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Approaching the Biblical Studies Paper


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Research in biblical studies at Westminster is focused upon understanding what the Bible says and means. Because students often come to seminary with a prior familiarity with the Bible, careful attention to what a text says and means can sometimes seem too elementary or simple.

To read well is a difficult and delicate art, and to read the Bible is to read a unique book—an ancient book telling an ancient and complex story, with many different parts, genres, and authors, spanning centuries of oral and written transmission, and compiled in due time according to the providence of God.

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To study a biblical text well requires paying attention to its specific details and subtleties, in an effort to listen carefully to everything that a particular passage has to teach. The detailed study of a text most easily proceeds by means of the focused exercise of asking questions of your text.

As you consider the critical questions involved in biblical study, it may be helpful to review the various scholarly strategies for biblical criticism.

As you seek to answer these questions, you will inevitably find yourself using secondary sources to fill in gaps in your knowledge and to familiarize yourself with ongoing scholarly discussions.

These are the first steps toward responsible and careful exegesis. But, these alone will not help you to understand the fullness of what your passage means in God’s larger redemptive plan. For help connecting your passage to the larger narrative of the whole Bible, see tips for biblical-theological papers.

Asking Questions of Your Text

These questions will stimulate the exercise of listening carefully to the text. Not all questions will be pertinent to your text, and some will remain unanswerable.

Background Questions
  • Who wrote this text? What can you learn about the background of the writer?
  • To whom did they write it, in what circumstances, and for what purpose?
  • What sources did the author use when composing the text?
  • Does the text appear to have undergone an editing or redacting process?
Listening to the Text Questions
  •  What is the text about?
  • What is the genre of the text? Does it mix genres?
  • How does your reading of the original languages shed light on the text? 
  • What key words need to have their meaning clarified?
  • What literary structure and devices does your author employ (e.g., irony, imagery, metaphor)?
  • Are there text-critical difficulties you need to investigate?
 Contextual Questions
  • What textual clues define your pericope?
  • What do the surrounding pericopes mean for the delineation and interpretation of your passage?What role does your text play in the book (or collection of books) in which it sits?
  • If your author has written other biblical books, how do they shed light on your text?
  • Does your text allude to or explicitly reference another passage of Scripture? Is your text referenced or alluded to by another passage? Are there key people, places, things, or themes in your text that are also found elsewhere in Scripture?
  • For an OT text, how might this passage have functioned at various stages in redemptive history? What would it have meant to Israel, the post-exilic community, to Jesus, and to the church? (This last question moves in a biblical-theological direction.)

Using Secondary Sources

Secondary sources (what scholars have said about your text) are necessary for responsible exegetical study. By reviewing secondary source material you will benefit from the insights of many different exegetes.   

Because the exegetical paper is primarily an exposition of the biblical text, your consideration of secondary research material should not overwhelm your own analysis and discussion of the text. Your paper must not merely recount what different scholars have said about your passage. Rather, your paper should be a sustained engagement with your passage that clearly communicates your own conclusions about it and only references secondary material in a way that supplements your own study. In this way the exegetical paper will be your own explanation of your text in dialog with secondary material.

Strategies for Biblical Criticism

Source Criticism seeks to understand on what written sources the author of a particular text depended when composing a text.

Form Criticism proceeds on the assumption that most biblical books existed orally before being written down. Form criticism seeks to reconstruct that oral stage and locate it in the Sitz im Leben (“life setting”) in which it originally arose and functioned.

Redaction Criticism seeks to understand how various ancient versions of biblical texts were edited and compiled by a later redactor. This approach seeks to discern how the redactor shaped the final form of the text to make particular theological points.

Genre Criticism identifies the literary genre of a text. This is done by comparing the text with similar ancient texts to discern how the original author and audience would have understood it. 

Historical Criticism seeks to reconstruct the world in which a text was first written and read. It shows how investigation of historical background can shed light on the Bible.

Tradition Criticism is concerned with how a text has been understood by various traditions contained in the Bible. For example, how was Moses understood by the communities of Josiah and Ezra?

Canonical Criticism asks what meaning texts have in their final canonical arrangement. It is concerned with how the rest of Scripture elucidates a text and vice versa.

Literary Criticism refers to the application of literary theory to the study of the Bible. It includes, but is not limited to, analysis of rhetoric, plot, character development, themes, imagery, and poetry.

Professor Mike Kelly - Approaches to Biblical Criticism

Tips for Biblical-Theological Papers

 Know Your Passage Well

 It is difficult to discern the relationship between your passage and the rest of Scripture until you have spent ample time studying the passage on its own. While a detailed discussion of exegesis will probably not find its way into the final draft of your paper, you should nevertheless devote yourself to careful exegesis and, if possible, translation from the original languages. Do not rush this step. 

Meditate on the passage and pray for insight. This step often provides a fresh understanding of familiar texts, opening new avenues for exploration. For additional help, see the Guide to Writing Exegetical Papers.

Identify Major Themes, Motifs, and Theological Concepts

No passage says everything, so pay attention to the particular emphases of your passage. What imagery is used? How does your passage present God? What is the relationship of God to His people, and to those who are not His people? What theological points does the author emphasize? These and other questions will help you to identify particular themes, motifs, images, or concepts for further exploration. 

Being as specific as possible in identifying these elements will provide a clear direction for your investigation of how these elements function within the rest of the canon. (For example, identifying “the church” as a major theme of Eph 2:11-22 would be less helpful than “the church as God’s building” or “the community of peace.”) 

Balance Depth and Breadth

Because of the marvelous complexity and interconnectedness of biblical truth, there is virtually no end to the exploration of any particular theme. Exploration of one theme will lead to insights on other themes. The unity of truth means that biblical themes are organically related to each other and to the whole scope of revealed truth. Therefore study of any individual theme can provide a view of Scripture as a whole.

While it is necessary to consider each theme carefully and thoroughly, you should not give so much attention to the depth of a single theme that you fail to identify and explore the breadth of other themes involved in your passage. Because you have limited space, be succinct and direct in your writing, so that you can cover as much of the biblical landscape as possible without sacrificing depth of analysis.  

Keep Christ Central

As you consider how the themes and concepts of your particular passage are developed progressively in Scripture, remember that all of the promises of God, in both Old and New Testaments, find their “yes” of fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Your paper should indicate how your passage points to Christ – how the themes of your passage find their climactic fulfillment in Him. This does not mean that every passage of Scripture is a direct “messianic prophecy” but that every part of Scripture does contribute to the story of which Christ’s coming is the grand fulfillment.

As you familiarize yourself with scholarly discussions of your text, you will be surprised to discover ideas, interpretations, and questions that you had not previously considered. You will want to become conversant with the major interpretations of your passage, allowing the questions generated by your research to focus your ongoing study.

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