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I live in Nepal. I have no background in any of the Abrahamic religions.

I want to study the Bible in simple language with the aid of a book that provides context and spiritual meanings. By "simple" I do not mean simple English. My English is very good. I want a proper explanation of the use of metaphors, myths, etc. in the Bible The book also needs to be suitable for self study. I already have the Thomas Nelson KJV Study Bible.

Example: I am right now on the book of Genesis. I was reading the passage about the fight between the Serpent and Eve. There is a verse (Gen 3:15) that says something like he will strike heels and she his head. I want to know if there is any spiritual metaphor here, or whether I am missing something. These are the kind of questions I have that I hope the study aid can answer.

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  • 1
    Welcome to SE-C. Please take the Tour and the Help (below) regarding the purpose and the functioning of the site. My own personal suggestion is to start at Genesis and at Matthew (maybe morning and evening, or whenever suitable). Reading this way, one will read the New Testament (Matthew to Revelation) three times for every single reading of the Old Testament (Genesis to Malachi). I suggest reading the Authorised, King James Version. And I wish you well in your venture. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 28 at 7:51
  • If you already have the Thomas Nelson KVJ Study Bible (is this what you have?), can you be more specific in the question why that book fails to provide you with context? I think your question as it is phrased now is too general. Commented Feb 28 at 17:32
  • @GratefulDisciple i am right now on genesis and i was reading that serpent and eve week fight. He will strike heels and she his head like that. I want to know if there is any spiritual metaphor here or am i missing something ? These kind of doubts i have Commented Feb 28 at 18:44
  • Bible is a fascinating book that unfolds itself as you read more. You do not need any external sources to explain the text, except for maybe the cultural background. You just need to keep reading. It will start speaking to you. Cause unlike other religious texts, the Bible is alive. It will unfold itself to you if you seek the truth sincerely. Just pray to God to help you understand and read
    – One Face
    Commented Mar 6 at 14:33
  • You have some good answers here but not a lot addressing your question on Genesis 3:15. It is indeed metaphorical and prophetic according to many groups. You can do a search on it here to find some interpretations. Here's a direct link to get you started: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/67121/… Commented Mar 7 at 3:37

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Although I was brought up in the church, I didn't read the Bible on my own until I was in college. That was also when I became more aware of other religions and various interpretations of the Bible. I hope my answer below can serve as an introduction to studying the Bible, an introduction that I wished someone gave me many years ago.

You brought up 4 elements corresponding to 4 sections in my answer:

  1. "General Introduction to Christianity" situates Christianity and the Bible within world religions.
  2. "Using translations and technical commentaries" helps one choose a Bible translation that bridges the gap between the ancient Biblical languages and a modern language as used in the 21st century.
  3. "Context and Bible Interpretation" are aspects of Bible Interpretation, which is the first task for constructing a theology.
  4. "Spiritual meaning and Theology" is one aspect of using the Bible for Christian theology.

General introduction to Christianity

For beginners not familiar with Christianity, it is best to go with a study Bible that has lots of introductory essays that do NOT presume familiarity with Christianity, such as the ESV Study Bible which includes essays like these, and more:

  • God's Plan of Salvation
  • History of Salvation in the Old Testament: Preparing the Way for Christ
  • The Bible in Christianity
  • The Bible and World Religions
  • The Bible and Religious Cults
  • Biblical Doctrine: An Overview
  • Biblical Ethics: An Overview
  • ...

There are also tons of books about Christianity for audience coming from non-western or other religions. When I find several good ones, I'll add them here.

Using translations and technical commentaries

BibleGateway.com has many non-English translations, each a multi-year project by a committee of professional translators (such as The Wycliffe Bible Translators) who also consulted:

  1. Biblical scholars have the command of the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic),
  2. Linguistic and general translation experts,
  3. Native speakers of the target language.

Even for those who are comfortable with English as a second language (like myself), reading the Bible in one's primary language can bring nuances / connotations that are missing in an English translation. For example, there is a Nepali Easy-To-Read Version which I would recommend to someone whose primary language is Nepali.

It is also a good practice to consult multiple English translations by reading it side by side with your primary language. English translations range from literal (like KJV, ESV, NASB, NRSV) to dynamic (such as the NLT). Middle of the road translation includes the CSB or the NIV. I started reading the Bible in my primary language. My first English Bible was NIV, then I found NLT a lot easier to understand, and now I use CSB to be closer to the original language. See my other answer for choosing an English translation.

Reading the Bible in the original language WILL also bring nuances / connotations that are missing in a translation (since those languages are so ancient) but requires you to learn Hebrew and Greek at a seminary. The alternative is to consult technical commentaries such as WBC or ICC.

Context and Bible Interpretation

Context is not the same as Spiritual meaning (treated in the next section):

  • Context is part of the interpretation of a literary text while Spiritual meaning builds on the interpretation. Spiritual meaning is one part of constructing a theology.

  • Interpretation has 3 aspects:

    1. Textual context: how the verse's meaning depends on the surrounding verses. The tasks include: outlining the book, analyzing the genre (history, myth, chronicle, parable, prophecy, letter, poetry, etc.) and sub-genre, analyzing the grammar / sentence structure (or rhyming structure, if poetry), etc. In addition, there are stylistic considerations since like other religions, sacred texts are often high literature as well (like Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, etc.) thus part of textual context is to discern nuances of meaning from Narrative art and Rhetorical strategy.

    2. Author context: how a verse was understood by the original author. The tasks include: What each word means to the author, which depends on the cultural background of the author, word usage in the author's milieu (word study), etc.

