Tag Archives: bible study

Introducing Biblical Interpretation Part 3: Logos Mobile Ed

Introducing Biblical Interpretation Part 3: Logos Mobile Ed

Logos Mobile Ed Course: Introducing Biblical Interpretation. For a look at this resource in Logos, click anywhere on this link.
Logos Mobile Ed Course: Introducing Biblical Interpretation.

“Introducing Biblical Interpretation” is a video-based course on hermenuetics (how to study and interpret the Bible) by Logos Bible Software. In my first post I looked at the layout and overall format of the Logos Mobile Ed courses, as well as giving a brief overview of the purpose and content of this particular course (You can read that review by clicking here). My second post on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” focused on the content of the first half of this course, noting its strengths and weaknesses (You can read that review by clicking here). This post, my third and final review of this product, will focus on the content of the second half of this course.

In the last half of “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” Dr. Michael S. Heiser focuses on three important areas: literary context; linguistic context; and application.  The discussion of literary context is by far the longest section of the course, comprising 53 videos. Dr. Heiser divides his teaching on literary context into two broad categories: 1) a discussion on genre, and the various genres that can be found in Scripture; and, 2) a discussion of literary devices or techniques used by biblical authors.

The Importance of Genre in Biblical Intepretation

Because of the length of this section, it is not possible to summarize everything it contains. I will simply note a few of the literary genres and devices that Dr. Heiser talks about and what can be learned from these insights. Heiser argues that it is impossible to know what words mean without an understanding of genre. He illustrates this by the word “descent.” “Descent” has multiple meanings and only by knowing the genre can we discern what is meant by it. For example, the meaning of “descent” differs depending on whether the genre is a genealogy, a landscape plan, or a flight manual. Heiser follows his discussion of knowing the genre by introducing the controversial topic of what it means to interpret the Bible literally. This is an important topic that he returns to later in the course. I will reserve further comment on this idea because I wish to devote a future post to exploring this subject. The discussion of what is literal versus what is figurative, or even, what do we mean by a “literal interpretation” of Scripture, is a key hermeneutical issue and I am glad to see Heiser tackle it.

Knowing the genre is important!
Knowing the genre is important!

Some of the various genres explored include, Old and New Testament Narrative, genealogies, various types of psalms, genres peculiar to prophetic literature such as the lawsuit or funeral dirge, epistles, and apocalyptic. Heiser spends a lot of time examining prophecy and apocalyptic in both the Old and New Testaments and explaining the differences between the two. This is helpful because these two genres are often confused or, at least, conflated. He differentiates between predictive prophecy and preaching using the usual categories of “forthtelling” (preaching) and “foretelling” (prediction). Heiser emphasizes that about 80% of prophecy is preaching to the contemporary situation the prophet finds himself in. He also discourages placing our own meaning on symbols used by the prophets. It is important that the ancient meaning of the symbols and what it would have meant to the writer, audience, or prophet be the determining factor. Heiser also argues that prophecy can have more than a “one to one fulfillment.” This means that, although a passage might be applied to Jesus, or the new covenant, within the New Testament, it might also have a more immediate fulfillment in the prophet’s own time. He uses Amos 9:10-12 as an example, noting its Old Testament context and its use in Acts 15:12-17 where James (the speaker) and Luke (the author) put a different spin on it. He argues for “Sensus Plenior” which means that although a passage might have a certain meaning within its original Old Testament context, it can take on a “fuller meaning.” This is because God may see something that we in our finiteness may not. Other possible uses of Old Testament passages include analogical (a situation is similar to a past event), or typological (when a person, event, or thing foreshadows something in the future). Although I am in agreement with Heiser, some theological traditions would disagree with some of his conclusions (e.g., some would argue there is only one fulfillment of a prophecy). However, he does an admirable job illustrating his conclusions from Scripture.

Biblical Interpretation: Understanding the Use of Literary Devices

This section of the course includes discussions on such devices as chiasm (mirror imaging), gematria (the use of numbers to communicate a message), hyperbole, metaphor, poetic parallelism, typology, as well as others. For those who are not familiar with these ideas, this section will prove to be very informative. For example, Heiser gives two examples of chiastic structures and explains the significance of this literary device. He shows how the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) is laid out in a mirror image, and also how the Book of Matthew can be similarly viewed. The picture below illustrates the chiastic structure of the story of the Tower of Babel. Notice how the ends of the story use similar wording, all working toward the middle of the story where “the Lord comes down” which is the turning point of the story.

Chiastic structures occur frequently in Scripture and recognizing them can aid biblical interpretation.
To purchase this course click on this link.

