How to Study the Bible

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

This lesson will explain how to study the Bible, particularly as a literary work. We will begin by discussing what literary criticism is, then use the method to study a sample text.

Introduction to the Bible

The Bible is an incredibly important text for religious traditions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and is often discussed and debated for its application to history, economics, and politics. It does not have the same structure in every religious tradition and denomination, but it typically includes some or all of the following three sections:

  • The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible
  • The New Testament
  • The Apocrypha or 'hidden books,' which are books that are important to the history of Judaism and Christianity but are considered pseudonymous (not written by the person who claims to be the author)

The Bible is a collection of various writings that are considered authoritative to the religious tradition, meaning they are important for relaying messages from God, describing the history of the world, and instructing the religious person on how to live. In this lesson, we will learn about a way to study the Bible called literary criticism, and learn to apply it to a sample text.

Methods of Study

There are numerous methods that can be used to study the Bible, such as historical criticism, which involves studying the text to learn more about what it can tell us about history, and textual criticism, which involves studying how the text was compiled and dating when the text was written. For the purposes of this lesson, we will focus on a third way to study the Bible - literary criticism, which is a method of studying a text that looks at the literary structure and context of a text and seeks to determine the following:

  • Authorship
  • Composition date
  • Intended audience
  • Authorial intent
  • Context

When actually applying this method, this means that literary criticism tries to answer the following questions:

  • Who wrote the text?
  • When was it written?
  • To whom was it written?
  • Why was it written?
  • What events and religious/political movements were happening at the time it was written?

Applying Literary Criticism to the Bible

Despite the seeming complexity of literary criticism, this method really only requires a careful reading of the biblical text. To begin with, it is important to know the genre (category of writing) of the text, which, for most of the Bible, can be considered interpreted history.

Interpreted history is a broad biblical genre that includes texts that are written as a historical account of events but may not be entirely factual because their intent is to focus on a particular aspect of a story without extreme regard for historical accuracy. This is not to say that the historical accounts in the Bible are entirely or even partially inaccurate but that the author did not intend to present a factual account because his/her motivation for writing was to show something about Jews and/or Christians at the time, their religion, or their deity.

Applying Literary Criticism: Sample Text

To demonstrate how to use literary criticism to study the Bible, we will look at the Gospel of Mark. To begin, we want to find out what genre the book is. Like most of the Bible, Mark is a text that is interpreted history, as a broad genre, and a gospel (meaning 'good news'--an account of things Jesus said and did), as a narrower genre.

Turning to the five questions, we first want to discuss authorship (who wrote the Gospel of Mark). While the title of the book might make us think someone named Mark wrote the book, this title was actually given to it later by an early church father who thought Mark wrote it. By reading the text, we find that the author never names himself/herself. We do know that the author is probably a Jewish Christian by the numerous references that the author makes to Jewish scriptures.

Second, we want to find out the composition date of the text. (when was the Gospel of Mark written) To figure this out, we have to learn a bit about the time period and compare it to what events take place within the text. Passages in Mark that mention war, nations fighting each other, and persecution of Christians help us date the book since these things happened around 60-70 CE (which is when scholars typically date this book to).

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