How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages

As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Some time back, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.

The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely. Continue reading

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The Bible in Thirty Chapters

What If…

The Bible is a pretty large book. Although we might not immediately think of it as such, how many other 2,128-page1 books do you have laying around your home? Or which reader has four different versions of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare on their bookshelf? The Bible is unique, not only for its contents, but also for its construction and history.

Though rightly regarded as the most important book you could ever own or read, modern Christians often fail to recognize the unique place in history we inhabit when it comes to accessing and understanding the Bible. For much of history, most Christians did not have access to the entire Bible. The first pandect (Bible in one book) was produced in the 8th century.2 Even after the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of Bibles in vernacular languages, many Christians only had access to particular books or collections of books in the Bible.


This reality got me thinking: what if I only had access to a couple of biblical books? Which ones would I want to have? My particular fondness for Luke and John would make those gospels priorities for me. Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are vital for understanding God’s covenant with Israel, so those would be useful too. I might be a terrible theologian if I did not have a copy of Romans and a terrible 21st century Christian if I did not at least consider having Revelation. Simply imagining life without the whole canon serves as an important reminder of how blessed and privileged we are to live with access to multiple copies and versions of the entire Bible.

Thinking Smaller

However, as anyone who has read extensively in the biblical text knows, no biblical book contains within its scope the entire story of God’s People, the whole history of salvation, or even every key doctrinal point.3 Having access to certain books, therefore, might still leave a reader relatively uninformed about the biblical metanarrative, the overarching story of the Bible. This reality led me to reflect further: what if, instead of whole books, we only had access to certain chapters of the Bible? What if we only had access to, say, thirty chapters of the Bible: which ones would we want to have?

Before proceeding, I want to note a couple of things about what follows. First, this is an exercise in theological reflection. Far be it from me to suggest stripping the Bible down for parts or ignoring chapters which do not appear on this list. Second, I hasten to note the importance of reading all portions of the Bible in their literary contexts. Chapters in the Bible were not original to the text, having only been added in the 13th century.4 Even though this exercise is somewhat arbitrary, then, the process of focusing and limiting the Biblical text does reveal much about our theological commitments.

Finally, this list arises from my own concerns and contexts. The foci of these chapters are the biblical metanarrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), the history of Israel, the life and work of Jesus, and the message of the Church. Of course, there are plenty of other themes and messages to be highlighted by this type of exercise. Without further preparation, these are the thirty chapters I would use to summarize the Bible:

The Bible in Thirty Chapters

Genesis 1-3: Creation, Fall, and Curse

Genesis 12, 15: Call and Covenant with Abram

Exodus 12: Passover Initiated

Exodus 14: Crossing of the Red Sea

Deuteronomy 5-6: Ten Commandments and Heart of the Torah

Psalm 23: The Good Shepherd

Psalm 106: Summary of Israel’s History

Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant

Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones and Restoration of Israel

Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount

Luke 22-24: Lord’s Supper, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus

John 3-4: Born Again of Living Water

Acts 7: Summary of Israel’s Rebellion and Stoning of Stephen

Acts 26: Life of the Apostle Paul

Romans 9: God’s Continuing Covenant with Israel and Inclusion of the Gentiles

1 Corinthians 11(17)-12: Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, and Ecclesiology

Galatians 3: Abraham, the Law, and Faith in Christ

Hebrews 1: Christology and Superiority of Jesus

1 John 3: Children of God and Law of Love

Revelation 21: New Heavens and New Earth

What do you think of this list? Which chapters would you remove? What other chapters would you include?


1 The number of pages the in NRSV Bible on my desk.
2 Codex Amiantinus, a Vulgate edition prepared as a gift for Pope Gregory II.
3 Arguments for a Protestant reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or a liturgically-informed reading of the Gospel of John fail to entirely convince me here, as both of these approaches present considerable contextual problems and often neglect important components of Israel’s story.
4 Alternative systems were devised by Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, with modern Biblical chapters deriving primarily from Langton’s system.

