In addition to this study guide, you might also find it helpful to view web-sites which contain complete texts of various versions of the Bible, as well as additional material helpful for Bible study, such as (www.biblestudytools.com) or (www.biblios.com)
RAY OF HOPE MINISTRIES ON-LINE BIBLE STUDY
HOW TO STUDY THE BIBLE
Welcome to the first course in our new Ray of Hope Ministries On-Line Bible Study. If there is one book likely to be found in the homes of many people, it is the Holy Bible. It is said that it is the best selling book of all time. At the same time, it is likely to be one of the least read books in our homes. That might be because people have just assumed that there was no reason to read it on their own, since they would hear it read to them in church on Sunday. That idea might be a remnant of earlier times when the understanding was that only the professional clergy and theologians were knowledgeable enough to read and interpret the Bible for the people.
In any case, it is good to ask and try to answer the question – “why should I not only read, but also, study the Bible?” And if the answers to this question make sense, then the next question is “how do I study the Bible?” Which is what this course is about. But right now, let’s go back to the question – “why should I study the Bible?”.
We believe that the reason for studying the Bible (not just reading or hearing) is the same as the reason we study any other book, whether it be on literature, history, physics, interior decorating, sports, or whatever the subject might be. That is, we believe the book will speak to our interests and will help us become more knowledgeable about the subject, so we can more effectively apply it in our own lives.
We assume that you are probably looking at this web-site because you believe that the content of the Bible is or might be of interest to you. So we hope that this course will be helpful as you begin or continue to discover “How to Study the Bible”. Toward that end, we present our first course, which consists of four parts, as follows:
Part 1 – The Nature and Purpose of the Bible
Part 2 – History of the Development of the Bible and Biblical Interpretation
Part 3 – Resources for Bible Study
Part 4- Principles of Bible Study
Part 1 of 4 – Nature and Purpose of the Bible
1. The Bible is a devotional book. It is a means of intentionally experiencing God’s presence. This is especially true when it is read or heard in combination with meditation and prayer.
2. The Bible is a source of information and knowledge, inspired by God, but written by human beings, about the relationship between God, human beings, and the natural universe (everything else). It helps us discover how God has been and is always working to transform the universe, including human beings, toward fulfillment of His will and purpose.
3. The Bible is a guide for faithful living for individuals, societies, and even nations. Some would say that this is the ultimate practical purpose of the Bible. It helps us become mature and effective human beings – people of faith – who will experience peace, love, and joy in our lives, and share this with others.
4. The Bible is a prophetic voice to the community of faith. Prophetic means to state how God intends us to live, and the consequences of living and/or failing to live that way. When read honestly, it keeps us from misunderstanding God as strictly our God, who favors us, as compared to the God of all people, who has chosen us to proclaim God’s Word to the world. The Bible points the way for the journey which God calls us to travel throughout our lives.
5. The Bible is actually a collection of books which the Christian church has identified as authoritative. The technical term for this collection is the “canon of scripture”. While all branches of the Christian faith accept the Bible as the Word of God, they do not all agree on which books are or should be part of the “canon of scripture”.
6. The content of the Bible was originally spoken and written over a period of about 2,000 years in and for communities of faith. What Christians call The Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures) was formed in the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish temple/synagogue community and accepted by the Christian church community. What Christians call The New Testament was formed in the Christian church community. These communities of faith have interpreted the Bible and consistently found it useful during the ordinary course of life, and at special times in their histories (often in times of crisis). The texts of the Bible reflect the times, places, circumstances, and cultures in which the writers and their communities lived at the time of writing and/or the time written about. Much of the written word found in the Bible was originally orally transmitted from one generation to the next.
7. The ultimate message of the Bible is one basic good news story:
a. God loves all human beings
b. All human beings have sinned
c. Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and in His continuing presence through the Holy Spirit, God has provided the means of forgiving and saving human beings. God gives the people of the communities of faith the responsibility of proclaiming this good news (evangelizing) to each other and to those outside these communities of faith.
8. The Bible is a guide for living, based on God’s principles and patterns, but not a detailed how to do it book. It answers questions of God’s values, purpose, and meaning. It causes us to raise questions about and discover answers about our identity, lifestyle, faith and obedience. The basic questions are:
a. Who is God and what is God’s nature?
b. What has God been doing and what is God doing now?
c. How does God work?
d. What did God create us to be and do?
9. The Bible identifies God as monotheistic. That is, there is only one true God, who makes Himself known as three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). At the same time these three persons are the one and only eternal, transcendent God who created and controls the universe, and at the same time loves every person as an individual. Therefore, God knows, shows, and tells us how we are to live, even when it seems impossible to do so in a polytheistic (many gods) and/or atheistic (no god) culture.