Most of us who have read Revelation are familiar with the use of gematria in Revelation 13 where the number 666 stands for the anti-Christ. Heiser points out another possible use of gematria in John 1:32 where the Spirit descends as a dove at Jesus’ baptism. In Greek the numerical value of the word “dove” is 801 which is the total numerical value of the Greek alphabet. It is suggested that the use of “dove” here may be a way of referring to Jesus as “the Alpha and Omega” (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). Another, more controversial proposal by Heiser, is that gematria may explain some of the large numbers used in the Old Testament regarding populations and armies. While some maintain the numbers should be taken literally, others argue that geography, ancient sociology, and archaeology do not support some of the large numbers (e.g., 2-3 million Israelites leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness) used in the Old Testament. The argument does not dispute inspiration, but suggests that the numbers must have another significance other than just literal, and Heiser suggests that gematria may perhaps be one possible explanation.

The Linguistic Context and Biblical Interpretation

Understanding language, including syntax and grammar is essential to biblical interpretation.
Understanding language, including syntax and grammar is essential to biblical interpretation.

Unit 5 of “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” concerns understanding words and syntax. Heiser mentions this is where some often begin their Bible study. Using concordances or Lexicons to do word studies is important, but he maintains that a word, in and of itself, has no meaning. He argues, and rightly so in my opinion, that without knowledge of the social context (Unit 3 in this course) and the literary context (Unit 4, just discussed), it is impossible to know what a word means. Heiser states,  “If you can’t understand what a person thinks, how can you understand what they wrote?” He illustrates this by using the word “run.” By itself the word “run” has no meaning. “Context is King” as Heiser says. Is “run” a noun or verb? Actually it is both, but only context will tell you which. Furthermore, the word “run” when used as a noun has 12 different meanings, while “run” used as a verb has 50 meanings! Although this unit addresses a very important subject for Bible study, its primary value is for the Logos owner and user. I found this unit extremely helpful in teaching me things about doing word studies, or syntax studies in Logos that I never knew before. I will certainly return to the videos in this section again and again. However, if a teacher wanted to use the videos in this unit to teach a class about linguistics and they were not Logos users, then most of the instruction here would not be very helpful (but see my comments in the next paragraph below). Among the topics covered (again there are too many to mention them all) are: detecting the form of a word (in the original language); determining relationships between words; detecting the semantic range; and understanding and analyzing at the word level.

Heiser ends unit 5 with a helpful discussion on the differences between manuscripts of the Bible.

There are, however, some videos in this section that anyone would find helpful, including those without Logos. One brief segnment contains a further discussion on the use of scholarly commentaries. Here Heiser returns to a subject explored earlier in the course (the use and value of commentaries) and demonstrates how scholarly commentaries are helpful in providing word and syntax insights.  Heiser also ends this section with a very helpful discussion about differences in ancient manuscripts. For the person who struggles with why there are so many English versions, or which one is the best, or asks, why they differ, or why some English translations have footnotes that give an alternate reading or leave out a passage entirely, these 4 videos provide a helpful foundation for answering such questions.


The final unit (#6) concerns application on both a personal level, and suggestions for those who are preparing sermons or Bible studies in order to instruct others. Regarding the individual and application, Heiser suggests we should always ask what a passage teaches us about God, his character, and how he carries out his plans and goals,  what we learn about other people (does it illuminate something in our own lives?), and how the passage helps us apply the two greatest commandments of loving God and others. Heiser continues with some practical advice for preachers. Some of his suggestions include: being real with people (open not guarded), speaking to several groups of people (families, singles, old, young, etc.), and making application that is rooted in daily life (real events as opposed to mystical or unlikely situations)

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Second Half of “Introducing Biblical Interpretation”

weakling_thumb[3]I found two minor errors in the second half of this course. The first occurs when Heiser is discussing the New Testament’s use of the Old. As noted above, he argues for “Sensus Plenior” (a passage may be shown to have a “fuller” meaning in the NT). When discussing Acts 13:34-35 he notes that this is a quote from Psalm 16:10. Throughout the rest of the discussion, however, he constantly refers to this reference as Psalm 22. The screen has the correct reference and the written copy also has the correct reference, so hopefully the listener will realize that Heiser keeps accidentally mentioning the wrong Psalm. A second error occurs when Heiser is talking about ancient biblical manuscripts. As he is informing his listeners about the oldest complete copies of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), he notes that they are from the 4th century. This is correct, but he then states that they date to around 550 A.D. which is incorrect. In fact, the 4th century refers to the 300s not the 500s, and the correct date is around 350 A.D. for these manuscripts. This mistake of 200 years is also found in the written copy. These are minor issues, but they are inaccuracies worth noting in case Logos is able to correct these mistakes in the future.

There are many strengths to the second half of the course. Perhaps the greatest is the indepth treatment of various biblical genres and literary devices. In my opinion, there is a wealth of information here that acts as a great introduction for someone beginning more serious Bible study. I am also happy to report that a majority of the Logos resources recommended under “Further reading,” were also available to me. In my review of the first half of this course (review #2 in this series), I noted that I did not have access to a lot of the recommended reading material. The reverse was true for the second half of the course, so this was a welcome change. Again, the availability of the recommended reading material will depend on what version of Logos you have. Overall this is a very fine course on biblical interpretation. Heiser knows his subject well and presents it in a clear but relaxed style. I know that I will come back again and again to some of the videos in this series and I heartily recommend it to others.

