7 Reasons You Need to Read Your Bible

Academic biblical studies requires spending quite 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 7 reasons.

  1. To remind yourself that biblical studies is about the Bible.
  2. To remind yourself that the Bible is Scripture.
  3. To see things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.
  4. To focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.
  5. To sharpen your languages.
  6. To find things you won’t in translation.
  7. To learn vocabulary.

Of these, the first 4 apply whatever language you’re reading in. The last 3 are special benefits if you’re reading the Bible in its primary languages.

1. To 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 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.

2. To 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 not an apocrypha, or
  • A “New Jerusalem Bible” with both a New Testament and an 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 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.

3. To see things you won’t by reading only isolated passages.

Specialists in any given book or corpus have a real tendency toward functional ignorance of other books and corpora.

Specialization can be logical. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of not knowing other primary literature that might also prove 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.

4. To focus more fully and hear things you won’t by reading silently.

When thinking of Bible reading, the default mode is often 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.

5. To 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.

Grammars do, of course, make very profitable reading on 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 too.

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, 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.

6. To 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.”3

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 sometimes be an asset.

In translation, you might well read the text too quickly and so 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.

7. 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 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 somewhat 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 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.

(I don’t have a summer seminar. But I’ve been pleased to see that at least a few students from prior terms usually keep up with the readings even when we don’t have class together.)

The reading plan will work whether you’re using a translation or working from the biblical text in its original languages.

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.

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.

Looking forward to reading with you!


  1. Header image provided by Kelly Sikkema

  2. For further discussion, see my “Rewriting Prophets in the Corinthian Correspondence: A Window on Paul’s Hermeneutic,” BBR 22.2 (2012): 226–27. 

  3. For making me aware of this proverb, I’m grateful to Moisés Silva. 

Daily Gleanings (30 May 2019)

Roger Pearse discusses the King James Version and provides a good deal of interesting material about the translation principles and procedures behind it.


AWOL highlights the open access “Digital Biblical Studies” series:

The series aims to publish the latest research at the intersection of Digital Humanities and Biblical Studies, Ancient Judaism, and Early Christianity in order to demonstrate the transformation of research, teaching, cognition and the economy of knowledge in digital culture. In particular, DBS investigates and evaluates the practices and methodologies of Digital Humanities as applied to texts, inscriptions, archaeological data, and scholarship related to these fields.

To access the series, visit Brill’s website.

On volume 3 in the series, see also Larry Hurtado’s comments.

Expanding Your Research Materials, Part 2

In the previous post, we began discussing how to expand your access to research materials as a biblical scholar.

We focused on two library-related tips, and this post offers two more.

Rows of books on shelves with hanging lightsImage by Janko Ferlič

Use Your School’s Library

If you’re already a student or faculty member, this suggestion might seem overly obvious. You’re likely familiar with your school’s library and, at least generally, its holdings.

As the saying goes though, sometimes “familiarity breeds contempt.” That’s not to say you don’t like your library. But you might not think to look there for a given resource because “of course, we wouldn’t have something like that.”

Still, you should check. You might be surprised by what you have access to either by searching the catalog or browsing the stacks.

This has happened to me more than once, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what we just happened to have.

For instance, in working on a recent project on the land promise to Abraham, I almost requested via ILL a chapter from W. D. Davies’s The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). But thankfully I looked first in the catalog and happily found that it was actually already in Faulkner’s main library’s stacks.

Use Your School’s Ebook Collection

Similar to the prior point, be sure to search your school’s ebook collection.

Gone are the days when ebooks were plaintext files that lack page numbering and so prove barely usable for serious research.

Instead, your library may have purchased rights to provide you access to high quality scans of many technical titles that you might find useful. These will allow you to look at the same pages as you’d find in a print version of the book, except that you’re looking at the book on a screen rather than in your hands.

Of course, onscreen reading has its downsides. But, stocking ebooks is a good way for libraries with limited shelving space to add useful resources to their collections. And if it comes down to submitting another ILL request or using an ebook to which you have instant access, you might well find that you often prefer to use the ebook format, all things considered.

Your library’s ebook collection may also well surprise you with what it contains. For instance, for the same project I mentioned earlier, I needed to get a copy of Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten, “Land and Covenant in Jubilees 14,” in The Land of Israel in Bible, History, and Theology: Studies in Honour of Ed Noort, ed. Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten and J. Cornelis de Vos, VTSup 124 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 259–76.

