Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 10: Bible Study Aids

  Bible Study Aids
     This lesson we will discuss some very basic Bible study helps.  Although there are truly a vast number of commentaries, books, pamphlets, and, yes, even blogs! dedicated to the study of the Book of Books, we will focus on just a handful of essential study aids.
     Before we get down to the nitty-gritty details, I would like to take just a moment to remind all of you dear readers that the study of the Bible is unlike the study of any other text ever written.  It is a life-giving and soul-changing inspired letter from God Almighty that we should approach with prayer, reverence, and humility:

Pope Leo XII
For the saving and for the perfection of ourselves and of others there is at hand the very best of help in the Holy Scriptures...; but those only will find it who bring to this divine reading not only docility and attention, but also piety and an innocent life. For the Sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Ghost, it contains things of the deepest importance, which in many instances are most difficult and obscure. To understand and explain such things there is always required the "coming" of the same Holy Spirit; that is to say, His light and His grace; and these, as the Royal Psalmist so frequently insists, are to be sought by humble prayer and guarded by holiness of life.--Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII  

May I suggest that you take a moment right now to pray the Prayer to the Holy Spirit on the left side of this blog?  This is a wonderful prayer with which to begin any Bible reading or studying.

I.  Concordance

     A concordance is a reference tool that makes the task of finding Bible verses or specific words in the Bible much easier.  Let's say you want to find the location of a verse, but you can only remember part of it-- the phrase "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." A concordance is the tool you will need to help you locate this verse.  Some Bibles have a small concordance near the back; there are also more complete concordances available.  Not every Bible translation has a concordance that corresponds to it, and many concordances are written by Protestant authors and do not contain the entire Scripture (the deutero-canonical books are not referenced).
The best available current Catholic concordance is The Catholic Bible Concordance for the Revised Standard Version.  

The source of grace and truth
So, let us look up our vaguely-remember verse.  We will choose an important word in the phrase we recall, such as grace.   All the words in the concordance are listed in alphabetical order, so we just flip through until we come to grace.  Because grace is used so frequently in the Bible, we see a long list of possible verses that use that word.  They are listed in order from Genesis to Revelation.  Each reference is given with a short excerpt that helps you identify the verse.  In this case, you will have to read down the list until you come to Jn 1:17, where the excerpt reads, "was given through Moses; G and truth came through".  (G standing for our word grace).  So, there it is!  You found it! 

The concordance is also useful when you want to study a particular word and its use in the Bible.  Let us say I want to find out what the Bible has to say about "rainbows".  I can turn to that word, and see listed beneath it all of the verses that use the word rainbow.  I see four verses listed, but none of them are about Noah...why not? In the story of Noah, God places a bow in the sky, not a rainbow.  We turn to bow and there we will find the verses from Genesis that recount Noah's rainbow, in addition to other verses that refer to the rainbow as a "bow".  However, there are several verses listed under bow that have nothing to do with rainbow, but are references to bending down to others, as in to make a bow to the king!   Strong's Exhaustive Concordance with Greek and Hebrew lexicon  avoids this problem by giving you the original Greek/Hebrew word and by listing verses according to the particular meaning of the word; however, it does not reference the deutero-canonical texts.  It is available for the King James Version and I have a copy that references the New International Version.  There is an online copy of Strong's for both the KJV and the New American Standard versions. 

So you see here some of the uses and limitations of the concordance.  You do need to know your Bible pretty well to make good use of it---but get started reading and studying it, and soon you WILL know it well! 

The first concordance was the work of  a Dominican, Hugo de Saint-Cher, who was assisted by 500 of his religious brothers.  It was based on the Vulgate Bible and was completed in AD 1230.  It used the book and chapter designations recently invented by Bishop Stephen Langton, but no verse designation, as they were introduced later (I updated the New Testament  post to reflect this correction). Another great Bible invention we can thank the Catholic Church for!

II.  Historical Atlas of the Bible

     When we read the Bible, we often encounter place names that no longer exist.  For example, there is no Judea anymore, nor is there a country called Moab or a city called Elam, yet these are all places mentioned in the Bible.  In order to understand the geographical locations which are referred to in the Biblical text, you will need an historical atlas, such as this Historical Atlas of the Bible by Ian Barnes.  The Penguin Historical Atlas is also fairly good and less expensive.  If you prefer a free alternative (who doesn't?), this online site is a great resource.  Check out the maps available under the "American Bible Society" link!

III.  Commentaries
     Commentaries can be a blessing or a true source of confusion!  The very nature of a commentary means that the author has a chance to promote his or her own interpretation of the Scriptures.  So choose a commentary carefully!  My favorite commentaries are:

The Navarre Bible Commentaries (There is a complete Navarre New Testament, but the separate commentaries for each book/section of the Bible have a lot more information)
Anything by Steve Ray or Scott Hahn, such as The Gospel of John (Mr. Ray) or The Lamb's Supper (Dr. Hahn)
The individual books of the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (it is available in a single New Testament edition as well, but, like the Navarre one-volume text, it is not as in-depth as the separate booklets.).
And, of course,...

