Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How to Read the Bible Like the Pros: In Five (Not So) Easy Steps

(or, at least, this pro, who may or may not have any plus tools after all, according to local scouts...)

It's August, which means I'm ramping up for the the annual fall launch of our Bible study classes.  I teach three at my church--a Sunday School class before worship, a morning Bible study for our retirees and folks with nontraditional work schedules, and an evening Bible study for our folks who work during the day.  All three use a different curriculum, and most of the time, that curriculum is either augmented by my own notes from God School, or thrown out altogether because I'm an opinionated SOB and I don't much care for what the commentators had to say that week.

Which makes my approach much more labor-intensive than the open-up-the-box-and-mail-it-in way of doing things, but so be it.  I relish this part of my job, sometimes too much at the expense of other tasks that need doing that day.

A note about the steps: I sometimes mention products or programs like Zondervan's BibleGateway website.  All of these recommendations are entirely my own, and I received no compensation of any sort for them.


Prayer is always a good place to start.  Pray that God will open your mind and so that you won't make a complete hash of the eternal and divine Word that has been handed down from generation to generation for 2,700+ years, all the way back to when Isaiah wrote down his original prophecies in the 8th century BCE (Edit: What I mean by this is that I believe Isaiah 1-39 was the first part of the Bible to be written and compiled in its final form.  Parts of the Old Testament likely predated Isaiah, but not in the final form we read them in within the OT.  ~E.A.).  No pressure, grasshopper.

Read--in multiple translations

One of the things that drives me nuts about the "King James Version Only" crowd--which says, true to its name, that the KJV/NKJV should be the only translations read in churches today--is the "only" part, as though all of the other dozens of translations we have made since 1611 are somehow corrupted.  But such an approach shuts a believer off from a richness of translation that has really been a labor of love for dozens--hundreds, really--of Bible translators over the decades, that is largely done for OUR benefit.

Personally, I have nine different translations sitting on my bookshelf right now: the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the Common English Bible (CEB), the New International Version, post-2011 that was formerly the Today's New International Version (TNIV), the New International Version original (NIV), the Jewish Publication Society's Study Bible (JPS), The Voice (VOICE), the Living Bible (TLB), and, yes, a New King James Version (NKJV).  At one point, I also had a New American Standard Bible (NASB), and I have a New American Bible (NAB) translation of a few different books of the Bible.  I don't even begin a sermon without first consulting my two go-to translations, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible, and often without reading the passage I'm preaching on in a third translation as well.

Now, you don't need all of that as long as you have access to an internet connection--simply go to Biblegateway.com, pick a translation from the pulldown menu, pick a book to start at, and go to town.

But don't stop there!  You can click on the button that looks (amusingly, to me) like a pair of small combs to begin reading translations in parallel, so that you can see what one translation says compared to another.

Why does any of this matter?  Because the Bible didn't arrive from heaven in 21st-century American English.  It was written in ancient Hebrew and Koine (common) ancient Greek.  Any translation requires a certain amount of interpretation, because language isn't as precise as, say, basic arithmetic, in which 1 plus 1 will always equal 2.  Translation includes interpretation.  So, use some wisdom of the crowds to try to understand exactly what a given passage, story, or chapter, is saying to you.

Look at a map or three

Do you know the geography of ancient Israel and its nearby kingdoms--Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, and so on--as well as you know your own neighborhood or church building?  No?  It's okay, neither do I.  I visited Israel while in God School, but I only got to see tiny pieces of the Holy Land, certainly not enough to claim any intimate familiarity with Jesus's home turf.

So it helps to know where the events the Bible documents are happening.  It reveals important clues about the nature of these stories that we revere and cherish.  It underscores things like just how extensive the military campaigns of the Maccabees (yep, the ones from the Hanukkah story) were, or just how dominant the Roman Empire was compared to Israel during Jesus's time.  And for folks who are more visual rather than verbal learners, a Bible atlas can be a godsend of a resource.  Me, I'm actually quite the opposite--I'm a verbal rather than spatial learner, which really just doubles down on my need to to study a Bible atlas, because I couldn't tell you how to get from Capernaum to Nazareth if you paid me, but since that's the route Jesus often took, it behooves me to know it as well.

Personally, I recommend the HarperCollins Atlas of Bible History--I got my copy at Half Price Books for ten bucks, and you can pick one up used on Amazon for six.  For me, and my teaching and preaching, it has been worth every penny several times over.

Study a trusted commentator--or several

Many of the aforementioned Bible translations on my shelf are study Bibles--Bibles with commentaries by Bible professors to go alongside the texts.  These commentaries are designed to provide context to the stories and individual verses, offering you notes on details that would be obvious to, say, a citizen of ancient Israel and a native speaker of Aramaic or Greek, but that would otherwise be lost on us as 21st century Americans.

There's a difference between commentaries and study Bibles--the latter is usually a Bible with notes in the margins or sides of the pages, a commentary is only the notes from the scholar, with the assumption that you have the text in front of you and are reading along--which allows commentaries to offer much more depth than a study Bible might otherwise be able to.

For study Bibles, my bread and butter again comes from HarperCollins--their study Bible (with the NRSV translation) is the best in terms of balancing conciseness with detail, but I am also a frequent user of the New Interpreter's Study Bible (also with the NRSV translation), which is a few bucks more expensive, if cost is a factor--the HarperCollins Bible costs maybe $15 used, the NISB more like $20.

For individual commentators, I'm someone for whom it takes a long time to earn my trust.  There are a lot of hucksters and half-baked theorists out there who think they know something about the Bible but are in fact mostly just spreading misinformation.  It's important to treat Bible study the same as, say, medicine--if you go onto WebMD and tell it you have a headache, it will tell you that you are most likely a hair away from knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door.  So your doctor will likely know way more about your headache than WebMD or Google will.

Well, the exact same is true of pastors and Bible professors.  We know a lot more about the Bible than most of the internet does.  Fortunately, there are a lot of great names out there producing sound and exciting Biblical scholarship, and I couldn't even begin to name all of them,  But in my book, you won't go wrong by starting with anything by James Kugel, John Collins, Adela Yarbro Collins, Amy-Jill Levine, Raymond Brown, Sharon Ringe, Gail O'Day, or Walter Brueggeman.  (I'm also trying to expand my repertoire of Bible scholars of color, and have been following with great interest the work of scholars like Love Sechrest at Fuller and Christena Cleveland at Duke.)


Finally, step number five: let all of this digest.  Steps one through four represent an awfully big helping at the Bible buffet, and for now, letting everything you absorbed, like a slightly defective sponge, is, I have found, the best course of action.  Take a walk, sleep on it, whatever you do to let matters roll around in your ticker and your noggin, do those things.  Let yourself steep in the Word, really let yourself be immersed by it, and I promise you will emerge enriched for having done so.

So there you have it.  Those are the five (not so) easy steps to read the Bible like a real pro.  Not me, of course, because I just fake it most of the time.  But in truth?  I don't move forward with a sermon series I have been working on until I have done all five of these steps, sometimes several times over, which often requires me to begin work on a sermon series several months before I will actually preach it.

But it's worth it, because the spiritual depth I have gotten out of my work has been invaluable.  I wouldn't study the Bible, or prepare for my own preaching and teaching, any other way.

Longview, Washington
August 4, 2015

Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

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