Part 2 of 4 – History of the Development of the Bible and Biblical Interpretation
The Bible is canonical (considered by the church to be authoritative) because the church believes it is the inspired Word of God. Inspiration doesn’t start and end with one person who receives and speaks or writes God’s word. Inspiration is a progressive work of the Holy Spirit. It is transmitted through sensing, hearing, speaking, writing, editing, and interpreting. It is received and transmitted within communities of faith (Hebrew, Israelite, Jewish, Christian). There are also other writings which the church accepted as inspired, but were not included in the Bible. Since the Christian church was formed in the first century, it has always accepted the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as scripture. Most of the first Christians were Jewish. In fact, Jesus himself was Jewish. There do not appear to have been formal criteria as to how it was decided which writings were to be included in the canon of scripture. However, it does appear that the following criteria were considered by those who were making the decisions:
a. They were believed to have been written by persons who knew Jesus personally, or who heard about Jesus from these persons, which meant they were all probably written by about 100A.D.
b. When the decisions were being made in the 2nd through 4th centuries, they chose writings which were already being used by local churches as scripture.
c. Their description of and information about Jesus did not conflict with the concensus of what eyewitnesses (or those who heard directly from eyewitnesses) knew about Jesus.
Timeline of the Development of the Bible
Please note that this is a very brief summary. The actual process was much more complex than shown. Also, there is no universal agreement on dates. The period in which a Biblical text was first written was often much later than the events written about took place. Therefore, the texts often reflect the conditions and concerns at the time of writing, rather than the time written about. This means it is important to know when a text was written, and to know the historical context of the time of writing as well as of the time written about. Biblical writing usually took place in what the writer’s community perceived as times of crisis and/or major changes in their circumstances.
1800-850BC – Oral tradition – sometimes adapted from other cultures
1200-1050BC – Writing during the period of the Judges
1050-931BC – Writing during the united monarchy, until the beginning of the division into the two kingdoms of Israel (Northern kingdom) and Judah (Southern kingdom)
931-722BC – Writing during the establishment of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. During this period in Israel the name for God was Elohim and the name for God in Judah was Jahweh. Biblical scholars have identified the writings of Israel as the “E” source (Elohim) and the writings of Judah as the “J” source (Jahweh). In 722BC Israel was conquered by Assyria.
722-586 – After the conquest of Israel in 722 BC, its population was dispersed by Assyria. Many migrated to Judah, bringing their writing (the “E” source) with them. Here the writings of the “E” and “J” sources were brought together and edited in Judah, and are known as the “JE” source. However, the “J” and “E” sources were not harmonized. They intentionally included differing versions of some of the same stories. Additional text was also written. In 586BC Judah was conquered by Babylon.
586-539 – After the conquest of Judah, its religious and secular leaders were exiled to Babylon, where writing continued.
550-450 BC – Writing during the later years of the exile in Babylon and the early years of the Restoration of Judah (return from exile). Biblical scholars refer to this writing as the “P” source (Priestly).
480-150 – All writing from all sources was brought together and edited In Judah as the “JEP” source. Additional text was also written. This concluded the writing of the Old Testament.
AD90 – Present canon of scripture known today as the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures was adopted by Pharisaic Jewish leaders at the Council of Jamnia. The Pharisees were the remaining major Jewish sect after destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in 70AD.
AD30-39 – Oral tradition starts with ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Passion stories (death and resurrection of Jesus) were the first to be told.
AD40-120 – All present New Testament books had been written, along with other writings which did not become part of the Bible.
AD150-200 – Most of the present books of the Bible were being used in churches
AD393 – The Council of Hippo formally adopted the present canon of scripture. However, there has never been complete agreement by all branches of the church as to a universal canon of scripture.
History of Biblical Interpretation
The Bible has always been interpreted, but methods of interpretation have changed. The dominant form of interpretation in a particular time or place in history served the purpose of helping people understand, keep and pass on the faith. The various forms of interpretation have tended to correct actual or potential abuses in interpretation.
Christian approaches to interpretation:
1st Century –People read the Bible literally, and applied the literal meaning to their current circumstances. Their scripture was what Christians call the Old Testament, which they understood to be the inspired and authoritative word of God. Jesus looked for God’s will in terms of principles and relationships, rather than specific practices. His basis for all interpretation of scripture was the theme “love God and love neighbor“(Deuteronomy 6:54 and 19:18)..