To or the Logos Mobile Ed course, “Introducing Biblical Interpretation: Contexts and Resources,” click on this link.

For reviews on similar Logos Mobile Ed courses, see my colleague Lindsay Kennedy’s reviews at: mydigitalseminary.com

(Thanks to Logos who provided a copy of this course in exchange for an unbiased review)

Bible Study: Can It Be Spirit-Led and Academic?

Bible Study: Can It Be Spirit-Led and Academic?

Academics can be intimidating! Can Bible Study be Spirit-led and academic?
Academics can be intimidating! Can Bible Study be Spirit-led and academic?

Let’s face it, many Christians are intimidated by an academic approach to the Bible. In fact, some are very suspicious of an academic approach to Bible study. Doesn’t it leave out dependence on the Spirit? Aren’t academics “know-it-alls,” and full of arrogance? Don’t they reject the inspiration of the Bible? While these questions can sometimes be answered “yes,” I want to plead that it is possible, in fact, necessary for Bible study to be both Spirit-led and academic. Have you ever had a different understanding of a biblical passage than someone else? Do you always agree with family members, friends, pastors, and authors on their interpretation of a text? Does every Christian understand every biblical passage and doctrine exactly the same? The answer to all of these questions is clearly, “Of course not.” But if I am Spirit-led and disagree with a fellow-Christian that I also believe is Spirit-led, then how do I determine which interpretation is correct?

Our Presuppositions Require We Be Spirit-Led and Academic in Our Approach

Heiser argues for a Spirit-led and academic study of Scripture in his course, "Introducing Biblical Interpretation."
Heiser argues for a Spirit-led and academic study of Scripture in his course, “Introducing Biblical Interpretation.”

In his course on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” (which I am reviewing. See posts here and here), Michael S. Heiser says it this way, “Meaning is not self-evident….Getting meaning out of the Bible is far more than just sitting down, opening your Bible, and just reading it.” For example, we all bring certain presuppositions to the table when we interpret Scripture. As Heiser points out, some of these are conscious, but some are also unconscious. We naturally filter things through our own background and experience. For example, I have learned as an American living in England that certain expressions, or actions do not have the same meaning here in Britain as they do in the USA. If I do not make adjustments (recognizing my own presuppositions and substituting new ones), I will often misunderstand and be misunderstood. The same is true of bible study. No matter how sincere and reliant on the Spirit someone may be, a study of biblical culture, history, language, etc. is important, or else misunderstandings will develop. This means I must learn some ancient history, and something about ancient Near Eastern culture in order to understand the Scripture. Therefore, I must study, and studying brings me into the world of academics!

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, illustrates the importance of knowing background information (like culture).
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, illustrates the importance of knowing background information (like culture).

The authors of “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” (see my review here) illustrate the problem I am referring to very well. They put it this way: “When we miss what went without being said for them [i.e., the biblical authors] and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture” (p. 13). An excellent example of this is Jesus’ statement to the church at Laodicea, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15). This statement has always puzzled many people. Why would Jesus want anyone to be cold, which to us implies a total lack of faith? Although I have heard many sincere, Spirit-filled teachers teach on this verse, their conclusion was wrong! The authors of “Misreading Scripture” explain that Laodicea lies between Colossae and Hierapolis (in modern-day Turkey). Colossae was well-known for its cold water, while Hierapolis was known for its hot mineral water. By the time waters from Colossae or Hierapolis reached Laodicea, however, they would be lukewarm. So the words “hot” and “cold” are both positive terms in Revelation 3:15-16, and this is why Jesus can say, “I wish you were cold or hot.” The Laodiceans were all too-familiar with lukewarmness! To arrive at the correct understanding of this passage, some knowledge of ancient geography is necessary (for a full explanation see pp. 10-11 of Misunderstanding Scripture).

Being Spirit-Led and Academic in Our Bible Study is no Different Than Exercising Other Gifts

Me just a "few" years ago. Music is a gift, but it takes practice!
Me just a “few” years ago. Music is a gift, but it takes practice!

I believe it is important that we understand that the Holy Spirit often uses some of our own sweat and toil to bring clarity and understanding. Let me illustrate it this way. I am a musician. I enjoy playing guitar and have played in Christian bands, written songs and recorded a couple of cds. I believe that the musical ability I have is Spirit-given. However, it is important for me to develop the gift that the Spirit has given me. When I don’t practice, I don’t improve! I have spent many hours in my life practicing my guitar, practicing with a band, taking voice lessons, piano lessons, music theory lessons, and classes on how to write a song. I’ve read a lot of books on music as well. All of these things have helped me grow as a musician. If I did not practice and study, but simply expected the Spirit to do all the work, I would be a poor steward of the gift He has given me and a poor musician as well. Bible study is no different. If I am a good steward of God’s Word then I will put in the study time. I will wrestle with texts, and ideas, and doctrines. Although God is gracious in giving us many wonderful gifts through the Spirit, one constant I find in all of life is that to really excel at something you have to work at it! Thus, I believe that Bible Study must be Spirit-led and academic.

