A Greatly Lacking Introduction to Studying Your Bible pt. 1
Do you really want to study the Bible? As some people say in this week’s recording… no one has time to do that. I mean the main studying of the Bible I did in college was for homework and tests. What I am trying to do with this post is boil everything I have learned about studying the Bible (things I use and don't use) into something that gives you a place to start. I wrote around 3,000 words in this blog and if that is TL;DR for you then please click here (really just do it), but if Christianity is what you are going to stake your life on, why wouldn’t you be willing to know what the book it all comes from actually says?
I WISH I could write a full-fledged course on Hermeneutics for you but there is no way I could do that. Alas you will have to go to college or take an online course for that. For full disclosure when I took a course on this I wrote 7 papers going through the whole process for Romans 13:8-10. I am referring back to those papers a lot and it is a struggle to write each step. If you follow me on Snapchat you might have caught the picture I posted of me writing this saying that I am way in over my head and even after writing about half of the post I am still way in over my head. I don't want to do a disservice to anyone by making it too complicated or too simple.
Whether you are studying the Bible to scrutinize it for yourself or to learn more about what you believe, pray before you start. I’m serious, not being super spiritual or religious. Even if you don't believe that the God of the Bible is even there to hear you, pray a little prayer that the Holy Spirit would help make sense of what God is saying to you through your study. Just do it, even if you feel silly. Ask God to help you. Plain and simple.
What studying the Bible is and is not.
Studying the Bible is not being able to read the Bible in the year (at least not for me). I’m not saying NOT to read the Bible in a year, you just can’t study everything you read. You will have to be picky about what you study. Remember: people have written whole books on one verse of scripture.
Studying the Bible IS taking a portion of the Bible and finding out all you can about it and then seeing how it is applicable to your life. Studying the Bible is just like it sounds… Studying. If you don't like learning, you might not like learning about the Bible.
I would encourage you to do both: if you are reading your Bible daily keep doing that and then select something out of what you read that you didn't understand or something that really meant a lot to you to look a little deeper into. If You don't read (or listen) to your Bible daily here is where we talked about that at empty church.
Historical Context: What it meant
History? What does history have to do with this Bible thing? A lot actually. If you want to find out if events in the Bible actually happened one thing to check is if its account of history is discredited by multiple reliable historical sources. When it comes to knowing the context of what we are reading we want to know the who wrote it, who was reading it/ hearing it, when it was written, what it was written for, and where it was written (Author, audience, date, occasion, and place). The goal is to understand how the text would have been understood when it was written. If you have a paper Bible, it may have these details in the beginning of each book of the Bible. We don't always know every one of these but some scholars may have guesses. BibleStudyTools.com has a Summary tab and biblehub.com has "The Bible Book by Book", both of which provide a quick and easy place for many of the historical details we are looking for. BlueLetterBible.com has study resources that you can comb through to find information on your passage. Once you know the time frame you can check Bible-history.com for historical events going on during that time. There is always a good ol’ internet search but I want to remind everyone that (even the in resources I have mentioned) we need to critically think and see if different sources conflict or see if they offer additional information that was not found elsewhere.
How to choose.
I mentioned about picking something that doesn't make sense to you or something you really like but that’s not it. You need to pick something that is the appropriate size to study. I’m not going to tell you how many verses because a verse can be super short or super long. As you are reading you have to find the natural breaks in thought or even study a portion of something larger while remembering that the parts you cut off from the beginning and the end said about what you are studying.
This brings us to our second thing to consider: Setting in the book
In school we were suppose to read the whole book, narrow it down to the the greater passage, and then ultimately the small paragraph we are studying (oh and don't forget what the WHOLE Bible says).
Did I just overwhelm you? Don’t be. I’m going to teach you to cheat. Some people might say that I'm helping you cheat yourself BUT I’d rather you study a little bit rather than not at all. First of all, if you ARE reading your Bible regularly and strategically, you have read the verses before the section you are studying. You should read ahead so that you can see how your section fits in with what the author is saying before and after it. AT LEAST read the chapter that your passage is in. This is not always enough, sometimes you really need even more and you have to make that decision from what you have read, but, keep this in mind, I know people would argue that this is never enough and that to truly study you need the whole book to see where the passage fits. Some Bibles include book outlines so that you can see the flow of the book. But there is nothing like reading through a book of a bible and marking out where you see shifts in what is being said. BibleStudyTools.com and biblehub.com both have outlines of books along with the other information that they offer.
Why am I outlining the whole book?
Outlining lets us see what role the passage we are studying plays. When studying Romans 13:8-10, I found that it was apart of Paul’s (the author) practical application of his teaching. Outlining shows that Paul puts love as the foundation of how to live. Love takes care of how to act.
I’m having trouble narrowing it down.
Read it over and over and over and over again. Read it until you feel the flow or progression of thought. Sometimes is really hard and you have to either just cut it or study the whole thing. As you are reading it is good to write down what you think the passage is talking about: who, what, where, when, why, audience, setting, theme, rising action, falling action, and whatever else you can think of. First of all, this will help you find when the story changes or shifts, which might hint where you can cut the section you are studying. Secondly, since you have already done some research into the book of the Bible you will see what you have learned within your text. Sometimes you just have to be aware that something is said before or after your passage but cannot include it for the sake of length or other times you will have outlined the book and put a divider between verses that you end up putting together in your study: either is okay.
Read It in another translation.
Find out what translation technique the Bible translation you usually read uses and read something that is slightly different. Here is a wikipedia list if Bible translations, find yours and go to the wikipedia page for that translation and read about it. You should be able to find out what translation theory it uses, or just do an internet search for your translation. I might be simplifying it too much, in my limited understanding, essentially Bible translations sit on a line between being translated for the idea that the words hold and what the words literally say. If you get too far on the idea side, it becomes a paraphrase; if it is word for word then often it would make no sense to the English reader. If you are reading a paraphrase, I recommend you read something a little farther down the line closer to the literal side to see how the paraphrase compares with something more literal. Usually people don't suggest doing intensive Bible study from a paraphrase because of how much liberty is taken with adapting the original languages to modern English. I want to stress that all translations use some interpretation of the text.
On the Empty Church website we usually provide the English Standard Version (ESV). It has recently become a common translation that people use; maybe it has been for a while but I have heard about it more often as of the past few years. When I was growing up people tended to use the New International Version (NIV) and there are always people who hearken back to the King James Version (KJV) or the updated New King James Version (NJKV). I personally tend to use the New American Standard Bible (NASB) because a professor in University that I highly respected often used it. I also like the Amplified Bible (AMP) but it’s not for the faint of heart as it describes words multiple [varied, having several definitions, numerous, and manifold] ways to give a better idea of its meaning. There are plenty of other versions out there like RSV, NRSV, TNIV, NLT, GNT, and the Message (the message is a paraphrase), just to list a few. I don't have much experience with these translations so I can’t speak about them.
If I want to quickly see translations side by side I use biblegateway.com to select another 2 translations so that I have a total of three to compare. The old school way would be to have separate Bibles in different translations opened to the same verse or you can even buy what are called parallel Bibles which contain several translations side by side for comparison.
Be sure to check out part two of this introduction to studying the Bible available on June 10, 2016. Sean provides some general rules, thoughts on word studies, and a list of resources that will help to study the Bible to the fullest extent.