Pre-middle ages (2nd -4th centuries) – Origen and other theologians, in a pre-scientific era, began to question literalism. They turned to allegory. That is, everything that is written really has a hidden meaning, which can be discovered through study. This was largely a case of using inspired imagination, rather than study as we know it today. This was the beginning of an understanding that if the faith was to be accepted in a hostile environment (pagan Rome), it had to be based on reason as well as faith.
Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries) –There was a return to literalism, but the literal understanding was not an end in itself. There were levels of meaning, toward which the literal interpretation pointed. The point was to discern not just what happened on the surface, but the spiritual meaning. During this period interpretation also became rigid and hierarchical, to the point where only the clergy were allowed to read, study, and interpret the Bible for the people.
Reformation (16th-18th centuries) – Protestantism provided for self-interpretation within the limits of beliefs of the church community. The role of clergy in Biblical interpetation was largely to study for context, while leaving individuals to do their own interpreting. Personal experience also entered into interpretation.
19th– mid 20th centuries – In the mid 19th century, the Bible began to be studied using the technique of historical criticism, as with any other piece of literature. Use of this process began to raise questions about what had been taken as factual in the Bible. A reaction to this concern and to the Darwinian theory of evolution, resulted in fundamentalism, which at the extreme, equates salvation with a literal interpretion of the Bible, and uses the Bible not only as a “guide for living”, but as a “book of science”.
Mid 20th century –present – Critical interpetation has been expanded beyond historical analysis. This has been a result of the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in the late 1940′s) being made available for study. They are among the oldest scriptural material discovered in modern times. Today a critical approach to Bible study also examines how the Bible came to be in its present form, language study, and how Biblical texts relate to each other and to the Bible as a whole. As we entered the 21st century, there has arisen some concern that we are sometimes so mechanical in our critical analysis that we fail to remember that this is not the only way that God speaks to us through the Bible.
Part 3 of 4– Resources for Bible Study
Here are some resources that you can use to study the Bible:
1. Primary Literature – The Bible text itself – No known original version of any Bible text exists today. All copies today are translations or paraphrases. In studying the Bible it is good to know what version of the Bible you are referring to, and to compare two or more versions.
a. Translation – A literal word by word or phrase by phrase translation from ancient manuscripts in original languages into another language. The later the translation the more accurate it is likely to be, because the oldest manuscripts are those most recently discovered.
b. Paraphrase – The writers/editors rewrite the text in their own words, in one or more languages, in order to make it more understandable. Not a literal translation.
2. Secondary Literature – These are resources which tell you about the Bible or things related to the Bible. Here are some commonly used and easily available resources.
a. Commentary – Available as large one volume books, and as more detailed references for one or more individual books of the Bible. They contain articles and verse by verse comments which are helpful for Bible study.
b. Concordance – Every word in the Bible is alphabetically arranged and identifies the chapters and verses where the word can be found. Larger concordances also show the phrases in which the word appears.
c. Bible Dictionary – Defines Biblical terms.
d. Bible Atlas – Helps identify the location of places where a text was written, or places mentioned in the text. This can be helpful in understanding the context of the part of the Bible you are studying.
e. Bible Time-Lines – Chronological listings of religious and relevant secular events and persons in Biblical history. This is also helpful in understanding the context of what you are studying
f. Pronunciation Guides – There are many terms, mostly names of persons or places, that are unfamiliar to us. These books help us make sure we are properly pronouncing these terms.
g. Other Resources – There are many helpful books, DVD’s, newsletters, and other media which provide information about the culture, geography, history, and other information which can help discover the context of whatever parts of the Bible you are studying.
3. In deciding which resources to use and how to use them keep these cautions in mind:
a. Except for the Bible text itself, do not use these resources to interpret the Bible for you. Use them to gather background knowledge and ideas which will help you do your own interpretation.
b. Since Bible study is not an exact science there are different points of view (hermaneutics) present in various versions of these resources. Therefore, it is helpful to have some indication of the point of view presented, since it might or might not be your point of view.
c. In recent years a proliferation of versions of the Bibles have been published, often intentionally directed toward particular segments of the population (Bibles for women, teen-agers, singles, etc.). What makes some of these different from each other is not only the Bible text, but the explanatory notes. Remember that these notes are not the Bible, but the comments of the writer/publisher/editor concerning the Bible text. These notes are in effect mini-commentaries. Therefore use them as you would use a commentary.
The Wesley Quadrilateral
John Wesley’s Method of Biblical Interpretation
John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. The term Wesley Quadrilateral was never used by Wesley himself. It was coined by Methodist theologian Albert Outler in the 1960′s. However, as we study Wesley’s writing, we can see him using this as a method of interpreting scripture, although he does not identify it as a method.
