Though you are probably already aware of it, I just wanted to let you know that there seem to be two typos in the guide to Daniel and Revelation, on pages 36 and 47. On page 36 in the second paragraph the second sentence says “in some cases it can so destructive.” On page 47 in the chart on the ancient empires under “Little Horn” it says “Seleucid emperor… 175-64 BC.” Then on page 49 it says that he ruled from 175-164 BC. Just making you aware in case you weren’t, but otherwise this was an excellent guide.
Thanks very much for catching these typos. P. 36 should read, “In come cases it can be so destructive . . .” And the correct dates for the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes are 175-164 BC. I have contacted the publisher and these changes will be made in the next printing.
I’m glad you enjoyed the guide. If you have any questions about its content, or about anything in any of the other guides, please feel free to post them to this blog and I’ll try to answer them. Thank you.
Q. I just started reading your blog and your books. I would like to get an article you wrote for New Testament Studies, “Literary Evidences of a Fivefold Structure in the Gospel of Matthew.” At their web site they wanted $30.00 to buy your article. That seems a bit steep for a single article. Is there any way I can get it for a more reasonable price?
Thank you very much for your interest. Cambridge University Press, the publisher of New Testament Studies, holds the copyright to the article, so unfortunately I can’t post its content online myself. I do need to honor their rights and help make sure they get their royalties so they can continue publishing the journal. But even so, I think you could get the article more cheaply than by buying a single copy online.
For one thing, if you live near a university or especially a seminary, they might have an institutional subscription to the journal that would allow their patrons to read the article. Many such schools offer courtesy borrowing privileges to those living in their area. So this is one avenue you could pursue.
Another possibility would be to ask your local library to try to get you a copy by Inter-Library Loan. Consortia of libraries pay fees to consortia of journals to make this kind of thing possible. I’ve often gotten journal articles this way myself, usually free, although occasionally for a slight fee, which has always been significantly less than $30.
Finally, since ideas are not copyrighted, only specific expressions of them, let me summarize here the main ideas in the article:
• The next evidence is that each of these discourses expounds on a theme that the episodes in the preceding narrative have introduced. These themes are, sequentially, the foundations, mission, mystery, family, and destiny of the kingdom of God. So the gospel as a whole consists of five thematically coordinated narrative-discourse pairs. (These are preceded by the genealogy of Jesus and followed by the narrative of his death and resurrection.)
• The final evidence is the way transitional episodes between these five major sections reprise the theme of the preceding section and introduce the theme of the new one. The account of the healing of the leper at the start of the second section, for example, reprises the theme of the first section that has just ended–that the foundations of the kingdom are in an inward “righteousness” that fulfill the deepest intentions of the law (Jesus tells the leper to show himself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded). But this episode also introduces the “mission” theme of the second section, since at the start of the discourse in this section, Jesus sends the disciples out to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons”–Jesus himself has just done most of these things in the narrative portion of the section.
I hope this information is helpful, and that you are able to find an affordable copy of the article. Thanks again for your interest!
Q. Have you used any of these study guides with people who did not consider themselves Christians? What reaction did they have to the material?
I’ve personally used the guides in several groups that included people who didn’t consider themselves Christians. They appeared to feel very much at home and they participated freely. In these groups we took turns reading the various discussion points and asking the questions related to them, and even though I said that anyone who didn’t want to do this could “pass,” our not-yet-Christian friends were always happy to take their turns.
I think they were so comfortable because the study guides are intentionally written in such a way that people who aren’t yet followers of Jesus feel welcome and included. Because the guides invite people to engage the Bible through the lens of their own experience, everyone has something to share in response to the discussion questions, even if they don’t have a lot of biblical background or doctrinal knowledge.
The questions themselves often begin with qualifiers such as “If you are a follower of Jesus” or “If you’re part of a community of Jesus’ followers,” and they provide other options for people who don’t fit these descriptions. (For example, “If you’re not part of a community of Jesus’ followers, talk about one you’ve visited or heard about.”)
