How Do You Tackle Obscure Bible Passages?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many passages in Scripture are relatively straight-forward to understand.  A person of even minimal intelligence can read and understand much of the Bible.  The greatest obstacle that faces readers of the Bible – the fact it was written in ancient Hebrew and Greek – is largely mitigated by the hard work of Hebrew and Greek language scholars who translate the words of the Bible into modern English.

However, even though we are able to read the contents of Scripture in our own language, we are still faced with obscure passages that seem to elude our understanding.  Why is this? 

The eighteenth century philosopher Johann Martin Chladenius pointed out that the problem is usually a lack of background knowledge.  Jean Grondin, in his book Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, explores Chladenius’s insight:

The obscurity to which Chladenius here refers is that due to insufficient background knowledge. It is indeed often the case, especially with older texts, that the language seems completely clear, though the texts still remain unintelligible because we are lacking in historical or factual knowledge. In other words, we are unacquainted with the subject matter or with what the author really wanted to say.

At first, as I noted above, this kind of obscurity may seem rather trivial. Yet Chladenius here touches on an absolutely fundamental phenomenon of language. Language always tries to express something literally, but this “something” often enough remains in the dark, because the words do not occasion the same meaning or effect in the receiver as intended by the speaker. Chladenius views this as a purely linguistic process, as he explains while introducing his idea of hermeneutics as a universal science: “A thought that is to be conveyed to the reader by words often presupposes other conceptions without which it is not conceivable: if a reader is not already in possession of these conceptions, therefore, the words cannot effect the same result in him as in another reader who is thoroughly knowledgeable about these conceptions.”

When we read the Bible, we must remember that the individual biblical authors are assuming that their readers share a common background knowledge.  This background knowledge can include geography, political rulers, folklore, religious texts, poetry, agriculture, worldviews, and more.  As a modern reader, what hope do we have of knowing these things?

This is where good commentaries and Bible dictionaries come in.  These books provide the background information that enables a modern reader to better understand the ancient biblical writings.  They can provide us with keys to unlock the meanings of obscure passages.

When I sit down to read a difficult biblical passage, I will first read the passage, and then consult several commentaries or dictionaries to gain the needed background knowledge.  Several years ago, I bought the Logos Bible Software package, which enables me to consult dozens of commentaries on my PC.

Even though I have access to so many commentaries, I find myself going back to three of them over and over again:  The New American Commentary from Broadman & Holman Publishers; The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener, from InterVarsity Press; The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures from Victor Books.  All of these commentaries do an excellent job of teaching the background knowledge needed to interpret Bible passages.

Whether you have these particular commentaries or not, it is imperative that you invest in resources that can teach you the background information you need to understand your Bible.  The serious student of the Bible cannot get along without them.

  • Jeremy

    Is there anything you would recommend either free online or reasonable that would work on a Mac? I am willing to pay $ but don’t have a lot at this point.

  • Jeremy,
    It looks like Logos software (logos.com) does work on the Mac. If you buy even their basic package, it comes with all sorts of commentaries.