The Wesley Quadrilateral consists of four parts – scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. One of the problems with the term(not the method), is that it can lead to the assumption that all four elements are equal, whereas Wesley (and Outler) understood that scripture was always primary, and the other three elements were essential aids to interpretation. Some have suggested this method might better be called the Wesley “triad” (tradition, experience, and reason) for interpretation of scripture. Regardless of which term we use, the method is based on the understanding that truth is revealed through scripture, interpreted through church tradition, personal experience, and the use of reason. Also, our interpretation of the Bible (scripture) should be tested by the other three elements, and they need to be tested against each other.
Scripture – Wesley understood that the Bible was the necessary and sufficient authority for determining God’s will, but the ancient writings had to be interpreted for the current situation. For Wesley the current situation was the harshness of the new industrial revolution in 18th century England. Interpretation was necessary since the Bible was God’s perfect message, but given through imperfect messengers (writers and speakers). The Bible was not dictated to writers by God. God inspired them with the message, but allowed them to decide how to communicate that message. God is the author, but God’s message is shaped by human beings. Interpretation was still possible despite human intellectual limitations.
Tradition – The church today is the descendent of the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish faith communities found in the Old Testament, and the historic church. These communities were not always obedient to God. But by searching for common threads running through these communities of faith, we can discover something about the true nature, purpose, and work of God. For example, one way we might confirm Paul’s statement that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God…”, is to read the testimonies of people of the church at all levels throughout the ages. Wesley believed that the purest scriptural interpretation came from the 1st century church and his own Anglican Church.
Experience – We understand that the Holy Spirit works in individual lives as well as in the larger church. It is important that our interpretation of how the Bible says God works in the world agrees with the way we actually experience God in our lives. Where our interpretation and experience do not agree, the problem is not with the Bible, but with our interpretation. For example, you might interpret the Bible to say that as a person of faith, bad things will not happen to you. Experience will probably lead you to realize this is not a realistic interpretation.
Reason – We understand that part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that God gave us minds and the power to reason, because those are attributes of God. Since God gave us the ability to reason, we are expected to use it. This means that while believing in faith that God does work supernaturally, we can also believe in faith that God’s nature, purpose, and work can be discovered to a great extent through science. Wesley understood the Bible to contain all that was necessary for faith and practice. However, it does not contain all the knowledge we need to live in this world. When he found disagreements between scientific and Biblical facts, he accepted science as the authority. The Bible was written in pre-scientific times, and was not intended to be a book of science. While the facts of science and the facts stated in the Bible might not agree, science and the Bible are not in conflict. Science is concerned with matters of fact. The Bible is concerned with how God expects us to live in light of these facts (Christian faith and practice).
Summary – Wesley’s Rules of Biblical Interpretation
1. Use the minimal amount of interpretation to get clear meaning.
2. Use the literal sense unless it is contradicted by reason or another scripture text. Interpret obscure texts by using plain (clear) texts
3. Consider the literary context – the place and context of a text in relation to other Bible texts and the Bible as a whole
4. Biblical Commandments are covered (assured) promises. God gives the necessary grace to people of faith to fulfill what God commands them to do.
5. Interpret literary devices appropriately. Try to understand how particular circumstances can be generalized and then applied to other circumstances not specifically covered in the Bible. Recognize the use of non-literal language.
6. Seek the most original text and best translation.
Part 4 of 4 (final) – Principles of Bible Study
1. When reading the Bible, assume that God is speaking to affirm His love for us and/or to let us know that He is not pleased with the way things are going.
2. When God, speaking through anyone in the Bible, says do this or don’t do this, assume that the opposite is taking place, and there needs to be a change.
3. Do not expect to find immediate and direct answers to all or most of the issues we face, individually and collectively, as we go through life today. Taken to the extreme, there are some who say that if you just open the Bible to any page at random, close your eyes, and put your finger on any spot on that page, there you will find an immediate and direct answer to your issue or question. With God, anything is possible, but for the most part you will find principles and themes which, along with prayer, reason, and common sense, will open your heart and mind to God’s answers.
4. There will be honest differences in interpretation within the community of faith because we interpret based on our experience (culture, education, race, sex, nationality, socio-economic conditions, etc.). Ultimate truth is determined by God. We do the best we can to know as much of God’s truth as we can, especially through personal and corporate Bible study and prayer.
