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Reading 10. Beyond Reading to Bible Study: Observing

Observation Practice Skill

We begin reading with looking at the practice of observation. Our power of observation can be trained beyond our present state as the following story reveals.

The Student, the Fish and Agassiz: When I sat me down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it, but should on no account talk to any one concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes, until I had his permission so to do. To my inquiry “What shall I do?” he said in effect: “Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think that you have done the work, I will question you.”

In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed that fish; it was a rather unsavory object, giving forth the stench of old alcohol, then loathsome to me, though in time I came to like it. Many of the scales were loosened so that they fell off. It appeared to me to be a case for a summary report, which I was anxious to make and get on to the next stage of the business. But Agassiz, though always within call, concerned himself no further with me that day, nor the next, nor for a week.

At first, this neglect was distressing; but. . . I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of a hundred hours or so thought I had done much—a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start. I got interested in finding out how the scales went in series, their shape, the form and placement of the teeth, etc. Finally, I felt full of the subject and probably expressed it in my bearing; [but] as for words about it then, there were none from my master except his cheery “Good morning.”

At length on the seventh day, came the question “Well?” and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour’s telling, he swung off and away, saying, “That is not right.” …. I went at the task anew, discarded my first notes, and in another week of ten hours a day labor I had results which astonished myself and satisfied him. (By the student, Nathanael Southgate Shaler (1841-1906), professor of paleontology and geology at Harvard, 1869-1906. Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was a professor of natural history at Harvard, 1848-1873. Shaler relates his experience as a student under Agassiz around 1860.)


Observation is important because observing correctly gives us dependable information. Some folks think this a waste of time. Here is what two teachers who are noted for their grace in teaching others how to study the Bible say:

The first skill you need to develop is to train your mind to see when you read a passage—to observe carefully the words, to be on the alert for details. Too many of us are in the habit of reading Scripture without seeing very much, without thinking about the words we are seeing. We read words, but we do not observe what the words are saying. Sometimes we do not even see all the words in a passage. We are lazy observers! Because of inaccurate and careless observations, we often make faulty interpretations and shallow applications (Oletta Wald. The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Revised Edition. 16)

Observation will give you the basic building blocks out of which you will construct the meaning of a passage. The answers to your questions will come directly from the observation process. That is why I say, the more time you spend in Observation, the less time you will need to spend in Interpretation, and the more accurate will be your results. The less time you spend in Observation, the more time you will need to spend in Interpretation, and the less accurate will be your results (Howard Hendricks. Living by the Book. 39)

What You Need

You only need a few things to begin the process of observation. Beside your eyes and brain, you need a pencil or pen, and some paper. Because we would only remember a small number of observations, it helps to write it down and keep it safe. You will be surprised how much this will help you in the process. I spent a complete quarter in seminary studying the Gospel of Mark with the text, pencil, paper, and my eyes and brain. What a blast! The following steps can help you in your observation process.

Step Four: Connectives

Reading can be fun if you know the rules. Below I have listed a few helps to enhance your reading process. These helps are called connectives because they connect different parts of a sentence together. Go figure! They help us view how the words we are reading are tied together. They are usually conjunctions, but they can also be relative pronouns. At the beginning of a sentence they link what precedes. Within a sentence they indicate the relationship between words, phrases, and clauses through which the author’s ideas are being communicated. Even though connectives may appear insignificant, their influence far outstrips their size.

  1. Words That Suggest Time. after, then, before, until, as, when, now, while, as long as, meanwhile, since, whenever
  2. Words That Suggest Location. where, there, here, beside, upon, above under, below, on, over, at
  3. Words That Suggest Emphasis. indeed, truly, only, finally
  4.  Words That Suggest Direction. to, toward, from
  5. Words That Suggest Logical Relationships.

Reason. because, for, since, as, inasmuch as, whereas, why
Result. then, so, as a result, so that, hence, consequently
Inference. therefore, thus, then, wherefore
Purpose. in order that, so that, that
Contrast. but, much more, nevertheless, otherwise, yet, although, however, not only…but also, still, whereas
Continuation. first of all, last of all, or, and, also, besides, both…and, furthermore, moreover, likewise, not only…but also, whereupon
Condition. if, as if, as though, lest, provided, providing, unless
Concession. although, yet, in spite of, though, unless, while

  1. Words That Suggest Mode.

Means. by, through, by means of
Manner. as
Comparison. also, as-so, just as-so, so also, as, like, likewise, in the (very) same way, in a similar way
Example. for, for example, indeed, in fact, namely

Step Five: Logical Relationship

Sometimes connectives are left out. To determine the logical relationship between clauses and sentences, there are six little words we can ask. Ask them of your text. (All six will not always be needed for each passage.)

