A Review of “How to Read the Bible” by Steven McKenzie
January 17, 2017
Given the nature of the content, How to Read the Bible, by Steven McKenzie is a surprisingly quick and easy read. In fact, it seems as though McKenzie went out of his way to ensure that all readers (including serious students and scholars) could enjoy and benefit from his research and collected thoughts. McKenzie’s underlying premise is that the modern reader often misses the primary point of scripture simply because he approaches the text with the wrong assumptions and presuppositions. In other words, the modern reader often reads the Bible through the lens of literal history, when in fact, it rarely actually takes that form of literature.
McKenzie begins with a case study of Jonah to demonstrate the importance of genre in biblical interpretation. In so doing, he successfully redirected readers’ attention to the fundamental method and message of the book and away from failed attempts to explain and justify the events of the story as purely historical. Once he presented and defended his case for the importance of genre, he redirected his attention to a discussion of form criticism.
The book is broken down into five chapters where the author dedicates each chapter to a review and discussion of various genres found in the biblical literature— history, prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, and epistles. Specifically, he sets out to demonstrate exactly how that type of literature (by primarily utilizing the Old Testament text) ought to be read and understood; along with also seeking to show the biblical student what are the most common mistakes made when dealing with that type of literature.
In his discussion on historiography, the author highlights the idea that the biblical writers were motivated by etiological means—that is, the effort to seek to explain the cause or origin of something; where the “primary objective of ancient history writing was to ‘render an account’ of the past that explained the present.” In doing so, he walks the reader through various texts in Genesis. One potential flaw on the part of the author is to focus too narrowly on the etiological influences and ignore the theological imports; which often demonstrate themselves in applications of the text. For example, in his discussion of the Tower of Babel incident, McKenzie concludes, “Its intent is to provide an explanation for the origins of the different human languages and cultures associated with them” (p. 39). While this is true, the story is also meant (if not primarily meant) to demonstrate the theological point that sin had created a separation between humans and God.
In the chapter on biblical prophecy, McKenzie explains how prophets exhorted their audiences through the use of predictions of curses or blessings in the immediate future, not so-called prophecies of events in the distant future. This chapter also provides an insightful examination of the manner in which the New Testament authors utilize Old Testament prophecy and reinterpret the text to serve their own specific needs. For example, the Gospel of Matthew reinterprets Isaiah Christologically, even though it is clear that Isaiah was actually referring to an event that was to take place in the immediate future. In this regard McKenzie attempts to demonstrate the actual nature of the use of both the Old and New Testament prophets; and to refute the implications and assertions modern interpreters. At this point, he is essentially pulling the rug out from under most “traditional” church-goers who have consistently identified Isaiah’s text as supremely Christological in nature. To that extent, he may have done well to help his reader make this change a little easier.
In this same light, the following chapter was difficult for this self-appointed traditionalist, where McKenzie effectively laid bare all preconceived notions on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Specifically referring to the Proverbs, after revealing multiple inconsistencies in the nature of the proverbs he addresses them by stating that “there was no single ‘right’ way of looking at things. There was disagreement, because life was and is complex, and circumstances fluctuate. What may be true for one person or a given situation is not necessarily universally so.” After addressing both Job and Qoheleth in much the same manner, McKenzie concludes the chapter and reconciles these issues by explaining that it is the intent of the literature to present “the debate and thereby to license the reader to search for his or her own answers.”
The text is concluded with chapters on the nature of the final two genres: apocalyptic and epistles. McKenzie remains consistent with his approach to reveal the actual nature and nuances of the texts and thereby allowing the reader to approach the scriptures with a greater appreciation for understanding the nature of literature and genres in the Bible. Even given the wealth of specific examples, this remains by the greatest benefit to the reader.
In a work directed at a popular audience, periodic reference to further resources and summaries of reading strategies would have been a useful addition. The book concludes with endnotes—many of which elaborate on ideas introduced in the body of the work—as well as a bibliography and a subject index. In How to Read the Bible, Steven McKenzie has made genre analysis accessible to a wide audience and in so doing has provided readers with a useful way to read the Bible intelligently for personal enjoyment and spiritual benefit.