Dr. Mike Heiser has a very interesting Bible study website. The one I visited a few times is titled “The Naked Bible,” if I recall correctly. Dr. Heiser is a scholar who is far above my level of expertise, yet in the past I have dared to differ with him on, for example, the significance and interpretation and application of Revelation 1:19 as a key to understanding the intended structure of the content of the Book of Revelation. In response to my comments about that verse Dr. Heiser kindly directed me to a newer commentary by Beale on the Book of Revelation. After reading the relevant portion of Beale’s commentary, I concluded that Beale was appealing to an alleged feature of the text that would not have been noticed at the time by the original recipients, so I consider Beale’s argument invalid.
In a discussion on a new Christian discussion site, www.Christiandiscourse.com, Dr. Heiser shared his “personal laws for Bible study.” Here is the substance of the six laws he presented with my additional and concurring commentary:
Bible reading is not Bible study. I have learned, kicking and screaming mind you, that this is where most people are at. Everyone can do serious Bible study and they should.
I agree fully with his introductory remark. If I understand him correctly, he rightly says most people are fine with Bible reading, but need to advance to the level of Bible study.
1. There is no substitute for close attention to the biblical text
You should be observing the biblical text in the original languages. If you cannot, never trust one translation in a passage. Use several and then learn skills for understanding why they disagree. These skills would be things like learning grammatical terms and concepts, along with translation philosophy and the basics of textual criticism.
If you read very far on my website here, you will see that I do make some reference to the original language of the Bible, I cite more than one translation when that helps clarify the meaning, and I have surely discussed grammatical terms and concepts.
I have not dealt extensively with translation philosophy. This involves the issue of whether you should seek to follow a very literal translation such as Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, which strives to translate word-for-word from Hebrew or Greek into English, striving to translate the same original language word consistently by the same English word everywhere it occurs, or should you make use of a “dynamic” translation, which strives to convey the ideas behind the words and larger units like phrases, clauses, and sentences into equivalent ideas in modern English, as to some extent the NIV or the New Living Translation attempt to do. Both kinds of translation are helpful. A literal translation permits more careful study of the figures of speech in the Bible. A dynamic translation makes it easier to follow the ideas (as understood by the translator or translators) in the text. It is best to make use of a number of different translations at the same time when digging deeper into a specific text of Scripture. With modern software, it is easy to do this.
I have not dealt much with textual criticism, but I have been studying the subject since the mid 1950s, probably for longer than Dr. Heiser has studied the subject, though by no means do I claim to know more than he does. A scholar friend of mine from Chicago, Mr. G. E. Hoyer, procured many scholarly volumes on this subject for me.
2. Patterns in the text are more important than word studies
You need to learn to trace threads and ideas through the Bible and observe how the New Testament re-purposes and interprets the Old Testament. If you aren’t paying attention to these things, you’re missing more than you think you’re seeing.
I certainly agree fully with Dr. Heiser on this rule! For the ordinary Bible reader, the most direct way to follow Dr. Heiser’s advice in this “rule” is to use cross reference Bible study. I wrote an article here on this site asking the question, “Is it really possible to study the Bible without using cross references?” The answer is yes, you can, but you will miss much if not most of what there is to gain from careful Bible study.
With more specific regard to patterns in the text, the Companion Bible is a very helpful resource understandable by ordinary readers of the English Bible.
Word studies are important, but doing word studies can lead the Bible student to not take careful account of the word in context. Context shapes meaning. Supposing that the “meaning” of a word as given in a lexicon always holds for every context where the word occurs is a very mistaken idea engaged in by many rather well-known Christian Bible scholars. I have noted this issue here and there in my first book, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (see my note at John 5:39 and my note at Revelation 3:10, for example). There is also the very significant issue of falling into the trap of succumbing to the logical error sometimes called the “word study fallacy.” I make reference to that fallacy at the end of my note on 1 Timothy 4:1.
3. The Bible must be interpreted in context, and that context isn’t your own, or that of your theological tradition
The context of the Bible is the context that produced it—ancient Near East/Mediterranean.