Besides me for this project, interest in this title might be quite low among current Faulkner library users, so for all its wonderful scholarship, it might not be the best use of limited shelving space. Even so, our library was able to provide access to it in an ebook format that proved entirely adequate for what I needed from that essay for the project I was working on.

Conclusion

So, for students and faculty, the moral of the story is: Your library is a gem for you—don’t let it be a hidden one. Even if you doubt there is anything helpful, still look.

If you’re new to your institution and still getting familiar with how to search all of your library’s holdings, ask one of the librarians for help to make sure you’re not overlooking a bank of helpful resources just because you need to do your searching or looking a bit differently. Doing so can save you valuable time and effort in the research process, as well as expand the range of materials you have readily at your disposal.

What research material have you been pleasantly surprised to find that your library has on its shelves?

What other kinds of library resources have you found helpful?

Expanding Your Research Materials, Part 1

Researchers need materials. For biblical scholars, this most often means books and journals.

We’re responsible for interacting with relevant literature largely irrespective of how easy it is to access. But, of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise some research savvy to access what you need more easily and cost effectively (because we didn’t get into biblical scholarship because it has the same upside potential as something like venture capital investing).

In this series, we’ll explore some different strategies you can employ to do just this.

Library shelves with books related to biblical studiesImage by Jonathan Simcoe

Theological Libraries Near You

Even if you’re not a student, if you live near a theological library, you can almost always simply walk in and use materials in that library.

To look for what might be near you, you can start with this Google Map prepared by the American Theological Library Association that shows all their participating libraries.

Of course, you might also find a non-ATLA-member library near you with useful material. To do so, you can start by searching Google Maps for “library.”

In addition to walking in and using materials at a library, you can often apply for checkout privileges at that library. You can certainly do this if a local public library just happens to have a decent selection of relevant material. But, you can also often do the same thing at theological libraries.

For instance, if you weren’t a Faulkner student but wanted to use Faulkner’s library, you could gain check out privileges for $25 per year. Though, in our case, a number of biblical studies-related resources are also held in the Kearley special collection, which doesn’t normally circulate. So, you’d just need to learn the particular policies and processes of whatever local library you might find helpful to use.

Interlibrary Loan

If you’re in an academic environment, you’re probably familiar with “interlibrary loan” (ILL). ILL is a service in which libraries cooperate to loan resources to each other’s patrons.

Even if you don’t have a theological library near you, though, your local public library should still be able to provide some amount of ILL service. In fact, you might be quite surprised at what you can borrow through the mail via ILL from a local public library—and the public librarians might be quite interested to see your ILL requests for what are, for their normal audience, some very obscure titles.

(Continually requesting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has to get old. Surely a good request for Richard Bauckham’s The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses would help spice things up, right? Or, maybe a good scholarly French or German title?)

In any case, if you have access to ILL services at a theological library, you can certainly use those. But, don’t discount out of hand either what you can get access to via ILL at your local public library.

Conclusion

There’s much more to be said on this topic than can be covered in one post. But, hopefully, these couple nuggets are helpful, and we’ll definitely explore more next week.

Meanwhile, take a look around you for libraries (theological and otherwise) where you might be able to find material relevant to your particular interests in biblical studies. Go by, take a look, and talk to the staff about the possibilities.

When have you used a theological library other than one at a school where you were studying or on the faculty? What were you able to find?

What’s something you’ve been able to get over ILL that you never thought you would have been able to find?

Bartholomew on “What the World Needs from Christian Academics”

Faithlife Today has posted a clip that mostly contains an interview with Craig Bartholomew about “what the world needs from Christian academics.” The post is dated 11 October 2017, but interview seems to have been recorded some time ago, before Bartholomew’s move to the Kirby Lang Institute and seemingly also before the publication of his introduction to hermeneutics. Even so, the content of the interview remains quite a poignant challenge.

Theology’s Hermeneutic Interest

Photograph of H. G. GadamerH.-G. Gadamer concludes his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” by commenting on the importance of language, with an interestingly theological turn. Gadamer suggests,

The … building up of our own world in language persists whenever we want to say something to each other. The result is the actual relationship of men to each other…. Genuine speaking, which has something to say and hence does not give prearranged signals, but rather seeks words through which one reaches the other person, is the universal human task – but it is a special task for the theologian, to whom is commissioned the saying-further (Weitersagen) of a message that stands written. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 17)

To be sure, Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition can and do speak for themselves. But, it is doubtless specially incumbent upon those with vocations in theology, biblical studies, preaching, and other Christian education areas to see to the passing on of this testimony and to its interpretation in various contemporary milieux.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.