Do You Have to Know Hebrew and Greek to be Saved?

The case for being Spirit-led and academic
The case for being Spirit-led and academic

I remember a number of years ago when I was in Bible College, one of my teachers told the following story: One day a Bible teacher was asked by a skeptical student, “Do you have to know Hebrew and Greek to be saved? To which the teacher replied, “No, but someone does!” This little story illustrates a valuable point. Certainly every Christian does not have to learn the original languages of the Bible. In fact, it’s not realistic to think that they will. However, in order for us to have a translation of the Bible in our own language, it is important that someone know the original language! It’s possible that some who know the biblical languages can at times come off as know-it-alls, but that bad attitude is not an argument against evangelicals learning Hebrew and Greek. Think about it. If no evangelical Christians learn Hebrew and Greek, then we will be leaving the interpreting of all of the Bible translations and writing of all the scholarly commentaries in the hands of those who don’t share our commitment to Scripture.

Doesn’t an Academic Approach to Bible Study Go Against the Belief that the Bible is Simple Enough for Anyone to Understand?

Longman certainly believes in a Spirit-Led and academic approach to Bible Study.
Longman certainly believes in a Spirit-Led and academic approach to Bible Study.

In one of the textbooks I use for my Genesis class (How To Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III), I recently ran across a response to this question that I would like to share. Longman identifies this idea as coming from the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.). I am quoting him at length because his explanation is important. He writes, “The Reformers argued strongly for the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture. They rightly held that the Bible was not written in a code. Further they defended the view that the Bible could be understood on its own terms (sufficiency of Scripture). We do not need the tradition of the church fathers to understand the Bible. When rightly understood, these doctrines are fundamentally important and crucial to defend. The problem is that the priesthood of all believers as well as the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture have been wrongly understood and applied in areas they were never intended to be applied. In short, what the Reformers understood the Bible to teach was that the message of salvation in the Bible is clear and understandable to all without the need of a priestly mediator or scholarly input….However, not everything is equally plain” (How to Read Genesis, p. 20). Longman goes on to give a list of questions raised by the Book of Genesis that require study and thoughtful reflection (e.g., “Who are the Nephilim?”).

Therefore to say that the Bible requires some academic elbow grease on our part is not to say that the message of salvation is hard to understand. Many who come to Christ know very little about the Scripture, but they still find the gospel message easy enough to understand. I am simply affirming that in order for us to continue to grow in our faith and knowledge of God’s Word, we will have to apply the same discipline to studying the Bible that we do to any other endeavor in life. Regarding the Reformers I would also add that all of them could read the Scripture in its original languages. Again this is not to say we all need to be able to do this, but simply to affirm that the Reformers saw the need for deep Bible study while acknowledging the simplicity of the gospel message.

In conclusion, Bible study is not an “either/or” proposition. We either are Spirit-led or we are academically minded. These two approaches are not opposed to one another. The real problem is motivation and attitude. Do I want to impress people with my knowledge? Does my study make me think that I am better than others? If my motivation to learn is driven by these ungodly characteristics, then clearly I have a problem. But if my motivation is to know God more and to be able to teach and disciple younger believers, then that is a motivation well pleasing to God. I am convinced that the Christian who desires to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word should seek the help of the Spirit and use every available academic tool that aids the believer in deepening his or her understanding of the Bible.

Introducing Biblical Interpretation Part 2: Logos Mobile Ed

Introducing Biblical Interpretation Part 2: Logos Mobile Ed

Logos Mobile Ed Course: Introducing Biblical Interpretation. For a look at this resource in Logos, click anywhere on this link.
Logos Mobile Ed Course: Introducing Biblical Interpretation. For a look at this resource in Logos, click anywhere on this link.

If you would like expert guidance on how to study the Bible, then you should consider the Mobile Ed course by Logos entitled, “Introducing Biblical Interpretation.” In my first post on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” (which can be found here), I looked at the overall format of Logos’s Mobile Ed courses and provided an overview of what this course has to offer. In this review I will look more specifically at the first half of the course, detailing its strengths and weaknesses. Before proceeding, however, I would like to point out some exciting new developments with Logos. In my previous post, I noted how Logos Bible Study software has taken Bible study to a whole new level with Logos 5. No sooner were my comments “hot off the press” when Logos introduced its newest and latest version Logos 6! Logos 6 makes some gigantic leaps in Bible study and I can’t wait to procure a copy of it. For an introduction to Logos 6 click here (Now Logos 8!). Now on to the review!

