(6) Text: Methods, Highs and Lows

Mar 30, 2024

Frankly, the basics are pretty straightforward:  think of every biblical text as a friend, and then treat your friend the way you want to be treated. Start by listening to your friend and don't keep interrupting.  Eventually, you can talk about yourself.  But don't start there.  

When we want to know what a close friend thinks about something, the best way to find out is to sit down with the person and listen.  Listen, ask questions, and listen some more. So it is with a text. Since textual study means a study of the text, we start with the text!  That should be our first goal:  we should Just listen to it for a while.

Before we start asking “what does it mean to me,” maybe we should ask, “What was my friend (this text) trying to say to the original readers?” How do you feel when you are talking to a friend who continually twists your words into things you were not trying to say? Keep that in mind when reading the Bible.

Start with common sense textual study methods. Keep words in context. Know who's talking and who the audience is. Such methods focus on biblical texts themselves and especially on matters like context and intention.[1] Practical applications are of interest, but they should never be the starting place; and they do not dictate the terms of the study.

The Highs

A technical term for the close study of biblical texts is exegesis.  Just like “exit” means “to go out,” exegesis means “to lead out”—i.e., to lead out the meaning of any written text; to discover what a text meant in its original context.  When you exegete a text, it means you pay close attention to the details of that text so as to learn what it meant.

This is not approached haphazardly or by the seat of one’s pants. An exegetical study focuses on a given block of text within its larger context so as to learn what it meant. Great attention is paid to the text itself, including vocabulary, grammar, argument, and the like. So, for example, 1Cor 10:4 says, “The Rock was Christ.” When you study this, you might look up “rock” in various OT texts; and you will want to know how the phrase fits into 10:1-13, then chapters 8-10, and maybe the whole letter, or even all of Paul’s letters.

As exegesis studies texts closely, there are other textual methods related to exegesis that look at things like (1) the history of textual traditions that stand behind a text (such as how the theme “water from a rock” in two stories in Exodus and Numbers were developed and expanded in Jewish interpretation); or (2) how Paul’s rhetorical argumentation might be related to other authors at that time. And so on, to many other specific methods, all designed for specific things.

My point is not that you should already know how to do all of these things, or even that you are required to learn them. My point is rather that there are good reasons biblical scholars spend their lives on such things. And guess what:  they write commentaries!  So, there is great valued in using such people as conversation partners.  You are not alone in this!

There are many books on “how to study the Bible,” but not all are of the same quality.[2]  The methods of textual study can get very technical, and they can overwhelm anyone not trained in them. So, they are occasionally criticized as “nit-picking a text to death.” But this is like criticizing carpenters for using too many nails when building a house. If you don’t want the house to fall down, you might want to let the carpenters do their work. The same is true with biblical exegesis which aims to understand texts.

A simple way to define the goal of careful and responsible exegesis is that exegesis seeks to discover what a text meant in its original context. This can be used for highly academic interests. However, all Bible readers who want to grow in their handling of ancient biblical texts can learn some appropriate steps that are not overly difficult.  (In 2 or 3 weeks I'll point out a simple 5-step approach for reading biblical texts.)

For our purpose here, I point especially to two things: (1) a simple rule of thumb: treat a biblical text the way you want your own words to be treated; and (2) a general principle:

All efforts at biblical text study or exegesis can be just as Spirit-led as any other method. That’s because people, not methods, are Spirit led.

People sometimes reject exegesis as “too technical” and then they run over to “just reading by the Spirit.” This means they don’t understand either. To associate Spirit-led reading with a particular approach is to turn Spirit-led reading into just another method. It is not a method; it is an attitude of submission to the Spirit of God—and this is applicable to any and all methods.

Stated another way, Spirit-led reading does not mean, “This is the method designed by the Spirit which you now have to follow!” It rather means that, regardless of the method(s) being used, all of them can be Spirit-led if the reader submits to the Spirit of God while using the methods responsibly.

Of course, there are bad methods that should be avoided or discarded, such as adding verses together from various parts of the Bible without any respect for context and the like.  The old joke is opening your Bible several times and pointing to individual texts and coming up with

"Judas hanged himself," 
"Go thou and do likewise," 
"What thou doest, do quickly!" 

Unfortunately, this is no joke. Many people do this kind of Ouija Board Bible reading all the time—and some of these include people who should know better:  preachers and Bible teachers! 

Those who greatly admire biblical texts and respect them and want to learn more about and from them are happy to use exegetical and related methods because they focus first and foremost specifically on biblical texts. Even so, the interest is never on information for information’s sake; the interest is rather in gaining instruction:  how texts function in context and what they are trying to do. Here biblical texts are read with more specific attention to literary structure, context, background history, archaeology, sociology, and numerous other concerns relevant for the study of biblical texts.

This type of reading of texts contextually is not purely academic; it is interested in and paves the way for the question “so what?” It allows us to become attentive to textual issues and to interact more responsibly with them.

The Lows

If we are not careful, the tail can wag the dog here, as well. An exclusive focus on the biblical text for the sake of text can create readers who don’t ever get around to asking “so what?” If our focus turns to “text for its own sake,” this is unfortunate and can become merely an academic exercise. Academic concerns can be both important and useful. But when “biblical academics” becomes its own reason for existing (and this does happen), it’s like going into a cave to dig for gold, and then forgetting to come out.

So then, we have spent three weeks looking at the Spirit, and 3 weeks looking at Text.  We asked, “What was the author of this text trying to do?” 

Next week we'll turn our attention for another 3 weeks to how we apply biblical texts to ourselves.  Our "self" is usually pretty important to us.  It will be well worth our time. 


[1] By intention I mean what an author was overtly trying to get at through a text. This is a highly debated topic. I develop this fully in Collier, I, Paulos, 2017/2023 chapter 4. As shorthand, I will also speak of what a text is trying to get at. I don't mean by this that a text tries, but fails;  I mean the intention of the text. 

[2] Above all others, I highly recommend Fee, How to Read the Bible for all it's worth, 2014;  and Klein, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2017.

Series Intro: 
Power-Reading the Bible

1. Reading By the Spirit
Week 1: What Does It Mean?
Week 2: The Letter Kills
Week 3: What Could Be!

2. Reading the Text
Week 4: Methods

Week 5: The Prime Directive 
Week 6: Text Methods: Highs and Lows

3. Self Disciplines
Week 7: Methods for the Self
Week 8: Specialty Tools
Week 9: The Self and DBS

4. Summary
Week 10: Spirit, Text, Self:  Our Repertoire


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