10 Tips on Solving Mysterious Bible Passages from Sherlock Holmes
Last summer, I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Time and time again, Holmes commented to Watson about how to solve mysterious cases in ways that apply directly to studying the Bible.
You probably expect Holmes to take the most sophisticated approach to solving mysteries. But what struck me was that these comments illustrate the most basic Bible study principles.
Here are 10 quotes from Holmes that will equip you to solve mysterious passages of the Bible.
1. The number one mistake to avoid.
Holmes: “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
Far too often students of the Bible twist verses to suit interpretations instead of formulating interpretations to suit what the verses say.
Don’t approach your passage assuming you know what it means. Rather, use the data in the passage – the words that are used and how they fit together – to point you toward the correct interpretation.
2. The kind of looking that solves mysteries.
Holmes: “You have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
Watson: “Hundreds of times.”
Holmes: “Then how many are there?”
Watson: “How many? I don’t know!”
Holmes: “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
There is a difference between reading a Bible verse and observing it. Observation is a way of collecting details contained in a passage. As you read and reread the verses, pull the words into your brain where you can think about them and figure them out.
This habit will shed light on how you understand the text, even if the passage is as familiar as the stairs in your house.
3. Know what to look for.
Watson: “You appeared to [see] what was quite invisible to me.”
Holmes: “Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important.”
Know where to look for clues that will illuminate your passage. Look for repeated words and phrases, bookends (where the beginning and end of the passage contain similarities), and clues in the context around your passage.
Don’t know what to look for? Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart are great resources to start learning how to study the Bible.
4. Mundane details are important!
Watson: “I had expected to see Sherlock Holmes impatient under this rambling and inconsequential narrative, but, on the contrary, he had listened with the greatest concentration of attention.”
Don’t ignore parts of the passage that seem insignificant to its meaning. Treat every word as if it contains clues to the interpretation of the passage.
5. Use solutions to little mysteries to solve bigger ones.
Holmes: “The ideal reasoner would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it.”
Once you understand the passage that baffled you, your work is not done!
Now it’s time to locate that passage in the grand narrative of the Bible. How do previous books and stories lead up to your passage? How does your passage anticipate the consummation of all things that results at Jesus’ second coming?
6. The harder the mystery, the more evidence you need.
“This is a very deep business,” Holmes said at last. “There are a thousand details which I should desire to know before I decide upon our course of action.”
In grad school, one professor gave us an assignment requiring us students to make 75 observations on Acts 1:8. The verse does not even contain that many words!
The professor’s goal was to train us in compiling evidence. Harder Bible passages demand that we collect as much information as possible.
7. Break big mysteries down into little ones.
Watson: “Holmes walked slowly round and examined each and all of [the pieces of evidence] with the keenest interest.”
Difficult passages can be overwhelming. Break chapters down into paragraphs, paragraphs into verses, and verses into clauses. Devote careful attention to each chunk of the passage individually. Then try to piece together the meaning they have when added up as a whole.
8. Don’t be so committed to a solution that you ignore new evidence.
“I had,” said Holmes, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which shows, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data…I can only claim the merit that I instantly reconsidered my position.”
After you’ve put the hard work into grasping a mysterious passage, the case isn’t necessarily closed. Often you’ll run across other passages that shed new light on your passage. Or you’ll hear someone preach those verses in a different way than how you interpreted it.
Always be willing to consider new insights. This will at least help you nuance your understanding of the passage, if not take a different stance.
9. Simple solutions often provide answers to manifold mysteries.
Holmes: “The case has been an interesting one…because it serves to show very clearly how simple the explanation may be of an affair which at first sight seems to be almost inexplicable.”
Many passages that seem mysterious at first end up not being so bad. Their bark is worse than their bite. For example, several passages in Revelation, intimidating to so many, have simple explanations. (Not all, but some!)
10. On the other hand, so-called simple passages may be more complicated than initially meets the eye.
Holmes: “This matter really strikes very much deeper than either you or the police were at first inclined to think. It appeared to you to be a simple case; to me it seems exceedingly complex.”
This is often true of coffee mug and bumper sticker verses. We think they are simple to understand because we see them all the time. But once you dig into them, you realize they are more mysterious than meets the eye.
The Joy of Knowing God Through His Word
Gaining insight into hard passages of the Bible is often an exciting adventure.
But don’t forget that the Bible is less about a mystery to solve and more about an Author to know. As you tackle some of the tougher texts, don’t glory in your knowledge. Glory in God, who graciously reveals Himself through His Word.