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Research Tools for Bible Study

A pile of battered books lay in the middle of the table where my I had my first experience with manuscript Bible study. Most of them were completely unfamiliar to me. Over the course of the weekend, our leader introduced them as tools that are useful in understanding the world of the author and the original audience. It took me a while to learn how to use the various resources available, but as I did the richness of the Scripture became more and more apparent.

Here is a brief introduction to the research tools that I regularly use when studying the Bible and preparing to teach. (Chapter nineteen addresses the use of commentaries. They aren’t included here as I don’t consider them to be an essential research tool.) These introductions describe what a particular reference tool has to offer, how it is arranged and how they might be used. Buying these books is an invaluable investment for every Christian. Please be aware that printed books (or their electronic form) are much more reliable than the information found on the Internet. As with anything written about the Bible, the content must be weighed against the Scripture itself.

Bible Background Commentary

A Bible background commentary covers the cultural background of the Bible verse by verse. Each book of the Bible has its own chapter (listed in the order used in the Bible, not alphabetically). Each chapter begins with an introductory section covering authorship, date, setting, purpose and genre, and then works its way through the entire biblical book, section by section. When using a Bible background commentary, be careful to distinguish between background information and interpretation.

Bible Dictionary

Formatted like an encyclopedia with short articles arranged in alphabetical order, a Bible dictionary is good for researching historical background and cultural context. Use it to learn about people, places, and what a word or phrase meant at the time of the author. If you aren’t able to find a particular word, identify the general category to which it belongs. For example, in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 19:11-27, a nobleman gives each of ten slaves a pound. The word pound is not listed in my Bible dictionary, but it can be found in the article on “money.”

Concordance

A concordance is good for finding cross-references, determining where else the author used a particular word, and for looking up the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek. “Exhaustive” concordances list every occurrence of every word in the Bible and are arranged alphabetically. (The sections on “the” and “he” can be a little overwhelming.) They look somewhat like telephone books, with three columns of tiny print on every page. Each biblical word is in bold type, followed by all the instances where that word was used in the Bible. If you can’t find the scriptural reference for the word you are seeking, look up the verse in the version of the English Bible used by the concordance to find the equivalent word.

Next to the reference is a portion of the sentence in which the word is found; you must look up the verse in a Bible to read it fully. The word itself is represented by its first letter in italics. The third element of each entry is a number. The number can be used to look up the word in the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries provided at the back of the concordance. Regular type numbers refer to words in the Hebrew dictionary; italicized numbers represent Greek words.

For example, when studying Luke 19:1-10 I wanted to know more about the word lost, since it was a part of Jesus’ summary statement. In Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, under the heading “lost,” the entry looks like this:

Lu 19:10 to seek and to save that which was l. 622

In the Greek dictionary at the back of the concordance, the entry for 622 includes a Greek word, a pronunciation guide, two more numbers referring to the root words from which this one is derived, a definition and the words that 622 can be rendered in English. This information deepens my understanding of the severity of being lost.

Back at the entry for “lost,” I can see every other instance Luke used the word (which led me to the three parables in Luke 15) and where the word is used by other biblical authors. By surveying the seventeen uses of lost in the Old Testament, I discover that the metaphor of lost sheep for God’s people is used four times (Psalms 119:176; Jeremiah 50:6; Ezekiel 34:4-16). Those references provide further fodder for my interpretation of Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus.

Cross-Referencing Bible

Some Bibles include cross-references in the margins or as footnotes. Be aware that most of these will not be exhaustive, nor will they all be relevant. For example, my Bible lists four Old Testament verses next to its note for Luke 19:8, when Zacchaeus vows to pay back four times what he has taken. In reading all four of them, I find that three are very useful, but the fourth isn’t. These are the only cross-references given for the entire Zacchaeus story; there are no references to the various passages found in the concordance about the people of God as lost sheep. Consequently, I recommend that you look in multiple research tools when identifying Old Testament quotations and allusions rather than relying solely on a cross-referencing Bible.

