Information is freely available to almost anyone in nearly every place on earth. No longer are people held subject to the need of a “formal” education when they want to discover some new topic or lifestyle. Take Masterclass for example, where anyone can learn to cook from Gordon Ramsay, to direct from Martin Scorcese, and so on. The limitations have been blown away by the availability of resources and scholarly material to the non-professional. Sadly however, this freedom of information has led to….non professionals….attempting to explain things in ways that, shall we say, fall flat when stacked up to actual data.
This is abundantly true as well with things that [should] interest Christians, and especially those who attend church. Biblical literacy within the church, it seems, is either at an all-time low, or rapidly approaching that status. Likely the worst culprit is the incessant changing of meaning of terms that don’t support the theological stance of whoever happens to be talking, simply because the text doesn’t say what they want it to say. The fervor with which whole texts are dismissed is, at a minimum, a slap in the face of the religion of Jesus himself. That is to say, Jesus loved his scriptures, and Paul seemed to as well, and so (in my opinion) there is no good foundation upon which a Christian can build a “toss em” mentality.
There is one thing however that can help to change the approach many have taken of simply glazing over anything disagreeable, or worse, changing definitions and moving words around, or even worse, adding things that just aren’t there. That one thing is literacy. Specifically, becoming more literate in the actual context of the Bible, not just the verses, chapters, books, and segregations we’ve given to it, but in the literary, societal, linguistic, historical, and even theological contexts (plural) in which these texts are birthed.
“But that’s too hard.”
Then don’t do it. Nobody says we “have” to learn how to read the Bible. But, and this is a rather large but, if we want to talk about it, discuss “what things mean”, write about it, or even toss it out completely, we should only do so once we’ve given it the attention it’s due, and done so in a careful, and educated, way.
“Fine, where do I start?”
There is no longer a need to attend a formal seminary or other university to get an education in something that interests you. For example, if someone wanted to begin with biblical history, biblical languages, societal contexts, or any other topic of scholarly import in the field, there are a myriad of free, online resources available to aid in their growth (see below for a few).
There is no reason for the church to remain biblically illiterate. Really, there is no longer an excuse for anyone who desires to learn the languages (at least enough to work in a lexicon), study the social-historical contexts, interpretive traditions, and scholarly commentary available, to not do so.
“Who do I trust?”
The field of biblical scholarship is immense. Simply reading within one tradition or from one particular theological perspective isn’t going to cut it, and with the availability of material, shouldn’t. Today’s marketplace is flooded with both scholarly and popular renditions of biblical themes and texts, and it can be a bit overwhelming. There are a couple rules however that can help.
- Stay away from vanity publishers (self-published). Not much else needs to be said, but when it comes to scholarly material about the bible, there are a number of reputable publishers whose material consistently displays a commitment to good scholarship. More examples will be below, but one is the Anchor/Yale set of Bible commentaries.
- Look for tenured professors who work/retired from (or died while working in…) the field in which you’re interested. Longevity in a field is typically a good indication of someone’s trustworthiness in scholarship (typically). Here, one example (more below) many might recognize would be Walter Bruggemann, who taught various classes in Old Testament throughout his long career.
- As much as possible, try to stay away from theological books when looking for information about the bible. Theology has its place, but many theologians (especially modern) haven’t worked with the biblical languages much, or only enough to pass their seminary class. Biblical scholarship and theology are often miles apart, and without the data it can be difficult if not impossible to perceive this gap.
- Stay away from scholars who’s material is, by the nature of their death, outdated. Here, Strong’s, Thayer, Vine, and a host of others who did wonderful work for Bible scholarship and have been resources used for language studies in the church are largely worthless in today’s world. Not because they are “wrong”, but because due to modern linguistic understanding, new discoveries of both language use and manuscripts, and other events that happened after the death of the authors, they haven’t been updated and are subsequently, not good to use for defining terms in context.
These are little more than simple guidelines. As with all rules, there are exceptions. But those exceptions are called exceptions for a reason.
If the Bible could be “figured out” in one lifetime, it wouldn’t be worth reading. The task of learning to read it isn’t a one-off, single class event. It is a lifetime of wrestling and working with things. Jesus’ call to be disciples includes a call to imitate Him, which must include a devotion to the scriptures.
A final word: learning to separate data from opinion is probably one of the larger steps in growing academically. Meaning, raw data simply says what is, or what can be reasonably stated. For example, there are manuscripts of the Bible from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) that have different wording than the Bible we read today. That much is data. Opinion then might say “so we should change the Bible to match the Dead Sea Scrolls” or “The DSS are right, and the Bible wrong”. Those are opinions about the data, but the data remains the same. Scholarly material won’t be devoid of opinion, but it should be minimal.
Below I’ve compiled a [minuscule] list of free, online resources that can help anyone who wants to dive further in. Again, this is not the “be all, end all” list of online bible helps, but these can help immensely.
Ancient Bible Podcast (shameless plug) – Podcast where I’m reading the Hebrew Bible with my friend Daniel, while we discuss the language and possible translations. Our website has some resources for learning, with more on the way. http://ancientbiblepodcast.com
Online LSJ. Liddel-Scott-Jones Greek Lexicon is a reliable Greek lexicon, available free: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj/
Online BDB. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon is a reliable Hebrew lexicon, available free: http://www.ericlevy.com/revel/bdb/bdb/main.htm
Advanced Greek linguistic and semantic study: http://koine-greek.com
Advanced Hebrew linguistics and semantic study:
Bible History and composition:
Yale Introduction to the Old Testament: Christine Hays. https://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145
Yale Introduction to the New Testament: Dale B. Martin. https://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152
Biblical Archaeology course on the Hebrew Bible: Shaye Cohen. http://courses.biblicalarchaeology.org/hebrewbible/ (in fact, this site is full of useful material)
Publishers: (no links, but these are all reputable publishers for biblical studies)
Baylor, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame University Presses
Commentaries: (generally trustworthy, in no way exhaustive)
Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries
Word Biblical Commentaries (Hebrew Bible especially)
Westminster John Knox Commentaries
Software: (note: there are free versions available of these softwares, but to see texts in the languages requires purchasing other material-usually affordable)