In other words, if you’re letting your theological tradition filter the Bible to you, you aren’t doing Bible study or exegesis, and you aren’t interpreting the Bible in context.
Dr. Heiser is most correct. This third “rule” is the principle behind my emphasis on this site that you start out your reading and study of the Bible by using a plain text Bible. You want to learn as much as you can directly from the Bible itself, not the ideas of any commentator on the Scripture. Study Bibles are of great help, but the notes they contain are not divinely inspired. Only the text of the Bible itself is divinely inspired. Beware indeed of falling into the trap of reading the Bible in terms of your theological tradition. Some of the most popular and highly respected Bible teachers of our day at times fall into this trap. If what you believe can have the suffix “ism” added to it, beware! Calvinism, for example, is most certainly mistaken in some of its assertions, compared to what the text of Scripture itself declares.
4. The Bible is a divine human book; treat it as such
Put another way, God chose people to write the biblical text, and people write using grammar, in styles understood by their peers, and with deliberate intent—and so the Bible did not just drop from heaven. Study it as though some person actually wrote it, not like it is the result of a paranormal event.
The Bible must be understood grammatically before it can be interpreted doctrinally. Those who ignore the grammar most certainly will be in error on many points of their interpretations and understandings of what the Bible teaches. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this matter.
Certainly the Bible is divinely inspired. It is verbally inspired. It is inspired of God down to the last “jot and tittle.” Men who wrote the Bible were directed by the Holy Spirit as to exactly what to write (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16). Yet the Holy Spirit fully employed the ability and style of each individual writer. The writing of John is very different from the style of Paul in the original language text.
5. If it’s weird, it’s important (i.e. it’s there for a reason; it is not random)
Put another way: Systematic theology isn’t helpful (and can be misleading) if its conclusions are not derived from exegesis of the original text. Biblical theology is done from the ground up, not the top down.
Systematic theology can be very instructive, but the study of Biblical theology is far better. I have called the “top down” method of expounding Bible truth the deductive system of interpretation, a method that should be avoided. To get at the truth of the Bible it must be studied inductively. This is done by gathering all the material that is given in the Bible on the subject, theme, or issue you wish to study or are concerned about, and considering the whole, and all its parts carefully in the contexts where the parts are found, before coming to a sound conclusion about what the Bible teaches.
The Bible does not present all its teaching on a given subject in one place, like one chapter, or several chapters, or even a whole book. The material must be carefully searched for, and discovered by finding all the places that relate to the subject being studied.
You cannot merely use a Bible concordance to find all the material that pertains to the issue of concern. That is because the same subject elsewhere in the Bible may be mentioned using entirely different terms.
This is why you must make use of cross reference Bible study, using as complete a resource providing cross references as you can find. It is helpful to use more than one resource which contains good cross references. In reference Bibles, one of the best and most complete source of cross references is the American Standard Bible published years ago by Nelson, identified on its cover as Teachers’ Edition. The NIV Study Bible has a good collection of center column references also. The original Treasury of Scripture Knowledge and my expansions and corrections of it, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge and Nelson’s Cross Reference Guide to the Bible are probably the most complete resources available for cross reference Bible study. Both The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge and The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge are available in Bible software. The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is also available on line on the Internet. A site I like is the edition featured at a site with a name something like the blue-letter Bible. My new much expanded edition of my first book, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, is available right here on this Real Bible Study site in many samples I have posted for the daily Bible Nuggets and other Bible topics I have addressed.
6. If, after you’ve done the grunt work of context-driven exegesis, what the biblical text says disturbs you, let it
Dr. Heiser is surely correct about this. I have expressed the idea as learning something new in your careful study of the Bible. Sometimes when you learn something new, that new knowledge requires that you make some changes in what you understood or believed before. If this is not happening as a result of your Bible study, you probably are not really studying the Bible, or you’ve got your mind made up already and think you will never change. In either case, you are wrong, and need to develop a taste for what I call Real Bible Study.