Guides often invite people to share where they are along their spiritual journeys. For example, the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters asks (in Session 24), “Before you began this study of Paul’s letters, where would you have put yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is not believing in Jesus, 5 is the threshold of believing, and 10 is a settled, unreserved faith and trust in Jesus for life? Where would you put yourself now? If you’ve ‘stepped across the threshold,” or if you want to know more about how you can do that, share this with the group and ask them to talk and pray with you about it.”
This question is typical of the ones, found in other guides as well, in which people are asked how they’ve moved along in their spiritual journeys in the course of the study. There’s typically an opportunity in one or more sessions in each guide for people who are ready to become followers of Jesus to make that commitment with the group’s help.
So I think your friends who aren’t yet followers of Jesus would feel welcome, encouraged, and also graciously invited towards faith in a group that was using one of these guides. (What I’d love to see some day is a group made up predominantly of not-yet-Christians using the guides, as I think the discussions in such a group would be unpredictable and dynamic. If you put a group like that together, please invite me to visit!)
~ I love the concise explanations and the historical information you include in the study guides. Now I want to learn more! Are there particular materials you’d recommend to delve a bit deeper into understanding the texts?
~ My group has been going through the Genesis study. One woman who grew up in the Middle East has commented in a couple of places on how the stories reflect that culture, especially in regard to bartering and protecting one’s sense of honor. A good example is when Abraham buys the cave as a burial plot for Sarah. Our group was reflecting on this “bartering” tradition when we read through the story of Abraham bargaining with God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. I think we would be really interested in learning more about the cultural aspects of these stories. Where might we go to learn more?
~ Where can I find reference materials on the background information given in these books? Is there a reference list online, or reliable sources that we can use as supplemental readings?
Let me say to all three of you that I’m really glad to hear your experience with the study guides has made you want to dig deeper into the Bible and its background.
The place to go next is a biblical commentary. Commentaries give you extensive information about the historical and literary context of particular books of the Bible. They allow you to listen in on the scholarly conversation about passages that are difficult to interpret. And they provide details about the various ways that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words and phrases can be translated.
The study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series do as many of these things as possible, but they’re limited in length and they also need to save room for reading suggestions and discussion questions. So you’ll want to find a good full-length commentary (or two, or three) on the biblical book you’re interested in.
The study guides are great, but I don’t have anyone to study with. Do you think it’s a problem just to use them at home on my own? Do you have suggestions for how to start a Bible reading group?
The guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series are designed so that they can be used by either individuals or groups. If you’re using them on your own, the questions in each session will help you reflect on the meaning of each passage as you work through whole biblical books. As the guides suggest at the beginning, you can record your reflections in a journal or notebook.
The only possible drawback of this approach is that you may finish studying a biblical book and wish you’d had the chance to talk the questions over with other people. This is what one person said in an online review after finishing the Genesis guide: “I especially appreciated the reflection questions, which encourage you not only to get inside the head of the characters in the story, but also to think about how God might be working in similar ways in your own life. My only regret is that I didn’t recruit a bunch of friends to read it with me. I was always wanting to discuss these new insights with other people!”
So how might a person recruit that bunch of friends? I’d say that the first thing is to recognize that your desire to read and discuss God’s word with other people is a desire that God has given you and that God will help fulfill. Knowing that God is going ahead of you, you can confidently pray and then approach some of the people in your life that you’d most like to study the Bible with. Ask them if they’ll be willing to meet with you weekly for a couple of hours. Pick a time of day that works best for all of you. Perhaps suggest a limited time commitment to begin with, such as 12 weeks, with the option to continue beyond that. Show them a copy of the study guide you’d like to use and a copy of The Books of the Bible. Trust that God has some people out there to whom he’s given the same desire that’s in your heart.
It’s amazing how these groups grow to a good size (8-12 members) once they get started. In graduate school my wife and I approached a few fellow students about forming a small group. One agreed to join and also invited a friend. That friend brought another friend. Another student brought a friend as well. Soon we had eight regulars and a great study group was off and running.
Don’t be discouraged if the group starts small. In the InterVarsity chapter we volunteer with, we once went to the first meeting of a planned small group and only the two leaders were there. So we spent that first meeting praying that God would add to our numbers. Within a few weeks seven other people had joined us!
I’m sure you too will see God sending along other people to read and study His word with you when you respond in faith to this desire that He’s given you. Blessings on your endeavor!
