Eric McKiddie is one of the pastors at College Church in Wheaton, IL. He blogs about theology, preaching, and productivity at pastoralized.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

What can a fictional detective teach you about how to study the Bible?

A lot.

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.

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Comments:


28 thoughts on “10 Tips on Solving Mysterious Bible Passages from Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Chris says:

    Just to throw in another book in addition to the two mentioned in this post: ‘Dig Deep’ by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach is a brilliant primer that gives various ‘tools’ to Bible study.

  2. T. Webb says:

    Ummm… so we should approach mysterious Bible passages with methodological scientific individualistic rationalism, instead of seeing the mystery of Christ in them, as the community of faith through the ages has? No doubt that some of the tips you offer are helpful tools to use on occasion, as part of a larger approach, but that larger approach is to find the mystery of Christ, not merely a rational answer that squeezes the Bible into a test tub.

  3. John Gardner says:

    I loved it, thanks!

  4. Melanie says:

    I agree with T.Webb. Jesus even said that all the law, the prophets and the psalms testify about him. What good would it do to diligently study the Scriptures and yet miss revelation of the one to whom they testify?

    Another point I did not see is the application of the study. It’s more than just correctly understanding scripture, it’s also properly applying it (walking it out) to our relationship with Christ.

    Am I correct?

  5. Sten-Erik says:

    Although I see value in the above as items to be kept in our tool kit, I disagree with what seems to be the underlying premise of this (very well written) blog post. The idea that we can rationally “follow the evidence where it leads” is fundamentally flawed. The evidence doesn’t lead anywhere! Data never leads anywhere on its own – it is guided by our assumptions, biases, and a host of other unseen factors. The evidence follows as much as it leads…

    I think it is a dangerous enterprise to attempt to objectively discern the truth through a methodical, modernistic dissection of the text. 1) There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. As hard as we might try, we cannot take of the lenses through which we process information; 2) The text itself speaks to the importance of the Apostolic witness and the community of faith.

    Would it be wrong to study the text within view of the community of faith, e.g. the creeds and historic orthodoxy? If through my careful and scientific study of the text I discern an interpretation that falls outside of the boundaries set by the creeds or the Chalcedonian definition, I need to stop in my tracks and start over.

    IMHO, Christianity must have it’s foundation on faith, not knowledge. I believe so that I might understand. A strict modernist/rationalistic approach instead says “I pursue understanding so that I might believe.” Again, the tips derived from Sherlock above are great! But they are tools to be used once our epistemological grounding has been rooted in faith, not an overly optimistic view of our ability to gain understanding through following the evidence where it leads. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  6. John Botkin says:

    To the naysayers, I respectfully submit that you missed the point of the post. I doubt that the author would say we should not move toward application, see Christ, or walk by faith. Nevertheless, all of those things are built on the (sometimes difficult) task of actually reading the text, making observations, and determining what we feel is the intended meaning. If we don’t do this interpretive *work* then we will never understand the God nor live for him the way we should. Do not be so quick to divide the diligent pursuit of truth and the vibrant life of faith.

    1. Melanie says:

      I also respectfully submit that you’re judging the “naysayers” too quickly. Because many responses said the SAME thing regarding the (lack of) necessity of approaching scripture like a deductive reasoning tool, it does not mean they were “quick to divide the diligent pursuit of truth and the vibrant life of faith.” Honestly, it came across as a “I know better than the rest of you” kind of response. I know this is not what you meant to do, but that’s how it came across.

      I believe the point the “naysayers” are trying to make is that this Holmes method is not necessary to understanding scripture. If we go the rest of our lives NOT looking at scripture like this, we’ll be better off. As believers pursue the heart of God, He will lead us into the truth of his scripture. We don’t really need a Sherlock Holmes method to explain God’s deeper mysteries, nor should we desire it.

      In all honesty, our understanding of Scripture is actually based on how much God decides to reveal to us. God can harden our hearts or he can reveal deeper truths. HOW we approach scripture actually reveals our motives. Is God a mystery for us to solve? Is God an exercise plan? Is God a Do-It-Yourself manual? Or is God a father that desires us to love him and obey him? Again, how we approach Scripture reveals so much about our motives toward approaching Him. We have to keep these things in mind when reading HOW-TO posts about reading scripture.

      So, cut the “naysayers” some slack. Disagreement is not a bad thing. It’s a different perspective from which to learn from. Blessings to you!!!

