Studying the Bible without chapters and verses

A commenter on this post wrote that The Books of the Bible was “great for just reading,” but that a “regular Bible” was “almost necessary to study.”

In response, I insisted that The Books of the Bible, which takes out the chapter and verse numbers and presents the biblical books in their natural literary forms, actually makes a great “study Bible” as well.  That’s how this series of study guides could be created to be used with it (although the guides can be used with any version of the Bible, as this post explains.)

I also promised to share a real-life experience that illustrated what “studying the Bible without chapters and verses” looks like, as related in my book After Chapters and Verses.  Here’s the story.

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was going through the book of Daniel.  When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar had made a statue ninety feet high out of gold.  Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand why he’d done this.

One note suggested that using gold for a huge statue was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire.  A note in another Bible observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling.  But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar had made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the previous week.  They remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue.  Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay.  Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and then another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar had created a statue entirely out of gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God.  He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God had sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced.  And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead.  No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

Our group wouldn’t have found such satisfying answers to its questions, and we’d have missed an essential dynamic within the book, if we’d simply “read the study notes” and moved on.  We got a much greater insight into the passage when we understood how it functioned within the book of Daniel.

But we haven’t been trained to study the Bible this way.  We haven’t been taught that we need to read first in order to be able to study afterwards.  In fact, we haven’t been encouraged to “read” at all, not in a continuous way.  We’ve more often been  asked to consider isolated parts of larger works (“chapters” or “verses”) without being shown how they fit within a whole book and how we can appreciate the meaning they have there.  We’ve been encouraged to try to understand them instead by looking at other isolated biblical passages in series of cross-references, or by consulting the notes in our Bibles, study guides and commentaries, or asking our pastors, teachers and group leaders.

In other words, our definition of “studying the Bible” has been moving back and forth between the text and explanatory resources.  This approach to Bible “study” isn’t effective.  The units it engages typically aren’t the structurally and thematically meaningful ones within a book.  Even when they are, we don’t appreciate the meaning they receive from their place within the book as a whole.  This kind of studying can easily devolve into a running commentary on interesting or puzzling features of an ill-defined stretch of text.  It depends on people having an implicit trust in the knowledge and trustworthiness of group leaders and the authors of notes and guides.

We really need to adopt a new definition of what it means to “study the Bible”:  considering the natural parts of a biblical book to recognize how they work within the book as a whole.  This means that studying has to be the second step in a process whose first step is reading.

It also means that the best “study Bible” is one like The Books of the Bible that first makes a great “reading Bible.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

8 thoughts on “Studying the Bible without chapters and verses”

  1. I think you are partially correct.

    The way I present it is that text out of context can be a pretext for almost anything. And (simplifying things some) the 3 contexts you want to get right are the immediate context of the pericope and book the text is in, the subject context of Scripture (what else does Scripture say about the topics in the pericope and book) and the cultural context, which includes all the things that an original reader would be expected to know that we might not know due to our being distant in time, space, culture, etc.

    I see TBOTB as a super resource for #1. As you point out, displaying the literary structures in a natural way can help not just in understanding a pericope, but connections between pericopes in the same book.

    And TBOTB also aids in #2 as it encourages reading of Scripture itself. One of the key principles of Scripture interpretation is that the Bible is a progressive revelation and any previous or current revelation is assumed by the author of the book being read; that is, if you do not know the previous or current revelations, you can miss connections.

    However, what I am calling #3 (the cultural context) is a tough one, of course the most important cultural context is Scripture itself, but that is not sufficient in some cases and when it is not known can lead (and has led) to major misunderstandings, as I see it. This is where one can perhaps not know something important and not even suspect that one does not know it, so it can be a big blind spot. My point is that anything that helps us in understanding this large area of cultural context can be useful, including study Bibles, which are of course limited in what they can say.

    1. Donald,

      I agree that we need to understand and interpret any biblical passage in the three contexts you describe: what we might call the “local” context, i.e. where the passage fits in the book and particularly in its own part of the book; what we could call the “canonical” context, where it fits within the unfolding revelation of all of Scripture; and the “cultural” context, where it fit within its own world at the time it was originally written.

      We agree that The Books of the Bible, which encourages the reading of whole books, is excellent in helping us properly understand the local context, where the passage fits in the book, which I’ve called “studying” in this post.

