Every degree track at my seminary requires completion of at least one course in Inductive Bible Study. Students often joke that it is no surprise that IBS shares its acronym with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I’ve dreaded the class and put it off until the very end in the hope that the degree requirements would change, eliminating the requirement.
Alas, that never happened. So here I sit, taking my last class and it is an inductive study of Mark.
But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find that I’m enjoying the class. It is a lot of work, but I’m continually amazed at the richness of this text and how much there is to learn once we remove our blinders. This really is a radical and revolutionary document. It says much more than most of us realize (and often much less).
I’m tempted to share one of my paragraph or segment analyses, to show what it’s like. But I’ll spare y’all that (for now). I will share a couple of tips though for how best to appreciate this text, in my humble opinion.
First of all, try to find a Bible that doesn’t have the text broken into chapters and verses. These numbers were all added much later and were not intended by the authors. They contribute to our tendency to fragment the text and remove sentences and paragraphs from their context, often at the cost of the intended meaning. The headings that modern Bible editors have added to the text also are distracting and often impart doctrinal and theological spins that may not be justified in your own careful reading.
Take Mark (for example) and try to read it through in one sitting, without the “numbers” and headings. It is a narrative. Read it like one and you may be surprised at how you react to it. I was.
Try reading the text objectively. Try not to impose on it any pre-existing biases or constructs. Try not to fold into it things you’ve read elsewhere in the Bible. This is extremely difficult and will take some effort, but the reward will be worth it. Try to imagine as you read it that you’re hearing this story for the first time. Allow yourself to be shocked by things that would have been shocking to those who heard it for the first time. Allow yourself to be puzzled and confused, if that is natural to a natural reading.
If doing these things gives you a desire to dig deeper, then take a segment of the text (a section or a paragraph–as determined by your own reading, not by Bible editors) and drill down into it. While always keeping the segment in context with the rest of the text, look at the words carefully. Compare other English translations. Wonder why there are differences among translations and why those differences sometimes seem to affect our interpretations. Finally, if you’re feeling geeky enough, have a look at the words in their original language. I recommend Bible Suite (http://bible.cc/). You can search a verse and the site will give you lots of resources, such as parallel translations. Click the tab titled “Greek” at the top and you’ll see the original Greek with a literal English translation. Click on a specific word (such as one whose meaning is unclear to you) and it will show all other uses of that word in the Bible. Often the familiar translations of the same word are quite different in different places.
After you’ve done all this, if you’re still interested in pursuing further, have a look at a scholarly commentary or two (not a devotional), to learn more about the history and context of the passage. I can just about guarantee you that this process will give you fresh insight (perhaps in some radical ways) to the Scripture.
A couple of final thoughts on Mark. Keep in mind that it was written before Matthew and Luke. The authors of Luke and Matthew had Mark to draw upon (and they copied much of it, editing it to suit their purposes), as well as a now-lost collection of the sayings of Jesus which we call “Q.” Matthew and Luke essentially combined Mark and Q, editing them with their own audiences and purposes in mind. But the author of Mark didn’t have those advantages. The author may have had other texts as resources, but that is unknown. The point is, I suggest trying to read Mark without Matthew and Luke in mind. Mark should stand alone and has a materially different perspective at times than what appears in the other synoptic gospels.
Lastly, if you have an older Bible (or are using an older translation), keep in mind that the material found in Mark 16:9-20 was not part of the original document. It was added much later. It is not part of the story the author of Mark was telling. Either the author intended the abrupt and strange ending, or the original ending has been lost.
For any who try this, I hope you enjoy it.