Whatever else it does, biblical studies starts with the Bible.
A lot of academic biblical studies has to do with thinking critically about the biblical text.
It has to do with bringing preconceptions into question and making judgments like historians. It has to do with looking closely at the text again and again.
This work is good and important. Nothing can substitute for this kind of detailed, careful attention to a particular book, a given passage, or even a single verse.
But with this kind of close attention also comes the danger of paying so much attention to the individual trees that the forest fades from view.
There’s a risk of increasing knowledge of a small slice of the biblical literature at the cost of increasing unfamiliarity with other parts.
To counteract this tendency toward unfamiliarity, it’s helpful to cultivate a regular habit of Bible reading.
There are at least five reasons for this. The first two apply whatever language you’re reading in. The last three are special benefits reading Scripture in its primary languages.
1. To remind yourself that your Bible is Scripture.
True, not all biblical scholars would claim membership in a particular faith community—especially one they see as relevant to their scholarship.
But biblical scholarship is a coherent discipline only because of the faith communities within which biblical texts emerged.
In practice, “Bible” might mean quite a lot of different things. It might be
- A “Hebrew Bible” without a New Testament,
- A “New American Standard Bible” with a New Testament but not an apocrypha, or
- A “New Jerusalem Bible” with both a New Testament and an apocrypha.
But whatever its specific content, speaking of a “Bible” as such inevitably requires reckoning with the fact that this text has been deeply embedded in the faith and practice of the communities that have cherished it.
Ignoring this history is then precisely a historical oversight. And before critical biblical scholarship lies the task of avoiding historical oversights.
In addition, if you come to the biblical text from one of its communities, reading the text for its own sake can help remind you to cherish it—whatever else you also then do with it, either analytically or critically.
2. To see things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
Specialists in any given book or corpus have a very real tendency toward functional ignorance of other books and corpora.
The focus involved in specialization is logical. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of not knowing other primary literature that might also be very relevant.
For instance, while Luke and Paul shouldn’t be confused, they are at least both very early witnesses to the memory, faith, and practice of the Jesus movement. So texts like these might, in principle, just have as much to say about each other as would Josephus or Philo.
Readings of Paul might then feasibly be enriched by readings of Luke, just as much as by readings of Josephus or Philo, and vice versa.
But literature you don’t know the contents of can’t help you. So it’s helpful to read widely across the biblical text as also in other primary literature beyond it.
3. To sharpen your languages.
When you read the biblical text in its primary languages, you can practice and sharpen your ability to work with these languages.
You’ll get a better feel for the languages by experiencing them first hand rather than only reading about them in a grammar.
Grammars do, of course, make very profitable reading of their own. 🙂 But they can’t substitute for deep familiarity with the literature they try to describe.
If you’re reading in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, you can even take the opportunity to read the text aloud.
That way, you can practice your pronunciation and develop your “ear” for the language.
Don’t worry if it sounds bad or halting. And don’t worry too much about your choice of a pronunciation system.
As a child, that roughness was part of your learning process for your first language. It will be here too.
But gradually and by degrees, you’ll find yourself making progress. You might even see things in the text that you’ve previously missed because you heard yourself saying the text aloud.
4. To see things you won’t in translation.
To communicate some things in whatever language, translators inevitably have to obscure others.
This fact is wonderfully encapsulated in the Italian proverb “traduttore traditore”—”a translator is a traitor.”
From an English translation, you might well learn about a time when a ruler of Egypt dreamed about cows.
But English simply isn’t able to communicate the humorous irony involved in having פרעה (paroh) dream about פרות (paroth; Gen 41:1–2).
Many translations do a great job with rendering the core of what a passage communicates.
But for getting at the fine details both within and across passages, there’s no substitute for reading the original text.
Here also, your lack of familiarity with a biblical text’s primary language can sometimes be an asset.
In English translation, you might well read it overly quickly and so gloss over its implications.
But by reading the text in a primary language, you might pause long enough to consider it more deeply than you otherwise might in English.
5. To learn vocabulary.
When you learn biblical languages, you learn a certain amount of vocabulary that occurs frequently. But even with this under your belt, there is still a huge amount of vocabulary you don’t know.
Continuing to drill larger sets of vocabulary cards might have a place. On the other hand, you may well remember the language better by seeing and learning new words in context.
You’ll also learn new usages, meanings, and functions for the vocabulary you thought you knew.
You may have learned a small handful of glosses for a word. But you’ll start seeing how that term might have a much wider range of possible meanings than what those glosses might have lead you to suspect.
Don’t Settle for the Cliché
Unfortunately, biblical scholars who doesn’t have a regular discipline of Bible reading are common enough to be somewhat cliché.
Whether you find yourself in this boat or whether you’d just like to join biblical scholars who are actively in the text, I’d like to invite you to join my students and me this term as we read the biblical text.
Every term, my students and I do a daily Bible reading exercise together. Each day’s readings are quite short—normally only a few verses.
The reading plan will work whether you’re using a translation or working from the biblical languages themselves.
But the readings are designed to be short enough to complete in the primary languages without taking too much time out of your day.
It would be wonderful to have you join us. To get started, just drop your name and email in the form below.
You’ll get an email delivering this term’s readings directly to you. And you’ll be ready to pick up in the biblical text right where my students and I are.
Feel free also to revisit this post to comment on interesting things you come across in your reading. It would be great to hear what you see as you read through the text.
Looking forward to reading with you!
- For further discussion, see my “Rewriting Prophets in the Corinthian Correspondence: A Window on Paul’s Hermeneutic,” BBR 22.2 (2012): 226–27. ↩
- For making me aware of this proverb, I’m grateful to Moisés Silva. ↩
Header image provided by Kelly Sikkema