Sep 21, 2010

Getting Started Studying the Bible

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

Q. I wish to begin a more in depth study in the Bible, but to tell you the truth I don't really know where to begin or end. Can you provide some guidance?

A. As for how to get started studying in a more serious way, here are some things I'd suggest:

  1. If you don't have a reliable translation for your main Bible, then I'd highly recommend using a word-for-word translation such as the NKJV or NASB (my two favorite, in that order). If you prefer the original KJV that's fine too - but many younger people do not. Some prefer the NIV (which I started out with too), but I don’t recommend staying with it for long-term use because there are places where the translators remove ambiguity in favor of one particular interpretation and the reader doesn't know what the underlying text said more precisely. I would not use translations or paraphrases which are supposedly rendering the text “thought for thought” rather than “word for word,” such as the popular NLT or especially The Message. It is easier to grow in a detailed understanding of the Scriptures when one stays as close as possible to the original words of the underlying Hebrew or Greek text.

  2. Purchase an “exhaustive” or “complete” concordance for the translation of the Bible you prefer. A concordance lists the addresses in the Bible where various words occur - usually within a phrase which gives you some idea of the context where the word appears. An exhaustive concordance does this for every word in the Bible - including words that you most likely will not be looking up and which occur many, many times (e.g., this, that, a, if, to). A complete concordance provides exhaustive coverage for the words which it lists, but omits the many additional pages which result from the less important connecting words like those just listed. Hence, a complete concordance provides almost all the utility of an exhaustive concordance, but at a much smaller page count (typically allowing a larger font size for increased readability).

  3. Use a study bible with good cross-references with which you can find and read related passages. This is an immensely important aspect which can hardly be over-emphasized: the Scriptures are their own best interpreter and commentary! In addition to a reference or study Bible, several other cross-reference study aids provide extensive help on this. The best is The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge by Jerome H. Smith. This is a greatly expanded (and corrected) version of the classic Treasury of Scripture Knowledge which is more widely available and also excellent if the newer version cannot be had. (The older version is now in the public domain and available as part of many Bible study programs - see below.)

  4. Consider undertaking the course on our website on Bible Interpretation1. Steve Lewis is an excellent teacher and covers some foundational things that are important to establish when approaching the Biblical text.

  5. Purchase a reliable introductory commentary. Although no commentary can be relied upon in its entirety, they can be a very great help for those who are new to the Bible - especially in some of the more puzzling passages. A good commentary will also give additional insight on important historical context. My favorite introductory commentary is the Bible Knowledge Commentary edited by the late John Walvoord and Roy Zuck. There are two volumes: one on the Old Testament and the other on the New Testament. I consider this to be the best introductory-level commentary on the Scriptures. It isn't exhaustive, but goes into enough detail where it is needed, and is trustworthy.

  6. A good bible dictionary is also useful. Some of my favorites include: New Unger's Bible Dictionary, The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia known as the ISBE. The older version of the ISBE is in the public domain and available in many Bible study programs or on our website2.

  7. A couple of basic theology texts which are very helpful when getting started and that are reliable and user-friendly include: the Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns and Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie.

  8. For a systematic introduction to important themes across the Bible, consider Major Bible Themes by Lewis Sperry Chafer (revised by John Walvoord).

  9. A computer-based Bible study tool can be helpful if you like to study on a computer. We list several3 on our website. Some of them are free and include many study aids which are now in the public domain. Certain types of study are particularly suited to computers, such as following cross-references to related passages (which pop-up when the mouse is placed over the cross-reference) or performing more complex concordance searches which involve phrases or combinations of words. As useful as the computer tools can be, they are no substitute for time spent meditating on the Scriptures themselves. Also, some people just prefer a good old-fashioned printed book. On the other hand, it is hard to beat the portability of taking along a netbook with hundreds of study aids on its hard drive - and it certainly saves time when searching, not to mention room on book shelves!
Some Christians complain about spending money on Bible study aids. I hope you aren't one of them. I see Christians routinely spend surplus money on electronic gadgets, movies, lattes and on DVDs and music, only to complain they can't shell out $60 bucks for a top-notch commentary that will serve them well all their lives!

Perhaps this may seem like a pretty big list. But you can focus on obtaining these books over time. Often they can be found in used book stores, or as used copies at online booksellers, for considerably less money. All of these are solid and will serve you well all your life.

As you can see, there is plenty of information to help you on your way to having a solid grasp of the Bible. The resources are all there, but the harder part is making a commitment on your part to consistently spend the time necessary to make good use of resources and to grow in understanding. There are a lot of distractions that vie for our attention - which Jesus referred to as the “cares of the world” which choke out God's seed (Mtt. 13:7,22). All of the helps in the world will do little good without a willingness and desire to spend time in the Scriptures on a regular basis beyond mere devotional reading. This is the biggest issue for Christians in our time: weaning ourselves away from T.V. and other distractions to spend time seeking Him through His Word.

1. Bible Interpretation (Steve Lewis)
2. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
3. Recommended Bible Study Software