Do We Need Bible Scholars?

Are Bible scholars and Bible experts necessary for Christians to understand Scripture? Some feel that the Bible is simple and does not require scholarly interpretation, while others find the Bible intimidating due to its ancient languages, historical context, and complex meanings. This episode explores whether “average” Christians today need Bible scholars or can simply read scripture for themselves.

The conversation examines what the Bible is, looking at it as a collection of books written in particular historical contexts. It discusses how to discern reliable and formative biblical scholarship, considering the scholar’s life, motivations, and willingness to challenge tradition. The biblical concepts of taking scripture seriously, reading it in context, and interpreting it in community are emphasized. The ultimate goal of biblical study is growing in love for Jesus.

The guest for this episode is Dr. Jeremie Beller, Dean of the College of Bible at Oklahoma Christian University. Dr. Beller has studied biblical languages and literature extensively. However, his focus is not on technical precision but on teaching scripture for spiritual formation and community application. His desire is for Christians to read the Bible holistically, let it shape them into Christ’s image, and apply it in life-giving ways.

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Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)

WES: Welcome to the Radically Christian Bible Study Podcast. I’m your host, Wes McAdams. Here we have one goal: Learn to love like Jesus. There are some Christians who feel like Bible scholarship or Bible training at an academic level is completely unnecessary, that Bible experts ‑‑ or so‑called Bible experts ‑‑ are unnecessary and are usually leading people astray. They feel like scripture is so simple that anybody ought to be able to just pick it up and read it, understand it, and obey it. And on the other hand, there are a lot of Christians who feel like the Bible is too complicated to understand, that they couldn’t possibly understand the meaning and the purpose of scripture because they’re not a Bible expert or a Bible scholar. Should we trust biblical scholarship? Should we distrust biblical scholarship? Or is there somewhere in between where we ought to land? 

Today I’m going to visit with our guest, Dr. Jeremie Beller, who is the Dean of the College of Bible at Oklahoma Christian University, a wonderful follower of Jesus, and I know that you will enjoy and appreciate the things that he has to share with us and to teach us about studying scripture. I want to start today by reading 2 Timothy 3:14‑17. It says, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” I believe that today’s conversation is going to help all of us learn to love like Jesus.

Jeremie Beller, welcome to the podcast, Brother.

JEREMIE: Thanks! It’s great to be here, Wes.

WES: It’s great to have you, Brother. I’m excited to have this conversation. I think that this is going to be helpful for a lot of people, especially given your position, your role, and your experience, but before we really dive into this idea of biblical scholarship and being a Bible expert and whether or not you need to be one, it might be helpful just to define “the Bible.” It’s interesting how that is a term that ‑‑ we just kind of assume that we’re all on the same page when we use that idea or use that term of “the Bible,” but how would you define what the Bible is and what we mean when we talk about “the Bible”?

JEREMIE: Well, that’s a loaded question. It’s a great question because it’s really something of a modern development, in a sense. You know, when you read through scripture, it’s more the language of “Scripture.” “Bible,” as a collection of books that’s been recognized as authoritative, well, that comes apart later after the first century, but there were writings recognized as divine from the hand of God. But when you step back and you look at the entire collection, I often think the Bible is ‑‑ it’s a collection of writings. It’s directed by God’s Spirit, but it’s written to tell us about God and God’s expectation of creation and how God interacts with creation through history and where this is going, and so it spans a lot of time, giving us glimpses into how has God operated at this moment, under these circumstances, through these people. And so scripture is kind of a story, and some people get nervous when you use the word “story,” Wes, because they think that implies “not true.” That’s not at all what it implies. It is the narrative of history and where God fits into this.  

And so, you know, as I’m teaching the Gospel of Matthew this morning, and even in my Sunday sermon last Sunday, yes, it records historical events, and I believe fully in the historicity of this book, but it’s not just a history book, and we can’t read it as a history book. This is the story of God, that God is inviting us to be part of, watching him work in creation, telling us how we play a role in that creation. So there’s a really long, complicated answer for you, but I think it’s a broad picture of God’s story.

