How to Study the Bible
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Scripture gives us many details concerning the life and times of our Lord, but only a single occasion which has to do with His childhood. Between His birth and subsequent ministry some thirty years later, the only thing we read of in Scripture is the single incident about when, after searching for three days, He was found by Mary and Joseph in the Temple, "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions". This is all we know of His childhood, and yet doesn't this tell us much. If GOD decided to limit the revelation of these thirty years to one single sentence, doesn't that suggest to us that this sentence pretty much summarizes Yeshua's whole lifestyle over the course of those many years?
His life revolved around and was motivated by one great principle, a quest for the truth. He evidently had a great hunger to learn. Thus on several later occasions we read that He instructed His disciples that if they wanted to enter the kingdom of GOD, that they must first "become as little children". Children have a tremendous thirst for knowledge, forever wanting to know and understand. What parent hasn't tired of hearing his son or daughter ask, Why? By instructing His disciples to become as little children, wasn't Yeshua revealing to them the key required to unlock that secret entrance into His Father's kingdom?
It is only through the knowledge of the truth that we are able to know and understand the invisible GOD. We read the Bible to get a glimpse of HIS nature. We study the Bible so as to learn to trust it. Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. Truth is the vital thing, and this is why we are wise if we devote what little time we are given in this present life, to seek and search so as to understand the Bible.
The Bible has been divided into two unequal halves, named the Old and New Testaments. In that portion labeled the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible), we find a brief summary of the creation of our world along with a record of the affairs of a few men and nations starting from before Adam's creation up to just before the time of Christ. Then in that portion we call the New Testament (the Christian Scriptures) we find the events surrounding the life of Christ and His disciples up to and including the promised return of Christ. The Old Testament was the Bible of Israel, while the New Testament was what we might call the Christian Bible, though most Christian Churches accept both the New and Old Testaments. Roughly speaking, the Old Testament covers a period of about four thousand years while the New Testament covers a period of about seventy years.
The original language of the Bible is also important to understand. Practically speaking, the Jewish Bible which most of us read from today, is translated from the Hebrew language, while the Christian Scriptures are translated for the most part from the Greek language. The Greek of the Christian Scripture were not necessarily the original language of that portion of the Bible, but nearly all of our modern versions were translated from these Greek texts, so that is what we use for reference purposes.
Not having any original manuscripts of either the Hebrew Bible nor the Christian Scriptures is an obvious challenge in our quest to understand just what it was which the writers were intending to say when they wrote. Howbeit, we believe that these writers were inspired to write because GOD wanted a record of certain deeds and events, and therefore we are confident that the Creator has not allowed HIS message to be lost to time or translation. In other words, GOD has preserved and protected HIS inspiration so that we today, thousands of years later, can still read and understand HIS purposes.
Another important detail for us to understand is that in the original texts from which we got our Bibles, there were no punctuation marks, nor any distinction between the upper or lower case letters, there were not even any spaces between the words or sentences. In other words, all of the periods and commas, the capital letters and the paragraph indentions, even all of the verse and chapter markings, were all added by the translators of a later age. Often they were right but not always, for it is not difficult to find two equally qualified scholars in complete disagreement as to how a verse should have been punctuated.
There are a variety of tools at our disposal, which men of ages past have laboriously assembled, so that we today have a pretty easy task ahead of us. Some men have devoted their entire adult lives to develop these tools and we would be hard pressed to go much further in our quest to understand the Bible without them.
A Concordance is an alphabetical list of every word used in the Bible. Thus, if you want to find a verse, or all of the verses with any particular word, just open up one of these massive books and there you have before you every occurrence of that word in the Bible. Sometimes the Concordance will give you other pertinent information, such as the original Greek or Hebrew word from which our English word was translated, or perhaps a brief definition along with the tense and form, such as whether it is a noun or verb. In today's computer age we have the added blessing of having all of these resources on computer programs, so that with just the click of a finger, any word or phrase from the Bible can be instantly accessed.
A Lexicon is simply a comprehensive dictionary of words. It will often give you an expanded explanation of what the word meant at the time it was written, along with a few scripture references and sometimes a couple of references of its usages which were outside of the Bible, in other ancient works and writings. There are Greek Lexicons for the Greek words of the Christian Scriptures and Hebrew Lexicons for the Hebrew words of the Jewish Bible. There are also Bible Dictionaries which give the student information on most any subject related to the Bible, whether it be places, people or events.
An Interlinear is a book which gives us the original language on one line (Greek or Hebrew), and then directly below that the words are simultaneously translated into the English. This is a great tool in understanding how the translators came up with our particular version. As we stated before, there are no original texts, but there are hundreds of ancient copies of the originals. Scholars take these ancient copies and compare them with one another and this is how they arrive at a consensus of what they believe that the original might have said. Some Interlinears give us several of these translations which these scholars have put together, so that we can then compare their works with one another, and arrive at our own conclusions.
