In-Depth Bible Study

Someone raised a question about doing in-depth Bible study in a forum I frequent occasionally. I liked this answer in particular….

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Bootstrap wrote:A few thoughts on method.

Because context is so important, I really prefer to read an entire book several times – perhaps five – before doing anything else. I’m an ear person, so I like to listen to the text while reading it with my eyes. I don’t worry about knowing what the commentaries say at this point, I am just trying to listen to the text and understand it as a whole.

After that, I like to print a manuscript and get out the colored pencils, Inter-varsity-style. Who, what, when, where, why, how. For instance, on the “who” front, I might use one color pencil for people, and write a P every place where Peter occurs, a J every place that Jesus occurs, note the interactions between them (P->J or J->P), etc. Make up whatever symbols you like, draw boxes and circles and arrows … for “when”, I might draw little timelines along the side, or use colors or symbols to indicate tense and aspect. Your background affects what you will do here – Steven Runge has a set of symbols he uses for discourse analysis, for instance.

Or I might outline the structure of sentences, showing the subject, object, and adjuncts of each verb using a word processor and indentation and simple symbols.

Once I’m sure I have understood the basic text in some detail, I go over the text and write down questions I have. This is one of the most useful things for me, I’m usually surprised by the number of questions that occur to me if I let myself ask. How long did it take to go from this place to the other place? I wonder what time of day it was? What was it like to … Then I look to see if these questions are answered in the text – they often are, but I don’t see that until I ask the question. During the course of the study, I often answer most of these questions, but many remain unanswered. That’s fine, just asking the questions seems helpful for processing a text in depth. Incidentally, if you are doing a less in-depth study, starting with these questions is often good, and you can do that as a first step before doing these other steps too.

All of this is what I would call rich observation. It is not yet interpretation or application. But I find that doing a lot of careful observation is useful to avoid look-say application, and to avoid simply imposing my established theology on a text.

Then comes interpretation – why did the author write this text, what was most important to him, what were his values and concerns, and how would the original audience of understood it? I try to stay focused on the original audience at this point, and not immediately read it as a letter to me as a modern reader. 

And this is the point at which I start to bring in other resources. I might look at various translations to make sure I’m not misinterpreting the Greek, or read commentaries to understand the cultural background or fine points of the language, use a lexicon to understand the meaning of a word, etc. The older commentaries like Meyer are great for the details of language, the IVP Bible Background Commentary is a useful but somewhat shallow overview of the cultural issues.

Finally we get to application – if that’s what the text meant to them back then, what does that mean to me today? Or to the church today? Often, the specific concern they were dealing with, such as circumcision or meat offered to idols, is not a big issue in my local church, but if you let the Holy Spirit speak to you, the same concerns they had then are just as relevant today. Application is not really something that scholars are better at than anyone else, this is a time to bring in others and brainstorm and pray and seek God’s will.

One thought on “In-Depth Bible Study

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  1. The most important part of Bible study is to actually live what you learn. If we don’t live God’s Bible teachings in sincerity and truth and in both words and deeds we “deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” It’s more important to actually live the truth in the Bible than to be considered a Bible scholar. Simply sitting with the Word and living it daily is more important to Jesus than hours and hours of study. All we have to do is to examine what Jesus said to the Pharisees and Sadducees who spent hours upon hours studying the Torah and who would then place heavy burdens on the people that they themselves were unwilling to carry.

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