WES: No, no, I think that’s a great way to put it. It’s very similar to the way I tend to describe it. I always say that the Bible is a library, and I like how you emphasize that, too, a collection of books. The way I say it is it’s a library of prophetic books about God and his covenant people, that it ‑‑ we do believe, and you said, his Spirit carried along these authors, so we do believe that it’s from God in a sense, but I love that you emphasize the connection to a certain people at a certain time, certain circumstances. I mean, it is interesting, and it might not be what people might think God would do if he was going to tell people ‑‑ reveal to people who he is and his will for creation and for the world and the redemption of all things. You might not think that he would give his story in the context of a specific group of people, particularly the descendants of Abraham, but he did. Whether or not we would do it the same way if we were God, it doesn’t matter. This is the way we believe that God has revealed himself to us, is through this specific group of people, the descendants of Abraham, and, specifically, one particular descendant of Abraham, being Jesus the Christ. And so that makes the Bible very unique because it is connected to a particular ethnic group; it’s connected to particular cultures, as that ethnic group changed over time; and languages, particularly Hebrew and Greek and a little bit of Aramaic thrown in there, as well. So that makes it a very sort of unique collection of books. It’s not that God has communicated directly to Jeremie or directly to Wes and spoken to us in English in a 21st century culture. This book, or this collection of books, is rooted in a very particular period of history, and so that means that interpreting it or understanding it takes on some interesting nuances. 

Now, I think that there are people on sort of two ends of the spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are people that sort of deny that you need to know anything about the history or the culture or the languages, that they say, “Well, listen, the Bible says what it says. All you need to do is read it and obey it. That’s all you gotta do, and it doesn’t need any interpretation.” I’ve heard that my whole life, “The Bible doesn’t need any interpretation. I don’t interpret the Bible; I just read it.” And then, on the other extreme, I think that there are people that ‑‑ they’re intimidated by it because they realize, oh, it is a little more complicated than that. It’s challenging, and so they just kind of push away from it because they’re overwhelmed by it. Talk to us about those extremes, and how do we correct some of those misconceptions without reinforcing the other misconception?

JEREMIE: Yeah. Boy, that’s the world I’ve grown up in and that’s the world kind of I swim in right now, is where is that balance between an appreciation for scholarship, but also for the understanding that most Christians in the first century world had zero educational background. In fact, most Christians in the first century world could not read, which is an interesting perspective on how scripture operates and what it’s about entirely. But the Bible can be a very intimidating book because you open it up, it’s a different language, different culture, different assumptions, and so that makes a lot of people say, “That’s a foreign language. I don’t understand that.”

Scripture can be kind of intimidating, also, in how it’s arranged. You know, sometimes you can pick it up and, you know, you read the story of Ruth or Esther. It’s a great read. It’s a novel, almost. But then you get back in the book of Leviticus, and what in the world are we dealing with here? Then you jump over to Daniel and Revelation, and that doesn’t read like a novel, and so it is very intimidating. 

One other thing that I think makes it difficult for us to read scripture ‑‑ and this one hits a little too close to home sometimes ‑‑ is that in the way we’ve preached it and sometimes taught it, we’ve given people the impression that this hand of God just dropped this book out of heaven and said, “Someday I’m coming back and there’s going to be a final exam, and you need to understand everything written in it.” And so we carry this weight of intimidation that says, “If I get this wrong, I’m toast,” and so that’s why we have such strong debates over, you know, what is the images in Daniel, or what does Revelation mean, or what about the head covering in 1 Corinthians? And we’re not reading it as a conversation of understanding God and his people; we’re reading it because everything depends on me getting this right, and because of that, you’ve got those two extremes. People are really intimidated by it. 

However, that question, in and of itself, as you well know, is kind of simplistic. “All I have to do is read the Bible and do what it says.” Well, how are you going to read the Bible? You’re going to read it through a translation. And I remember in grad school and getting my degree, I thought, I want to learn Hebrew and I want to learn Greek so that I can do this on my own and not have to use commentators. Every translation of the Bible is, in a sense, a commentary. They’re wrestling with what word do I use? Why do I use that? Do I consistently use that? How has this word been used all around? So we have to kind of tip our hat to scholarship in the very handing down of scripture. 

Now, I believe in the providential power of God and his Spirit being at work in the authorship, but also in the preservation, and, to a certain part, the community of translation along the way. But as we read our Bibles and we interact with the text, one of the ‑‑ it’s fresh on my mind, again, because I’m teaching Matthew, is, you know, when the RSV translates “virgin” in Isaiah 7 as “young lady,” well, they’re not just pulling that out of nowhere. They’re wrestling with a scholarship that says, “How can we be consistent here?” And people came along and said, “Well, they’ve denied the virgin birth.” No, because the RSV uses “virgin” in Matthew chapter 1, and there are reasons for this. But what you see in that is scholarship is wrestling that, and so even our translations are a dependency on scholarship. However, there is an appreciation for what scholarship does to help us understand what is the world of scripture, what questions were they asking, what assumptions were they making, and how were they hearing these texts and things for the very first time, and so that’s where I think scholarship informs us. 

