CHICAGO – Biblical scholars speaking at the Pastorum Live conference Tuesday shared tips on studying the Old Testament, hoping to make it a less daunting task for pastors and the everyday Christian. Understanding Scripture involves the consideration of two things: the cultural worldview of the author and the structure of biblical text.
Dr. Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, said understanding Scripture is similar to human relationships. When people understand cross-cultural differences they can better relate to each other. Similarly, he explained, when the reader understands the cultural background of stories in the Bible they will better understand the meaning of the Bible.
"We need the cultural background, sometimes even when we don't know we need cultural background," Keener told the audience at Park Community Church, the location of the two-day Pastorum conference.
He pointed to the dress code for women as an example. In biblical times and some cultures today, for instance, married women believe it appropriate to cover their hair. It would be similar to wearing a swimsuit to a church service in America today, Keener explained.
Understanding the cultural differences, between the American culture and the culture in which the Bible was written, helps Christians interpret the significance of scriptural references to female head coverings, he said.
Dr. Michael Heiser, academic editor for Logos Bible Software, which sponsored the Pastorum conference, said a common mistake Christians make in studying Scripture is thinking about the application of Scripture without first considering the cultural context of Scripture. If the cultural context is understood first, Heiser said, then Christians will have a better understanding of how to apply the Scripture.
Heiser compared dismissing the cultural context of the Bible to dismissing God's Word. God decided to relate to us through a particular culture that He chose, and taking that culture into context is trusting in that decision by God, he explained. Alternatively, not considering that context is essentially, "to diss God," according to Heiser.
Dr. Mark Futato, professor of Old Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Fla., spoke on how the meaning of Scripture can also be communicated through its structure. This means that attention should be paid to how a scriptural text is saying something as much as what it is saying. For example, a text can have a linear structure (a-b-c), a parallel structure (a-b-c-a-b-c), or a symmetric structure (a-b-c-b-a).
Referring to Psalm 8, Futato illustrated biblical interpretation using a symmetric structure. Psalm 8 begins and ends with verses about the majesty of God. In between, it speaks of the majesty of humankind.
One interpretation of Psalm 8, according to Futato, is that the central story of the Bible is revolved around man and God.
"It is about you....It is about God," he said.
"Creation is about you. Redemption is about you. ... The story of the Bible is about you, God's love for you."
Futato also encouraged conference participants to study Hebrew as a way to better get closer to the Word. He said that reading the Bible in Hebrew is much better than a translation, comparing the reading of a translation to kissing a bride through a veil.
"You can kiss a bride through a veil, and its a real kiss, and it says something, but there's some intimacy that is missing there," Futato said, but if you study Hebrew, you can "lift the veil" and get "intimate contact."
Dr. Richard Briggs, director of biblical studies at Cranmer Hall, St. John's College, Durham University in England, outlined the Old Testament's vision of a wise reader of Scripture.
"Scripture is a wonderful gift. It's also a strange gift," observed Briggs. The Bible can be both "familiar and encouraging" and "strange and discouraging." It is a gift that is "hard to handle well," he said.
Scripture tells us the virtues we need to understand Scripture well. This is a circular argument, Briggs admitted, but it is a virtuous circle.
"Scripture is determining who we should be; who we should be helps us to understand Scripture," Briggs said.
Pastorum Live Conference will conclude Wednesday. Speakers on the second day will cover the New Testament, reading and studying Scripture, and the application of Scripture. The conference will close in the evening with the theme "connecting the dots," which promises the synthesize many of the main themes from the conference.