I’ve previously written on Jewish hermenutics and their application to the New Testament, so I’ll here lay out some thoughts by other authors. Dr. Heiser lays out his own rules for Bible study (which he explains in greater detail on his soon-to-be revived Naked Bible Podcast):
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.
Patterns in the text are more important than word studies.
The New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is the key to understanding how prophecy works.
Here’s where Greek and Hebrew matter, but there are tools (like Carson and Beale’s OT in the NT commentary) that help. If you aren’t paying attention to this – and how the NT sees OT prophecy fulfilled in various ways – not just “literally” – you should politely excuse yourself from teaching anything about Bible prophecy and start studying this.
The Bible must be interpreted in context, and that context isn’t your own or that of your theological tradition; it is the context that produced it (ancient Near East / Mediterranean).
Put another way, if you’re letting your theological tradition filter the Bible to you, you aren’t doing Bible study or exegesis.
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 the result of a paranormal event.
If it’s weird, it’s important (i.e., it’s there for a reason; it is not random).
Don’t hire someone to stock the grocery shelves who can’t read the labels. Or: don’t put your meds in the daily pill tray unless you can read the instructions.
Put another way: Systematic theology isn’t helpful (and can be misleading) if its parts are not derived from exegesis of the original text. Biblical theology is done from the ground up, not the top down (and so, see # 2 in this list).
If, after you’ve done the grunt work of context-driven exegesis, what the biblical text says disturbs you, let it
Build a network of exegetical insights you can keep drawing upon; the connections are the result of a supernatural Mind guiding the very human writers. The only way to think that Mind’s thoughts are to find the network, one node at a time.
That can sound pretty intimidating, particularly when he talks about studying the Bible in the original languages, but don’t worry about mastering everything at once. There are a boatload of tools available for every price from the ridiculously expensive to the absolutely free that you can tap into. Obviously, if you are taking on the role of a teacher to others, you are to be held to a much higher standard (Jas. 3:1) and need to spend some more time learning how the original Biblical languages worked and how they’re different from your native tongue so that when you do a word-study, you’re not just picking a definition out of a hat.
Another resource that you may be interested in is Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-Depth Interpretation by Avigdor Bonchek. It’s written from a traditional Jewish perspective, but Messianic and Christian readers will find it useful as well. Like Dr. Heiser, Bonchek’s main call to his readers is to carefully examine and think about the text–and while he encourages learning somewhat of the original language of the Torah, he gives many examples of in-depth interpretation that are not dependent on being able to read Hebrew. To briefly list Bonchek’s “laws”:
“Sentences that introduce sections in the Torah often convey more information than is apparent at first glance. These sentences can set the tone for the ensuing section, whether be of a narrative or halachic [legal] character. The sensitive reader will pay close attention to the nuances in these sentences for clues which reveal either a motif, an important emphasis, or the main message of the passage.” (p. 37)
“Meaning is always derived from its context. We can no more understand the meaning of a word isolated from its sentence than we can appreciate a musical note torn from its melody. . . What I call the Contiguity Principle–deriving interpretive clues from the neighboring text–is the more focused application of this larger meta-principle.” (p. 49)
“Rare words or phrases which appear in different sections of the Torah, no matter how far separated, may be used as connecting links between the two sections. By tying together two apparently unrelated and separated sections by means of a verbal association, the Torah creates an opportunity for us to become aware of a deeper message.” (p. 60)
This principle is called G’zerah Shavah (Equivalence of Expressions) by the rabbis, and while it can be abused, it’s vital to understanding the New Testament’s use of the prophecies of the Tanakh.
“Unexpected inconsistencies in the Torah can be as revealing as are subtle similarities. Often we find an event or statement repeated twice in the Torah yet, while the details are basically the same, there are glaring differences between the two accounts.” (p. 71)
“Repetitions and Redundancies are grist for the mill of classical biblical exegesis. . . Given the basic assumption, one shared by all classical Torah commentators, that [since] the Scripture is the faithful record of the Divine word, there was no latitude for unnecessary verbiage in the record. The midrashic and talmudic scholars, as well, derived many interpretive and halachic (legal) conclusions from the ‘extra words’ and, not infrequently, even extra letters in the text.” (p. 83)
This principle is also upheld in the New Testament. For example, when your Bible says that someone “shall surely die” (e.g., Gen. 2:17), it creates the emphasis by a doubling of the Hebrew word for death, muwt, as muwt t’muwt. The rabbis (with some exceptions, like R. Ishmael) took this to mean that they would suffer two deaths, one in this world and also eternal death in the World-to-Come. The NT actually agrees with this principle when it speaks of “the second death” (Rev. 20:14, cf. Jude 12).
“One of the most obvious, and at the same time, most subtle, means by which we communicate nuances in meaning is by the way we choose to order our words.” (p. 95)
“One of the most fascinating aspects of the biblical record is its sensitivity to the psychological dimension in human affairs. . . This is not to say that you will find psychological principles spelled out in the Torah as in some textbook. The psychological dimension insinuates itself into warp and woof of the text.” (p. 105)
“[Finally, there is] the curious phenomenon called the Seven Code, which is the repetition of identical words or phrases seven times (or multiples thereof) within a given section.” (p. 118)
Obviously, neither man is trying to be exhaustive–they’re just bringing practical advice to the lay reader who wants to understand his Bible better. If you’re interested in pursuing your studies further, I suggest picking up a copy of Studying the Torah and also listening to The Naked Bible Podcast starting at episode 16–Dr. Heiser not only gives good advice (though there are some areas where I would disagree with him), he also gives an excellent list of affordable (and even free) resources for the interested student.
And that brings us to my personal law in Bible study: Don’t be afraid of outside commentaries on the Bible, or historical works on Biblical times, or language helps, or any other resource–but don’t become dependent on any one source for anything. I love Dr. Heiser’s work, but there are many areas (such as that of Biblical prophecy or the value of rabbinic interpretations) where we definitely don’t see eye-to-eye. And that’s okay! He has taught me an immense amount, but sometimes my own studies have given me a different perspective.
I think in the end, our Father is more concerned with whether we are willing to engage his Word–if we are, he will speak to us and teach us.