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Friday, January 06, 2006

How to Let the Bible be Read by You

In yesterday's posting, Wayne referred to Paul Whiting's How to read the Bible Book-by-Book---Getting an Overview over on Paul's blog. Part of me really likes what Paul Whiting says.

However, the other part of me is bothered by some of the ideas. Not bothered in the sense that they're bad or harmful ideas, they definitely aren't. But bothered by the fact that I, well, how can I say this, I try so very hard to understand the big chunks of Scripture, but, I don't do what Paul suggests. That strikes me as odd. Why don't I do it? I'm not sure.

So, let me encourage people to go and read Paul's blog entry, he makes some good points; but, let me also share a few steps I do as a starting point to letting the Bible be read by you.

Step one: I bring the text into a word processor (I use OpenOffice) and strip out all the verse and chapter divisions.

I'm essentially deconstructing the intrusion of the discohesive effects of these two additions to the text. I understand that the chapter divisions were very poorly done. The chapter divisions were not arrived at through any linguistic analysis. Believe or not, sometimes it was simply where the manuscript ended one page (leaf) and began another. So, in a nutshell, the chapter divisions are worthless. The original author did not write the chapter divisions and modern English letters do not have chapter divisions. Using them is (dare I say it?) bad translation--it's not rendering in English any meaning the original had.

Step two: After stripping out the distractive verse numbers and chapter divisions, I paragraph the text.

How to do this? Well, use something. I use my Greek NT (GNT) and simply break up the text in the same way the GNT does. A little later in my efforts I develop my own paragraphs (which generally agree with the GNT, but not always). You could use your favorite commentator; however, note that many commentators are verse oriented so they're not nearly as sensitive to the paragraphing as they need to be. On the positive side there appears to be more movement toward discourse level observations. And you should use these.

For an example at a higher, sectional level: Scot McKnight has observed some discourse markers in Matthew (see Jesus on Being Missional 1). He observes that Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 form an inclusio boundary defining Jesus ministry. Therefore, I conclude that Matthew has syntactically defined a cohesive section. Scot has made a powerful and astute observation. These community driven observations can be very helpful in paragraphing, and even sectioning (as in the Missional discussion), a text.

Step three: I then read the entire letter. If you can't do this with the time you have, well, you need to get more time. Seriously, the book is to be read in one sitting and this will really help you. Yes, I know Luke will be very difficult (I haven't done it either), but don't start with Luke, start with Ephesians or Philippians or James (James is incredibly cohesive but few commentators recognize it). No note-taking (Paul Whiting stresses this, and he is exactly right). However Paul's 5 steps move much, much too quickly into the analysis. You have to read the book a half dozen or more times before you get any type of feel for what it is actually saying.

I think this is because of two reasons:
     Firstly, we are way, way too verse oriented in our approach to Scripture. That is, we've habituated a verse oriented interpretive framework within our mind. Scripture is special--very special. However, it is not special in the sense that it tosses basic communicative facts. We are made in God's image and therefore communicate in the way he communicates. The very first thing God did with us after he created us was to communicate with us (see Gen. 1:28). However, we've habituated a way of interpreting his communication which isn't the way he communicated. We habitually bring an interpretive die and press it against the text. The verse-oriented die is foreign to the text (except for poetry) and, therefore, we need to toss it. It takes a lot of work to break this habit.
     Secondly, we bring way too much theological baggage to the reading. While the first issue is syntactic, this issue is much more semantic. Therefore, this takes even more effort to overcome. It essentially boils down to a willingness to submit to the text and it's Author, and a humility before those with whom we disagree. In other words, we need to be able to dialog within a diverse community. I desire and long for a time when the people within a diverse community--as a community--willingly pursue understanding of larger texts. The coherence in the text will drive the unity of the community and the unity of the community will drive an accurate understanding of the text.

After several readings I start to get a feel for what the author is saying. What you can do at this point is review the paragraphing. That is, you can start to adjust the paragraph divisions. I know I said above to resist doing analysis; however, what you're doing at this point is getting a feel for the patterns the author is using. It's not detailed analysis--you don't say: "O!, Paul uses a genitive here, I wonder if it's an objective or subjective genitive?" You're allowing the author to show you, to carry you, into how he has structured the text. You want to notice some bigger syntactic things I'll mention in a moment. You also want to notice larger semantic things like the extended metaphors. For example, 2 Cor. 3:7-18 utilizes an extended metaphor having to do with open illumination. He uses words (taken from the NIV translation) like: glory, fade, veil, dull, covers, unveiled, and reflect.

