"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." –Acts 17:11 (NIV)
Were the Bereans of Acts 17 one of the earliest examples of an in-depth Christian Bible study group? Probably not in the sense of what we consider in-depth Bible study today, but they did indeed dig into God's Word deeply, examining it and making sure that what they read corresponded to the message Paul shared with them. Today, of course, we have a lot more in the way of resources to help us study the Bible in great depth. Not only do we have access to sophisticated Bible software, we also have the Internet and its many resources, not to mention almost 2,000 years of Christian history and wisdom we can incorporate into our studies.
While personal, devotionally-oriented Bible study is very important, as is family Bible study, in-depth Bible study by definition digs deeper into God's Word in order to gain a better understanding of the truths contained in it. This article will offer some tips for in-depth Bible study and also look at some of the tools available to the Bible student eager to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible.
How and Why?
It will be helpful here to reiterate what we shared in an earlier article in this series about why we should study the Bible. Some of the reasons include cultural literacy, to learn what it says firsthand, personal edification, to help others, to gain a better understanding of Jesus and His mission, because the Bible is God's Word to us, to know God better and to help us avoid theological error. All of these are excellent reasons to pursue in-depth Bible study that will help us grow spiritually.
Another key point to keep in mind has to do with interpretation or, in more formal terms, biblical hermeneutics. This is the foundation to any Bible study, but is particularly relevant when it comes to in-depth Bible study. Second Timothy 2:15 instructs us to correctly handle the Word of truth. Doing so requires us to interpret it as best we can, not reading into the text what is not there (eisogesis), but instead drawing out from it what it really means (exegesis). We also need to keep context in mind at all times, not just the immediate and broader context of the passage or book we may be studying, but the context in light of what the Bible teaches throughout its pages on a particular topic, as well as the cultural context, the intended meaning of the author and other matter such as the genre or type of biblical literature we are reading.
Since in-depth Bible study generally involves research into the authorship and dating of biblical manuscripts, as well as interaction with criticism of the biblical record, it's helpful to have or seek to pursue greater knowledge of the Bible so that we can study it better.See, for instance, Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul (InterVarsity Press) and A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler and William Nix.
Translations and Study Bibles
Unless your in-depth Bible study equips you to read the original biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), you most likely will be studying a translation. There are a variety of English translations available, some better than others and some taking a different approach than others. Focus on the Family maintains a list of recommended translations.
Broadly speaking, there are two usual approaches to Bible translation. The New International Version, for instance, takes a dynamic equivalency approach, while the New American Standard Bible follows more of a formal equivalency approach. This means that the NIV is often more readable and flowing in English, while the NASB is more of a literal, word-for-word approach (though given the limitations of English even translations that take the formal equivalency approach cannot literally offer a word-for-word translation because the resulting translation wouldn't make a whole lot of sense in English). Keep in mind that using multiple Bible translations will sometimes help you understand passages better, but other resources such as Bible commentaries, addressed below, will help you even more.
If you have a good study Bible, often these resources are indispensable when it comes to addressing most common questions readers will have. While a study Bible is not essential to in-depth Bible study, it will help immensely by providing what is essentially a mini-commentary on various passages you encounter. Two helpful study Bibles include the NIV Study Bible and, more recently, the ESV Study Bible (the English Standard Version is more along the lines of a formal equivalency translation such as the NASB). These types of study Bibles are in a sense annotated Bibles, full of notes by various scholars.
Commentaries are also quite useful to in-depth Bible study. While commentaries used to be largely available to academic biblical scholars, they are now fairly common in Bible study software. Also, if you happen to live near a Christian seminary, you might look into accessing their library for more in-depth research, as they tend to have numerous commentaries available. A commentary is fairly simple to use. If you have a question about a particular Bible passage, you consult the relevant Bible commentary and look up the passage and what the commentator has said about it. Sometimes you will find a great answer to a puzzling question you've had, while other times you will find a blank space in the commentary. If you don't find what you are looking for, you can consult other commentaries or resources.
One helpful Bible commentary is known as The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Zondervan). A couple of helpful mini-commentaries addressing Bible difficulties and seeming contradictions include Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer and When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe.
If you are involved in a word study, a Bible dictionary and concordance are quite helpful. A printed concordance will help you easily look up key words and passages where they appear. A Bible dictionary will help you understand specific terms and how they are used in certain passages.
Bible Study Software
With the advent of Bible study software, in-depth Bible study is even more accessible to the layperson or budding scholar. Keep in mind that even if you do not have Bible software, you can utilize free online resources such as Bible Gateway (http://www.biblegateway.com/) to search and read a number of Bible translations.
There are far too many Bible study software packages available for us to go into any detail about them here. Logos Bible Software (http://www.logos.com) is quite popular on Windows-based operating systems, while one option for Macintosh systems is Accordance Bible Software (http://www.accordancebible.com). You may wish to consult with your pastor to find out what software they recommend.
Also, be aware of some of the dangers of Bible study software. While properly used Bible study software is a great tool for in-depth Bible study, it's easy to get lost in the many features and options the software offers.