What is Bible Study?
Gail R. O'Day
People read the Bible in many settings, such as religious services, personal homes, libraries, hospitals and hotel rooms. Not all Bible reading constitutes Bible study, however. When you read the Bible in a hospital room, you may be seeking to understand your condition from the perspective of your particular religious tradition. You may thus reflect upon illness using the kind of metaphorical language in, for example, Psalm 22 :
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. (Ps 22.14–15 )
Moreover, you may gain some comfort from the confidence in God expressed in psalms of lament, for example, Ps 55.17 . In such a reading, the Bible will have played an important role in your life, but it would be inappropriate to designate that sort of activity as Bible study.
“Bible study” means different things to different people. To some it means sitting at home, reading, and underlining passages in red pencil. To some it means gathering with members of one's church to read and share perceptions about a biblical text or theme. To some it means taking a course devoted to an aspect of the Bible in a college or university classroom. The only real common denominator for these various approaches is attention to the biblical text.
For the purposes of these introductory essays, Bible study means “the disciplined and active reading of the Bible in order to gain new understandings about the biblical text or the reader's own situation.” This way of thinking about Bible study includes learning about ancient Israel or early Christianity as well as coming to a new understanding of one's own condition.
We would add one other initial comment about Bible study. Since the Bible derives from ancient cultures, it is, in many ways, a foreign document that requires study in order to be understood properly. Put another way, for the person who takes the Bible seriously, Bible study is not an option but a requirement. The appropriateness of such Bible study is attested in biblical times. Acts 8.26–40 recounts an episode in which an Ethiopian eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip approaches him and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The need for guides, whether in the form of a teacher, a book, study materials or an internet site, is even more powerful today than it was in Philip's time.