But, Wes, I think we have to back up because, again, when someone says the Bible is simple and anyone can understand it, I have to kind of pause and I have to offer a slight adjustment. I think Jesus is simple and anyone can understand the story of Jesus, and what scripture is doing is pointing us to Jesus. And, now, we get lost in the intricacies of language and genres and contextualization, but at the end of the day, those uneducated fishermen of the first century knew Jesus, and scripture came along to show us how the communities are interpreting Jesus and applying Jesus in their settings. And so that’s where I think we have to be careful with that balance, that “I don’t need scholarship because the Bible is written very easily.” Well, scholars themselves disagree, so it’s not an easy practice, so are we pointing to Jesus or are we wrestling something else?

WES: Yeah. Oh, I think that’s so incredibly helpful. In fact, I just got done having lunch with a mutual friend of ours, Jim Martin, and we were talking about this subject, and he pointed out, similar to what you’re saying here, that there are issues that Paul says are of first importance. Even Jesus, when he looks back at the law, he says that there are weightier matters of the law, so there are things in scripture that are more important than others. That’s not to say that any of it is unimportant, but there are matters that are more important than others. And Paul, as an expert in his day of the law, could look at the law and say that the purpose of it was to be a tutor, a servant that brought the people to faith in Jesus, and that faith in Jesus is the goal. 

I really like Matthew Bates’ language around faith being loyalty or allegiance to Jesus, and that’s the thing, is that we are saved because we have pledged our allegiance to Jesus because we are living loyally to Jesus, not because we have it all figured out, because no one does. And I think that’s ‑‑ it really is sort of a ‑‑ on the one hand, I hate that anyone is overwhelmed or intimidated by scripture, but on the other hand, this idea that someone thinks that they’ve got it all figured out really is ‑‑ it is a mark of arrogance and pride that really needs to change, that we really need to humble ourselves, because, as you and I know, the more you study scripture, the more you realize, oh, I don’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. When I was 18 years old and I was first going into ministry, I thought, I’ve got this thing figured out; this is really easy. And the more I study scripture, the more I realize, oh, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the meaning and the depth of this collection of ancient writings.

JEREMIE: And, you know, you reminded me ‑‑ this exact thing, when Jesus says there are weightier matters of the law, he was talking to the scholars. And one of the stories I absolutely love in the Gospel of John is Nicodemus, because ‑‑ and I’ve preached on this; some people may have heard it. It’s really interesting to me that John 3:16 lands between two notable stories. “Whoever believes in me will not perish.” Just above that text, Jesus has just talked to Nicodemus. He is a scholar of scholars. He is an insider, and yet when Jesus tells this scholar about “You must be born again,” he misses it. Nicodemus could explain so much of the law, rabbinic tradition, all of this stuff, but he missed Jesus.

On the other side of the “Whoever believes in me” is the Samaritan woman, and the way John tells the story, they are literally opposites. Nicodemus is a Jewish insider; she’s a Samaritan outcast. He’s a man; she’s a woman. We know his name; we don’t know her name. Nicodemus comes at night; she comes in broad daylight. Nicodemus comes with certainty: “We know you’re a man of God.” She comes with questions. And yet, at the end of that interaction, she understands Jesus, and Nicodemus, the scholar, is scratching his head. And I think that is such a reminder to us in scholarship that says, yes, our work is important, but don’t miss Jesus because scripture is written to point us to Jesus.

WES: Yeah. And I think that’s John’s whole point in John 1, in the prologue, is that this Word, this prophetic Word that has come through the prophets, that has been with God and is God.  This prophetic Word has become flesh, and that when you see Jesus, you see the Word. When you put your faith in Jesus, you are an expert in scripture, even if you’re just a child who says, “Listen, I’m a sinner. I’m broken. I’m hungry. I don’t have the answers, and I’ve messed up, and I’ve done all of these things wrong, but I know Jesus is the answer,” then you have come to the most important conclusion about scripture that anyone could. 

And on the other hand, there are a lot of so‑called experts that still, to this day, just like those you mentioned in scripture, that they know far more about the Greek and the Hebrew and the Aramaic and the history and the culture than I ever will, but

they don’t have faith in Jesus, and they really know nothing. Their knowledge, their learning really profits them nothing if it doesn’t result in faith in Christ.

