Whatever else it is, biblical studies is about the Bible. A lot of academic biblical studies has to do with learning to think critically. It has to do with bringing preconceptions into question and making judgments like historians. It has to do with looking closely at the text.
This work is good and important. Nothing can substitute for giving detailed, careful attention to a particular book, a given passage, or even a single verse. But with this also comes the danger of paying so much attention to the individual trees that we lose sight of the forest. We risk increasing our knowledge of a small slice of the Bible at the cost of increasing unfamiliarity with other parts.
To counteract this, I’d like to suggest five reasons it’s important for emerging biblical scholars to cultivate a regular habit of Bible reading. The first three of these focus specifically on benefits that derive from reading in the original languages. But the last two apply even if you’re reading solely from the perspective of English or another translation.
1. To learn vocabulary.
When you learn biblical languages, you learn a certain amount of vocabulary that tends to occur often. But even with this under your belt, there is still a huge amount of vocabulary that you don’t know.
Continuing to drill larger sets of vocabulary cards might have a place. On the other hand, it may well help you remember the language better to see and learn new words as they come up in context.
In addition, you’ll learn new usages, meanings, and functions for a lot of the vocabulary you thought you knew. You may have learned a small handful of glosses for a word. But you’ll start to see how that term might have a much wider range of possible meanings than what those glosses might have lead you to suspect.
2. To sharpen your languages.
When you read biblical text, you practice and sharpen your ability to work with the text’s languages. This is true with vocabulary like I mentioned already. It’s also true with understanding the text’s syntax and ways of expressing itself.
You’ll develop a better feel for the language by experiencing it first hand rather than only reading about it in a grammar. (But grammars do make very profitable reading of their own too. 🙂 ) You might even want to take the opportunity to practice your pronunciation by reading the text aloud in its original language.
3. 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.
4. To see things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
All of us 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 be very relevant to whatever we’re working on.
While Luke and Paul shouldn’t be confused, they are at least both very early witnesses to the faith, practice, and memory of the Jesus movement. So texts like these might just have as much to say about each other as would Josephus or Philo. As with these other sources, therefore, we might shortchange or enrich our reading of Paul by our ignorance or familiarity with Luke (and vice versa). But we won’t know what we won’t know, so it’s helpful to try to read across the biblical text.
5. To remind yourself that your Bible is Scripture.
True, not all biblical scholars would claim membership in a particular faith community—especially one that’s relevant to their biblical scholarship. But biblical scholarship has coherence as a 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. It might be a “New American Standard Bible” with a New Testament but not an apocrypha. Or it might be a “New Jerusalem Bible” with both a New Testament and an apocrypha.
But whatever its specific content, to speak of a “Bible” as such inevitably requires reckoning with the fact that this text has been deeply embedded within the faith and practice of the communities that have cherished it. And for those of us who come to the text from one of these communities, reading the text can help remind us to cherish it—whatever else we also do with it by way of analysis or criticism.
Want to Join Us?
Unfortunately, the student or professor of biblical studies who doesn’t have a regular discipline of reading the Bible is common enough to be somewhat cliché. If you find yourself in this boat, or even if you don’t but would like to join a reading project with others, I’d like to invite you to join my students and me this term.
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 readings are designed to be short enough to complete in Hebrew or Greek if you’re able without taking too much time out of your day. This way, you have a good way of keeping up with your languages. But of course, you’re welcome to read along in a translation as well.
If this sounds like something you might be interested in doing, we’d love to have you join us. Feel free to revisit this post to comment on interesting things you come across in your reading.
To get started, just complete the form below and indicate you’d like to receive the daily Bible readings. You’ll get an email delivering those to you. Then you’ll be ready to pick up in the biblical text where we are also. Looking forward to reading with you!
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