In a brief introduction to the course, Michael S. Heiser announces that his task is threefold: 1) to alert the student to various obstacles interpreters face (hence why there are different interpretations of a biblical text); 2) to train the student to “see things in the text.” As Heiser states, “Bible study, Bible research is a lot more than Bible reading;” and 3) to act as a guide by showing how to analyze the text, as well as, introducing various resources that are available to help with Bible study.

Heiser begins unit 1 with 10 obstacles to interpretation. Here is his list:

Obstacle #1: Presuppositions
Obstacle #2: The Author
Obstacle #3: The Reader
Obstacle #4: The Medium
Obstacle #5: The Meaning
Obstacle #6: Translation
Obstacle #7: Precedent
Obstacle #8: Context
Obstacle #9: Relevance
Obstacle #10: Validation

In order to conserve space, I will not take the time to go through each of these. Some are obvious. For example, “presuppositions” (#1). This involves being aware of our own experience and background and being careful about reading things into the text. Translation (# 6) is another obvious obstacle. I will focus on a few less obvious obstacles (or at least attempt to explain how Heiser sees certain things as obstacles). By “The Author” (#2) Heiser means that since we don’t know who wrote some of the books of the Bible and since we can’t get into the ancient author’s head, finding the author’s meaning is not always a fruitful approach. While it is true that we don’t know who wrote some of the books of the Bible, some of the methods that Heiser introduces later in the course are a reliable way of getting at the meaning of the text. Heiser himself will encourage us to find the author’s meaning and not substitute our own (in unit 2 under biblical context, he makes a point about the perspective of the author and the audience). Therefore, I must admit to a little confusion here. Perhaps he means we should not get side-tracked by pursuing a portrait of the author, but focus on the text itself.

logo_logos_5Heiser is clearer on what he means by other obstacles. The Reader obstacle (#3), discusses an approach popular in some academic circles known as “reader response theory” which says the reader determines the meaning. In other words, “The text means what whatever I think it means.” Heiser rightly cautions the student against this view and offers a helpful critique. This particular obstacle is more likely to be encountered by the serious Bible student who is reading certain scholarly works (seminary students, pastors, etc.). While all can benefit from this course, an example like this points to the kind of audience that Heiser is addressing. Heiser refers to another obstacle as “Medium” (#4.) By “Medium” he means that the Bible is a written document and so we do not hear voice inflection, or experience body language when the text is being read. As a result, a written text is harder to interpret than a verbal communication where these things can be observed and heard.

The next section of the course (unit 2) is very short and acts as an introduction to what follows. Unit 2 consists of 2 parts. In part one Heiser discusses the importance of context. By context, Heiser does not simply mean the literary context of a passage, but rather, the social, cultural, and religious context in which a passage was written. It is important for us , as much as is possible, to get into the world and thinking patterns of the ancient biblical author (here again is where I find confusion with his obstacle #2 mentioned above). Heiser then goes on to introduce three contexts that the Bible student needs to be aware of. They are, the “Worldview context,” the Literary context,” and the “Linguistic context.” Each of these “contexts” are the focus of units 3, 4, and 5 respectively. We will proceed by looking at unit 3, the “Worldview context,” and save the others for our next review.

Unit 3, “Worldview Context” consists of the following subpoints:
The Historical Context
The Cultural Context
The Religious Context
Tools for Worldview Context
Primary Sources
Finding English Translations of Ancient Texts
Reference Works
Using Reference Works to Study Ancient Background Context
Academic Monographs
Monographs for Studying Ancient Background Context
Bible Commentaries
Devotional or Popular Commentaries
Expositional Commentaries
Scholarly Commentaries
Illustrating Different Types of Commentaries
Journal Articles
31. Finding Scholarly Journals in Logos
32. Software
33. Logos 5 Tools for Background Research
34. Online Resources
35. Using Online Resources for Biblical Interpretation

Logos Mobile Ed course, "Introduction to Biblical Interpretation."
Logos Mobile Ed course, “Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.”

Heiser begins unit 3 with a helpful breakdown of 3 subcategories that are important to understanding the “Worldview context”. These subcategories are: the historical context; the cultural context; and the religious context. Under the historical context Heiser discusses the importance of geography (knowing biblical places), knowing the broad historical context (history of the ancient Near East, especially Israel), and knowing the immediate context (the historical context in which the author wrote). Under the cultural context, Heiser lists 3 areas of importance: attitudes, morals, and daily living. Under religious context, Heiser (who likes to break things into 3 categories) talks about the importance of understanding cultural beliefs, supernatural and supersitious beliefs, and ritual purity.