JEREMIE: Yeah, absolutely. One of the smartest men I ever took a class with is an agnostic. This was not at one of our Christian colleges, it was at University of Oklahoma. Brilliant scholar, did some brilliant research in non‑canonical gospels, but he had left faith. He didn’t believe in Jesus. Now, he and I could have some conversations, and, of course, he knew things I’ll never know and haven’t committed my life to, but he missed Jesus, and we have to be careful. I am committed to scripture, and I am committed to the inspiration of scripture, and I am committed to the authority of scripture, but at the end of the day, scripture is pointing us to Jesus, and if we don’t get to Jesus at the end of it, then we’ve misread the book.

WES: Yeah, yeah. So let’s talk about ‑‑ you pointed out one sort of example of how scholars are wrestling with the text. I could think of so many other examples, and you could, as well, of ways that Bible translations have even changed over the years. And every now and then I’ll see a post on Facebook that will be berating a certain translation, saying, “Hey, they took these verses out of the Bible,” and I want to say, “Oh, they didn’t actually take those verses out of the Bible. There’s manuscript differences.” But, man, when you get into all of those areas, there is ‑‑ I will say this. Let me kind of play devil’s advocate for a second, that some people will say, well, listen, all of these so‑called experts and these academics, sometimes they are ‑‑ it feels like they’re sort of playing fast and loose with the text, and they’re saying, “Well, if you understood the history, if you understood the culture, then you would know that it doesn’t really say what it seems to say, and I know it looks like it says this, but it really says this other thing.” And so how are those of us who are not experts supposed to believe or disbelieve what’s being said to us? 

And so I understand that there is a lot of skepticism about scholarship or academia because it seems to be that they take what we’ve always known to be true, and they say, “Well, you know, it doesn’t really mean what it seems to mean,” or, “It doesn’t mean what it used to say, and so there’s a new way of looking at it now.” And so there is that sort of pushback to say, “Well, listen, if it worked for me before, then I’m just gonna stick with what I’ve always known.” So what do we do with some of those experts? How do we know whether or not to believe what they’re saying?

JEREMIE: Yeah, and that is ‑‑ that’s one of the frustrations with scholarship. I sometimes jokingly say to students that scholarship is the art of taking the simple and making it overly complex, and I do think we have to have kind of a natural concern, be it scholar or anyone, that says what you’re reading with your own eyes doesn’t mean what it looks like it means. I think our default setting should be “What does it look like it’s saying?” 

With that said, scholarship, I think, should be a practice of humility, to say, okay, there are some things I don’t understand, and what is brought to the table?  Scholarship ‑‑ I think one of the strengths is it makes us kick the tires of our assumptions, so yes, scholarship can be wrong, and is often wrong, and, as I mentioned earlier, scholars disagree among themselves. It’s not as if it’s some ‑‑ everybody agrees on this. But there is a sense in which, when you see a lot of scholars from different areas and different backgrounds beginning to coalesce around some things ‑‑ that doesn’t make it right by nature, but it does say, “What do they know?” And “Maybe I should look into this.” The problem is when people immediately default to scholars. “Well, that must be true because a scholar said it.” And it’s also a problem to say, “Well, I’m not gonna believe it because scholarship says that,” kind of this anti‑intellectualism. But I do think where scholarship is important is to say, are we asking the right questions? Are our assumptions built on reasonable understandings? Because even non‑scholars have biases, and even non‑scholars kind of read with kind of this bias towards affirming what I already believe, and it helps to interact with someone every now and then that says, “Are you sure about that?” And so scholarship will push you at times. 

So how do you know what scholars to believe? How do you know ‑‑ you have to appreciate the work that they’re doing, but at the end of the day, my first thought is, well, if it doesn’t mean exactly what it appears it means, it’s going to take some overwhelming evidence to convince me otherwise, and sometimes that evidence shows up and sometimes it doesn’t.

WES: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think those are really great points. I think that it’s really difficult ‑‑ as you said, on the one hand, you’ve got scholars that are ‑‑ I mean, let’s just be honest, that ‑‑ especially around issues ‑‑ we had Rubel Shelly on the podcast not too long ago to talk about his new book, Male and Female, and he is pushing back against the affirming ‑‑ as he puts it, the revisionist scholars who are saying, “Well, the Bible doesn’t mean what it says or doesn’t mean what it seems to say about same‑sex relationships,” that as long as it’s a loving, monogamous relationship, it doesn’t matter who it’s with. And he’s coming back and saying, “No, no, no. The traditional ‑‑ the position that Christians have held for 2,000 years is the one that Paul and Jesus were stating.” 