The linguistic fact that supports this is that an author (and therefore the reader should follow the author's lead by doing the same thing) will chunk a text into cohesive units of thought. Frequently what happens in my trips through the text is I'll notice a chiastic structure or an inclusio (sandwich or bookend) structure. These syntactic clues lead me toward the authorial intent simply because I'm chunking the text in the same way he did.

So, those are the first few steps I follow. The goal is to capture the syntactic structure as accurately as possible. If you've done your work correctly, the whole text starts to flow. You start to get a feel for how the unit of thought of one paragraph leads into the unit of thought of the next one. If it doesn't, or there's a place where you think, "Hmmmmmm...the Apostle Paul has a senior moment here", then you've missed something. He's right; you're wrong. You're structuring the text wrongly; a word or two is translated poorly; or you're interpreting something based on a bad assumption (one you might not even know you're making).

Well, I hope that helps in some way. I'd be interested in any feedback. Especially by anyone willing to try what I'm suggesting.

O!, one other thing: what does this have to do with making Better English Bibles? Well, understanding the authorial intent is prerequisite to accurately choosing the correct words in translation. It's the context that disambiguates the word choices. And context is a word that is often misunderstood. It is not the stuff that goes before and the stuff that goes after--it is the stuff that you and the author are thinking within. I tend to think we should translate clauses (not words) within paragraph boundaries. That is, it's the unit of thought expressed by the paragraph that should guide our efforts at accurately rendering the clauses.

But, first, we have to let the Bible have paragraphs. And they need to be the paragraphs the original author syntactically and semantically chose. Allowing the text to be what the text is, will enable us to read it. Perhaps, even, in a way that feels all the world like the first time.

May God's message have it's way with our lives. Isa 55:8-13.


At Fri Jan 06, 08:23:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Mike, thanks for an excellent post. I attended an SIL course on discourse analysis back in ’75 and have tried to apply those principles (essentially the same as those you present here) in my translation of the Better Life Bible. I don’t use verse numbers and have often been tempted to remove chapter numbers, but I leave them in for reference purposes. Since I focus on higher levels of discourse than the clause or sentence, my translation is very different from translations that retain the format of lower levels of discourse.

How about posting a specific example (brief, if possible) of how this approach has affected interpretation and translation for you?

At Fri Jan 06, 08:32:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Is that how you do your devotional reading? Or is that when you are doing analytical Bible study (for translation prep or for teaching)?
Although I can't agree with your preparation of the text since it seems elitist (the rest of humanity is stuck with those intrustions) I totally agree with you that the chapters and verses need to be looked at with suspicion since they create cohesion where there is none and more often ruin cohesion that exists in the text.

Chapter and verse marking are a helpful convention. Have you ever brought a copy of The Message to church and then found that half the time you can't figure out where the pastor is? And I think that Bible Society works hard to make them inobtrusive.

A final comment is with regard to what we might call the devotional fallacy. We have been taught that "All Scriptures are inspired ... and profitable" means that we should be able to open the book at any place and have God speak to us in a personal way regarding our situation. But The Book is a collection of books and they weren't written by many people for many reasons over many years of time. I believe they have a single Editor who has given them to us as a collective message of redemption and covenant. But many passages in isolation are simply history, or poetry or story-telling.

Paul is right in recommending Stuart and Fee's excellent book. That type of study is the best way to get into the text and then make application.

But what about devotions? Maybe that's why I enjoy reading the Psalms for devotions. Exegetically they tend to be a literary unit and as poetry and prayer they speak devotionally to me in powerful ways.

At Fri Jan 06, 08:34:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Perhaps the approach of the New English Bible and the Jerusalem Bible - retaining verse numbers but confining them to the margins where they don't interrupt the flow of the text - wasn't such a bad thing after all?

At Fri Jan 06, 09:53:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

lingamish wrote: Although I can't agree with your preparation of the text since it seems elitist (the rest of humanity is stuck with those intrustions[sic]) I totally agree with you that the chapters and verses need to be looked at with suspicion...

