Text and Context
A large part of writing a biblical studies assignment involves understanding an ancient text (the OT) in the context of the ancient world (ancient Israel and its cultural environment). As such, much of your work will involve studying words and their meanings (including the grammatical and syntactical relationships in which the words are found). Similarly, you will need to know something about the world in which the words were written. This will involve the historical, sociological, political, economic, geographic, demographic, political and religious context of the text being studied. It will also likely involve a discussion of the process and stages that may have been involved in the writing of the text. (See How can I do exegesis on a biblical passage? for more info.) It is crucial to remember that at this level biblical exegesis must be rooted in demonstrable fact and data.
1. Start with the primary text
- The indispensable starting point for a biblical studies assignment is a careful reading and study of the biblical text(s) under consideration.
- Beware of moving directly to secondary sources written about the text before immersing yourself again and again in the text itself.
- Read it over and over again.
- Note down any details of the text that are unclear to you and ask questions about them.
- What do you need to know to really understand what the text is communicating?
2. Understand its context
- Second, try to ascertain what might be most significant for you to know about the context in which the text was written. The specifics of a situation have a profound impact on the way in which we understand the words spoken in that context.
- Look for works regarding the history and cultural context that characterize the world in which the text was written.
- Look for any extra-biblical materials (especially ANE texts) which might shed light on the text or issue you are studying.
3. Find secondary sources
- Third, look for good secondary sources—that is material written about the biblical text or the ancient world.
- Look for:
- scholarly commentaries in the major series (AB, WBC, NIVAC, NICOT, Hermeneia, Interpretation, TOTC, NCBC etc)
- articles in the major Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (Anchor, New Interpreters, Eerdmans, IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament series etc)
- articles in the major OT scholarly journals (JBL, JSOT, VT, SJOT, ZAW, CBR, CBQ, Bib, etc)
- collections of essays (often these are part of a series e.g. JSOT Supplements, VT Supplements, etc)
4. Read, evaluate and make up your own mind!
- Fourth, read with a critical eye. Always be aware that authors may draw inferences from data that may be exaggerated, inaccurate, irrelevant, anachronistic, speculative, or simply wrong. Just because something appears in print does not make it accurate.
- On the most significant points for your investigation, try to ‘test’ an author’s assertion against the data s/he sets forth to back it up.
- Reading several authors on the same text or subject will help you to see alternative points of view and the weaknesses in various approaches.
- Although much of the linguistic and historical data is likely beyond your competence to assess, try to ascertain which assertions best fit the facts. In writing your essay, demonstrate to your reader that you know the various options available, and which one you choose, and why. Obviously this cannot be done at every point in your discussion, but on the most important points it yields great results.