Many Christians read the bible, but not all of us know how to study the bible. We think this requires joining a bible study (which isn’t a bad idea) or that we buy certain books that take a passage from the scriptures and ask pointed questions about those passages. We don’t know how to study it without help. In fact, sometimes we’re afraid to study it without help—we’re worried we might study it wrong, and wind up going heretic.
1. Pick your passage.
If you want to study that entire book, great. But studying an entire book at once won’t be easy, unless we’re talking about one of the really short letters in the New Testament. And even then, you’re going to have to break anything down into small, manageable, reasonable segments, and study one segment at a time.
I prefer to study a paragraph at a time. (Not by English paragraphs; by original-language paragraphs. But relax: You do not have to learn Greek or Hebrew to study a bible. They help you do it way faster, but are not mandatory.)
In any case, pick the bit you want to study. Got it? Good.
2. Look at the background stuff.
Before you study a whole book of the bible, or even just one single verse from it, you really ought to know about the whole book. Who wrote it? Who’s it written to? Why was it written? What’s it about? What type of literature is it? What’s its point?
In literature, it’s always a good idea to know some of the history of the characters. If you’re reading a Civil War novel, you ought to know a bit about the Civil War. If a Victorian-era history, same deal. If Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, you ought to know about the Roman Republic—and that you ought to know the difference between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Same with the bible: You ought to know enough bible history for your book to make sense. Don’t assume, just because your translation comes in 21st-century English, that you’re reading about 21st-century people. The bible was written between 34 and 20 centuries ago, almost entirely in the Middle East, in foreign languages to foreign cultures. You gotta learn something about them.
So: What’s the historical background of the people in the book? How about the historical background of its readers? What might they be expected to know already—what parts of their popular culture should any reader of the book know about?
Notice that you can go into a crazy amount of detail in learning the background. That’s why scholars keep reading books on biblical history—there’s so much to learn, all of which might influence our study in all sorts of ways. But if you want a brief introduction to any book you might study, get a good bible commentary on that book, and read its introduction.
3. Read it in as many translations as you can.
And here’s why studying it in English is slower: You have to look at every way that other scholars have put rendered this passage into English.
Lots of people skip this step, and stick with their favorite bible translation. Or they get a “literal” bible translation, like the NASB or ESV; or stick with the Amplified Bible because they assume it includes every possible option (but it doesn’t). Or they only read the two or three translations that they like, and are done. No no no. This is the 21st century; there are dozens of translations at your fingertips on the Internet. Read as many of them as you can.
You are not looking for the translation that will be your favorite. A lot of people make that mistake, especially people who want to change the passage to suit them, rather than, appropriately, change themselves to suit the scriptures. What you are looking for is the general consensus: How do the translations agree? What do they have in common? What ideas are exactly the same in as many translations as you can find?
Some passages are ridiculously easy to translate, so every translation will agree. Other passages are controversial, so you’ll find that half translate it one way, and half translate it another. Look at both options. Or if there are three options, look at all three. If a bible has footnotes on that verse, read the footnotes: “Some translations have…” followed by other options that you need to consider. Sometimes there are textual variants; look at those too. Do they significantly change the meaning of the passage? Or are they just extra words—like referring to Jesus as “Christ Jesus” instead of just “Christ” or “Jesus”? (Most variants are nothing more than that.)
In doing this, you’re gonna get really familiar with your passage. Good. You need to. Meditate on it too, when you meditate.
You may also find that one translation splits your passage into sentences and paragraphs different than another does. Again: Look at the consensus. If most translations’ paragraphs and sentences line up in exactly the same way, go with the consensus. If your paragraph doesn’t match the consensus, you may have to adjust it.
Once you have a clear idea of what the general consensus of translators are trying to render this passage, pick the translation that does the best job. Or, if no translation does the best job by itself, put together your own: One sentence from NKJV, one from NIV, a clause from GNB… Yes, it’s okay to do this. But you need to be able to defend every clause you include—that the one you picked fits most translations, and that you didn’t just pick it because it says what you want it to.
4. Look up any significant words.
Here’s where we have to bust out the Hebrew and Greek: If there’s a significant, theologically-loaded word in your passage, you gotta look it up in the original. Do not look it up in an English-language dictionary. All an English dictionary will tell you what we mean by it; not what the bible’s authors meant by it. An original-language dictionary will do the job. Again, bible software and bible websites will help you out.
The point here is not to discover secret, unknown-before-now meanings to the bible. It is so that you understand this passage thoroughly. You don’t just have some words memorized; you know their definitions too. (Their proper definitions.) You’re not unlocking mysteries that no one knows; you’re unlocking mysteries that you don’t fully understand yet. You’re putting bible into you.
5. Look at how it fits with its book.
Another common mistake is that Christians tend to study a passage, and then immediately interpret it for what it means to them. They don’t care about how it fits with its book. They don’t care about the people whom the verse was written to. They only care about themselves. They force it to fit their needs—either as a promise they want to seize, a point they want to defend, or a passage they can preach at others.
Again, that’s not its purpose. Where does it fit within the big picture of its book? If it’s a gospel, how does it point to Jesus? If it’s one of the Prophets, how does it point to following God? If it’s a New Testament letter, how does it teach the church to think and behave? If it’s a psalm, how does it praise God? Those are general concepts; each book will have its specific agenda, and you need to look at how each verse furthers that book’s agenda.
6. And then learn from it.
Once you understand what your passage is trying to say, and what it said to its original audience, then you can look at what lessons you can take from this.
I’ll warn you now: You might expect that, after all the time you put into your passage, you’re going to get something really profound from studying it. But you might not.
There’s something to learn from all of scripture, but some passages are more packed with practical meaning than others. “God is love” (1Jn 4.8) will inspire millions of sermons; “Abraham lived between Kadesh and Shur” (Ge 20.1) not so much. Well, yet. The next time you’re in Israel, traveling between Kadesh and Shur, being face-to-face with the physical context of the scriptures might knock you flat. But that’ll only be true if you’ve studied your bible and have that verse in you. If you don’t, it won’t.
If you want a more thorough outline on how to study the bible, one of the best books I’ve come across is Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis, a thin little book that shows you how, in detail, to take apart a New Testament passage. The same principles apply to the Old Testament too. Lots of colleges use it for good reason. Mine didn’t, but my professors obviously read it, and taught all the same ideas.
And of course I’ll go into some more detail in future posts.