      Regarding the canonical context, in After Chapters and Verses, right after I insist that “studying has to be the second step in a process whose first step is reading,” I go on to say, “Yes, in a third step, we should eventually seek to situate the individual parts of a composition within their wider biblical context, that is, in relation to thematically similar passages elsewhere in the Scriptures. ‘Cross-references,’ in this sense, can shed light on a passage. But we must turn to them only after we’ve understood it in its immediate context. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim about politics, in the Bible, ‘All meaning is local,’ at least primarily.” And I would insist very strongly that even in pursuing such “cross references,” we should not envision the Bible as a kind of encyclopedia made up of a variety of topical entries. We’re ultimately looking for where a given passage fits within the unfolding story of God.

      Finally, as for the cultural context, I agree with you that outside resources are valuable and necessary for this. As you say, the notes in study Bibles are “limited in what they can say,” and that’s why in the Preface to The Books of the Bible we encourage readers to go way beyond the information we’ve been able to provide in the book introductions. We explain that “we encourage readers to study the Bible in community. We believe that if they do, they and their teachers, leaders and peers will provide one another with much more information and many more insights than could ever be included between the covers of a printed Bible.” In other words, understanding the cultural context is crucial, and we shouldn’t think that a brief study Bible note can provide all that we need to know about it.

      And once again, I’d insist that “studying” the Bible consists of much more than moving back and forth between the text and resources (of whatever kind) that explain something of the cultural context.

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful and clarifying comments on this blog.

      1. I mostly agree with what you have written. I strongly agree that the Bible we have is NOT an encyclopedia of topical refs.

        One place where we may differ (just not sure) is that the immediate context may contain a implicit reference to another portion of Scripture, this is known as a remez/hint and it acts like a hypertext link today in bringing in that portion as a part of the immediate context. But if one misses the remez/hint then one will be oblivious that such is intended to be included as a part of the immediate discussion.

        For example, and one that most everyone knows about, Jesus uses the phrase “son of man” this has a simple straightforward meaning of human being, but it is also a ref. to those verses in Daniel that mention it and where it is used of a theophany. The point is Jesus is using an ambiguous term while making a claim to be God and if we do not realize this, we will miss part of what is going on in those verses.

      2. Donald,

        I agree that when a biblical writer or character quotes or alludes to something earlier in the Scriptures, this creates a natural link between passages in the Bible, which already begins to situate a given passage in its “canonical context,” that a reader needs to recognize in order to appreciate fully what’s going on in the “local context.” But I’d still say that the best way for readers to appreciate such links is to become familiar with the whole Bible by reading all of its books as literary wholes. After all, knowing the big picture of God’s story as told in the Scriptures was the only way for Jesus’ listeners to appreciate what he meant by “Son of Man.” They couldn’t look down at a study Bible note! I want a definition of studying that encourages reading big first and then going back to see where all the parts fit within the whole, not a definition that encourages us to dip in here and there, consulting external resources that we think tell us everything we need to know about what’s going on.

      3. Certainly there is no substitute for knowledge of Scripture.

        I guess my take is I am willing to get all the help I can find, while realizing the limitations of each kind of help. And a limitation of a study Bible is that it can short cut the normal and expected process of simply reading the Bible, as you point out.

      4. Well put. I, too, am grateful for all the help I can get in understanding the Bible and living by its words. But we do need to recognize that study Bibles, while they can provide helpful information, can also short-circuit discussion (as my story illustrates) and invite individual rather than community approaches to Scripture. They can also lead us to believe we know all we need to know, when we’re just scratching the surface. I do draw on them as a helpful resource, but not as my primary Bible.

  2. yes! i got the Books of the Bible 3 weeks ago and i’ve started highlighting and underlining and noting again, noticing these kinds of connections over and over. and i find reading chapters and chapters without even realizing.

    1. Ronald,
      It’s great to hear this report about your experience with The Books of the Bible, which is similar to reports we’ve heard from so many others: getting insights and making connections from engaging books as a whole, and reading at length without even noticing the “chapters go by.” In After Chapters and Verses I also note how chapters too often serve as “stop signs,” telling us, “quit reading, you’ve read enough” when we get to that next big black number. So I’m really glad to hear how getting The Books of the Bible has been such a freeing and empowering experience for you in your Bible engagement! This is what it’s all about.

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