So when we hear scholars that say something, on the one hand, there is a good sort of saying, “Hey, I’m suspicious of that. I’m not sure that what you’re saying is true,” and it’s good to kind of hold your ground. But on the other hand, as you said, there is also the temptation ‑‑ for instance, if somebody is struggling with same‑sex relationships or same‑sex attraction, when a scholar comes along that says, “Hey, maybe we misread this,” they’re very quick to sort of jump on board with that. Or any of us, when we sort of want something to be true, we tend to take that scholarship and believe it and say, “Hey, this kind of affirms what I believe.” But on the other hand, when there is something that a scholar comes out and says that, “Hey, the traditional position or the majority position may not be right,” they may actually have a really good case to make and they may need to move ‑‑ I think about things that I’ve learned over the last 20 years from biblical scholars, and it makes so much more sense of the text as a whole. It’s given me a new lens through which to read things, and it’s made sense of not just one passage, but of so many passages. 

How do we know when to let go of our firmly held belief and when to not, because, on the one hand, I really respect those who ‑‑ they’re holding their ground and they’re not being swayed by sort of new ideas that are coming down the pike, but on the other hand, there’s a stubbornness and an unwillingness to learn sometimes for all of us when there really is good information, but we’re saying that’s not what I’ve always believed, so, therefore, I’m not going to accept it. How do we balance those?

JEREMIE: Yeah, there is a sense of intellectual honesty that you’re looking for. So when you see ‑‑ I think Brother Shelly’s book is a great example of that, because in our current culture, the LGBTQ reading of scripture is one of those cases that says, “Well, I know it looks that way and it sounds that way, but we’ve been misreading that.” Anytime a reading goes against 2,000 years of history, 4,000 years of history, that ought to be flag number one. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t have been wrong, but that’s one of the challenges that I say a lot of smarter people, for years, who’ve read this a different way, so that’s kind of a cautionary flag. 

The other one is, what is the motivation for saying this? Now, we have motivations for rejecting things because, “Well, I don’t deal with those issues and I disagree with that,” so we have to check our motivations, too. But that is a question you have to kind of put in the mix. But there is this sense of ‑‑ are they taking scripture seriously? Are they taking all scripture seriously? I was watching an exchange between two people, and they said, “Well, I know that’s what Jesus said, but he was just kind of using the language of the day” and quickly moved on. Well, no, if that’s true, it upends everything you just built your system on. You can’t just dismiss things like that. I think we have to be very interested in, do these people’s lives ‑‑ the scholars, whoever we’re interacting with, do their lives reflect the spirit of what God is calling us to, to begin with?

I’ve read a lot of scholars who just ‑‑ they hate Christianity, they hate the church, they have an axe to grind, and so, you know, as Paul ‑‑ because the church in Galatia was asking this question, “Who do we believe? Do we believe the people over here?” And Paul says, “Well, here, let me give you a metric. Whose life is reflecting the fruit of the Spirit?” And so I’ve watched people who were very strongly driven, sometimes people with whose conclusion I agreed, but, boy, they don’t match that category of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness. Their scholarship’s not reflecting that, and so that says we need to kind of put a hold on this. 

And I’m also interested in who are people willing to say things that cost? Will they take a position because they firmly believe this no matter what it’s gonna cost them? You know, you think of the apostle Paul. Saul becomes a Christian. That move between “No, my Jewish Bible doesn’t say Jesus is Messiah,” to “Everything in my Jewish Bible says Jesus is Messiah,” there was a cost at that that Paul was willing to accept no matter what conclusion it came to. 

I remember ‑‑ one of the scholars I really appreciate reading his work, Ben Witherington ‑‑ Ben does a lot of literary historical readings of scripture, and I appreciate his work, but the first time I interacted with Ben, he was at a conference teaching Revelation, and I thought, well, this will be an interesting study in Revelation. And he opened up ‑‑ Ben’s from, I think, a Methodist tradition, a Wesleyan tradition, and his read on Revelation upended the traditional rapture theology and premillennial theology, and I thought, you know, given the context of where Witherington comes from, that’s kind of a big cost for him to say, “I don’t read my Bible the way everybody else does,” and some people may have rejected that outright, but he was willing to say what he firmly believed.

