Ministry Resources: Reading the Bible Like Sherlock Holmes

Dr. David MayDavid May, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament / Director of Online Curriculum Design


If Sherlock Holmes were not the greatest detective in the world (I know; he is fictional), he would have been the greatest Bible interpreter in the world. The same techniques he uses to solve perplexing crimes are the same ones for examining difficult biblical passages.  One particular ability employed by Holmes can especially make us better interpreters of the Bible.  He explained this method to his companion Watson in the short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  In this story, Holmes says to Watson,

“ . . . you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall

to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many!  I don’t know.”

“Quite so!  . . . I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

In reading the Bible, we often do not hear and read familiar stories with keen powers of observation. We see but no longer observe; our biblical senses are dulled. So how do we cultivate the Holmes-like powers of observation for reading Scripture anew with fresh eyes?  Here are a few suggestions.

(1)  Read aloud.  In silent reading, eyes skip quickly to the next words or phrase. Read so you can hear each and every word distinctly and so savor the phrases, rhythm, and images.

(2)  Cut and Paste.  With an electronic biblical text, cut and paste a passage into a word processing program.  Freed from its pre-shaped form, the passage can be reformatted to capture better the literary flow intended by the writer.  Arrange dialogue or particular phrases; highlight or bold repeated words, and look for patterns.

(3)  Consider connections.  The genius of Holmes was that he could make connections between a small piece of evidence and the larger crime. In the same way, an observant reader should mull over how a particular passage of scripture fits within the whole of a Gospel or letter.  How does the part relate to the whole?

(4)  Creative Dislocation.  Read a passage out of one’s usual study location.  Read a passage on a bus, in the middle of the woods, or on the steps of a courthouse.  A different space in juxtaposition with the biblical verses may open up new observations.

(5)  Spirit.  If Holmes relied upon observation and intuition, we can rely on the Holy Spirit.  Our work and efforts in reading may allow the Spirit to create those “Ah Ha!” moments that enlarge our reading and understanding of Scripture.