IV.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church

     This is the best of all "commentaries" because it encapsulates the teaching of the Church which is the product of some of the most holy and intelligent minds of the last 2000 years.  The best way to use the Catechism as a  Bible study tool is to turn to the Index of Citations in the back of the catechism.  Here is listed for you, in order, all of the verses of the Bible which the Catechism references.  Let's say you wanted to read the teaching of the Catechism about Genesis, chapter 1.  Listed in the index are all of the verses in Genesis 1 that the CCC quotes or references.  Next to each verse is the number of the paragraph that references that verse.  So, Genesis 1:1 is referred to in CCC 268*, 279, 280, 290.   The asterick following CCC 268 indicates that Gen 1:1 is paraphrased in CCC paragraph 268, not quoted directly. Here is the Catechism's comment in paragraph 279:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  Holy Scripture begins with these solemn words.  The profession of faith takes them up when it confesses that God the Father almighty is "Creator of heaven and earth" (Apostles' Creed), "of all that is, seen and unseen" (Nicene Creed).  We shall speak first of the Creator, then of creation, and finally of the fall into sin from which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to raise us up again.

Pope Benedict XVI
V.  Encyclicals

     Many encyclicals deal with biblical topics, or directly with the Bible itself.  Among these are:
Humani Generis  (discussing the origin of human life)
Dei Verbum (the teaching of Vatican II on the Word of God)
Mater Redemptoris  (on the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Providentissimus Deus (on the study of Holy Scripture)

All of the papal encyclicals are available here. 
VI.  Other useful tools

     Other reference tools are helpful when you are trying to study the Bible in-depth.  Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and books of the history of the time period you are reading about can provide valuable insights.  As you read, remember that every author writes from a particular point-of-view.  Reserve judgment on any controversial topic until you have researched both sides of the argument and also have read up on the teaching of the Church with regard to that topic.
     A dictionary of the Bible is an easy way to begin getting essential information on many subjects. The Catholic Bible Dictionary is one I have used and can recommend.
     Of special use is the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent. This encyclopedia has tremendously thorough articles and a broad range of entries especially pertaining to Catholic and Biblical topics.  The background information in these articles will really help you understand the historical and cultural contexts of many Biblical stories.
     A topical Bible has verses listed by topics, such as grace, love, sin, Abraham, etc.  If you want to find out what the Bible has to say on a given topic, it is helpful to begin your study with a topical Bible.  The most well-known one is Nave's Topical Bible.  It is also available online.
     While many of the available online study aids are developed by Protestants, one fabulous Catholic resource is Crossroads Initiative;  it has a ton of useful information!
     Don't forget to use the cross-references in your Bible if you have them.  They are usually at the bottom or center of the page.  The cross-references list other verses in the Bible that directly correspond to the verse you are reading.  Let us say I want to find some verses related to Jn 1:1 in my RSV-Catholic Edition.  I look at the bottom of the page under Jn 1:1 and I will see listed there in bold 1:1. Next to it are: Gen 1:1, 1 Jn 1:1, Rev 19:13, Jn 17:5.  These are other verses that Jn 1:1 either quotes or directly draws on, or which are based on Jn 1:1.  They are listed in order from most directly related to least directly related (at least, that is what I have observed... it doesn't really explain that in the notes of my Bible).  Not all Bibles have this study aid.
One timline option (see link at left)
     Finally, if you are a visual learner, a timeline can help you see how the episodes in the Bible fit into the larger historical picture.  Remember, as you study dates, that the longer ago an event took place, the less likely there is to be agreement on its date.  Take dates before 950BC with a cup of salt!    A nice option is   The Great Adventure: A Journey Through the Bible Bible Timeline Chart.

VII.  Pace yourself!

     The study of the Bible is a lifetime pursuit.  Please do not rush out and purchase all of these study aids at once!  Incorporate them one at a time as they meet your need and interest.  Over the course of time, you will gradually accumulate knowledge as you study the Bible.  Many parts you will want to study more than once.  Perhaps one time you will want to think about the spiritual meaning (use The Navarre Commentary),  another time you might study the geography (an atlas) or history (encyclopedia).  Keep on studying and you will keep on learning...the Bible is a treasure of insight and knowledge.  

Your Assignment

1.  Read CCC 115-118.
2.  Read the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-25.
3.  Try to identify the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical sense of this parable, based on what you learned from the Catechism.  We will go through this exercise in the next lesson, so if you get stumped, the (or at least an) answer will be discussed then.

Main idea:  Bible study aids are useful in understanding the geographical, historical, and theological meaning of the Bible.

Next lesson:  The Four Meanings of Scripture, Part I

The end of the road, literally!
Dear readers, we are drawing close to the end of this series.  We have only 3 more posts remaining after today:  two on how the Church teaches us to understanding the various meanings of a given text of Scripture and one on typology.  I hope you have learned some new and helpful things as you have read these lessons!  After this series wraps up, if you want to continue on, we will plan to move directly into a more in-depth look at the history of salvation by going through each book of the Bible (or, in some cases, each section) a little more thoroughly.  At this point, here's the future plan:

1.  Cover the Old Testament books in more depth, viewing it both for the stories contained in it themselves and for the way in which they pointed forward to and were fulfilled in Christ.
2.  Study the life of Christ (the Gospels, basically) through a study on the mysteries of the Rosary.  This study will tie together all the Gospels as well as texts from the Old Testament.  There might be some repetition of the material in (1) above, but this will help you learn and remember it.
3.  Study Acts and Paul's epistles through a study of the life of St. Paul.
Me, posting in 2030!

By the time we finish all of the ambitious plan above, it will probably be about the year 2030....

What do you think?  Shall we continue on to the Old Testament books?


  1. I like that picture of you posting in 2030 :) Thanks for all of the resource links, really great information.

  2. yeah..pretty cute, huh? The older you get, the older you...ahem...are!