Basics of Biblical Research

Basics of Biblical Research

One of the most important responsibilities that we have as Christians is to learn and apply the Word of God, the Bible. In order for us to learn and apply the Bible, we must be taught. But at some point, we learn enough and have mastered enough that we can reliably start going to the Bible for answers to questions that we have. For some people, that comes almost immediately after conversion to the Christian faith. For others, it takes years to get to the point of needing and wanting to research topics in the Bible independently. We will briefly discuss the basics of Biblical research.

One major key is to recognize that the Bible is a special book. There are many different types of genres of literature written in various timeframes with varied cultural contexts over three languages and over two millennia. That’s a lot to unpack! As we go through this article, we will give examples of potential questions that one can ask as he or she is researching something in the Bible.

First, we can ask the question: what is the historical context of this record or account? Often, Biblical accounts have at least two layers of meaning. The first layer was for the original audience of the passage. But just because the text in question had an original meaning for a specific audience does not mean that there isn’t something to learn from it for later readers. To give one example, Paul instructs Timothy the following way:

I Timothy 4:12

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

Paul did not want anyone to despise Timothy because he was “too young” to lead the people in that community. This was a specific command given from Paul to Timothy in the middle of the first century AD. But can’t we learn from this admonition in our churches and communities today? In many cases, there are major moments of history to consider. As yourself: where is this Biblical account in relation to the Exodus? To the kingdom period of Israel? To the time in captivity? To the time of Christ? This leads to a related point about the timeframe of various Biblical texts. Some of the Bible was written before Christ’s ministry. Obviously, life changed dramatically after Christ’s ministry, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension. Much of Paul’s epistle to the Romans relates the Old Testament to the new realities that we as Christians have in Christ. So especially when it concerns application, the timeframe and audience must be considered. Again, even if a Scripture is not meant to be directly applied by modern Christians, there is something that we can learn from that passage. We can ask, “What did this mean to the ancient Hebrews? How can I learn from this?” Often, thinking about the time, place, and historical audience of a passage will shed voluminous light on its meaning.

Second, once we have considered the greater context of the passage or verse in question, we must consider the immediate context. Many Christian churches and bible studies can get caught with what’s called “proof-texting.” Basically, people inadvertently take Scriptures out of context because they believe it supports one of their beliefs. Let me give a few brief examples of this. I have heard people discuss the importance of planning and communicating the details of an event. That is a great principle. The problem occurs when people use verses such as the following to make their case “Biblical:”

Habakkuk 2:2

And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.

These people say, “See! The Bible says that we should write it down and make it obvious so that everyone else can run with it.” However, the context suggests that this vision is a prophecy of the impending trouble coming. The ones that are running are actually fleeing from the trouble! This verse has nothing to do with planning and communicating—it has everything to do with a specific prophecy given to Habakkuk about the future calamity facing Israel. Another great example can be found in I Corinthians 14:

I Corinthians 14:19

Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.

Some churches use this verse to argue that Paul was not a believer in speaking in tongues, especially in the church. Such a view ignores the previous verse, verse 13, and the preceding two whole chapters. Only when we understand the context do we see the difference between what Paul lived in his private prayer life versus what he desired for the worship aspect of these bible studies. So, we can understand that we need to ask, “Do I understand this verse in its context? Can I explain how it relates to the Scriptures that I find around it?”

Next, we must consider carefully the language and the culture of the Bible. There are many figures of speech used in the Bible, and they all originated in the Hebrew culture. The ancient Hebrews looked at life differently than the modern person. There are also barriers between the culture of the West and the culture of the East, where the Bible was written and first lived. Thankfully, there are many resources that can help us on our journey. Books like Manners and Customs by James Freeman, Gospel Light by George Lamsa, and Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind by Barbara Bowen can illuminate many a dark saying. E. W. Bullinger’s book Figures of Speech Used in the Bible is another great resource specifically on non-literal Biblical language. Many of the difficulties that arise in reading and studying the Bible can be resolved by looking into figures of speech and how the ancient Hebrew mind would have understood the same Scriptures. We can ask ourselves, “How would an ancient Hebrew have understood this phrase? Is there something here that I’m missing from a cultural perspective?”