Spectrums of Scripture: Bibliography

This post is the final in our series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Primary Sources

Athanasius of Alexandria. Letter to Marcellinus. Edited and translated by Robert C. Gregg. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

Aristotle. Art of Rhetoric. Translated by J. H. Freese. Loeb Classical Library 193. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Clement of Rome. 1 Clement. Edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman. The Apostolic Fathers: I Clement, II Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache. Loeb Classical Library 24. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Graphing Addenda

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Graphing Addenda

  • Color: Text (i.e., blue for 1 Clement, red for Ignatius, green for Hermas)
  • Size: Length (i.e., bigger the dot/sphere, the longer the passage)
  • Brightness/Translucence: Clarity (i.e., the brighter/more solid a point, the more certain its use; analogy of quantum location for specific locations on spectrum)

Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Open BibleThis series has sought to begin developing a common methodological language for discussing ancient textual borrowing. Building from blocks of common concerns within the subfields of the study of late antiquity, I have outlined a methodological framework for approaching ancient literary citations and for offering arguments about what these uses indicate. My central contention has held that a composite methodology for understanding uses of one ancient source in another requires considerations of the verbal, thematic, and authoritative schemata through which ancient authors viewed and redeployed the sources available to them. In constructing the method, I have employed a “three dimension Cartesian coordinate system.” In this system the verbal correspondence axis has outlined a range from quotation to echo. The thematic correspondence axis considered thematic uses from explication to echo. And the third axis examined authoritative correspondences from formal quotations to unknown uses. Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Stream of Thought

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome

The third level of authoritative correspondence includes “stream of thought” and “somewhere” references. These citations cast their source texts as implicitly authoritative: not so important that they bear explicit mention but important enough to creatively insert into the discussion at hand.[1] Many times use of a particular text will occur in a stream of thought, a series of references to the argument of a source text but without clear indication of that text.[2] David Downs has demonstrated such a use of Romans 5-6 in 1 Clement 32-33, which expands upon Paul’s teaching on justification through repeated return to the language and authority of Romans.[3] Such references often appear in slightly modified form, since it is the meaning of the text rather than its explicit authority to which an author appeals.[4] Finally, there is the ever enjoyable που reference, where an author offers a citation located “somewhere” but without knowledge (or care) from whence it came. 1 Clement 28:2-3 employs this formula, saying “For the Scripture somewhere says, ‘Where will I go and where will I hide from your presence?’”[5] Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Formal Authority and Name Dropping

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

it-is-writtenWhat then are the various forms of authoritative correspondence? On one end of the authoritative spectrum are formal quotations, commentaries, and translations. Formal quotations denote the highest level of attributed authority within general literary works, while commentaries and translations reveal the importance of a text through sustained treatment of that text.[1] In contrast to scholars who argue that quotation does not indicate what an author thought of the work being quoted or that quotations were surface embellishments,[2] formal quotations consistently carry authoritative weight in arguments.[3] Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Authoritative Correspondence

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

The Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers

The authoritative correspondence spectrum constitutes the third and final method of tracking how texts were received by other ancient texts. This spectrum ranges from obviously high attributions of authority to unknown levels of authority. I say “unknown” authority rather than “no” authority because texts which are utilized by others are prima facia accorded some measure of authority.[1] A lack of clear indicators, however, makes the assignment of exactly how much authority difficult to accurately represent. Consideration of authority also raises the issue of functionality, and in large part, an authority correspondence indicates how one text functions in another.[2] On this Christopher Stanley says, “Words are spoken (or written) with the aim of doing something to the hearer(s), that is, evoking some sort of response.”[3] Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Thematic Echoes

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Apostle Paul WritingThe most amorphous and difficult to trace form of thematic correspondence is the thematic echo, where certain words or short phrases used in one text appear in another.[1] These resonances are particularly difficult to place when multiple sources employ the theme or when the text using these echoes employs different themes in close proximity.[2] As an example of multiple possible sources using one theme, consider Romans 10:7, which reads “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’”[3] One could argue that here Paul was using Deuteronomy 30:13 (“Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and get it for us?”),[4] Baruch 3:30 (“Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold?”),[5] or the Wisdom of Ben Sira 24:5 (“Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss.”).[6] Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Typology

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

1aredsea-crossTypology involves an ancient author’s building upon a specific concept, idea, or symbol found in another text.[1] This is among the most common thematic correspondences, where a writer takes a particular theme and makes it the point of their writing.[2] 1 Clement does this concerning the theme of concord (ὁμόνοια), weaving a range of citations into his discussion. Ancient writers employed a variety of typologies, including literary, theological, and historical themes.[3] Particularly common were Summaries of Israel’s Story, which would often trace a particular theme throughout Israel’s history.[4] Even more widespread were brief mentions of persons and circumstances, drawing thematic connections between an ancient exemplar and the contemporary audiences of a writing.[5] Continue reading