But how does an average student gain some knowledge and competence in these areas? It can all seem a bit overwhelming. The rest of this unit is devoted to various tools and resources that are available to the student. Heiser acts as a guide (one of his purposes!) in showing the student not only the various types of sources, but the value, or lack thereof, of certain sources, and how to use them. For example, I found his discussion on the various kinds of commentaries to be a helpful guide to the lay person or beginning student. Heiser breaks commentaries down into (you guessed it) 3 kinds. Devotional or Popular (a one volume commentary with very general info),  Expositional (more specific, English based, dealing with some textual issues), and Scholarly (based on research in the original languages, with more indepth discussion of the various issues raised by a text). Another helpful discussion concerns Internet resources such as Google Books and Google Scholar, as well as online journals and the pros and cons of various wikis.

Problems With “Introducing Biblical Interpretation”

"Introducing Biblical Interpretation" is an excellent course. But everything has its problems!
“Introducing Biblical Interpretation” is an excellent course. But everything has its problems!

Before delving into a few problems that I have found with “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” I want to state that Heiser has pulled together a vast amount of helpful material and has, for the most part, presented it in a clear and logical way. This course is well worth the few shortcomings that I mention here.

“Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” like other Mobile Ed courses from Logos, contains recommendations for reading material. After each section, there is a link to various sources in Logos for further reading. Some of the material in the quiz sections (including Midterm and Final exams) are based on these readings. This is what you’d expect in any course. However, if you are taking a University course, you have access to all the books in the University library. The problem with Logos Mobile Ed courses is that, unless you have one of the top of the line packages in Logos, there are a number of resources that you won’t have access to. While it would be great to have the best Logos package available, sometimes that’s just not possible. My particular package is the Logos 5 Gold package, plus I have supplemented this with other resources over the years. In spite of that, I frequently found that I only had access to a small portion of the recommended reading material–usually 1 of 2 or 1 of 3 sources. This, of course, creates quite a handicap for passing the quizzes and exams. It is also very frustrating when you would like to do the recommended reading. What is the solution? Obviously being able to purchase the sources would be ideal, but what if you can’t? I’m wondering if there is a way that Logos could create access to a certain portion of the resource for the person who has purchased the Mobile Ed course? For example: there is an article in a Bible dictionary that is recommended reading. I don’t have the dictionary, or the money to purchase it. Could Logos give me access to that particular article without granting access to the entire dictionary? Is there a way to build that into the Mobile Ed course? I’m not a computer programmer and what I’m suggesting may be a technological nightmare, but I’m wondering if there isn’t some sort of compromise that would help the eager student. The upside for Logos is, if the student gets a lot out of a particular resource, it might provide the motivation to purchase that item.

I’ve discovered two other minor problems with “Introducing Biblical Interpretation.” The reason I call them minor is that they appear to be “one off” type problems.  The first example involves using a tool that provides the wrong definition for what the teacher (Heiser) is discussing. Following Objection #6 Translation, at the end of the discussion, there is a link under “Guides and Tools” to “Translation.” Clicking on the link, you expect to read a definition or article that deals with the translation of biblical languages. Instead, what you find is a definition that relates to one being taken to heaven (ala Enoch, Elijah, or the rapture!), or being translated into the kingdom (Col. 1:13), but nothing about Bible translation! Another minor quibble is making sure all reading materials assigned are relevant. Objection #10 in unit 1 discusses “Validation.” Heiser notes that none of us are perfect and, therefore, even if we are equipped with the right tools and approach, we need to continue to recognize our limitations. I couldn’t agree more. However, one of the assigned readings for this segment is a Bible Dictionary article on “humility.” While it is true we need a large dose of humility when interpreting the Scripture, it doesn’t seem that reading a definition from a Bible Dictionary is particularly helpful (maybe that’s just me though). If the reading assignment doesn’t further the student’s knowledge, then it’s superfluous. If humility needs to be emphasized further, then a teacher’s exhortation is more motivating than a dictionary article.

Again, the problems encountered in “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” are minimal compared to the many gains that one will receive from the course. I look forward to getting into the second half of the course and sharing what I find in a future post.

To order “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” from Logos click here.

(Many thanks to Logos Bible Software for providing the review copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)

Bible Background Knowlege: Why is it Important, How does it Help?

Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?

nt background
Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

I am  currently in the process of reading two large commentaries on Bible backgrounds. Both are from IVP, the first is entitled Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, and the second, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. As some of you are aware, I have already posted an initial review of the Old Testament Bible background commentary (click here to read the review). Why spend so much time learning about Bible backgrounds? Why not just jump right in and study the Bible itself? Well, I do believe we all should “jump in” and study the Bible, however, when it comes to understanding the Bible, knowing things about the history of Israel and the ancient Near East, the cultural settings of the biblical world, yes, and even the languages, can make a huge difference in understanding a passage properly.

