This section is going to assume that you have a wide-margin Bible rather than a notebook. After all, if you have a notebook, or a series of notebooks, you have all the space in the world to write down every little thought, teaching, and reference that comes to mind. If you have a wide-margin Bible, on the other hand, you’re very limited on your space. Even if you learn to write very small–and you probably will–you’re still going to have to pick and choose what needs to be written down for all time and what doesn’t.
This is something I can’t dictate to you: Everyone is different. What appeals to me might not appeal to you, and the things that speak to me don’t speak to everyone. So take this as advice from just one Bible-nerd, not a pair of tablets brought down from Mt. Sinai.
When I’m studying a section of the Bible for the first time, the very first thing I tend to do is mark down cross-references. This obviously includes references to the Tanakh (OT) in the New Covenant Scriptures–and the references in the OT passages back to the NT–but it’s not limited to those. As I read, I think of other things I’ve read that connect to this passage, quickly look them up (using Bible software like e-Sword as needed) and jot the references down. Often I won’t be sure exactly what to make of a passage, so I do some quick looking-up using a search engine or something like Nave’s Topical Bible. This usually results in more cross-references than are really practical, so I’ll have to pick-and-choose. That’s a good thing; it means that I’m having to think as I study.
I’ll admit that I often cheat and use the cross-references in a good study Bible (I’m very fond of the ESV Study Bible in this regard, and keep a copy on my Nook), both the stand-alone reference and those in the notes. I may go ahead and copy some details over from the notes of my study Bibles at this point, particularly those that help to pin down dates or the significance of a passage from the Tanakh in the NT.
The next questions that occur to me are usually linguistic: What was the original word used in this passage for X, and did it have a connotation different from the English equivalent? A good way to spot these is by looking at different translations side-by-side. For example, let’s look at John 3:16 in the KJV, ESV, YLT, and ISV:
|16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.||16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.||16 for God did so love the world, that His Son–the only begotten–He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.||16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.|
We see that most of the verse is translated the same–almost word-for-word–in each of these translations, but then we come to “only begotten / only / unique” before the word “Son.” Why are these translated differently? This sort of disparity would prompt us to do a study on the Greek word monogene, which as we’ve noted before, was once thought to come from mono- (one, only) and ginomai (to generate, to beget), while more recent studies take the second part of the word to come from genos (kind, species). So we find that the ISV translation is the closest to correct and make a note of that in our margin, possibly with some cross-references pointing to other “sons of God.”
This sort of cross-translation study is a great way to get started, allowing one to focus in on the areas where there is a real debate about the meaning of a particular term or phrase, or where the understanding of that term has evolved over time. As you grow, you’ll find that you start asking questions that even the translations won’t give you a hint at, such as “What is the word Paul uses in Ephesians that is translated ‘love,’ and what does it really mean?”
Sometimes you’ll find that the word does indeed mean exactly what it seems to in the English translation. In these cases, I tend to pass by them without wasting precious space in my Bible. After all, the point is to enhance our understanding of the text, not just to make notes for the sake of filling space.
As you get more used to carefully reading the text, you’ll find that even when just reading your favored translation, you start wondering what this or that word is in the original, and whether that impacts your understanding of the text. In particular, you’ll learn to look for the key words of a passage and dig into those. As you progress further, you’ll start guessing that a particular word in your Bible translates this or that word of the Hebrew and Greek. Take a moment to look those words up anyway! You’ll find that sometimes you’re wrong, and you’ll learn a whole new word in the process.
One temptation to resist is to simply look the word up in your Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and start trying to draw conclusions from the laundry list of words you find there. As in English, words in both Hebrew and Greek (and especially Hebrew!) are heavily dependent on their context. To pick an English example, the word “run” can mean, depending on the context, to travel swiftly by foot, to seek election for an office, a tear in a pair of hose, a dried drip of paint, and a dozen other meanings. Apart from the sentence, it’s literally impossible to tell which meaning is correct.
Imagine if a person were using their English-to-Futurespeak lexicon, and came to the conclusion that American Presidents must be chosen by winning a hundred-yard dash, just because that’s one meaning of the word “run”! It’s easy to make the same sort of mistake with the Biblical languages.
This is where commentaries that focus on exegesis (reading the meaning of the text’s original language) are very useful. They can help you understand how a word came to mean two or more very different things, and which one fits the context of the passage. That’s not to say that the commentaries are always right, but I’ve found that on balance, if no scholar agrees with my interpretation of a particular verse, I’m on very shaky ground.
Of course, understanding the context also means understanding the times and culture of the Bible, which will be the subject of the next post.