    3. Reader context: For older texts like Genesis, there can be many earlier oral traditions that could have been incorporated, each having its own interpretive tradition that depends on the later redactor's situation (such as the Babylonian exile). This is especially true of the New Testament where the OT is heavily re-interpreted in light of the coming of Jesus Christ. Knowing how the NT author processed OT text is extremely important here.

A good book that tackles all 3 contexts above is the classic How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, first published in 1981 now in the 4th edition (2014).

There is also canonical context, which is how other books of the Bible can influence interpretation, but this usually falls under the task of Theology, which is a layer AFTER the interpretive task has been performed.

Spiritual meaning and Theology

In Christianity, the New Testament is the culmination of God's revelation. Christians read the earlier books (containing God's earlier revelation to the people of Israel written between 1,000 BC to 400 BC and collected in the Old Testament), IN LIGHT OF the historically later books of the New Testament (written in the first century AD), which becomes the Old Testament's spiritual meaning. That is why for Christians it is VERY important to read the Bible from cover to cover. This is so that we are familiar not only with subtle allusions that NT writers made (because they all are very familiar with the OT) but also to start getting the canonical context that is very important for doing theology. See my other answer for various strategies of reading the Bible cover to cover.

Once you are familiar enough with those inter-book canonical allusions, you will be ready to study Christian theology which includes a more systematic and formal study of Christian Typology, the all-encompassing study of allusions, including spiritual meaning. It can sometimes become contentious as various Christian denominations assign different typological meaning. For example, Catholics include allusion to Mary in Gen 3:15 (see the article Who Will Crush the Serpent's Head).

The key reason why other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam) read the Bible differently is because in a Christian reading ALL of the Bible (including the OT) points to Jesus Christ. For example, according to Christians, the spiritual meaning of Gen 3:15 is that the one who will crush the serpent's head (and who is stricken at the heel) is Jesus Christ. For examples of different spiritual meanings according to the other Abrahamic religions, see my other answers about Moslem reading of verses that they say point to the prophet Muhammad and Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy 13:1-4.

To study theology, use theology textbooks recommended by the church you trust. A good widely used general textbook on theology which I read a long time ago is Christian Theology: An Introduction by the British Anglican scholar Alister McGrath first published in 1991 now in its 6th edition (2016). This textbook not only tackles the issue of spiritual meaning & typology, but also includes a brief history of Christian theology as well as an overview of a dozen or so customary theological topics. In addition, textbooks on Bible background from Christian perspective are very useful as well, such as An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination by Walter Brueggemann and An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo.

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  • By context i mean this : Commented Feb 28 at 19:03
  • i am right now on genesis and i was reading that serpent and eve week fight. He will strike heels and she his head like that. I want to know if there is any spiritual metaphor here or am i missing something ? These kind of doubts i have Commented Feb 28 at 19:03
  • By simple i donot mean simple english. My english is very good. I meant was that proper explanation of metaphors, myths , use in bible Commented Feb 28 at 19:04
  • Thanks. Since this is my first reading i should stick with thomas Nelson i think. Then i will update Commented Feb 29 at 17:39
  • @SophieClad I have extensively revised my answer to add a lot more introduction as well as resources for you, after I incorporated your comments in your question. Commented Mar 3 at 1:51
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First, a translation. The King James Version uses a style of English that is old and would require some additional difficulty, so although I like it I don't recommend it to learners of English. NIV, ESV, NASB, and many others are good. You can find them here and see which one you find easy to read at Bible Gateway.

Next, you'll want to know where to start. You may find online a plan of what to read (here's one, but I don't know if it's good). Some essential parts include:

  • Genesis 1 and 2: setting things up
  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John: the life of Christ. Any is fine.
  • Romans 1-8: St. Paul's argument for the importance of Christ.

That ought to keep you going for a while!

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You are seeking a Study Bible for the plain and "proper explanation of the use of metaphors, myths, etc. in the Bible". For this purpose, the NKJV or KJV Study Bible by Thomas Nelson are not appropriate, as you are looking for the scholarly explanation which deals with various critical approaches involving source and literary criticism. The KJV and ESV Study Bible versions belong to a very conservative or fundamentalist audience who prefer a dogmatic and presuppositional framework rather than a reasonable study which focuses on ancient narrative, literary conventions or genres.

The Little Rock Catholic Study Bible (NAB) would be perfect for your level of research, as it contains excellent, concise notes and essays. For a plain reading, you can go for the non study edition of the New American Bible revised edition (NAB), as it contains the notes on the same page. Its notes are also available on the bible apps. The Catholic Study Bible is the most exhaustive scholarly edition, it mentions in the General Introduction, under the heading THE DIVERSE LITERARY FORMS AND HISTORICAL VALUE OF THE BIBLE

...The notes and Reading Guides found in this Study Bible help the reader understand more about these various literary forms and their implications for interpreting the meaning of a particular biblical passage. The presence of various literary forms or means of expression in the Bible also complicates the issue of the historical value of the Bible. Some Christians, particularly fundamentalist Christians, fear that admitting the Bible contains poetry, stories, and other literary forms is somehow an attack on the veracity of the Bible and dilutes its witness to history. They prefer to regard the story of creation in Genesis, or the episode of Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a great fish, as literally true.

Roman Catholic teaching—and that of many other Christian denominations—sees no incompatibility between recognizing the truth of the biblical witness and the fact that it is expressed in many forms of literary expression characteristic of human communication. Credible witness to the truth of history is not confined to an “objective” reporting of the facts in the manner of a police report or a mere “factual” description of what happened. All reporting of history involves a degree of interpretation, and such means as poetry, hymns, stories, myths, and other literary forms can also communicate historical truth about past events and the perspectives of our ancestors.

Also see some parallel ancient myths mentioned in the early 20th century Cambridge Bible commentary, in its note on the fall.

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