Learning Bible Study Skills
Learning the skills needed in Bible reading/study is like learning any other set of skills. The big difference is that it leads to information that will change your life for the better in this life and reward you in the life to come. The emphasis on learning Bible reading/study skills sounds rather unspiritual and cold to many Jesus followers. We need only think of the skills of musicians who we love to listen to in order to understand how important it is to know basic skills. A fine pianist can inspire others with his or her music, but only after hours of learning scales and continuing to practice them. I know of a jazz sax player who plays professionally and yet still practices his scales daily. To learn the skills takes time, but once mastered, the skill of interpretation becomes second nature. No longer can anyone pull the wool, so to speak, over your eyes and disturb you with fanciful interpretations of Scripture. When you learn Bible reading/study skills, you provide the Holy Spirit a freer course in your life by helping you understand, apply, and grow into the person that he intended you to become.
Tools You Need
Studying requires some tools. It would be rather difficult for you to have the raw material to build a house and not one tool with which to build it. Tools are important and some are required to help you build your study habits. Here are a few suggestions. First you need a good translation. Older translations like the King James Version (KJV) have too many archaic words that you can’t even find in an English dictionary today. You do need to have a KJV handy to use some of the study helps. Second, you need an Englishman’s Hebrew and Greek Concordance. This is different from a Strong or Young’s concordance. In the Englishman’s you discover all the different places that a Hebrew or Greek word appears regardless of how many English words are used to translate the Hebrew or Greek word. You do not need to read Hebrew or Greek to use these concordances. After all, you are trying to discover how the author that you are studying uses it in the specific books you are studying as well as in his whole corpus of books. Third, you need a good Bible Dictionary. I believe that the best one volume dictionary is the New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Fourth, you need a good one volume Bible Commentary. I believe that the best one volume commentary is the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition. In addition you should have a Bible Atlas. For that I recommend The MacMillian Bible Atlas. The last two tools and certainly the most important ones are a pen or pencil and some paper to jot down what you are discovering.
Steps to Follow
It is usually easier for most to have some steps to follow in order to master a set of skills. These steps are not inspired, however, they are functional and easy to follow. Give them a try and see how much more you will learn from God’s word.
Step One: Examine The Background
You may look for material to assist you in this step by looking at a Bible Dictionary, an Old or New Testament history book, the Scripture itself, or in the Introduction of Commentaries. Be careful! Remember that all background material is basically “interpreted history.” The reason for beginning here is to immerse yourself as much as possible in the culture of the recipients of the book. Remember, the message of Scripture was first given to them.
There are four important aspects of history that are important for your preunderstanding of any passage of Scripture. These aspects will help you control the urge to read some twentieth-century back into the first-century language.
Authorship. Understanding who the author of the book or passage you are reading is will help you place the book into some historical context. As an example, when we study an Old Testament prophet like Hosea, it is helpful to know to whom Hosea ministered so that you can become aware of the situation which caused Hosea to speak and write as he did.
Date. Knowing when the book was written adds to your toolkit specific information, which can help you unlock the meaning of the Scriptural text.
Receiver. This plays a major role in our understanding a specific passage. The circumstances determine the book. Understanding the makeup of the receiver will help you as a reader begin to solve the mystery of the text. As an example, if you choose to believe that James was written to a Jewish congregation, you will come to different conclusions than if you believe it was written to a mixed congregation of Christians.
Purpose. In the New Testament, the authors are seeking to provide solutions for specific problems in specific churches. Not knowing that Paul was writing in direct response to specific problems, First Corinthians will make little to no sense.
Discovering the occasion and purpose of a biblical book is the most important piece of information that you can gather from these helps. You can do so by asking the following questions:
- What were the customs of the people?
- What were the problems they faced?
- What were the needs of the people to which the book was written?
- What was going on in the Church which caused the writing of this book?
- What was occurring in Israel which occasioned the prophet to say what he was saying?
The process of the discovery of this information gives a new set of presuppositions through which the content of the book or passage you are reading must pass. You can find the information for your preunderstanding in a Bible dictionary or a Bible commentary.
Step Two: Read The Whole Book In One Setting
Each writer of Scripture has a specific purpose for writing as he did. The writer’s purpose is to convey certain truths to his or her readers. We should begin study by gaining a complete overview and then study it by sections. You might want to begin practicing your study skills on a smaller book of the Bible, like Jude, 2 or 3 John, and Philemon in the New Testament before tackling some of the longer books. Here are some things to observe as you read through a specific book.
- What literary forms does the author use to convey his message? Is it prose, parable, apocalypse, discourse, simile, metaphor, etc.? Is the terminology literal or natural?
- What gives the book its unity?
- What do you think is the author’s main purpose in writing this book?
- How is the material arranged to emphasize the author’s purpose? What are the structural features? Identify the major divisions
- What reaction does the book stimulate in you?
- What features of the book are puzzling?
- What are the writer’s characteristic words or phrases?
- What are the emotions the writer conveys?
Read the book a second time and answer the questions again with other information that you glean as you read.
Step Three: Read A Chapter Or Section While Naming The Paragraphs
Title each paragraph according to its content. Look for what you consider the key idea that the author is stating. This can be the most helpful part of your study. You should pick some words (three or less) from the paragraph text itself to name it. There are no correct or incorrect paragraph titles. Pick a small book like Jude and give it a try.
Giving titles to paragraphs will:
- Help you begin to see the main ideas being communicated.
- Help you see paragraphs in relationship to one another.
- Help you define the flow of the author’s mind.
- Help you summarize ideas.
- Help you focus on the context.
|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.
- Why do you believe that believers in general think they can just pick up an ancient book and have instant communication from it?
- Why do some believers believe that there is no reason to use tools of any kind in order to study and understand Scripture?
- Why is it important to know who the author is, what the date is, who the receivers are, and what the purpose of a book is?
- How does reading a book in one sitting cause you to see the book differently?
- How did reading a book without verses or headers help you see the text more clearly?
- In what manner does naming paragraphs give you a clearer understanding of the parts that make up the whole?
- How does thinking paragraphs instead of verses change your way of viewing 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.
Old and New Testament