Surveying Biblical Texts
1. The Big Picture
In the last chapter, we mentioned that you should know a little something about what a text has said in the lead up to the passage you are most interested in interpreting. This is literary context. How do you get the big picture of a whole biblical book or a section of biblical text like the Sermon on the Mount? For that matter, how do you get a sense of the flow of a chapter?
We are good memory verse people. We're good at individual trees. We don't tend to be as good at the forest.
2. Content and Arrangement
The book of Proverbs is somewhat unusual in the Bible. It has some chapters here and there that go together but, in general, it does not really have an overall flow. It's not like a story that unfolds. It's not like an argument that moves from point to point. It is a collection of wise sayings that no doubt span a large period of time.
But most "discourses" have a structure. They are not just a collection of miscellaneous content. Rather, the content is arranged in a certain way intentionally so as to convey meaning. Books as a whole have a train of thought, not just individual passages. For example, most discourses have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So a great number of books of the Bible have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
For example, ancient letters tended to have a standard format that we see underlying the structure of most of the letters in the NT. There is an opening greeting, perhaps a thanksgiving to God, the body of a letter, perhaps closing greetings and a farewell.
The goal of surveying a biblical text is to get an overall sense of the basic content, as well as the overall way that content is arranged. So to survey a text we will:
- Give titles to the chapters (or paragraphs if we are surveying a smaller bit of text).
- Outline the book or section we are surveying.
- Get a sense of the way each part of the book/section connects to the one(s) that follows.
- Look for themes that run throughout the book or section.
- Ask questions that will help us dig into the specifics later.
Obviously to get a sense of the content of a book or section, you need to read it, probably several times. If a formal equivalence translation is best for following a train of thought in detail, a more dynamic translation is better for getting the big picture of a larger amount of text. The chapters and verses were added over a 1000 years after each book, but a good way to get into the content of a book or section of the Bible is to title each chapter...
4. Outlining a Text
A far more challenging task is to outline the way content is arranged in a text. Often there will be a beginning, a middle, and and end. Sometimes there are aspects of the type of text (genre) that suggest strong possibilities (see the genre chapters on letters and narratives in particular for more on outlining specific types of biblical literature).
The key is looking for major shifts in the train of thought. Some interpreters approach this more as an intuitive art. Others approach it like a science (e.g., discourse analysis). No doubt in both cases there is evidence:
- shift in topic - this is the biggie. The text was talking about one thing, then it started talking about another.
- major conjunctions - Connecting words can join words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs. But they can also transition from one section to another.
- introductory formulae (the word of the LORD came to...)
- shifts in tenses, shifts in point of view or speaker, shift in sub-genre (e.g., from exposition to exhortation)
- There are some literary devices that occasionally are used to arrange text (inclusion, interchange, intercalation, chiasm, acrostic).
5. Looking for Patterns
a. relationships between units
As we saw in the previous chapter, there are a limited number of ways in which one piece of text can relate or connect to the next (repetition, comparison, contrast, movement from general to particular or vice versa, movement from cause to effect or explanation of effect from cause, etc.) Understanding the overall flow of a text means having a sense of how each unit of a text flows into the next.
b. threads of thought that run throughout
These are recurring themes or recurring patterns. So you can have a recurrent theme of reconciliation, and you can also have a recurring contrast or a recurring sense of cause and effect.
6. Asking Questions to Follow-up
The Traina/Bauer method of inductive Bible study, from which this surveying method originates, suggests that there are certain key kinds of questions to ask about basic patterns you find in a text. This allows you to know the best way to continue your study deeper into a biblical text. These questions include questions of definition, why questions, how questions, and questions of implication for the original meaning.
7. Give examples