When studying the New Testament inductively, avoid cross-references to other parts of the New Testament unless the original audience would have had access to them. For example, Mark’s Gospel was written before the other Gospels, so Luke, Matthew and John are not useful in understanding Mark. On the other hand, since Luke was written before Acts and by the same author, cross-references in Luke are invaluable for deepening our understanding of Acts. Remember that the goal in cross-referencing is to shine more light on the author’s intended communication to the original audience. If the original audience wouldn’t have known your Bible’s cross-referenced material (because it wasn’t written yet or not widely distributed) it should be off limits during your study

Words and images can carry a heavy freight of meaning with only a passing reference between those who are familiar with the same stories. Biblical authors are able to evoke strong Old Testament associations with just a word, such as mountain or shepherd. Such indirect references that infer shared cultural knowledge are called allusions. The writer may not have a specific Scripture in mind, but rather a medley of biblical stories. If you suspect an allusion is being made but don’t find a cross-reference in your Bible, try using another resource such as the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

Whereas a Bible dictionary is indispensable for filling out historical and cultural context, the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery provides understanding of the connotations of biblical images. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery is used to shed light on biblical images, symbols, metaphors, motifs and figures of speech. For example, the article on “water” describes both the significance of physical water in ancient Israel but also covers the various ways water is used metaphorically in both the Old and New Testaments. The resource is also an excellent tool for identifying cross-references. Arranged like an encyclopedia, it is a good companion to a Bible dictionary.

English Dictionary

Often, we have a vague notion of what a word means and can understand its general sense when it is used in a sentence, but we aren’t able to give a definition of it. Humility pays off when we admit that we aren’t sure of a word’s meaning. For example, I was recently in a manuscript study of Genesis 2—4. When we reached the section in which the Lord God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” some brave person raised their hand to ask, “What is enmity?” Immediately, ten other people in the room made motions and noises to indicate that they had the same question but had been too embarrassed to admit it. Taking the time to look up enmity and learning that it means “mutual hostility, animosity, and violence” aided our understanding of the passage. Never hesitate to use a standard dictionary when you are unsure of the meaning of a word.

Interlinear Bible

An interlinear Bible can help you determine which Hebrew or Greek word is used in a passage. It shows the original Hebrew or Greek text with the literal English translation typed below each word. I use an interlinear New Testament that includes the Strong’s Concordance number (see above). By comparing the Strong’s numbers in a passage, I can tell where English translators have used synonyms in different verses to translate the same word used by the original author. This information is useful when building interpretations based on the use of repetition and in making associations between sections of the text that the original audience would have heard but have become obscured in translation. When used in conjunction with the language dictionaries at the back of Strong’s, an interlinear Bible can also make it quicker to determine the Hebrew or Greek meaning.

Maps

Maps are an invaluable resource in helping students of the Bible to locate the places referenced, understand distances and perceive relationships between them. In many biblical narratives, the weight of the story is missed because we don’t recognize the significance of a place. For example, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, Jesus refers to “the widow at Zarapheth at Sidon” and “Naaman the Syrian.” Both of the places mentioned are Gentile lands relatively close to Nazareth that had been fierce enemies of Israel for centuries. Jesus’ claim that God favors folks like the widow and Naaman isn’t just uncomfortable, it is incendiary.

For maps I particularly like Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts. This compact resource has a chapter for each book of the Bible and includes background material, a chart of literary structure, an outline and maps that show all the places referenced in that particular book. Remember, however, that the information about structure and outline are inherently interpretative and shouldn’t be viewed as definitive.

Study Bible

There is a wide variety of types and quality of study Bibles on the market. Many have useful maps and introductory material for each biblical book. However, I discourage the use of study Bibles in inductive study because I have found that when using them the reader is more drawn to the explanatory notes than to the Scripture text itself. Though there may be some helpful cultural background material included, most of the notes are interpretative in nature. The author(s) of the study Bible approach the Scripture with a particular theological lens, sociological perspective or discipleship agenda. Their reading of the Scripture tends to be deductive rather than inductive.

Research tools enhance inductive Bible study by giving us insight into the world of the biblical authors and their audiences. Of course, it is possible to do a basic manuscript study without these tools. However, with their aid new vistas of understanding emerge, subtle beauty is uncovered and the weight of a text is more fully felt.


Taken from The Bible Study Handbook, by Lindsay Olesberg. Copyright(c) 2012 by Lindsay Olesberg. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

In The Bible Study Handbook Lindsay Olesberg lays a foundation for why we read the Bible, what attitudes and expectations are most helpful as we enter into serious Bible study, and what methods and practices yield the most fruit. From foundational insights to best practices and hands-on exercises, you will find everything you need in this book to cultivate your curiosity, hone your attention and mine the applicabilities of whatever passage you find yourself in. And you'll be reminded of the insights, encouragement and even transformation waiting for people who commit to studying the Scriptures well together.