Thanks for your feedback. I'm not sure what you're referring to by elitist. Could you clarify?

Also, if by devotional you're referring to an emotional response to Scripture (which is important), then I would respond in two ways:

For the more didactic texts: better paragraphing would help since in those the emotions should follow the understanding. Otherwise, the reader could easily be motivated in directions he or she should not go. I think that often devotional reading is done simply because the meaning of the paragraphs take too much work. Translations which "translate clauses (not words) within paragraph boundaries" would go a long way to help devotional reading.

For the poetic texts: things are quite a bit more tricky, though here--I think--the versification (or appropriately formatted presentation to expose the original structure) would help. Poetry utilizes metaphor to a significant degree and therefore is more highly ambiguous (generally on purpose; I think so it communicates more directly to the motivations). Also, metaphors don't easily move from one culture to another. So, again, the reader can be motivated down wrong paths; however, the definition of what is wrong is more difficult to determine since the original intent encompassed ambiguity to begin with. In sum, I think versification would help here.

At Fri Jan 06, 09:56:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Yes, Tim, I think putting the numbers in the margin is a good idea. One thing I didn't mention is I usually tag every fifth verse in the margin with a multiple of five. Chapter and verse numbers are useful as addresses; but, that is their only use, in my opinion.

At Fri Jan 06, 10:06:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Thanks, Mike,

Elitist was a bit of a strong word. But maybe you feel like I do that we as academics have access to tools that the average reader doesn't. You feel a bit like the scribes and the Pharisees with secret access to knowledge not held by others. The types of editing you're talking about can only be done by someone with access to the Scriptures in electronic format and a lot of computer savvy.

What about my Mozambican pastor friends. I think of one I visited who had a big pile of Bibles in neighboring languages and he read them all (the Bible isn't available in his mother tongue). While he doesn't have the tools we have a believe that a plain old book with chapters and verses for comparison sake is the best tool a believer can have.

And I'd say his method is a strong one: comparing different versions.

Regarding devotional reading, I think most people would interpret that as more than the emotional aspect of reacting to the text. I'm thinking of a discipline of regular reading for personal growth.

Thanks for the interesting thread.

At Fri Jan 06, 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...


In 1 Cor. 12:12-26, Paul develops his idea in five parts:

1. Intro: We're one diverse body (12:12-13)
2. "I'm not needed" is incorrect thinking (12:14-17)
3. God is sovereign regarding where we fit (12:18)
4. "You're not needed" is incorrect thinking (12:19-24a)
5. We honor each other; we suffer with each other (12:24b-26)

Interesting, isn't it, that the middle thought is wrapped by the surrounding two? Therefore, God's sovereign choice in placing people and their many varied abilities within the church is quite central to the correct understanding of how the gifts are to function.

Also, notice how vs 19 mirrors and inverts vs 17. Even part 5 reflects the first part kind of like a summary reflects the preface.

This structure clues me into how to infer the intended meaning. Let me point something out here: all interpretation is inferential. Blakemore (following Sperber and Wilson) makes it clear that the mind processes communication in two steps: a decoding phase which is essentially processing the syntax, and secondly, an inferential process which is much more pragmatic. The syntactic structure is key to the inferential (interpretive) process so the text remains authoritative.

And, note how the paragraphing in the NIV is quite different (in my opinion, wrong, and I think the syntactic cohesion and resulting cognitive coherency show that to be the case). It seems to me that the NIV, here, doesn't enable the reader to see the structure.

How would I translate? I would construct 5 paragraphs and I might put either connectives or adversatives at the beginning of the each (to help the English flow). For example, I would start verse 19 with "On the other hand, ...". Also, I would seriously consider moving the central paragraph, vs 18, to the end and use certain words to capture the intended emphasis. For example, something like: Central to all this is the fact that God has arranged...". This would be followed by vs 24b which would not start with an adversative (as the NIV). I probably would say, In fact, God has combined the members of the body....

That probably feels radical to a number of readers, but think through what the Greek syntax is doing and try to capture that in natural English syntax. It's important to use natural English syntax because of what Blakemore points out (as I've mentioned above). Different languages use different syntax. That's why translation is required in the first place. The difficult hurdle for people to get over is that we're not working at the word level here. Therefore the syntactic difference between the two languages is much more noticable.