  1. Who. Notes nouns and pronouns. Who is the author? To whom is he writing? Make a list of all the people involved in the passage.
  2. What. Focuses on the theme or themes. What happened and in what order did it happen? What are the key terms? What words does the author use over and over? What form of literature are you reading? What is the general atmosphere in the text? What questions are being asked? Are they being answered?
  3. Why. Gives the reason or purpose. What is the reason or purpose for the author saying what he is saying at a specific point in his writing?
  4. When. Notes the time and verb tenses. When are the events being recorded happening?
  5. Where. Gives location. Where did the book take place? Where are the characters from?
  6. How. Describes the manner in which something is done. How was any action in the narrative or story accomplished?
Living into the Text!

It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • What does the story: The Student, the Fish and Agassiz teach?
  • Why is Observation of the Bible text important?
  • How does slowing down to observe connectives clarify what the text is saying?
  • How will using the six words (who, what, why, when, where, and how) help you discover more information from the text?

The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs.

Week 10: Studying Scripture

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Mark

The Gospel according to Mark is the current and apparently well-founded tradition that Mark derived his information mainly from the discourses of Peter. In his mother’s house he would have abundant opportunities of obtaining information from the other apostles and their coadjutors, yet he was “the disciple and interpreter of Peter” specially.


As to the time when it was written, the Gospel furnishes us with no definite information. Mark makes no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem, hence it must have been written before that event, and probably about A.D. 63.


The place where it was written was probably Rome. Some have supposed Antioch (comp. Mark 15:21 with Acts 11:20).


It was intended primarily for Romans. This appears probable when it is considered that it makes no reference to the Jewish law, and that the writer takes care to interpret words which a Gentile would be likely to misunderstand, such as, “Boanerges” (3:17); “Talitha cumi” (5:41); “Corban” (7:11); “Bartimaeus” (10:46); “Abba” (14:36); “Eloi,” etc. (15:34). Jewish usages are also explained (7:3; 14:3; 14:12; 15:42). Mark also uses certain Latin words not found in any of the other Gospels, as “speculator” (6:27, rendered, A.V., “executioner;” R.V., “soldier of his guard”), “xestes” (a corruption of sextarius, rendered “pots,” 7:4, 8), “quadrans” (12:42, rendered “a farthing”), “centurion” (15:39, 44, 45). He only twice quotes from the Old Testament (1:2; 15:28).


The characteristics of this Gospel are, (1) the absence of the genealogy of our Lord, (2) whom he represents as clothed with power, the “lion of the tribe of Judah.” (3.) Mark also records with wonderful minuteness the very words (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36) as well as the position (9:35) and gestures (3:5, 34; 5:32; 9:36; 10:16) of our Lord. (4.) He is also careful to record particulars of person (1:29, 36; 3:6, 22, etc.), number (5:13; 6:7, etc.), place (2:13; 4:1; 7:31, etc.), and time (1:35; 2:1; 4:35, etc.), which the other evangelists omit. (5.) The phrase “and straightway” occurs nearly forty times in this Gospel; while in Luke’s Gospel, which is much longer, it is used only seven times, and in John only four times.


“The Gospel of Mark,” says Westcott, “is essentially a transcript from life. The course and issue of facts are imaged in it with the clearest outline.” “In Mark we have no attempt to draw up a continuous narrative. His Gospel is a rapid succession of vivid pictures loosely strung together without much attempt to bind them into a whole or give the events in their natural sequence. This pictorial power is that which specially characterizes this evangelist, so that ‘if any one desires to know an evangelical fact, not only in its main features and grand results, but also in its most minute and so to speak more graphic delineation, he must betake himself to Mark.'” The leading principle running through this Gospel may be expressed in the motto: “Jesus came…preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Mark 1:14).

International Standard Version: Gospel of Mark to print

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