Some years ago I had the chance to complete a degree in biblical studies, an opportunity for which I was very grateful, not least because I was at a stage in life in which one doesn’t expect to have the chance to go back to school. Recently I put together ten lessons that I learned from that degree, which I share here.

  1. New and interesting readings come from reading the Bible seriously as literature, rather than from mastering the mechanics of grammar, lexicography, and so forth. As important as the latter are, most of the artistry of the Old and New Testaments is not dependent on linguistic detail. Take a passage like John 6. We see Jesus feeding the people in the desert, bringing His followers across the sea, and facing grumbling. The echoes of the Exodus story are unmistakable, even though there are few if any verbal parallels, and nothing that requires much grammatical explanation.

  2. Not everything has to be biblical. Is that a surprising lesson to have learned in a biblical studies degree? Actually, biblical studies makes you much more painfully aware of misinterpretations of Scripture. Richard Schultz explains how our desire to make everything ‘biblical’ is destructive in this way.

    [Christians’] use of individual biblical texts often seems to stem more from an unconscious compulsion to ground their views in Scripture than from any theological necessity. As Christians, we do not need to demonstrate that our practices, programs, and preferences are biblical in order for them to be valid and useful, as long as they are not clearly unbiblical. It is better to allow them to remain abiblical (that is, not addressed by Scripture) than to heavy-handedly force some text to somehow support them. We must be content to acknowledge that the Bible as an ancient book is simply not interested in many of the issues that are the hot topics in society and the church today. When we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, we are merely acknowledging that Scripture is a sufficient basis for Christian faith and practice, not that we can expect to find an apt verse for every occasion or foible.

    Schultz, Richard L. 2012. Out of Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. pp. 137-138.

  3. Biblical theology is different from systematic theology. When I was growing up, theology was always an abstract philosophical subject, where we ask the fanciest or most relevant questions we can think of and then trust to the Bible and reason to answer the question. That is a caricature, but not an entirely unwarranted one, of systematic theology. Biblical theology, on the other hand, is exposition of Scripture’s own theology. For instance, in point 1 above, we can see that John was taking the Exodus story as a sort of historical paradigm for understanding the work of Christ. Paul and the author of Hebrews do this explicitly as well (say, in 1 Corinthians 10, or Hebrew 3). Taking note of that sort of theological exposition is the work of biblical theology. (tldrː if a lot of the words in a book end in -ology or -ation, that’s probably systematic theology.)

  4. Always read at least two translations. This is the most practical item on the list. Any translation is going to involve interpretationː the Greek or the Hebrew could be taken two different ways, and you can’t represent that ambiguity in English. With one translation, those decisions are hidden from you. If you read two translations, you’re going to see the options. Some sub-pointsː 1) It’s not deciding which translation is betterː any major English translation is going to have been checked carefully by scholars who are smarter than you and I. All of their decisions can be justified. 2) You can judge how ambiguous a particular verse is by noticing how divergent the various translations are from one another.

  5. Reflections on the nuances of particular words are probably not exegetically valid. I listen to sermons too and I’ve heard a lot of preachers insist that this particular Greek word makes just the point the speaker is trying to make in his/her sermon. Most of those claims are not going to pass exegetical muster. You’d really have to do an incredibly careful study to back something like that up. (One of my favorite professors boasted that during ten years he’d served as a pastor, he never once used a Greek word in a sermon.)

  6. Learning the languages is an entry to a higher level discussion; it doesn’t guarantee you special insights. People should learn those languages so that they can speak more modestly, not more boldly. Beware of people who use the Greek and Hebrew to show off or to intimidate newcomers. If I start throwing around fancy words like κυνάριον and כֶּלֶב then you might think I’ve got good reasons for whatever point I’m trying to make, right? Well, not necessarily.

  7. The main thing is to find out what questions the Bible is answering, rather than trying to find something in the Bible that’s relevant to the questions you’re asking. This goes along with points 2 and 3 above. Some of the most interesting developments in biblical studies recently have come when people stop asking, “How does the Bible answer this question?” and instead ask, “What is this author trying to say?” For instance, the first eight chapters of Romans are often read as a manual of personal salvation (the “Romans Road”)—something that was very important to Augustine, and Martin Luther after him. What if instead, it’s Paul grappling with and teaching about how the coming of the Messiah—which did not overthrow the Romans, and which ended up being more popular with Gentiles than with Jews—can be reconciled with what came before the Messiahː the Law, and the vocation of the nation of Israel.

  8. The NIV is a more academically serious translation than I had previously assumed. It’s not necessarily marketed that way, but they actually have a large committee of reputable scholars working on revising it. People send in recommendations, they’re evaluated, and they update the translation if the scholarship warrants it. I’m not aware of other translations that are revised with that level of care.

  9. God is not limited by our ignorance. I love to tell the story of a testimony I heard from a woman who had clearly experienced profound healing. The testimony centered on a Bible verse that she had simply misunderstood—not in any subtle, technical way: just a straight-up misunderstanding of the English words. And yet the profunity of her healing made it clear that her experience was real. God is at work whether our minds are keeping pace with him or not. “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

  10. A professor related to us a remark that his advisor made when he got his PhD: “It’ll take you 25 years to get a grip on the primary literature.” (In the context, the primary literature referred to the Bible, and perhaps a few texts from the same time period.) The Bible is a long and complicated book, or a library really. I reserve the right to change the balance in the future, but my experience of the last five years is that it’s more than enough to try to read the Bible well, let alone keep up with the flood of books about the Bible that are published every year.