How can I know when I’ve “covered” a given book as I study the Bible?

Q. I have an ongoing Bible study project that I keep developing and refining. It’s the sort of thing that would probably take longer than my lifetime to finish, but I like to keep it moving forward anyways. I prefer having a pre-established plan of action before going too in depth on these sorts of huge projects, so I’m trying to distill a list of items to study for each book of the Bible to say that I’ve more or less “covered it.” The list below is a rough sketch of what I’d ideally like to study for each book of the Bible and I was just wondering if you could either add to the list or make some suggestions in terms of what I should prioritize. Thanks so much!

– Author (along with main theories about authorship of the book)
– Intended Audience
– Date written (Main theories about date)
– Culture and social setting of the text (People, economy, government, religion, world situation, worldviews and philosophies, gods, etc.)
– Geography / Topography of the area and any bearings this might have on understanding the text.
– Literary Genre of the book and any implications this has on understanding the text
– Word Study of key words in the book (Etymology, Variant Connotations, Ellipses, Difficulties in Translation, Technical Usage, Repeated Words, etc.)
– Key point being made by the author in each literary segment of text
– Distinctions in the text (Unique concepts, descriptions, words, theological points, etc.)
– Passages elsewhere in the Bible this text clarifies or that clarify this text.
– Theology that can be derived from the book (explicit or implicit)
– Outline of the book (Main arguments of the author and natural literary breaks in the text)
– Historical views / evolution of understanding of key theological points made in the text throughout church history.

Tools for study: Interlinear Bibles, Hebrew/Greek Lexicons, (Expository) Bible Dictionary, Bible Atlas, Strong’s Concordance, Various Commentaries, Church History Books, and Ancient History and Culture Books.

This is a really excellent project you’ve got going!  What I like most about it is that you’ve recognized that you really need to study the Bible book by book, and that you need to know the answers to some foundational questions in order to understand each individual book.  It’s amazingly like what I taught in my course at the Regent College Summer School a few years back (whose story I tell here), which ultimately led to my being invited to join the group that produced The Books of the Bible. (You can now see the intentionality in that title!)  Here’s an excerpt from my course lectures:

– – – – –

It should be clear by now that even though we should indeed approach the Bible on the book level, the book names, order, and (in some cases) boundaries we are accustomed to are, like chapters and verses, traditional factors impeding an objective reading of the Bible. We therefore need to take a new approach to the Bible, one that is informed and guided not by tradition, but by the structures and emphases inherent in the biblical text itself. And in order to do this, we may need to remind ourselves all over again how to read a book.

How to Read a Book is, in fact, the title of a classic text by Mortimer Adler (which he later updated with his colleague, Charles van Doren). Their text explains that we cannot meaningfully read smaller sections of a book (the way we typically approach books of the Bible) without first attaining an appreciation for the whole. Specifically, we need to know the answer to four questions:

– Why was this book written? What specific situation was the author speaking to? That is, what problem or problems gave rise to the book in the first place? In biblical interpretation, this is usually referred to as determining the “circumstances and occasion of composition.”

– What kind of book is this? Is it a novel, a textbook, a collection of poetry, a biography? The kind of book we are reading should determine our expectations in reading. For example, should we ask whether everything the author describes really could have happened? We would not apply this test to a James Bond novel, but we would when reading something purporting to be the true account of an ascent of Mount Everest. The different kinds of writing are commonly called “literary genres”; we determine literary genre precisely in order to have the right expectations when we read.

– How is the book put together? What are the major parts, and into what parts are these divided, and so on? When it comes to modern books, it is usually the case that the chapters and larger divisions correspond to the argument or story’s essential parts, because these divisions are the work of the author. In the case of biblical books, however, we need to be aware that the chapters and verses are not the work of the original authors; they were added centuries later, as we have already explained. While it is theoretically possible for them nevertheless to correspond to a biblical book’s essential parts, in actual practice, they more often do not. So we must make it another piece of preliminary business to determine what we might call a book’s “literary structure.”

– Finally, we must ask what overall idea or purpose unites all of the parts and aspects of the book. We might speak of this as an attempt to express its “thematic unity.”

– – – – –

You can see how the program for understanding biblical books that I sketched out in my course, and which was built into the “DNA” of the format for The Books of the Bible, overlaps almost entirely with your list of “study items” for each book.  Yours could easily be organized under the four categories I list: circumstances and occasion of writing, literary genre, literary structure, and thematic development. Each of these four key background items is discussed and explained in my series of study guides to the books of the Bible.

The main thing I’d say you’re missing, and it’s a very significant thing, is a knowledge of the languages in which the Bible was originally written.  From my own experience, I’d say that an ability to read the Bible fluently in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek has contributed at least as much to my understanding of the biblical books as a knowledge of all the other factors you list combined.  It’s one thing to try to make sense of Greek or Hebrew syntax with an interlinear Bible, or to try to do comparative word studies using Strong’s Concordance; it’s quite another to read the biblical author’s words and thoughts as they were originally expressed, to do word studies using a concordance to the original-language text, etc.  So if you are going to invest all of this time and effort in a lifelong program to understand the Bible, I’d encourage you to learn the original languages.  This investment will be richly repaid.  (And for each language you would then want a critical text of the Bible as well as a language textbook, lexicon, analytical lexicon, grammar, and concordance, at least.  I also really appreciate having a textual history, textual commentary, and theological dictionary.)

And let me mention one more thing.  There are some tremendous electronic resources out there these days, including software and web sites, that make searches, textual studies, etc. fast and powerful.  Some of them will link a text to much of the history of the interpretation of that text, which you said you were interested in.  So I’d encourage you to become familiar with software such as Logos, Accordance, Bibleworks, etc. and find the best fit for you interests, as well as with online sites such as BibleGateway.com (my favorite), BibleHub.com, BibleStudyTools.com, etc.

Once again I commend you for this thorough and ambitious desire to know the Bible well by understanding each its books.  You’re definitely on the right track!  Keep up the good work.  What you’re after is worth a lifetime of study.

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.

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