Hope that helps.

At Fri Jan 06, 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

lingamish pointed out my assumption of computer savy in order to do what I'm suggesting. He referred to that as 'elitist'.

Good point!!

And you're right, we agree. In fact, an unstated motivation (now stated) for me is this: This blog is about Better English Bibles. So, what I want to see is translations which either enable this type of activity (bringing the technology to the analytical people that will make use of it even if they don't have computer savy, or other kinds of savy). Or, the translations themselves benefit from the activity and thereby enable all the other people to benefit from a more accurately translated text.

At Fri Jan 06, 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Paul W said...

Hi Mike,

Would you be so kind as to allow me to put this post in the comments at my weblog :D.

Thanks too for such a detailed response! Because my post didn't get much response, I thought I could leave the blogging alone and enjoy the summer holidays in New Zealand! This post is only one of four, so I'm making some of the points you do in my second post (which is still being drafted).

At Fri Jan 06, 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...


Sure. <irony alert>It's important to me to cross the hemisphere boundaries<irony alert off>

I pray that people would be served and God would celebrate (Luke 15).

BTW, I feel your feelings about blogging--who would listen? I have to somehow find the time to get back to exegetitor. I think what I have to do is pick a project (going through James, for example) and then just blog my way through it.

At Fri Jan 06, 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Thanks, Mike. I've also moved sentences (and sometimes paragraphs) in my translation to maintain the focus and/or logical flow of a text. Otherwise, clarity and/or naturalness for my target audience is lost.

At Fri Jan 06, 01:48:00 PM, Blogger Anne and Mike said...

Hi Mike,

I was happy to read your post about how to read the Bible. Your last line in your post about it feeling like the first time meant a lot to me. Let me tell you why. In these last few months, I have been brought to tears and have layed in bed awake thinking about the beauty of the Bible. You see, my dad has made an incredible discovery that opens the NT Scriptures in a way that we have never seen.

Let me just say first hand...this is legitimate. One day scholars will come to understand this discovery, hopefully this year.

My dad has diagramed the New Testament into Stories in the Literary Form of the Parable. He has found that one of the narrative traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures is well-defined and invariable. I know it may seem incredulous, but I promise it's true, the entire New Testament has been written in this well-defined literary form.

The literary form has critical relationships and the critical relationships show the intention the author is conveying. Each Story is written using this same literary form, each having a particular theme. Each Story has 5 sections. Inside each section there are 4 statements, and sometimes 5 if the wisdom statement is appropriated.

My dad first discovered the literary form while studying Luke. He found that Acts and all the Gospels were written in this way. Next he recognized Hebrews, 1 John and Revelations. He was pretty amazed to find that the entire NT was written in this way. So if you are feeling like this is crazy, he felt the same way at first. Now it feels normal to us, and someday the literary form will feel normal to scholars. His books are under revision and the first one, THE 150 PARABLES, hopefully will be out in Jan or Feb. This book explains the literary form in detail, and shows the four gospels diagramed into its Stories. Chapters are eliminated. The 4 gospels total 150 Stories. He explains how to read the Stories too.

At Sat Jan 07, 08:44:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Thanks for this stimulating and I think edifying post. Any thoughts to help us read Scripture better are certainly helpful, and really it seems needed. It seems that Bible reading is not nearly as strong as it should be, even among committed followers of Jesus. And I know I can grow in this, of course.

I am hopeful, as you mentioned Gordon Fee, that the TNIV version to come out, having neither chapters or verses, but designed to help people read the Bible better, will first come out, and second help more read Scripture better. Hopefully this will have sufficient input from Fee and company to be well done.


At Wed Jan 11, 10:33:00 PM, Blogger Herobill said...

Hi. I liked this post a lot. Here's part of mine:
Episode Sixty-Eight
Thessalonica, Berea, & Athens
Winter to Spring, 51 AD

After passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia, Paul and Silas walked all the way to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish Synagogue.

According to his custom, Paul went into their meeting. For three Sabbaths he dialogued with them by unrolling the scriptures, explaining and showing that the Christ had to suffer and come back from the dead. He said to them, "The Christ is this Jesus, the one I'm telling you about."

