This post got a little long... sorry about that. It could have been longer.
Last week, I wrote about choosing a Bible translation. So, you're armed with your good translation. Now, what do you do? Well, of course, you begin reading. Simple, right? It certainly is, but as we begin reading, it is good to keep in mind what kind of Biblical literature we're reading, because as we read, we want to ask questions about the text, and the questions we ask may be dependent upon the kind of literature we're reading. In the weeks ahead, I hope to post about the different genres and how to approach them, but for now, there are some basics that apply to all Biblical literature.
The first is step, of course, to read; read a lot. Read it out loud, as well as silently. Listen to it being read. Bible Gateway features Max McLean reading the ESV, and it's free. The first time we sit down, we should read as much as we can. There is a benefit to reading the entire book in one sitting, but for young mothers, this may be difficult, so you may have to break it down into chunks. I remember being in a Sunday school class with a group of young marrieds and a newlywed Pastoral student told our group that we should all be reading for three hours a day. One of the women had three boys under 6 years of age. She wasn't impressed. The point is that we need to read as much as we can, over and over again. Some of us may have the freedom of an hour of uninterrupted reading, but some may not. Don't feel guilty because you can't. Don't get hung up on details yet; this first reading is to get a general idea of what the book is about.
I want to say a word about context. We all know how important context is. First, there is a word in context of a sentence; a senetence in context of a paragraph, and a paragraph within a chapter or a section. There is the context of the book of the Bible, and the context within the Bible itself. There is also the historical context, which I'll mention later. Proper understanding of the Bible depends on understanding how all of those contexts work together. Our interpreation hinges on how things fit within their contexts. Error occurs when we fail to see the context of something. If you want to study a passage, and it comes from a very long book of the Bible, for example something out of Isaiah, and you don't want to read the whole book to discern the context, find a reliable resource that will give you an outline. We simply cannot study even one small section of Scripture outside of its context, and that may require a lot of reading. Personally, I think reading the whole book is best, but I have also used the outlines in my ESV Study Bible to help me establish context when I am giving cross-references for lessons I am teaching.
During those first readings when we're getting a general idea, take notes. Use whatever method you like. I like a pencil and a notebook. Some may like to use an e-reader or an iPad and make notes that way. Ask basic questions, like who? what? where? when? how? why? Keep reading more and write down questions you have; things that are interesting, confusing, things you want to re-visit at a later reading. Read slowly. Most of us read far too quickly. Listening to the Bible on CD or at Bible Gateway as I read along myself is actually really useful. I read the ESV, and Max McLean reads at a much slower rate than I would read silently. There are just so many things we miss when we read quickly.
Our initial readings are not about interpretation; they are about determining what the author was saying. What is he writing about? It may take a while. While we read, we should pay attention to words and phrases that are repeated. Those give us a clue about what a section is about, or what the entire book is about. For example, John 17 contains the words "glory" and "glorify" frequently repeated. The phrase "that they may be one" is repeated in the latter part of the chapter. These words, in the contex of Jesus praying to the Father, in the context of his farewell discourse to His disciples, tell us what this chapter is about. Don't forget, though, to see those repeated words in their context. A word on its own is devoid of meaning; it needs the surrounding words to make meaning. Remember, our goal is to get the big picture.
As we are reading, we should also note divisions in the larger context. We do have chapter divisions, but those are often arbitrary, and muddy the waters. Aside from the chapter divisions, we should see definite sections where there is a specific focus. In the book Let the Reder Understand, McCartney and Clayton talk about "nuclear discourses."
Each nuclear discourse, or basic discourse, deals with a single topic or story and has a beginning, development, and a conclusion. It is the smallest unit that is classifiable according to genre. When studying the Bible to see what it has to say to us, the nuclear discourse is the unit we should work from.
The farewell discourse in John from chapter 14 to chapter 17 is a basic discourse. In Genesis, the account of Joseph is a definite topic within Genesis. Once we see the larger topical divisions, we can start to focus on them and isolate further sections. It may be obvious when a writer changes subjects, for example when the setting changes, or time has passed, or he just begins talking about something completely different. Sometimes, it's not as easy. One way to assist us with this is to look for words that help us see connections between sentences and paragraphs. Some examples of these words are: because, for, however, but, therefore, thus, furthermore, in addition to.
One thing we can do to help us gain an overview is to make an outline of a book. I have always found this a very difficult job, depending on the writer, but it is really helpful when it is done. I did an outline for the book of Ephesians. You can see it here. I have not done any interpretation as such. All I have done is organize the material so that I can see the topics Paul addresses. Figuring out exactly what those individual sections are saying and how they all fit together will come later. All I have had to do to outline this is to think in terms of paragraphs. In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart say that thinking in terms of paragraphs is crucial especially for understanding the Epistles.
Figuring out what constitutes a paragraph comes from seeing the relationship between sentences. Understanding what makes a complete sentence comes from knowing the basic parts of a sentence. It may sound boring and tedious to think about, but understanding grammar helps in reading. The apostle Paul's letters are full of prepositional phrases, but the range of what a prepositional phrase can do in a sentence is vast. English depends on the structure of a sentence, and sometimes things can be ambiguous, depending on how the sentence is put together. Being able to correctly identify the main subject and verb in a sentence helps us to sort out such issues. If you know nothing about grammar, there are resources to help. The Chicago Manual of Style is a highly recommended resource as is Words into Type. Knowing some basics of grammar is helpful for reading as well as writing especially when sentences are very complex. Just have a look at the opening of Ephesians. Paul was a master of the complex sentence.
An online tool for helping unravel what a text is saying is Bible Arcing. This method takes the individual propositions of Scripture and evalutes how they relate to one another. It is promoted as "graphical exegesis." It can become quite an indepth project, and it's definitely not for beginners. I found it hard at times when I tried it. It's worth taking a look at, though. Even if all you ever do is learn to figure out what a proposition is, you've learned something valuable in determining what a text is saying.
Another tool is called "block diagramming." I have found the most use in this approach. This approach requires that I write down every line (or type it) of the passage depending on what modifies what. It forces me to slow down as I read. It really is useful, though, for finding out what the flow of thought is and by having the modifying phrases indented against the main ideas, it's easier to see the paragraph breaks.
Whatever tools or aids you use, the initial reading when we study is to get the big picture. We don't want to run the risk of working outside the context. Before we start determining what something means, we have to know what the contexts are. This begins with careful reading and following how things build on one another and work together. Once we get a big picture it's much easier to start narrowing our focus.
Next week, I want to briefly mention metaphorical language and the pros and cons of the "word study."