Monday, May 13, 2013

Bible Study 101: An introduction to studying the bible

Origins of the Bible
The bible is composed of many different books taken together as a literary work. It is divided into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament was written over a period from approximately 1400 B.C. to 400 B.C. The New Testament was written in the first century, from approximately 40 to 80 A.D.

There are a total of 66 books in the bible, 39 of them are from the Old Testament, and the 27 left are from the New.

These books are written in different literary styles. These include: letters, sermons, law, poetic descriptions, narratives of historical events, prayer, praise, practical sayings, and the warnings of the prophets.

The Old Testament refers to the time before Jesus Christ came. It begins with Genesis, which includes an account of how God made the world. It includes the original Ten Commandments and the laws God gave to his people at the time, the Jews. The Jews were the first to receive God’s message. The Old Testament has many prophecies, or predictions, of what God intended to do. Part of that included the Messiah, or the ‘Anointed One’ of God.

The New Testament begins with the four gospels. Gospel is a word for ‘good news.’ These four books, written by four people, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, describe accounts of people who were with Jesus. The good news of the gospel was that the Messiah or Christ (in Greek) had come and God was offering his salvation and forgiveness to everyone. The remaining books of the New Testament are written by Apostles, or those appointed to teach the good news and create new communities of believers, or churches.

Over forty different authors wrote the books of the bible. They included shepherds (Hosea and Amos) fishermen (Peter and John), a tax collector (Matthew), a doctor (Luke), and a military general (Joshua).

 Original Manuscripts
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew with some parts being composed in Aramaic - a language similar to Hebrew.  The New Testament was originally written in Greek.

The oldest surviving bible manuscripts (dating about 100 B.C.), the Dead Sea Scrolls, represent every book of the Old Testament except one (Esther). Finding these scrolls was significant, because they were compared to other copies of the Old Testament to test for validity. These scrolls helped validate the correctness of the Old Testament Hebrew writings we have now.
The New Testament is the best attested to piece of historical writing ever. There are over 30,000 manuscripts of parts of the bible, which is more than 30 times the number of manuscripts of any other historical book (the next closest is Homer's Iliad with less than 700). The manuscripts are compared to each other and compiled to make one complete document. The New Testament writings that are used include some dating from the first century, very close to the time Jesus was on earth.

These original documents are used, once compiled, to translate directly into the intended language, such as English. This means that the bible is not translated over and over, it is simply translated once from the original language straight into English by scholars of the historic languages.

 Studying the bible

Reading the bible and studying it are really two separate things. To become a student of the bible it is important to understand a technique known as exegesis. Exegesis is the process of analyzing what you read and understanding the meaning. There are many parts of this analysis that will help you learn more about the meaning of what you are reading. These include:

  • History
Knowing the history of the time period you are reading about is important. For instance, when reading the New Testament, it helps to know that Israel is under control of the Roman Empire. However, the Romans also let the local cultures have their own rulers which were subject to them, such as King Herod.
  • Culture
Jesus was a Jew, it is important to know what that means. He followed their laws and teachings. It is important to note that at the time, the Pharisees and other teachers of Jewish religious law had added many extra commands and traditions not from the original law. This is why you see Jesus correcting them often.
  • Context
Earlier, it was noted that the bible includes many literary styles. Parts are history, poetry, analogy, etc. It is important to note what style you are reading. Jesus often spoke in ‘parables’, or short stories that had a moral. He often made analogies as well. Jesus said, for instance, "I am the gate for the sheep." (John 10:7) He is not literally a gate for sheep. What he is saying, from the context, is that he is the way to enter the kingdom of God, and the sheep are his followers. Context includes examining the text before and after what you are reading. It also includes analyzing the rest of the bible for comparison. In the case of the sheep, many times Jesus refers to his followers as sheep. Therefore it strengthens the case that he is once again using this same analogy.
  • Original Languages
Since we have manuscripts of the original languages, many bibles will include a study aid with definitions of the words used in Greek and Hebrew. We can look back at these to improve our knowledge of a specific passage. This would be something for the advanced bible student.

 Using Study Aids
There are many study aids that help us in our examination of the bible. Most good study bibles will include these aids which you should look for:
  • Concordance:
Basically an index where you can look up passages that have a specific word or name. You could look up occurrences of the word ‘sheep’ for instance.
  • Center reference:
A column down the center of each page will list footnotes with references to other bible verses on the same subject. This is very helpful when studying a specific subject.
  • Footnotes:
Many bibles will have notes from a bible scholar in it. These sometimes explain a historical or theological point. However, its very important to realize that these are opinions, not part of the bible. When you get a bible, you should check on the position of the footnote authors, because they may have specific biases.
  • Maps:
Maps bring a lot of depth to a bible study. Seeing the maps where Paul went on his missionary journeys, for example, brings a larger sense of reality to the letters he wrote in the New Testament.
  • Language Reference:
This can often be a separate book, or sometimes part of the bound copy of your bible. They give definitions of Hebrew and Greek words used in certain passages.
  • Bible study books:
Many of these study books are excellent. They lead the reader through a study on a specific subject, listing places in the bible to go read for them. This is a great help since someone has already done the research for the reader. However, keep in mind that these too can have a specific bias.

 The role of the Holy Spirit
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)
When studying the bible, it is good to be scholarly. Ultimately, however, we want our study to be an experience with God, where he can show us truth. Praying for the Holy Spirit to teach us is a good way to ask God to lead our study of him and his teachings.

 Where to start

If you haven’t studied the bible before, a good place to start is with the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. These are four accounts of the life of Jesus from the perspective of four different people. One common recommendation is to read the book of John, then the book of Romans. These books contain many of the teachings of Jesus and salvation. As you read, take note of the references and notes that your bible offers. Look up some maps and read about the history of the time period of 1st century Israel.
As you begin your journey, pray for God to help you learn. Now you are ready to become a student of the bible.

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