As I noted in a previous post (Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes), reading the Bible is like taking a trip to another country. At first we might not even think about the differences; we’re just excited to be making the journey! However, once we arrive, we inevitably experience culture shock. Not only is the language different, but what is considered polite, humorous, or acceptable behaviour is often quite different. Living conditions, how governments work, how (or if) children are educated varies from place to place. Even when countries speak the same language, the meanings of words, as well as what is considered socially acceptable, can be quite different, as I have learned as an American living in England these past 11 years. Cultural knowledge is indeed important. As a result, when it comes to the Bible, I have become a bit of a Bible backgrounds junky. This is why I am constantly reading and reviewing books that deal with Bible background material (like my review of The World of the New Testament), or posting articles that deal with some aspect of ancient culture which can enlighten our reading of Scripture (see, for example, my articles on Grace in 3D, Envy and the Cross, or Cross Examination). It also explains my fascination with archaeology and why I love reading about the excavations of ancient biblical cities, or the discovery of interesting artefacts (see the articles under Biblical sites).

Any number of passages confuse Bible readers who are unfamiliar with the “world of the Bible.” Even the simplest of things such as the mention of weights, measures, or money can be frustrating. What’s a cubit, or a seah, or a denarius, and how do they compare to modern standards of weight, measure, or currency? What makes Sarah think it is OK to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a wife? What is Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 all about? Not only are there things we don’t understand, but there are also presuppositions we carry with us from the 21st century when reading the text. For example, we may forget that ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, not an industrial culture. Or, when we read Paul’s letters we may assume that he is writing to Christians who worship in large public buildings like we do today, as opposed to smaller house-churches, or even smaller apartment buildings. This may seem like a small matter, but understanding that Paul is addressing many small house-churches in Romans, and not some big metropolitan church that meets in a large public facility, helps us to better understand some of the problems he confronts in this letter. Being aware of cultural values that were important in the ancient world such as honor and shame, can deepen our understanding of a number of passages throughout Scripture, including Jesus’ clash with the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Gospels.

In a future article I will seek to demonstrate some of the benefits of applying background knowledge to our understanding of the Bible (meanwhile, if you’re unfamiliar with some of the posts I’ve mentioned above please feel free to read them. Just click on the links provided). I will also share some of the insights that can be gained from the Bible background commentaries mentioned above as I continue my review of them.


Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives

Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives

gapNo matter what the story is, or who the storyteller is, it is impossible to give every detail of an event.  This means that there are inevitably “gaps” in every story. It’s great when the person relating the story is there with you because you can always ask questions that help to fill in the gaps. But if the story is written down and it is not possible to contact the author, gaps become more challenging. This is especially true of biblical stories which were written centuries ago in another language with a different cultural setting than ours. Some of the gaps we find in biblical narrative are a result of the distance between ancient times and the 21st century. As Robert Chisholm states, “Many of the gaps we perceive in a story would not have been present for an ancient Israelite audience, for ancient readers would have intuitively understood nuances of their language and aspects of their culture better than we do” (Interpreting the Historical Books, p. 69). However, sometimes the author deliberately left a gap in a story, and it is these intentional gaps that I am focusing on in this article.

Intentional Gaps in Biblical Narrative

Probably the Bible's most famous gap concerns Cain's wife.
Probably the Bible’s most famous gap concerns Cain’s wife.

There can be a number of reasons for intentional gaps in a story. First it is important to remember that writing in the ancient world was an expensive process and writing materials were not as readily available as they are today. Furthermore, space was limited. Books were not in use and only so much material would fit on a scroll. All of this means that a biblical author had to be selective about what to include and what to omit. One reason then for a gap in the story is that the detail was not considered important enough to include. Sometimes a gap occurs because the writer has left enough evidence in the text for us to figure out the obvious answer. This is probably the reason for one of the most famous gaps in the Old Testament. It seems that everyone who reads Genesis 4:17 asks the obvious question, “Where did Cain get his wife?” The author asserts that Adam and Eve are the first human beings and that all humanity is descended from them (e.g., Gen. 3:20; 5:1ff.). If the author’s story is taken at face value, then Cain’s wife must be a relative (either a sister or niece, etc.). It would be a waste of precious space for the author to explain this “obvious” detail.

There is a large gap in the story of Samuel
There is a large gap in the story of Samuel