And so those are all just kind of things you have to weigh when you’re thinking of scholarship and someone who comes up and says, “Hey, I’ve come to this conclusion and your Bible doesn’t really mean what it says” ‑‑ well, okay, I can be wrong, and I’m often wrong, but what’s our end goal and what’s the process by which we’re walking through this?

WES: Yeah. Oh, I think that’s so helpful, Jeremie. I think that ‑‑ when you were talking, it made me think of ‑‑ I tend to encourage people to read scripture through a cruciform lens, but I think that what you’re saying is that we should even look at scholarship through a cruciform lens. I think part of it is looking at their life, and that’s what Jesus encourages us to do, what Paul encourages us to do, what John encourages us to do, that if somebody is making claims about God, ask, “Can you see the fruit of the Spirit in their life? Does their life reflect the love of Jesus? Are they living a cruciform life? Are they putting to death the things that scripture says are the works of the flesh?” And if they’re not, if they are living into the works of the flesh, and if they are encouraging others to walk in the flesh, it doesn’t matter how much you want that to be true; it’s not. If they’re arrogant, if they’re toxic, if they’re berating others, or if they’re encouraging things that scripture explicitly says are immoral, then this is not the work of Christ. This doesn’t reflect that. 

And I think, also, as you said, to examine our own motives, look at the log in our eye. I like to look at anything that I’m hearing and say, is this encouraging me to live a cruciform life? Is this encouraging me to put to death the things of the flesh and live into the Spirit? I think one of my biggest frustrations is when someone responds to preaching or teaching with “I don’t agree with that,” because, in a sense, all good preaching and teaching, when I first heard it, I didn’t agree with it, either, and that’s the whole point. My life is not in agreement with this, but if it’s true, it doesn’t matter if I agree with it or not. It matters whether or not it’s in agreement with the gospel, if it’s in agreement with Christ, and so the good teaching and even the good scholarship is going to hurt when we hear it. It’s going to say, oh, well, that doesn’t line up with what I’ve always thought or what I’ve always been doing in my life, and if I accepted that to be true, would my life look more like the life of Jesus or less like the life of Jesus? 

And I think that those kinds of questions, both in reflecting on the fruit that you see in the teacher’s life, but also what kind of fruit would this produce in my own life, what do I think of that ‑‑ and I think that that’s a good test for things like the LGBTQ interpretation of scripture. Does the acceptance of these new teachings ‑‑ does this lead us to a life that is more putting to death the things of the flesh and living into the Spirit or less? And I think the answer is pretty obvious.

JEREMIE: Yeah. Yeah, and it’s a holistic approach to scripture rather than kind of a whack‑a‑mole on what this text or that text means. Again, the Bible is a comprehensive story of God’s expectation for his people. And so, you know, in these conversations, sometimes you’ll say, “Well, this text seems to be suggesting,” and someone says, “Yeah, but this text,” as if this text over here means I don’t have to respect this text, when, really, they’re in conversation with each other and it’s not an either/or; it’s how do these both tell the story of God and call us to faithfulness and to this cruciformity? You know, this ‑‑ if this teaching is true, am I going to be more like Jesus and his expectation or not? And how is it going to cause me to treat other people if I draw this conclusion?

WES: And I love how you used the phrase “seriously,” to take all of scripture “seriously.” All too often I hear people say that they read the Bible literally, and I think what they tend to mean is seriously. My kids do that, too. They say, “I’m literally starving to death.” It’s like, no, you’re not literally starving to death; you are figuratively starving to death. But so much of scripture is not literal. It’s not meant to be read literally. You don’t read poetry literally because it’s poetry. You don’t read apocalyptic literature literally, but you do have to take it seriously. And I think that, so often, people will dismiss certain passages by saying, “Well, that’s just figurative,” or “Jesus was using hyperbole.” Okay, that’s good that you recognize that. I mean, that’s a really important step in understanding and applying scripture, but it means something. If I tell somebody it’s raining cats and dogs out there, I don’t mean for them to take it literally, but I do expect for them to take it seriously. If they say, “Well, Wes was just speaking figuratively. That was just a metaphor,” and then they walk out without an umbrella, well, they didn’t take my words seriously. 

And so I think, so often, we say, well, is this literal or figurative, and then we think, if it’s figurative, or if it’s a special type of literature or a special genre, that that means we don’t have to take it seriously, and I think that that’s the wrong conclusion. In fact, I think sometimes figurative language is used because literal language doesn’t go far enough. If I say my heart is broken, that’s not a literal phrase, but it means more than if I said “I’m sad.” “I’m sad” is the more literal way to say it, but it doesn’t capture the nuance. It doesn’t capture the expanse of what I’m trying to communicate.

