Reading the Unified Books

The suggested procedure is purposely detailed. It is unlikely that you will have time and patience individually to follow out all the steps. Make a selection of what you wish to do. If you work in a group, you may parcel out the steps and offer reports to the group on the results.

Survey the Whole Book

Individual books of the Bible have no table of contents or preface by which we can get an idea of the whole. We can accomplish this only by rapid reading or scanning. You should read books through at one sitting , if at all possible. Only thus can you gain a total impression. One writer has said that more than half of the sixty-six books printed in the traditional Protestant Bible can be read through in an average of about twenty minutes. The larger ones can be read selectively and scanned.

In this first survey of the whole book you should look for answers to the following questions:

1. What type of literature is this?

As noted in the previous chapter, literature must be interpreted in the light of its basic character.

2. What occasioned the writing of the book?

Is the author’s name given, and are there any indications concerning the author’s whereabouts and circumstances? Are there any references to datable historical events that may offer a clue to the time of writing? Are there references to the condition and circumstances of the original readers and therefore to the author’s reason(s) for writing?

3. What are the writer’s characteristic words, phrases, concepts, and moods?

What words and phrases are most repeated and most central to the writer’s thought? Was the writer joyful, angry, reflective, argumentative, hopeful as the writing was done?

4. What gives the book its unity?

Is the unifying factor a subject, a person, a group of people, a problem, an event of the past, present, or future? Attempt to state the unity in a sentence or a short paragraph.

The Bible Character Study Worksheet is an example of one way to format a Bible character worksheet as a guide to studying the books of the Bible.

5. What is the structure of the book?

Has the writer anywhere stated a plan or outline? What are the major blocks of material, and where are the turning points or shifts in subject matter? Make a brief outline of the book.

6. What impact has the reading of this book made on you?

What do you like and dislike about it? What is puzzling? What message of value has come through to you?

7. How do your results from firsthand reading compare with the conclusions of others who have studied the book?

Correct and supplement your conclusions by going to the Introduction to the Old Testament or Introduction to the New Testament.

Examine the Parts of the Book

The Chapter Anaylsis and Outline Worksheet shows one way to format a chapter study worksheet.

After you have determined the general layout of a book from your initial survey you should consider the individual parts which make up the whole.

Be selective in using the steps presented here for examining the parts. Not all parts are worthy of the same depth of scrutiny. The richer and more closely packed a book is, the more detailed the examination should be. Some books should be studied by major divisions only; others should be studied by the sections that comprise the major divisions; and still others deserve a careful analysis of paragraphs and sentences.

Books are like people. Some intrigue and some fatigue. The initial survey should indicate how much time and effort you want to spend on each. In examining a part of a book consider the following questions:

1. What type of material is contained here?

The type may vary in the different parts. It is always important to be aware of the character of the material.

2. What important variations in the wording do the footnotes offer on the basis of ancient manuscripts and versions?

How do the alternate words affect the meaning of the passage?

3. Is the part composed of smaller units?

A major division will usually break down into sections and paragraphs. The logical parts are not necessarily identical with the traditional chapter divisions. These divisions were made in the thirteenth century and frequently do not break the material at logical points.

Many contemporary English translations assist the reader by printing the text in paragraphs and by indicating the larger divisions through the use of captions (headings). Rather than relying entirely on the printed captions, you should construct your own. This will help you summarize the material and see the relationship of the parts.

Give special attention to connecting words, such as and, but, because, for, since, so, therefore, hence, however, nevertheless, finally. These words help you dissect the thought a passage at the joints. You must develop X-ray eyes so you can see the skeleton of a book. When you have discovered it, you should put it down in the form of a chart or outline.

4. What use, if any, is made of figures of speech (similes, metaphors, symbols)?

What idea is each figure attempting to convey?

5. What are the key words around which the thought of the section or paragraph revolves?

To discover the key words of a short unit of biblical material, you should strike out every word that can be eliminated without sacrificing the basic meaning, as we do when we compose a telegram. Examine the remaining important words in the light of the flow of the thought of the passage. It is often possible to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words simply by the drift of thought around them.

It is helpful also to locate through the use of a concordance other usage of important words in the biblical book under consideration. Read them in their contexts. And finally, consult a lexicon, a Bible dictionary, or a commentary on the meaning of the words in question.

6. What in the passage is still unclear?

Unfamiliar customs, institutions, events, people, and world views may still remain puzzling to you after the above steps have been taken. Here you should consult a good commentary. A reader of the Bible is only cheated by sliding over things that are not understood.

7. What was the writer’s purpose in this part or section?

To answer this question the situation of the first readers must be brought into focus again. What did the writer want to tell them and why? What would they have missed if the part under consideration had been left out?

8. What does the passage mean in your own words?

As a clinching act, write out the thought of the passage in your own words. If the passage is short, paraphrase it; if long, summarize it.

9. What is the significance of this passage for you and your contemporaries?

Review the Whole Book

The Book Study Worksheet is an example of one way to personalize your studies of the individual books of the Bible.

A literary scholar has written: “In the case of the higher literacy forms the whole is a different thing from the sum of the parts. It is quite possible to have considered every detail of a literary work and yet to be far from understanding the work as a whole”
(R.G. Moulton, The Bible at a Single View [1919], p.103).

The investigation by major divisions, sections, and paragraphs will lead you to more mature conclusions about the whole book than the initial survey produced. Therefore, a final survey is in order.

1. Investigate the special themes that run like threads through the book.

Locate every passage dealing with one theme. It is best to find these passages by rereading the book. A concordance can help if you look up the principal words used in presenting the theme. Group the passages according to what they contain and consider them together. Consult commentaries for help on difficult passages.

2. Restate the theme or message of the book and show how the major parts contribute to its presentation.

You can do this by a logical outline or a chart of the book’s content. How detailed you make it will be determined by the extent of your interest in those contents.

3. Relate the message of the entire book to the situation of its first readers.

How did it speak to their needs?

4. Summarize the meaning of the book for your own life and its possible significance for our times.

As pointed out before, the Bible evaluates us quite as much as we evaluate it. Here we must pray for understanding, that we neither fall into credulous acceptance of everything we read in the Bible nor proudly and self-righteously reject what does not meet our preconceptions. Perhaps three questions will help here.

How does my life look from the standpoint of this book–my personal beliefs, my emotions, my attitudes toward myself and toward others, my actions, my goals?
How would contemporary life be affected if the message here were universally accepted and acted on?
How does the teaching of this book check out with truth from other sources: from science, psychology, sociology, philosophy?