Academic biblical studies requires a lot of time in an array of primary and secondary sources.1 And among these sources, the Bible itself is the most primary. So, it’s important to maintain a regular habit of reading it for at least 10 reasons—namely, to
- Remind yourself that biblical studies is about the Bible.
- Remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.
- Understand the biblical authors’ worldviews.
- See things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
- Correct your reading of one passage against another.
- Focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.
- Sharpen your languages.
- Find things you won’t in translation.
- Notice scribal errors.
- Learn vocabulary.
Of these, the first 6 apply whatever language you’re reading in. The last 4 are special benefits if you’re reading the Bible in its primary languages.
1. Remind yourself that biblical studies is about 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 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.
2. Remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.
Not all biblical scholars 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 no apocrypha, or
- A “New Jerusalem Bible” with both a New Testament and apocrypha.2
But whatever its specific content, speaking of a “Bible” as such inevitably requires reckoning with a text that 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 critical biblical scholarship undertakes precisely the task of avoiding historical oversights.
In addition, if you come to the biblical text from one of the communities that hears in this text the divine word, 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.
3. Understand the biblical authors’ worldviews.
H.-G. Gadamer helpfully reflects on what it means really to understand a text, saying,
We can set aside Schleiermacher’s ideas on subjective interpretation. When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author’s mind [in die seelische Verfassung des Authors] but, if one wants to use this terminology, we try to transpose ourselves into the perspective within which he has formed his views [in die Perspective, unter der der andere seine Meinung gewonnen hat]. But this simply means that we try to understand how what he is saying could be right. If we want to understand, we will try to make his arguments even stronger.3
Understanding “how what [another person] is saying could be right” can be a tall order even toward those who share our same cultural contexts, or our own homes. Understanding the “perspective within which [another person] has formed his[ or her] views” can take consistent time and effort, even if that person is present. So, it’s certainly to be expected that similarly sustained effort will be required to understand the biblical authors.
4. See things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
Specialization can be logical. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of not knowing other primary literature that might also prove relevant. And specialists in any given book or corpus have a real tendency toward functional ignorance of other books and corpora.
For instance, Luke and Paul shouldn’t be confused. Yet they’re both very early witnesses to the memory, faith, and practice of the Jesus movement.
So, these texts might, in principle, have just as much to say about each other as would Josephus or Philo. Readings of Luke might then feasibly enrich readings of Paul, at least as much as would 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 outside it.
5. Correct your reading of one passage against another.
Related to the prior benefit is the fact that seeing things you won’t by reading only isolated passages can help you correct your interpretation of one passage against another.
Everyone understands some things better than others. And the more widely and carefully you read, the more the text has a chance to “push back” against interpretations you may have that are less than fully adequate.
Insight from Gadamer
Gadamer usefully reflects on this dynamic as well, asking,
How do we discover that there is a difference between our own customary usage and that of the text?
I think we must say that generally we do so in the experience of being pulled up short by the text. Either it does not yield any meaning at all or its meaning is not compatible with what we had expected. This is what brings us up short and alerts us to a possible difference in usage.
A person trying to understand a text is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither “neutrality” with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.4
A Personal Example
A personal example of this would be in my reading of 1 Cor 15:3a. There, Paul says he communicated to the Corinthians “ὃ … παρέλαβ[ε]ν” (“what [he] received”), but the text doesn’t specify from whom he received it.
What I’ve Suggested Previously
I’ve previously suggested in passing that this reception is “from others who also preached” the same message as Paul.5 In particular, I’ve noted that “part of what Paul likely received is a summary of the key components of the message that he rehearses in 1 Corinthians 15:3b–5.”6
This kind of interpretation is reasonably common for 1 Cor 15:3a.7 And it allows a few options for how one might understand 1 Cor 15:3 as consistent with Gal 1:12 and 2:1–10.
Options for Integrating 1 Corinthians 15:3 with Galatians 1:12 and 2:1–10
Among these are that,
- Both passages refer to the same core gospel, but they speak about Paul’s reception of it in different ways and at different times. Galatians stresses his initial reception of the gospel from Jesus; 1 Corinthians mentions how Paul later had this same message echoed back to him by others besides Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:3, 11; Gal 2:2, 6–10).
