Studying Scripture: Manuscript Studies

I’ve learnt a lot during my time at Ichtus Vlaanderen, and one of the many things was a Bible study method we called “Manuscript” study.

Preparation

It’s a reasonably simple approach in the sense that you can study Scripture this way with just about anyone. You take a decent translation (not too far from the source text, if your group can read Hebrew or Greek that’s super, but your mother tongue will do).

Copy/paste it into a doc. Then delete all paragraphs and verse numbers (those were added later). Now that you’ve done that, you have a text where the translators haven’t already interpreted the structure.

Three Steps of Studying

The steps below might seems a bit arbitrary – and they are – because after a while you’ll start swapping between the steps, but when you just start out, I think it’s best to follow this approach quite rigidly.

Step 1: Observation

In this phase you’ll try to get a grip of the text. Go through the text and indicate everything that stands out on your paper. Use pens, pencils, colour, lines, etc. to mark words, chart the structure, highlight themes and identify connections in the text.

Here are several questions that can help you:

Ask like a journalist Trace connections Imagine
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Repetitions
  • Similarities
  • Contrasts
  • Causal relations
  • General to specific
  • Specific to general
  • Main ideas
  • Side ideas
  • What do you see, hear, smell, feel?
  • Become a character in the text

Other:

  • What kind of literature is this? Story? Dialogue? Poetry? Commentary? Legal? Letter? Somethings it can be several genres.
  • Mark signal words like because, thus, hence, despite, since, in order to, but, so, etc.
  • Identify logical units. Which pieces belong together in terms of theme, time, place, idea, action. etc.?
  • Write down what stands out particularly, unexpected ideas, unusual turns, or parts that provoke questions, surprise, lack of understanding, irritation.
  • Look for connections with other Bible passages. (This will require some prep normally.) Read those passages in context, and not only those verses. Ask why the author cites those passages.

Try answering as many of those questions as possible.

Step 2: Interpretation

In this phase you will try to identify what exactly this text wants to communicate. You’ve just made some observations. What do they mean? What is the core idea of this text? The central assignment is to try to summarise the meaning of the text by answering the following question: what does the author try to communicate to the reader?

These questions can help you with this:

  • What are the linguistic relations you’ve identified? What do they tell you about the main thoughts of the text?
  • Formulate questions that you have based on your observations: why does the author repeat this word? Why does he use this contrast? Focus on the “Why?” and the “What is the meaning of this?” questions.
  • Select the most relevant questions. The questions that (1) are directly based on the text, (2) focus on the text, and (3) deal with the main idea.
  • Try to answer those questions. Try using (1) the actual passage, (2) the passages in the direct context, (3) texts mentioned in the passage, and (4) biblical dictionaries, commentaries, etc. (Try to avoid the last until you’re stuck.)
  • Ask yourself the big questions. What is the message from the author to the readers? What are the main points? Why is this passage here?
  • Try to summarise the main idea in one sentence.

Step 3: Application

A good Bible study needs thinking about the meaning for our current context. This can be a practical assignment (change in action), a transformative instruction (change in mind), or an informative teaching (change in knowledge).

These questions can help with that:

  • Is there a connection between the text and your life / our world? What is that connection?
  • Is God speaking to you through the text concerning a certain aspect of your life? What is he saying?
  • Are there specific commands, promises, examples, etc. that speak to you? How?
  • How can you respond to the challenge in the text? Be specific and honest.
  • What does this text say about your relationship with other people, your community and/or the society?
  • Which aspects are relevant on either individual or communal level?
  • What does this text teach you about God?

An application is only an application if you apply it, not if you only talk about it. A Bible text is transformative, so it should change you. Reflect on the change you’ve seen.