Reading the Bible 101 – Characters and plot

When reading from any part of the Bible the best study questions to ask yourself are “who, what, where, when, and why.” I recommend even writing them out as you read. They form a type of grid through which you can read scripture to get more out of it, then a personal admonition for the day. So far we have looked at approaching a passage with an understanding of the Holy Spirit superintending the work of the author. There is the consideration of the time period or history of the people concerned within the passage. There is an underlying linier flow to the Bible where if you are in the New Testament, you will have to consider that it came out of the Old Testament. There is the theological theme of redemption through the Bible, so considerations as to how passages point to Christ are a factor. Is Christ being foreshadowed in an OT passage? Is there no foreshadowing, but the concept of covenant and a preserving of the linage through whom Christ is to come in view? If in the NT what is being taught from a now Christ’s life, death and resurrection stand point? Basically there is a lot to consider before just reading through a passage or two and arriving at an application for our lives. Your pastor struggles with such questions week in and week out, to arrive at the heart of a passage for Sunday and although he may be paid to do so, it should not limit us to being spoon fed. We too can learn to read God’s word critically and arrive at a passage’s true meaning apart from the various applications that may derive from it.

As a literary work don’t forget to consider the relation of author to his audience. Remember that although the Bible is written for us, it was not written to us originally. You and I are not of the church in Corinth, we are not the people of Israel wandering the desert, and so-on. There is not always (and I’ll add not typically) a one to one correlation in what we read. This is the work of interpretation.

Characters are all in place for a reason. Especially in the Gospels there is a tendency to want to harmonize then, as if one Gospel covers for the lack of detail in another. For example Matthew discusses the healing of two demon possessed men in the country of the Gergesenes but Mark only mentions one. There is no problem here. Mark only intends to focus on the fellow making the most trouble. It does not deny that another fellow could be present and is just not mentioned. But all of this distracts from the focus each of passage. To overlay the one with the other gets us into a discussion that neither author had in mind for us to debate. Rather we should focus on the characters given to us. Matthew wants you to know about two men for a reason, and Mark being in a hurry to get us to the cross, only focuses on the one. We get too wrapped up in comparing each of the different versions, or angles, of a story that we no longer read each as if it is sufficient all on its own. So I caution that although cross-references are helpful within the gospels they can also be a distraction. Each of the Gospels is a complete gospel in and of itself.

As you read, work through the plot of what is actually going on in the story as presented. Follow not just what character you want to identify with but review the reaction of all characters to the unfolding plot. Look for commonalties and distinctions within stories, but be cautious not to overemphasize one and neglect the other. Identify your action words and so forth to get a clear picture of what is going on. Identify actions as typical or unusual for the character or time period. Make use of various resources to help you with word uses, characters, titles, or more background.

Are there any questions? If not, I plan to look at parables as the final topic of things to consider when reading your Bible. After that I think I’ll post the breakdown a few passages as samples.

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