JEREMIE: Yeah. Figurative language does not dismiss meaning. Figurative language says this has to hit you emotionally and imaginatively in a way that just the literal reading doesn’t.  So, you know, all of those things ‑‑ “My heart is breaking.” No, it’s not. It’s still beating. Your blood is still flowing, but I need you to understand the pain and the hurt behind this, and so I think that’s a great way of explaining that. You know, Revelation paints all these dramatic pictures that are symbolic.  It’s using that symbolism to help focus our emotion and imagination on the literal truth that Jesus is Lord and all things are under his power and God sits enthroned and nothing can threaten that. Well, I can say that, but that language helps you envision that and feel that in a different way.

WES: Yeah, definitely. Well, Jeremie, let me move on to this last question and say it’s obvious that you believe in biblical scholarship, with the nuance that we want to be careful and have a proper amount of caution about that, and you’re not only being a biblical scholar yourself, but you’re helping to train those that are going into the academic pursuits of biblical knowledge and scholarship, but that isn’t everybody’s life, right? I mean, there’s a lot of Christians that are listening to this podcast that ‑‑ they don’t have the time or the resources or the ability or the interest in becoming a biblical expert, in taking courses at a college level, but we all could be better students of scripture, and I think we should. Even though we say that the important thing is that we get Jesus, we still want to learn and grow and to know him better and to know the Word better. So what can the average Christian do to sort of take their Bible study to the next level? What might be some of your encouragement?

JEREMIE: Well, the first one is obvious and very simple, and that is read your Bible. And when I say read your Bible, I mean read it holistically. So when we read the Gospels, read them the way Matthew wrote Matthew and Mark wrote Mark. Sometimes ‑‑ and we preachers are kind of guilty of this. We’ll take a verse from Matthew, and to help you understand that verse, we’ll take you to Luke or John or Galatians, and there’s beauty in that, but there’s also this flaw. Matthew didn’t use those texts. In fact, most people who read the Gospel of Matthew for the first time did not know those texts existed. And so, yes, we are blessed to have the collection of scripture, but try as best you can to ask the question, “Why does Matthew tell this story the way Matthew tells this story?” One person once said one of the worst things to happen to our Bibles is versification, that when we broke them into verses, we began memorizing sections of scripture or just snippets. We’ve tweeted scripture in our mind rather than asking, what is the full context of scripture? And so there are ‑‑ I know a lot of people who can quote a lot of scripture, but they do not know what that scripture is saying, and so one of the first things you can do to be a better Bible student is to just read that text of scripture. 

Someone met me the other day. They had a big stack of index cards and they had individual verses written on them, and he said he’s working to memorize the New Testament, which is a very noble goal. The problem is he’s memorizing this text here and this text here. And I said scripture is a story and the context is telling that story, so if you want to become a better Bible scholar, wrestle the text and ask that question and know context. Context isn’t just the few verses before and the few verses after it. It’s the whole of that book, the whole of that story. 

One of my favorite examples of this is in Matthew 18. You know, Jesus says if your brother sins against you, you go to them. Then you take two or three witnesses, and then you take it before the church. And if you take it before the church and the church doesn’t hear, treat them as tax collectors and sinners. Well, you ask a crowd of people what does it mean to treat someone as a tax collector and sinner, “Well, you have nothing to do with them. You ostracize them.” Well, if you’ve been reading Matthew’s story, how does Matthew tell us Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners? Matthew himself is a tax collector who Jesus reached out to and sat at a table with, and if you just read that verse in isolated context, you would think you’re done with that person, and Jesus is saying, no, you’re not. Yes, they are outside the community, but you do not give up on that person. And as it turns out, when you read the context, it’s interesting, in Matthew 18, that that story is preceded with Matthew’s telling of if a man has a hundred sheep and loses one, he goes after them, and that’s what you do in this situation. You go to them. Go back a second time. They still won’t hear, you go back. They still won’t hear the church, you don’t ‑‑ you keep seeking that sheep. It’s also fascinating, when you read the context, the very next story is Peter saying, well, then how many times do I have to forgive him? And all of this is working in context to tell a singular story, to tell a narrative of what does grace look like in broken relationships.  

