Approaches to studying the Bible
What tools will we employ to study the Bible?
We’ve talked about why one should study the Bible, but a desire to study doesn’t necessarily give us the tools to set out to do it. How do we approach the Bible? As a religious text with the very words of God? As a corpus of mythology? A history book? Poetry? Literature?
The Bible isn’t singularly one of these things, it’s all of them1. Far too often the religious and non-religious alike take a fundamentalist view of the Bible, approaching it as a text handed down from heaven that must be interpreted literally at all times. This places a 21st century pressure on a series of texts that were written over thousands of year by multiple authors with varying viewpoints and religious experiences. To put it simply, this type of interpretation is far too rigid and robs the text of much of its beauty.
What we want instead is to take a multi-faceted view of the Bible and to study it with as much depth as possible. We want to place ourselves in the feet of both the writer and the reader in order to understand the biblical world. How will we do this? Below you’ll find a few tools that we will use to open up the Bible.
Textual criticism is the study of the many manuscripts that are used to create a complete text. For someone coming from a fundamentalist or evangelical background, this is something not usually taught in churches. The most I remember being taught is that we have an English Bible translated from a Hebrew and Greek Bible. But that’s vague enough to be deceptive. There isn’t an original manuscript that contains the whole Bible. There are multiple manuscripts used to translate the Bible, and these manuscripts are compiled from smaller fragments. The fragments and manuscripts often differ in language, some omitting entire passages.
We need to understand this is how the Bible was formed, and have the tools at our disposal to study different manuscripts and fragments. For scholars, this requires understanding Greek and Hebrew, but for our purposes we will simply have to know which experts to read.
Source and form Criticism
One of the major advantages of reading 21st century scholarly works is that the writer’s sources are clearly laid out in footnotes, endnotes, and citation pages. When we read a history of the American Civil War, we have no doubt what documents were researched to reach a certain conclusion and what sources of inspiration they had for their interpretation. Unfortunately, the Bible --and most ancient writing— isn’t like that.
Source criticism looks at the text and tries to determine where the writer got their information. Was it first-hand? Did someone tell them? Did they read another text? Is it a flight of fancy? All of the questions, and more, are looked at.
Form criticism is mostly used in studying the Gospels, but it has been used for the Hebrew Bible. Essentially, this technique attempts to trace how a text was transmitted from an oral to written tradition.
Social scientific criticism is a umbrella term that can involve any social science discipline when used to study a biblical text. It seeks to better understand the context of a text, placing it within a larger world of history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, economics, and political science (among other things).
Understanding the Bible in a literary context involves determining the genre of the writing (poetry, narrative, wisdom, prophecy, law, sermons, letters, etc.) and studying the text to gain a better understanding of the human experience. What experiences are portrayed? How are they interpreted? What literary techniques are used, like simile, metaphor, word play, and the like? This allows us to compare the Bible to other works of literature to see how the writer viewed the world.
With all these tools in our toolset we can set out to study the Bible and see where it leads us.
Or, it purports to be all of them. I can’t provide independent evidence the Bible is the actual word of God. We simply accept that for many people this is what it is to them.