      1. John Botkin says:

        Melanie,
        I did not mean to come off snarky, but yes I do think I am right. That doesn’t mean I doubt your salvation or think you’re a bad person. It simply means that I have a conviction and was unpersuaded by the arguments to the contrary.

        I frankly have no idea what this means: “As believers pursue the heart of God, He will lead us into the truth of his scripture.” It sounds very much like a short-circuiting of the normal interpretive process that begins with the mind, which moves the heart, and results in changed behavior (e.g. Rom 12:1-2). This doesn’t mean there is no Spirit involvement. Quite the contrary, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16. Approaching God with the intent of knowing him and being conformed to the image of Christ doesn’t stand contrary to anything in the above article. In fact, I would say the above would help that noble pursuit. Of course, anything good can be abused–that’s the point of idolatry, isn’t it? If one believes God can be dissected and studied like a lab rat, he or she has missed the point.

        At the same time–please correct me if I’m misreading you, but– everything you’ve written seems to say *feel* more than you *think* and you will grow better in true godliness. I’m saying something different: prayerfully think hard as you approach the text, seeking to know what it meant there and then so that we can understand what it means for us now as new covenant believers. This will result in a heart which has deeper affection for God, and life that is more evidently committed to him. This is how the Spirit wields the Word in our lives. Blessings.

        1. Melanie says:

          Hey John! I really appreciate the convo. Yes, I think you misread me. My response is not emotions based but motives based. Jesus told the Pharisees in John 5, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Yet, we see the Bereans in Acts 17 also diligently study the scriptures but they are regarded as having “noble character.” The difference between the two is motive. One group sought knowledge which led to inflated egos and the other sought Jesus which led to favor with God the Father. If we diligently study scripture with the motive of gaining knowledge, we’ll come up short every time because we miss Jesus (of whom the law, the prophets and the psalms testify). Conversely, if we diligently study scripture to see Jesus, we will find treasure beyond comprehension. Even the teacher in Ecclesiastes teaches that knowledge and wisdom are meaningless. Therefore, the motive behind our study directly affects what we’ll get out of it. Hope all that made sense. I’m not trying to persuade you to believe a certain way, just explaining where I’m coming from on the subject.

          What I meant by the statement, “As believers pursue the heart of God, He will lead us into the truth of his scripture,” we seek the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth just as Jesus promised in John 16. Again, it all comes down to motive. If our motive is loving God and loving others, knowledge and wisdom become byproducts; God gives them to us, we can’t give it or teach it to ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll end up with puffed up pride and desires to place ourselves as superior to our brethren. Again, I’m simply explaining where I’m coming from.

          Whatever methods we use to study scripture (the Holmes method is not bad, just a nifty tool among thousands), our motive MUST be correct. Our motive should be to see Jesus. Who knows, our motive many even change our methods. :-)

          Many blessings to you, John! I pray the Lord will reveal more of himself to us so we can experience the treasure that resides in his presence. His kingdom come!

          1. John Botkin says:

            Okay, Melanie, that helps. Blessings.

    2. Sten-Erik says:

      Don’t misread me – Proper exegesis of the text is essential. My comment above was dealing with what can become a problem–an overly optimistic perspective that through our use of tools and intellect we can objectively find the meaning by studying the data.

      My point is that our foundation needs to be one of faith, and from there we move to understanding. I once had a professor say that our job as exegetes was “to get beneath the text and figure out what it is really saying.” That strikes me as hubris. Should we study the text? Yes! Should use use the tools given to us, our knowledge of history, the original languages, theories of interpretation, etc.? Yes! But they are tools. Humility is key. We are finite beings studying an infinite God. For me to say that I can get beneath the text to see what it is really saying is dangerous. (Which raises a question. What is inspired? The very words of Scripture, or the meaning beneath the text? Hmmm…)

      Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. I pray that through my study of the text and my foundation of faith seeking understanding, that my efforts will serve to glorify God and bring me and others closer in relationship to Him.

    3. Sten-Erik says:

      (Not sure what happened – I posted this reply on the 3rd, but it hasn’t gone through. Trying again.)

      Don’t misread me – Proper exegesis of the text is essential. My comment above was dealing with what can become a problem–an overly optimistic perspective that through our use of tools and intellect we can objectively find the meaning by studying the data.