Bible Versions are for the most part, simply different ways of saying the same thing. Various scholars over the years have re-written the Bible in a way which they think more accurately reflects the original meaning, or which better communicates the Bible in the current language of their time. Most of these versions differ little from each other, but a few diverge quite substantially from one another. Some are good, others not so good. The King James Version of 1611 has been one of the most popular, though it is not very current. It does have one great advantage though; the words which the translators have added which were not in the original text from which they were copying, they generally placed in italics. This way, the reader has a better idea about when he is reading words which were actually translated from the original, and when he is reading words which were added for clarification.
Bible Commentaries are also helpful on occasion, but as they tend to throw a lot of the author's own opinions into the mix, they are often misleading. At first the student may wish to consult them, with care, but as he grows in his knowledge of the Bible they should gradually be discarded, generally speaking.
Discovering and understanding Orientalisms is also of paramount importance. The Bible for the most part was and is an eastern book, written by Easterners to Easterners. Their culture was quite different than the culture of Western Civilization. They did and said things which perplexed the western mind, as many of our idiosyncrasies might also perplex the eastern mind. As such, much of the Bible comes to life only after we understand these Orientalisms.
Aside from the Tools listed above, there are also various Keys we will require in order to unlock the meaning of the original text. The first and most important, is that we must Rightly Divide that which we read (2 TIMOTHY 2:15). To rightly divide the truth means to rightly cut it, as a butcher might properly and accurately divide up a chicken or piece of beef, or perhaps as a baker divides up a pie into equal slices. Rightly dividing the scripture is for the most part accomplished by simply thinking about what we are reading as we read. In other words, as we read, we are closer to understanding the writers intent when we recognize his context, to whom he is writing, and where in the line or flow of the Book does our passage lie.
Understanding the context in which the verse is set is of paramount importance. This context does not always determine its meaning, but it often does. The context can be the phrase in which a particular word sets, or the verse in which a phrase sets, or the immediate or remoter context in which the verse sets. One might have to read several chapters back in order to discover the correct context in which the passage was written. This is extremely important yet so universally misused or abused. We have all seen some phrase or verse pasted on somebody's bumper or hanging upon their wall, and it is nearly always understood out of its context.
Another vital key in Rightly Dividing scripture is to recognize To Whom it is addressed. Failing this may be the single greatest error committed in the interpretation of the Bible. We must search and read and find out To Whom some particular passage was written or spoken before we can ever hope to understand it. If I open and read a letter addressed to you I may learn a great deal from it, but I dare not assume it is written to me. This we must constantly be cognizant of when reading our Bibles. We must expend diligent efforts so as to make sure we understand to whom it is written. Sometimes the text will tell us plainly, but at other times we must search a little to discover the addressee.
We would also do well to see a passage in light of its Chronology. Where is it placed in the Bible? This is tremendously important in understanding the Gospels, but also the other books and epistles which follow a story line. Many passages can only be understood when we see how they fit in the Biblical order of things.
Number use is also an important Key in understanding the meaning of a particular phrase. There is a significance to the numbers used in the Bible beyond the simple necessity of counting. There was an important reason for Christ to be buried in the tomb three days and three nights, aside from just being there for that amount of time. There was an important reason Yeshua was tempted in the wilderness for forty days and nights, and not thirty or twenty. Even though we sometimes have a tendency to read too much into the use of numbers, they can still be very enlightening in understanding an underlying intent.
We should not neglect to mention the importance of Figures of Speech used in the Bible. A Figure of Speech is simply a way of saying something in a manner which paints a more vivid picture than the plain literal statement can. Whenever a phrase in the Bible is not literally true, it is always a Figure of Speech. The Figure of Speech emphasizes a truth more explicitly than it otherwise could be. Saying, The ground is thirsty, is an excellent example of a figure of speech. The ground is not of course actually thirsty, but it paints for us a more vivid picture than simply saying that the ground is dry.
Church Traditions can sometimes aid us in our understanding of scripture, but not very often. Usually they only mislead and confuse us and rarely reflect for us Biblical scenes in their true light. This might at first seem quite perplexing. One might ask, How can the Church with its long history and vast resources be wrong on so many details concerning the life and times of our Lord? I think two reasons account for this. First, sometimes Church leaders and theologians know what the truth of a matter is, but rather than rock the boat and risk loosing their following or position, they simply pass over in silence what they know to be true. I fear that too often they don't sense the vital importance of accurately and minutely teaching and understanding Scripture.
The second reason why the Church fails to understand or teach the true facts concerning Biblical accounts, is because their traditions have for so long burned these inaccurate images into their minds that they just don't see the truth, even when it is starring them right in the face. They can't see the forest for the trees, so to speak. One might remember how, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, the religious leaders of Yeshua's day still did not believe that He was their long awaited Messiah. Because He was not the Messiah they had come to expect, they rejected Him. They willingly closed their eyes to the plain truth so as to hold on to their traditions.
Let's face it, if today's Clergy can't even get it right on how many were crucified with our Lord, or how long He was in the grave, on what day He was crucified and on what day He arose, how can we trust them to be right on those things which are crucial to our spirituality?