Bible Study: University or Church?

There are a number of interesting and important questions concerning the use of the Bible within the Church and University. There is the issue of 'ownership': who has the 'right' of interpretation? Can someone who does not profess Christian faith really understand Biblical texts? Although this issue accounts for much of the heat provoked by academic and Church-based handling of the texts, the major difference lies not so much in interpretation, but approach. 

'Close' or 'Distant'

First year undergraduates quickly realise that the way the Bible is studied in a university is very different from that at church. That difference can be described as how 'close' or 'distant' one feels oneself is to the text. It must first be noted that the terms 'close' and 'distant' are descriptive and not intended to indicate value judgements. It also has nothing to do with how carefully one reads (interprets or engages) with the text. Rather, it describes how those texts are perceived. It is the effect on the reader of their approach or methodology. 

First let us consider a simple rather stereotypical illustration of the two approaches. Two people sit down to study chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark; one (A) is studying for an undergraduate essay and the other (B) is reading devotionally. What is immediately noticeable is what is in front of them on their desk. It is true that both have New Testaments open at Mark 13, but there is something very different about the text itself.

Two Gospels of Mark

First of all A's Gospel is in Greek. Moreover, the text itself is fragmented by a system of strange symbols. This is because A is reading a 'critical edition' which is a text which is compiled from a number of manuscripts. The symbols refer to particular manuscripts which support that word or phrase, as well as those manuscripts which differ. A's Gospel of Mark serves to emphasise that the text is from a different language (and therefore culture) and that it is the result of an historical process of transmission which includes different or variant readings. In other words, A's text reinforces the historical, geographical and cultural difference between it and the reader; for all intents and purposes, A's Gospel is from 'another world'.

On the other hand, B's text is in English. Moreover, if B is reading a modern translation, its format is more likely to reflect contemporary texts. Verses are amalgamated into blocks of paragraphs (their numbering as inconspicuous as possible) often running across the entire page rather than in two columns. Chapters are set with their own chapter headings. Therefore, by its style and language, B's text effectively closes the historical, cultural and linguistic gap of A's text and emphasises its contemporary nature. 

However, this is not all. If we look closer at A and B's desk we will also find other differences. A and B use different 'tools' to access and make sense of the text. These will be something like the following:

University - Textual Distance

Greek critical edition

Lexicon (Ancient Greek-English Dictionary)

Grammar (Important for identifying idiomatic usage)

Synopsis (Matthew, Mark and Luke printed in parallel columns)

Commentaries - detailing text critical issues. Usually more than one is used in order to compare authors


Church - Textual Closeness

English Study Bible

Study Notes - emphasis on making text relevant to reader's context

Commentary - possibly with emphasis on application

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