Another reason for gaps may involve the literary artistry of the biblical author. Gaps in the narrative may lead to surprises later in the story. For example, 2 Samuel 21:5-8 reveals that there are other living descendants of Saul besides Mephibosheth and his son (see 2 Sam. 9). Gaps naturally create curiosity and, at times, the author may use gaps to encourage the reader to investigate the text more carefully. The disappearance of Samuel from 1 Samuel 4-6 is an example. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel is a young man who receives the word of the Lord. However, when Israel is defeated by the Philistines and the ark of God is captured (1 Sam. 4), Samuel appears nowhere in the story! When Samuel finally reappears in 1 Samuel 7, he is a much older man. Why are so many years of Samuel’s life blanked by the author? We may presume that some of the material was irrelevant, as we have already discussed, but any reader must wonder how such an important figure can disappear from the story at one of the most critical moments, with no explanation of his whereabouts! The writer seems to be using this gap in the story of Samuel’s life to make an important point. Chapter 3 ends by telling us that the Lord let none of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” and that all Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord (2 Sam. 3:19-20). In fact, the statement made immediately before the battle with the Philistines is “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel” (2 Sam. 4:1). If Samuel was indeed God’s prophet, and his word never failed, then his absence in chapter 4 further emphasizes Israel’s apostasy. When the Israelites met the Philistines in battle they did not consult God’s word through Samuel. All we learn is that after an initial defeat, they put their trust in a religious relic–the ark (1 Sam. 4:2-5), rather than in God Himself. By removing Samuel from the narrative, the author subtly comments on Israel’s faithlessness without directly commenting on it! This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that when Samuel reappears in the narrative (1 Sam. 7:3), he is calling on the people to “return to the Lord” and to “put away” their foreign gods. In other words, it appears that when the crisis of 2 Samuel 4 happened, rather than turn to the Lord and Samuel, Israel turned to false gods! This technique of gapping used by the author causes the thoughtful reader to question Samuel’s absence and to read 2 Samuel 7 in light of the comments in 2 Samuel 3:19-21 and 2 Samuel 4:1.

The Danger of Interpreting Gaps in Biblical Narrative

The danger of gaps!
Gaps can be dangerous!

Because gaps naturally create curiosity, it is always tempting to provide an explanation for them. Before attempting to explain a gap we should ask several important questions. First, is the gap due to our lack of historical or cultural knowledge? If so, it is not an intentional gap created by the biblical author and we should be cautious about offering explanations for something we don’t have enough information on.

Second, is the gap important to the story, or is it there because the details would be superfluous to the story? In other words, does the gap exist because the author has no interest in pursuing that particular aspect or detail? If this is the case, then we must consider that it may be a waste of our time to pursue something that the biblical author did not care to illuminate. Some bible studies fall into the habit of attempting to answer questions that the Bible itself is not concerned about, and that ultimately we can never know the answer to. This is a great waste of time and energy because we can miss what the author is really wanting to communicate and chase rabbit trails that, in the long run, are meaningless.

Third, if we discern that the author has intentionally left a gap so that we will dig deeper into the text, we must still be careful to ask the right questions. Using the example above about Samuel is a case in point. While we can observe that there is a gap in Samuel’s life story, the questions we ask about this observation are important. If we ask, “Where was Samuel all those years?” and then seek to answer that question by making guesses about his whereabouts (maybe he went to prophet school, etc.), we miss the point. The important question is not, “Where was Samuel?”, a question we can never answer, but “Why does the author choose to omit Samuel from the story?” When we ask the correct question about a gap, we then have the opportunity to go deeper into the text.

Speculation vs. interpretation of facts
Speculation vs. interpretation of facts

How do we know if we are asking the right questions? The real test as to whether the question is helpful or not is to ask where it leads. Does the question lead us back to the text to search for clues that will provide an answer, or does the question cause us to speculate about what “might have happened” without anyway of proving it one way or the other? If we are seeking to understand the Bible, then questions that lead us to investigate the text and find answers in the text, are good questions. Conversely, questions that lead us away from the text and prompt us to come up with imaginary solutions (even if the solutions are reasonable), are not good “Bible study” questions. The difference can be summed up in two words: interpretation vs. speculation. Interpretation involves filling in gaps by looking at clues in the text. Speculation involves our imagination about what might have happened. To give an example of speculation that leads to bad biblical interpretation, I once read a Genesis commentary that blamed Sarah for Abram’s trip to Egypt (Gen. 12:10)! The text gives absolutely no indication that Sarah prompted Abram to move to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. Now we might speculate that Sarah did so, but that is just our imagination at work. Whether Sarah did or didn’t can never be known. All we know is what the text says and it only focuses on Abram. It seems to me that a great injustice is done to Sarah by blaming her for what the text infers was Abram’s mistake! This same kind of mistake happens frequently in bible-study groups and Sunday school classes. We often drift from the text and end up discussing endless possibilities of what “might have happened.”

Rocky Balboa was Right!

"She's got gaps, I've got gaps, together we fill gaps."
“She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.”

One of Rocky’s famous lines is, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.” Gaps are indeed a fact of life, especially when it comes to telling a story! My hope is that this article helps us to appreciate the gaps that exist in biblical narrative and provides a constructive approach to them. There are different kinds of gaps–some intentional, some unintentional. Together we can “fill gaps” but it is important to ask the right kinds of questions if we desire a deeper understanding of biblical stories.

(For further information on gaps, see my book Family Portraits. For an example of gap-filling that attempts to follow biblical clues, see my treatment of Abiathar in chapter 8 pp. 92-94.)