- Galatians refers to the essential content of the gospel, which Paul received from Jesus. But 1 Corinthians is concerned with the specific form of the condensation of this gospel that appears in 15:3b–5, which Paul may have received from others besides Jesus.
- Galatians refers to the essential content of the gospel, which Paul received from Jesus. But 1 Corinthians is concerned with additional information about Jesus (e.g., details of his post-resurrection appearances in 15:6–7) that Paul might not have been privy to the details of previously but that also didn’t pertain to the core message he preached.
What I’m Now Pondering
That said, Paul also says that he “παρέλαβ[ε]ν ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου” (“received from the Lord”) information specific to the Eucharist’s institution (see 1 Cor 11:23–25). That specificity makes me wonder afresh about the source Paul implies for “what [he] received” in 1 Cor 15:3a.8
Resolving this reopened loop will take some more work. But it’s good that it’s reopened. And at least in the interim, that reopening will cause me to downgrade the “receiving from others besides Jesus” interpretation of 1 Cor 15:3a from “likely” to merely possible or to re-entertain the idea that both Jesus and others are included.
6. Focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.
When you think of Bible reading, you might tend to think of silent reading. But reading the text aloud can be beneficial too.
In a group, reading aloud helps everyone follow along at the same place. If you’re reading aloud to yourself, that’s not such an upside. You always know where you are.
But if you read the text aloud—even by yourself—you engage another sense in the reading experience. By doing so, you push yourself that much more into the experience of reading.
Do you ever get distracted when “reading” a page silently? You then suddenly realize you have no idea what you’ve supposedly just seen while your mind was wandering.
By contrast, if you’re reading aloud, you’ll probably realize much quicker that your mind has started to wander when you run out of words coming out of your mouth.
Engaging another sense also gives you another chance to make connections in the text that you might read right over on paper but pick up when hearing yourself repeat the same phrase.
7. Sharpen your languages.
When you read the biblical text in its primary languages, you can hone 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.
Of course, grammars make very profitable reading on their own. 🙂 But they can’t substitute for deep, first-hand 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 too. That way, you can practice your pronunciation and develop your “ear” for the language.
Don’t worry too much about your choice of a pronunciation system. And don’t worry if it sounds bad or halting. As a child, that roughness was part of your learning process for your first language. It will be here too.
But gradually, 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.
8. Find 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.”9
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 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 be an asset in some ways. In translation, you might tend to read the text too quickly. As you do, you might gloss over important elements within it. But by reading the text in a primary language, you might pause long enough to consider it more deeply.
9. Notice scribal errors.
One way to notice scribal errors is, of course, to read the apparatus in your critical biblical text. But by reading the biblical text itself, you can also notice scribal errors—namely, your own scribal errors.
For me, reading aloud particularly helps in this regard. I’ll hear myself say something. I’ll then realize what I just read aloud is related to what’s in the text but isn’t exactly the same.
These differences often fall into well-known patterns of error that copyists might make during their work. And making them for myself gives me a more first-hand appreciation for when and how these errors might arise.
That better appreciation for possible pitfalls in reading a given text can prove helpful making text-critical decisions. It also proves helpful in making me a more aware reader the next time around.
10. 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 a given term might have a much wider range of possible meanings than the glosses you memorized.
Don’t Settle for the Cliché
Unfortunately, biblical scholars who don’t have a regular discipline of Bible reading are common enough to be cliché.
Whether you find yourself in this boat or whether you’d just like to join others who are actively in the text, I’d like to invite you to join my students and me this term in our readings of the biblical text.
Every term, my students and I do a daily Bible reading exercise together. If you’re working in the original languages, I’ve scaled the readings to be short enough to complete without taking too much time out of your day. But the reading plan will work whether you’re using a translation or working from the biblical text in its original languages.
It would be wonderful to have you join us. To get started, just drop your name and email in the form below. You’ll then get an email delivering this term’s readings. And you’ll be ready to pick up in the biblical text right where my students and I are.
Looking forward to reading with you!