      My point is that our foundation needs to be one of faith, and from there we move to understanding. I once had a professor say that our job as exegetes was “to get beneath the text and figure out what it is really saying.” That strikes me as hubris. Should we study the text? Yes! Should use use the tools given to us, our knowledge of history, the original languages, theories of interpretation, etc.? Yes! But they are tools. Humility is key. We are finite beings studying an infinite God. For me to say that I can get beneath the text to see what it is really saying is dangerous. (Which raises a question. What is inspired? The very words of Scripture, or the meaning beneath the text? Hmmm…)

      Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. I pray that through my study of the text and my foundation of faith seeking understanding, that my efforts will serve to glorify God and bring me and others closer in relationship to Him.

  7. Janice says:

    I agree with John. Scripture has it’s own application (it’s in there!) and you can’t apply what you don’t understand. Many Christians believe things other than what the Bible says, even though they think their beliefs are Scriptural. Learning to read and observe what is written, in context, is vital.

  8. Todd says:

    Thanks so much for the insight. This was a unique and beneficial post and a joy to read. Blessings.

  9. Fred Moritz says:

    This is a cute post. Eric missed one more, to wit:

    “You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. When, then, did he come?”
    The Sign of the Four, ch. 6 (1890)
    Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four (Doubleday p. 111)

  10. Terry Chaney says:

    Very clever and very enjoyable. I like it and can see using it with students. Best!

  11. mike eagles says:

    Greetings brother and sister from waterloo on. I was wondering if I could get some help on Exodus 21:20-21. A atheist has challenged me to these verses saying they cannot be explained away. what I think He is saying here in verse 21 is that you can beat your slave to the near brink of death and get off the hook for it with no punishment except the loss of money he paid for the slave as long as the slave survives a day or two after the beating. can you help me with this. thank you, God is great Amen

    1. Melanie says:

      Mike,
      This is tough. Not all of scripture is easy to explain, especially to those who have already made up their minds that God is an angry and vindictive God because they read scripture through that lens. In an attempt to “explain” this passage, I’d like to at least offer some perspectives. If it helps your atheist friend see God’s love rather than his anger, awesome! If not, don’t get discouraged. God is not surprised nor offended by those who don’t believe he exists; we shouldn’t be either. All we can do is pray that God would reveal himself in wonderful ways to those who don’t yet know him.

      Well, here are some thoughts I hope will help you:
      * The first step we must take is go back to what we know is TRUE, and build from there. If we know beyond knowing that God’s law is just/righteous (Ps 119), we can safely say that any of God’s law are intended to help redeem people who have turned their heart’s toward evil. Note: this is separate from salvation.
      * If we have a personal relationship with God, we can always ask him to explain it to us. He’s so merciful and kind; he’ll explain it to us when we humbly and eagerly seek him.
      * Much of God’s law is a justice system. God made the law for mankind to redeem them, not condemn them (Mark 2:27 is an indication). Therefore, we must NOT use the law to condemn but to utilize it as instruction to restore others to health, peace, forgiveness, love, kindness, etc.
      * How much of God’s law was written for leadership? Moses was chosen to govern over 1 million “stiff-necked people” in the middle of a desert. No man would know where to start without God’s guidance.
      * Ex 21:21 is NOT a law that instructs people how to beat other people. That’s ridiculous to assume that, especially when God gives a multitude of instructions to show mercy (Ex 23). Again, those who convinced themselves that God is vindictive most likely will not see it this way. Because I know God’s law is just, I can look at this passage and consider it instruction of how to govern over abuse cases where it is rampant. Yes, all abuse is wrong. At the same time, the severe abuse cases take lives, and those are the ones that need focused discipline from one in authority.
      * What was the culture at the time? Imagine this: One person (Moses) is entrusted by God to govern over more than 1 million people who used to be slaves in Egypt. How does one do that? The law was written for a people who suffered severely under a slave system. When they finally became free people, they resorted back to the same slavery practices of their handlers. Go figure! So what should one do with the thieves, the murderers, and the kidnapers when there was no legal system in the middle of the desert? How does a leader weed through all the abuse cases? How can a leader take a people from a slavery mentality to a freedom mentality? Hint: Only God knows best. :D

      Well, I hope this helps. Granted, there are lots of passages in scripture that are hard to digest. Not all biblical teachings are milk and honey. I pray you hear the Lord clearly when speaking with people who don’t know God. Many blessings to you, Mike!

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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