Next, let’s suppose we have come across a difficult verse and we have already considered the general context, immediate context, and the cultural context. Where can we turn next? The next possibility is that the word may be translated incorrectly. In order to discern that, we must turn to language sources called lexicons and concordances. My favorite such resource is a website called Blue Letter Bible, but there are many great concordances and lexicons available, including Strong’s, Young’s Bullinger’s, Thayer’s, Gesenius’, and the list goes on and on. Here is one great example from I John 5:

I John 5:7-8

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

There is no other verse in the Bible that puts the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit together like this. This arrests our attention! Interestingly, this is one of the best-known forgeries found in the King James Bible! Here is the Greek text from the Stephens text (the Greek text that was used by the King James translators):

I John 5:7-8

ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ πατὴρ, ὁ λόγος, καὶ τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἕν εἰσιν

καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ, τὸ πνεῦμα, καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ, καὶ τὸ αἷμα καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν

Now, here is the best Greek text available in modern times that uses many more manuscripts that the Stephens does:

I John 5:7-8

ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες

τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν

For those of you who don’t read Greek (don’t worry—I’m not great at it), the second version reads, “For there are three that bear witness: the spirit, the water, and the blood. And these three agree in one.” There was a forgery here! So sometimes the answer is that the difficult verse may be a forgery or maybe a simple mistranslation. The beautiful thing is that, with modern technology, you do not need to be a scholar to research these types of problems. It is always helpful to have a working academic understanding of a language, but you can resolve many issues of mistranslation with only a basic working understanding of that language. We can ask ourselves, “Is there a word or phrase here that doesn’t fit with what I understand of the Bible? If so, is there a better, more linguistically correct way to understand this verse?”

What if we have considered all of the above and we still have a verse that we cannot understand? Another possibility is that the section in question may be illuminated by a section on the same subject from another book of the Bible. This is sometimes referred to as understanding the scope of the Bible or the scope of a particular subject. It is also referred to as letting the Bible interpret itself, allowing difficult verses to be interpreted by clear verses on the same subject.[1] What is the best way to build scope? The best thing that we can do is simply read the Bible from cover to cover. Another key is to systematically research various topics of interest to build an understanding and appreciation for the Bible. As we read, understand, and apply more of the Bible, God will be able to show us new things to read, understand, and apply. Famous theologians have described the same process in their writings. The German theologian Schleiermacher “employed the image of a ‘hermeneutic circle’ whereby a study of parts of a text leads naturally to a conjecture about the meaning of the whole, followed by an almost endless revision and correction of this general conception, based on a return to examining the parts and applying new insights to general understanding.”[2] It is clear that studying the Bible is a lifelong endeavor—we must be patient with ourselves as we learn and apply the Scripture. We can ask ourselves, “What do I know about the Bible as a whole that can help me here in this section?”

Finally, if a verse is so difficult that it eludes us after all of the above approaches are considered, we simply can set it aside and wait for a later time to research it again. Sometimes we need time and space to grow in our knowledge and understanding of the Bible before we can understand certain verses and sections of Scripture. As we continue seeking God, making the most out of our time in the Scriptures, we will continue to learn and grow. With advancing knowledge, we will be able to interpret and apply passages that we weren’t able to years before. We can ask ourselves, “Do I need to set this verse or topic aside for a bit and come back to it later?”

In summation, there are many questions that we can ask ourselves as we research the Bible. Here is a great quote by Christian author James R. White: “When believing Christians face what appears to be a tension in a Bible text, they turn to context, language, and the consistent teaching of Scripture. They first examine those portions that address the topic at length, and interpret less clear passages in light of the longer, more direct ones. That is how biblical exegesis is done, though the ideal is missed in everyday practice.”[3] We can endeavor to hit the mark every single time. We know that we won’t be perfect, but we can and will do our best. Our goal is a noble one: to understand God and His Word, His communication to us, His children.

Acts 17:11

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

These Bereans listened to Paul and then they “fact-checked” him using the Scriptures that they had, the Old Testament scrolls. We can do the same in our day and time!

[1] Brian Holt argues for a similar approach in his book, Jesus—God or the Son of God?, page 7.

[2] Katz, David S. God’s Last Words, page xiii.

[3] White, James R. What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an, page 153.