5. We can believe the Bible is God’s Word because our experience is that it tells the truth. Because that is our experience, we can trust the Bible as the primary source of God’s truth. God’s word is not limited to the Bible, but is fully contained in the Bible. If something is presented as God’s truth, and is not in agreement with the Bible, it is not God’s truth. Of course, all of this calls for good Bible study and interpretation. Scripture was written after people experienced God. For example, Paul knew that Jesus lived not because he read about Jesus in scripture, but because he experienced Jesus. Then he wrote of his experience, and it became scripture. Remember that Paul’s letters in the Bible were written before the gospels were written.
6. We call the Bible the Word of God. However, it is more accurate to say that it is a record of the Word of God, based on the writer’s, editor’s or translator’s interpretation of the Word of God. There is nothing wrong with interpreting and reinterpreting the Bible. Jesus himself was reinterpreting Old Testament scripture for his time and place.
7. Avoid universalizing detailed practices described in the Bible, since they were often written for a local situation, time, and place. Look for the principles and patterns that might apply in all situations, times, and places.
8. Recognize that newer translations are more accurate than older translations because newer translations are based on the oldest texts. Recognize that no original copies of any part of the Bible have been found.
9. Identify unfamiliar words, how the meaning of familiar words have changed, and that sometimes the meanings of words are changed or unclear in translation.
10. The goal of Bible study is exegesis (reading God’s meaning out of scripture), not isogesis (reading our meaning into scripture). Do not read into the Bible what you are convinced is true, before you have studied the Bible. Also avoid proof-texting, which means using an isolated Bible verse to prove something you believe to be true. Bear in mind that you can always find a few Bible verses that will seem to support what you already believe. You will also find verses that seem to contradict each other. Bible study makes it possible for us to get meaning out of the Bible, even when the true meaning disagrees with our existing ideas.
11. For us to apply this ancient Biblical literature to our lives today we have to understand its historical and cultural context. We need to understand the writers’ cultures and circumstances so we can discover what this meant to them. We need to know what was going on. Our culture and circumstances are different, so we can’t always apply the details of the Bible directly to ourselves. However, we can discover the enduring principles. We can also look for similarities in circumstances then and now. Then we can apply those ancient, but still valid principles, to our own lives. The more we know what was going on in the particular story and in the history around the story, the more we will be able to find meaning for ourselves.
We also need to know something about the literary context. How does the Bible text we are reading relate to those immediately before and following the story and/or chapter in which it is contained, as well as to other books of the Bible, and to the Bible as a whole.
12. Consider the various levels of meaning of a text:
a. meaning for the time written about (For example, the gospels were written decades after the events written about. What did Jesus’ words mean to those who heard them in person?
b. meaning for the time in which written (What did Jesus’ words mean for the church 60 years later, when the gospel of John was probably written? Writing is more likely to reflect concerns of the time in which the scripture was written, than the concerns of the earlier time which was written about.
c. meaning for later times in history (Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s letters).
d. meaning for today.
13. Recognize that the Bible reflects real, and not ideal, life and people. Don’t idealize the Biblical characters. Except for Jesus, they all had their faults, no matter how lofty their virtues. Don’t decide how you are to live based on what an individual or group of people in the Bible says or does, before you identify what God is doing with, for, to, and in them. Understand the Bible as God’s story. Ask what God is saying or doing, before you decide what you are supposed to say or do.
14. Do not identify only with the person or group in the story who seems to come across as the hero. Identify with the other people around them. We are more likely to be like them. We need to discover how we are like them, and how they and we are being called to change. Put yourself in the place of those in the text who are not the heroes
15. The Bible shows God using all kinds of people to do His work – good people and bad people, believers and non-believers, This does not necessarily mean that we are to be like them. We are to use those people as mirrors reflecting ourselves, reminding ourselves that God also works through us. The message we should be looking for is what God is doing through the people in the Bible, and what this says about what God wants us to be doing with our lives.
16.The Bible shows how God works. We cannot say that the way God works with one person or issue in a particular Bible story is the way He will act in every case. For example, God does not always work through miracles to provide healing. However, all healing is a work of God. Also, God usually involves human beings in the process. To understand how this applies to us, we should first identify the patterns and principles of how God works, recognizing that the details will vary depending upon persons, times, places, and circumstances. Then, using those patterns and principles, discern how God wants to use us as part of His work in the present.
17. Theocentric means to focus on God’s work, and then discern how God wants us to respond. The theocentric understanding of what it means to be God’s “chosen” people is that we are not chosen to receive rewards, special favor or superiority. It means we are chosen to be witnesses who serve and sometimes suffer in order to serve.
Pastor Ray I am a friend of Pattie’s I am interested in studding the Bible