5 things I’ve learnt from a semester of Biblical Studies

How I ended up doing a year of Biblical Studies in Edinburgh probably merits a blog of its own, but put simply, after undergraduate studies in Classics and French and two years serving in the fine Anglican church where I grew up, I have felt called and led to this. Although I gained some exposure to theology and biblical studies through auditing some lectures at the fabulous St Mellitus College in London in my two years of church work, I rocked up in Edinburgh to find myself facing a very new field. I feel I have started to adjust to the discipline now, and coming from a reflective family, want to reflect on, as well as share, some of the things I have learned and come to appreciate so far.

I hope it will be interesting and accessible reading whether you come from a Christian background or not! Here are 5 things I have learnt from a semester of Biblical Studies. The first three are more study-based, the fourth (probably the most interesting and accessible!) is about personal devotion, and the final one about the eternal nature of the Bible.

1)      The importance of a good Bible translation

I appreciated this before starting, but I have been further convinced of it after reading Romans in the original Greek this semester. Anyone who does a fair amount of Bible study probably knows that it is worth consulting a couple of translations of a given text if they can’t follow Greek or Hebrew as translations are fallible! While not essential, I think any regular Bible teacher would yield considerable returns on investing 50 hours or so in getting the basics of a biblical language down to be able to benefit from decent commentaries. Knowing the various options in meaning behind a given word in a particular passage is very useful! Further, it is frequently the case that translations betray theological persuasions, which are important to take into account.

2)      Research starts small

When I began, I thought Biblical Studies might be about having broad, grand ideas. The thing is, however, that so much work has been done that very often it is more about zeroing in on one verse, word, even a debated punctuation mark, as is the case in Romans 9:5, as helpfully recognised by the new NIV translation. A lot of PhD topics (i.e. at least 3 years of work!) centre on a theme in a given book, a particular verse or short passage. I think I somewhat naively overlooked this before starting!

3)      Consider the chronology of the New Testament!

Although there is still some debate as to the exact chronology of the New Testament corpus, I often have to keep reminding myself that the gospels and Acts were almost certainly written after Paul’s letters. Teaching from some superb lecturers has helped me see that elements like the gospels’ birth narratives and the gospels’ different emphases on the Passion narrative came about considerably later than the first formulations of worship directed towards God and Jesus, which necessarily involved ascribing various characteristics to God and Jesus. More happened in those early years following Christ’s ascension than we often take into account!   

4)      For the believer, it is important to keep reading the Bible devotionally, and to hear gospel-centred preaching within a community of believers.

Before embarking on the course in Biblical Studies, perhaps my primary concern was that my own devotional faith might become dry. It might surprise some people to hear that not everyone who is in Biblical Studies would call themselves a Christian, and there are some rather “interesting” ideas out there. I strongly believe that trying to read the Bible through the eyes of its original readers or listeners (what might be termed as the historical-critical method) is an essential and valuable pursuit; but it can be a different way of reading the Bible from reading it devotionally (i.e. to listen and hear from God). Moreover, after spending several hours reading the Bible and other people’s thoughts on passages, perhaps the last thing a student of the Bible might want to do is to read even more of the Bible.

Thankfully, I can report that I don’t feel this has happened. I was very fortunate to have had time studying the Bible in a seminary-based environment at St Mellitus, which prepared me well for this. The college’s ethos of theology being worship, always encouraged from the front by Graham Tomlin, and Chris Tilling’s start of lecture introductions about the possibility of maintaining a “high view of Scripture” while studying will always stay with me. Up here, Tim and Cathy Keller’s psalm devotional each morning (coming to an end soon… any suggestions for devotionals in 2017 welcome!) and reading some New Testament each evening have helped keep me on track in my private devotions.

Christian community is very important as well as a means of keeping sharp. There’s a great Theology Network in the Divinity School, where we spend time together as Christians across many denominations discussing anything in our studies we’re finding difficult from a faith perspective, and looking at the Bible simply and practically. Finding a good church is important too. I was encouraged to visit a few really solid churches in Edinburgh in the first few weeks. I have settled into an Anglican church (obviously God’s real chosen people… maybe), St Paul’s and St George’s (Ps and Gs), which provides faithful, practical, gospel-centred teaching. I never leave without having encountered God in some meaningful way.

It is also worth saying that lots of my coursemates are Christians and they often provide me with encouragement in what I’m studying, and often – perhaps, by virtue of coming literally from all around the world – helpfully challenge me in my beliefs and convictions.

5)      The Bible will always be God’s final Word

Sitting in the pub with the Biblical Studies crew following the semester deadlines last week, the range of topics covered was vast. Half of the group has spent some time looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls this semester. My knowledge of these texts is currently as fragmented as many of the texts themselves, but it is an exciting and evolving area in Biblical Studies. Texts have been found and are continuing to be found which are starting to provide a picture of both the continuity and also mutations that (Second Temple) Judaism underwent in the period between the composition of the Old and New Testament. They are vital documents for biblical scholars. This is reflected in the price tag on some of these newly found fragments: corners of texts sell for literally millions of dollars! This shows how valuable the Bible is still considered to be. While I think it is right for academic funding to be pumped into the sciences to develop the future, depriving the humanities of academic funding is short-sighted: evidence about our past is still greatly prized, and this could not be more true of the world’s most-studied and valuable mini-library, the Bible.

My good friend, John Aldis, once gave an outstanding sermon on the first chapter of Hebrews, about the finality of God’s Word. Some might want the Bible to be updated so that it is more in line with culture (whatever that means…), but it won’t be: Jesus is God’s final Word to humanity and the written Word inspired by God in the form of the Holy Spirit, too, is final. While it is perhaps naïve to say that Scripture is “inerrant” (to believe, for instance, that Jesus said every single word in the exact form conveyed in the gospels), I still believe the Bible to be divinely inspired: written by humans but, crucially, humans inspired by God.

Some studies, even if they have not been universally accepted (few are in the discipline!), have developed our understanding of various fields; some studies have taken scholars down blind alleys, although that can still be developmental. The consensus on significant themes in Biblical Studies is ever changing, and often what goes around, comes around. For example, one key question is about the links between the gospels. Did John know about Mark’s gospel? Did John know about Matthew and/or Luke’s gospel? There has been significant toing and froing on this one over the last century. Ways of reading the Bible will come and go as well: form-criticism, redaction criticism, liberationist, feminist readings have all added something to scholarship, but no one reading will ever be sufficient.

We might think that not as much is at stake here compared to the sustained attacks Scripture endures at the hands of the new atheists et al., but the Bible is here to stay, and any scholar in any discipline cannot ignore it.

Here, then, are some of the things I have learned in a first semester of Biblical Studies. There’s plenty for me to keep working at academically and in my own devotional life, but I look forward to seeing what further study brings!

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