Q. I’ve come to the Christian faith only recently and I’m part of a small group that’s using one of your study guides. One of the things I’m looking for in the Bible is advice for how to live. But I have a hard time sometimes understanding from the study guide what the Bible stories are telling me to “do.” Do you have any suggestions?
It’s perfectly legitimate for you to expect to learn from the Bible how you should live as a follower of Jesus and what you should believe about the character and purposes of God. But learning these things isn’t a simple matter of being told what to do and think.
Sometimes we’re led to believe that the Bible is an instruction manual. It’s often treated that way, and when we see it divided up into short propositions that are indexed by chapter and verse number, that’s what it appears to be. But the Bible is actually something much more beautiful and profound than that. It’s the story of God’s unfolding relationship with humanity, told through an elegant variety of different literary forms. We appreciate this story when we engage these forms on their own terms, ideally as part of a community that’s seeking their meaning together (like your small group).
That’s why the study guides, as they say at the start, pose questions that “aren’t looking for ‘right answers,'” but instead “invite the group to work together to understand the Bible.” The questions “invite you to share deeply about your ideas and experiences. The answers to these questions can’t be found just by ‘looking them up.’ They require reflection on the meaning of the whole passage,” in the wider context of the book in which it appears, “in light of your personal experience.”
This approach requires more patience and perseverance than one in which you are told what to think and do. But it will also lead to greater maturity and stability in your faith and a deeper relationship with God, rather than with a set of rules and doctrines. So I encourage you to keep going to your group, keep engaging the questions, and look for these results over the longer term. You’re off to a great start. Just keep on going!
Q. I have a Bible I like and am used to using. I’d prefer not to have to buy a new one to use these studies. And I am fairly certain the members of my small group might feel the same. How can I use your studies with a traditional Bible?
Your concern is perfectly understandable. We anticipated it, and that’s why we designed these guides so that they can be used with any kind of Bible. Each session is typically devoted to a natural section of a biblical book, and as the instructions at the beginning of the guides explain, “You’ll be able to identify these sections easily because they’ll be indicated by their opening lines or by some other means that makes them obvious.” In fact, since the sessions go sequentially through biblical books, in each new session you can just pick up where you left off the last time. So even with a traditional Bible, you’ll get much of the benefit of approaching the biblical books through their own natural structures rather than through the later artificial additions of chapters and verses. You don’t need to get a whole new Bible just to use these guides.
That much said, you will definitely have the best experience with these study guides, and in your small group discussions, if you do use The Books of the Bible. Without chapters and verses, the Bible reads like the collection of books it really is. I invite you to to give this way of reading Scriptures a try–I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised! (You can find out more about The Books of the Bible by reading this Wikipedia article. You can download and preview several biblical books from the edition here. To find out how to order a copy, see this post.)
I think you’ll quickly adjust to reading and discussing the Bible without using chapter and verse references. You’ll find that this is much closer to the way you’d discuss any other book, for example, in a book club. You’ll discover that you can refer to places in the passage descriptively (“When Nicodemus first arrives . . .”) or by quoting short phrases (“When he says, ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . .'”). It doesn’t take long to catch on.
I wish you and your small group a great experience, whatever Bible you use with these guides. (But I definitely encourage you to check out The Books of the Bible!)
Q. I’m using your Genesis guide in my ladies’ Bible class at church. The women say the study guide is the best one that they have ever used. They like Genesis so much that they want to do Exodus next. Thank you for all your work in writing these guides! We do have a question, though. The women want to know why God is included among the characters who are rated from best to worst in the Hagar story (question 3 on page 65 of the study guide to Genesis).
Thanks so much for this encouraging report! I hope you all continue to enjoy studying Genesis together this way. Unfortunately a guide to Exodus isn’t ready yet, but one may be published later in the series. In the meantime, you can see all the other guides that are available here.
To answer your question, the idea behind the ranking exercise was to give everyone the freedom and opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the Hagar story. We’re often taught in church, either directly or indirectly, that we can’t ask any questions about the way God does things. We get the message that we shouldn’t even feel uncomfortable about some things—that if we do, we must be bad Christians. But when we read the Hagar story, we may legitimately wonder why God sent her back to a mistress who was mistreating her, and we may feel badly for her.