Some of them became convinced and joined with Paul and Silas - so did a whole lot of the god-fearing Greeks, and more than a few of their main women.

The Jews who were not convinced became jealous. They used some troublemakers hanging out in the city square to help gather a crowd, and they made chaos in the city by breaking into Jason's house, trying to find Paul and Silas and bring them before the Council. But they weren't there.

So they dragged Jason and some brothers to the Politarchs[1], shouting, "The ones who've been turning the world upside down have come here too! And Jason is keeping them! They're all breaking the law Caesar gave, saying there's another king - Jesus."

The crowd and City Leaders got upset when they heard all this.

The Council took bail money from Jason and the rest, and let them go.


That same night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.[2]


When Paul and Silas got to Berea, they went into the Jewish Synagogue.

These Jews were more high-class than the ones in Thessalonica. They were totally ready to receive the word. Every day they searched the Scriptures to see if these things were correct. As a result, many of them believed. So did more than a few of the outstanding Greek men and women.

Now, when the Jews from Thessalonica found out that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they came to Berea and stirred up their crowds. So then, right away, the brothers and sisters sent Paul away to go down the road to the sea.


Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea.


The ones who went with Paul went with him all the way to Athens.

In Athens, Paul told his carriers to send Silas and Timothy to him as quickly as possible, and then they left.


While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, his spirit inside him was aggravated when he saw the whole city was full of idols.

So he went into the Synagogue and dialogued with the Jews and god-fearers.

He also talked in the marketplace each day with whoever happened to be there.


One day in Athens, while Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, he met some Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers.

Some of them said, "What is this seed-picker trying to say? Others said, "He seems like the announcer for some strange gods."

So they took his arm and brought him to Ares' Hill.

The Athenian Council said to Paul, "Can we know what this new doctrine is that you're talking about? You're bringing strange things into our ears, and we would like to know what they mean."[3]

So Paul stood in the middle of Ares' Hill and said, "Men, Athenians. I see that you are, in all things, devoted to many gods. Because while I was walking around and thinking about your worship-objects, I also found an altar that had these words: "To God Unknown". So, this one who you don't know, who you worship, I announce him to you.

“The God who made the world and everything that's in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth. He does not live in man-made temples. He is not served by human hands – as if he needed anything – since he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone.

“He made - out of one blood - all the nations of mankind that live on the face of the earth, and he set out pre-arranged times and places for them to live and seek the Lord, in case they might fumble around and maybe find him, although he's really not that far from every one of us. Because "In him we live and move and have our being", as some of your poets have said - as well as, "We, too, are his children."

“So, being the children of God, we shouldn't think that gold or silver or stone, or a statue and our imagination… is anything like what God is like. So, it’s true that God overlooked these times of not knowing. But now he's telling all men everywhere to change their mind, because he has a set day on when he is going to judge the world by righteousness, by a man he has appointed. He gave everyone evidence by bringing him back from the dead.”

But when they heard "bringing back from the dead", some made fun of him.

Others said, "We will listen to you again about this."

So Paul left them. And some people joined him and believed, including Dionysius from Ares' hill, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


A couple of days after Paul’s speech on Ares’ Hill, Silas and Timothy arrived from Berea. The three men met for a while, and decided that Timothy should go visit Thessalonica. (Paul and Silas were still banished from there.) But Silas went back to Berea, leaving Paul alone in Athens again.

Paul gave them instructions for Timothy to join Silas after a while in Berea, and that they should then come together to find him in Corinth.


After these things, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.


[1] In Thessalonica, the leaders of the city Council were called Politarchs (city-chiefs).

[2] From Thessalonica, Berea is a long day’s walk across the plains of Macedonia. Thessalonica was a busy trading port, but it was winter, and Paul couldn’t have sailed out of there if he’d wanted to!

[3] Everyone in Athens spent all their spare time just telling or hearing new things.

At Wed Jan 11, 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Herobill said...

Sorry that was so long! I couldn't find your e-mail link!

The second to last "scene" was supposed to be in italics. And also the first two footnotes.

Feel free to link to me at

Thanks for this chock-full site. I'll look forward to perusing some more, sometime!

Peace - Bill


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