Now, all of that stuff I just said is not grounded in some first century deep scholarship, although it does inform this text in some ways, you know, the witnesses and what was it like to be a shepherd and all that stuff, and that informs that. But that basic understanding of that text boils down to look at how Matthew is telling his story. Read the text and reread the context. And then, when you look at it on the big picture of Matthew, Matthew’s telling a gospel to people who have been outside the community. He’s a tax collector himself. His genealogy is about women who were sexually outcast to some degree, and wise men, non‑Jewish people, show up to announce the arrival of ‑‑ Matthew has an eye towards people who’ve been on the outside, and in this story, in this context, that kind of grows. 

So that was a long explanation of the first idea, which is just read your Bible and read the story in the gospel as it is written, and read, you know, Acts as the story it’s telling. And when you borrow from other texts, that’s fine, but just remember there are a lot of people, for hundreds of years, who never had a full collection of the Bible. Christians ‑‑ you know, when it says that they searched the scriptures daily there in Acts 17, they’re not all sitting in their living rooms thumbing through a concordance and looking. They didn’t have it. Most people couldn’t read. Most people could never have afforded a collection of books, let alone scripture. They were doing this in community. So how is the story of Jesus being told in this setting to these people at this moment? And we’ve got to become better readers of scripture, and, as preachers, we’ve got to do a better job of not just pulling this text to prove a point that I want to make, but asking, what is the whole of this text doing? 

The other thing I would suggest is read scripture not just for information, but for formation. Again, it’s that question of what is this telling me about God? What is this telling me about my relationship to God? What is this telling me about what God is doing in the world then, and then what is it calling me to do in the world now? The nuts and bolts of scripture are fascinating, and scholarship helps us see that. But, again, at the end of the day, it’s forming us, not just informing us. 

And interact with scholars. There are some people writing stuff that is more accessible that’s not written to kind of confuse or snowball you, but just to say, you know, there is some deeper stuff at work here, but here is how this is applying to the text and the meaning of the text so you don’t get lost in the technicalities, but you still glean from the beauty that is the scholarship that helps inform what’s going on.

WES: Yeah. And, you know, you mentioned this in ‑‑ sort of in passing when you were talking about reading, that they read it in community, and I think that that, too ‑‑ and even, as you said, as we consult scholars, we really are reading scripture in community. Even if it’s not community ‑‑ the best community is face‑to‑face community, but I think listening to podcasts and reading books and even going back and reading old books and old scholars and listening to history ‑‑ as you said, I think we would guard ourselves against misinterpreting scripture if we were well acquainted with how has the church universal, throughout time, globally and historically ‑‑ how have they read this scripture? And that doesn’t mean that they were always right, but it does mean that we have to listen to one another. 

And I think, to push back against the person who says, “Well, I just read the Bible myself, I interpret it for myself, I read it for myself,” then you are listening to someone. The person you’re listening to is you, and you are not, I am not, none of us are the final word on this, but that’s what we’re claiming when we say “I don’t listen to anyone except myself and my own interpretation.” Again, that tends to be very arrogant. It’s humble to read the Bible in community, within a church community, for sure, but also within the wider community of people who have been reading and trying to understand and follow Jesus for 2,000 years now.

JEREMIE: Yeah, yeah. And that really is, Wes, the practice of the church. It was the Jewish practice after ‑‑ in exile, when synagogues developed, synagogue is a place that we come in and, in community, read Torah, we read scripture, and we reflect together on what is God doing here. I love reading scripture with someone who has studied and reflected on a part of it that I haven’t, to learn from them. And I love having exchanges with people who can say, well, have you ever thought of this before? And I think, if we really believe that the church is important, as I do and you do and most people watching this do, then we believe that there is something God does in community that is necessary. 

And so I said this earlier, you know, it was hundreds of years before people carried a leather‑bound copy of 66 books. How were they faithful to God before that? How did they ‑‑ some of them only had Matthew, some of them only had Romans, and yet I still believe the presence of God was among those people. How did they do that? Well, they trusted in the overall story that God is telling in scripture, which was our salvation is in Jesus and not some final exam that’s going to be here at the end of the day. But this is expressed ‑‑ what does it mean to be a Christian in Rome and in Galatia? What does the story of Jesus look like told to a Jewish community? And what does that look like in our community? That’s the aim of scripture, not to get us ready for some oral exam on the day of judgment.

WES: Yeah, amen. Well, Jeremie, thank you for this conversation, but more than that, thank you for your work in the kingdom. Thank you for being a biblical scholar and being curious and always learning more and more about scripture, but also teaching that to others and helping people to follow Jesus.

JEREMIE: Well, thank you, Wes, and thanks for your great ministry.

WES: Thanks, Brother.

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