historical, literary, archeological, and otherwise. Read perspectives on both sides of the issue. And again, be willing to ask for help when you’re out of your comfort zone.

6. Determine what is at stake. If you have an extremely high view of Biblical inspiration and authority, recognize that one minor issue shouldn’t lead you to abandon your faith. Rather, try to put things into broader perspective. Contextualize your faith. Don’t live and die on every hill. And (again) ask how your fellow believers have made sense of the issue that you’re facing. That doesn’t mean accept someone else’s answers as your own – but rather use their insights as a starting place for your own investigation.

7. Finally, stay humble and willing to learn. If and when you find an answer to your issue, hold that solution humbly. Don’t force your conclusions down everyone’s throat. Remember the process you went through, and learn from it for the next time. Share what you’ve learned, but realize that different people find different things convincing, so support others as they seek to make sense of the Bible and discover truth themselves.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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