The Tools Of A Good Interpreter
Once you have a plan of study and a quiet place to do it, you will need several resources in order to study the Bible in depth. Such tools include a good translation (or two or more), concordance, Atlas, Bible handbook, and a notebook or computer. We will only be using the English translation in this study.
We will be primarily using the NET Bible which is available free on-line at this site: Net.Bible.org. The burgundy leather edition may be purchased for $29.95U.S. and the fully searchable Logos CD version is $29.95 U.S.
Like any book, the Bible is full of words. Many of the same, important words are used more than once throughout a book and indeed, the entire Bible. The point of a concordance is to be able to track down a given word each time it occurs so that you can reflect on its various uses to see if they shed any light on the particular passage you are studying. For example, if you are meditating on Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before men…” it would be nice to be able to study the word “light” (fw`") not only in Matthew 5:16, but also in the book of Matthew as a whole, as well as in the other gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and even the Old Testament (though the language is now Hebrew and Aramaic, not Greek).3 Hopefully this process would shed some “light” (no pun intended) on the use of the term in Matthew 5:16. After such a “word study” you would understand the range of usage of a given term and thus increase the likelihood that you properly understood it in its original context (i.e., Matthew 5:16)—all things being equal. For those of you who have Bibles with verse references in the margin, use them as well. They are designed to be cross-referenced to the passage under study. Many times they are cross-referenced on the basis of the same word and certainly on the basis of a shared idea.4
A Bible Atlas
You can use the one in the back of your Bible if you like or get another more complete atlas such as: Harry Thomas Frank, ed., Atlas of the Bible Lands, rev. ed. Maplewood New Jersey: Hammond, 1990. The ISBN number for the soft cover edition is 0-8437-7055-4 and the Library of Congress number is G2230.H3. Another good atlas is: Dowley, Atlas of the Bible and Christianity (Baker, ’97).
A Bible Handbook/Dictionary
A good Bible dictionary will give all sorts of valuable information on cultural backgrounds, outlines of Bible books, the particular contexts in which books were written, themes, special challenges posed by the various books of the Bible, information on geography, archaeology, etc. Much of this can also be found right on our website at www.bible.org. Some good examples include: Marshall/Millard/Packer/Wiseman, eds., New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. (IVP, ’96); Wenham/Motyer/Carson/France, eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century, eds. (IVP, ’94).
A Good Commentary
A good commentary series is important for the student of the Bible. First, you are in community. Interpretation and application of the Bible should take place in dialogue with other people. Reading good commentaries is a way to interact with other interpreters and cross-check your work against theirs.
Second, commentaries will often provide good background information as well as point out any important facts which arise from the Biblical languages—facts which would otherwise be lost on the student of the English Bible.
Third, as good and as necessary as commentaries are, they cannot replace your own study and meditation on God’s word. They are a necessary supplement, not in any sense a replacement.
A Systematic Theology
A systematic theology is, as its names implies, an attempt to systematize all of the teaching of Scripture according to approximately ten crucial categories such as the Bible, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Angels (holy and fallen), man, sin, salvation, the church, and the end times. These books can be very helpful because they have Scripture indexes at the back and may actually comment on a passage you are studying and alert you to broader implications of the truths found in the passage. I recommend, for the beginning student, Millard J. Erickson, Systematic Theology (Baker, ’83-’85) or Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, ’94). Both of these are excellent introductions to theology. NB: Do not let the size of the books discourage you. They need to be somewhat large in the course of saying something pertinent about each of the areas and questions they cover. In the end you will be wanting even more!
Record all your thoughts somewhere, either in a notebook or on computer.
3 In a full word study one would also want to consult Classical Greek sources, the Greek OT (LXX) and numerous papyri. This, of course, is well beyond the scope of this paper.
4 The problem with using just an English concordance is that most English translations do not translate the same term the same way every time it occurs. This means that if you are studying the verb “to know” (oi`da) there may be other places where the Greek verb oi`da occurs, but it has been translated with “to understand.” Thus you will miss those places. Now, to the beginning Bible student, this is not as important as it is to a scholar who wants to define everything to the nth degree.