I wanted to give people the freedom to express those questions and feelings. There are answers to them, but we’ll never find these answers if we don’t allow the questions. Some of the women in your group might feel that Hagar is actually the best or most sympathetic character in the story; they might have some questions about what God tells her to do; and they might feel that Abraham and Sarah could and should have done a lot of things differently. My goal was to give people the freedom to express thoughts like that—the kind we may not always feel are allowed in church—and so establish an atmosphere of acceptance and trust where people can find the answers to those questions together.
Q. Our small group is using your Genesis guide and the study is going really well, both the other leader and I think so. Our group is fairly large (8-12 each week), so discussion generally flows pretty freely. Your questions are good, although we don’t stay on them for very long. I guess the discussion typically goes like a volleyball game. The question serves the ball, then everyone hits it around for a while. When the ball finally hits the floor, whoever is leading the discussion serves up the next question. It works well. The group has talked quite a bit about chiasm and the chiastic structure of the narrative (we just finished Genesis 15), and that’s been really enjoyable. It’s definitely a new concept for most everyone in the group. I’m just curious—is our study working the way you hoped?
I’d say your study is going exactly the way I hoped. Once you pose the questions to the group, the goal isn’t to get everyone to “stick to the subject” or “find the right answer.” As the guide explains in the instructions for leaders at the beginning (p. 4), the goal is to help you all reflect on “the meaning of the whole passage, in the wider context of Genesis, in light of your personal experience.” That approach is necessarily going to generate a wide-ranging discussion. But I think that should be welcome, as a counterpart to times when we may have been led to focus on the minutiae of details in the Bible at the expense of the big picture.
Postmodern young adults who have little or no biblical background are one of the main intended audiences for these guides. I find that they’re accustomed to looking for meaning through the lens of their own experience. While our personal experience can’t be the primary authority in our lives, I believe it does provide one legitimate avenue into the authoritative truths we find in the Bible. In fact, it’s been said that we can’t understand anything in the Bible unless we have some partial kind of experience with it already. So I’d encourage you to continue allowing and fostering the kinds of discussions you’re already having, even if you feel that you don’t stay right on the questions for very long. From what you describe, I’d say they’re working!
Q. I want to lead a neighborhood Bible study using your study guide to John, but I’m concerned that the people I invite won’t want to read all the way through the book out loud together. I’ve never been in a group that did this and I think people will find it boring and tiring. They might not come back. Do we have to do this to start the study?
All I can say is, give it a try, and you’ll be surprised how well it goes. Both from my own experience leading groups with these guides, and from what I’ve heard from other groups, I’m convinced that you and your neighbors will find this one of the most refreshing and exciting experiences they’ve had with the Bible in years.
One group I know read through the whole book of Romans out loud—this took about an hour—and as soon as they finished the discussion was electric. One person said it was the best Bible study she’d ever been in. Another group was using the guide to Psalms, Lamentations, and Songs of Songs. They got to the session where they were supposed to read Lamentations out loud and one member asked whether they really had to do this. Another member, a young woman, answered, “Of course we do!” She explained that all she ever got was bits and pieces of the Bible, “a chapter here and a verse there,” and she was really looking forward to hearing a whole book at once. The reading and discussion were deep and meaningful.
It’s important to realize that we are now in a period of a “new orality.” We are less of a silent reading culture and more of an out-loud culture, in which the primary means of communication is increasingly the spoken voice, as heard on television, on internet sites like YouTube, in movie theaters, etc. Even people’s interactions with their smart phones are becoming spoken! The original character of the Bible is perfect for this “new orality.” The books of the Bible, as a rule, were composed out loud and intended to be delivered out loud. Paul tells the Colossians, for example, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans.” Revelation says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it.” So when you read the Bible out loud, you’re experiencing it as originally intended.
So give the members of your neighborhood Bible study the challenge and opportunity of reading John out loud. (You’ll notice that the guide gives you the choice of doing this in one or two parts, so if you still have concerns, you can start by reading just the first half out loud in session 2 and the second half in session 14.) I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well it goes.