Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to Prepare a Topical Study of the Bible

Have you considered delving into one or more topics in the Bible? Has the Lord been prompting you to research something with more clarity than a simple word search? This article identifies the steps that I took in preparing a topical study of the book of Proverbs. A topical study, that is the look at specific subjects or themes, may not be for everyone, but if it is for you, this is my approach.

The Problem with Word Searches
A word search is good in that it can help you find occurrences of an English, Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic word in a portion or all of the Biblical text. For example, if you were looking into ‘grace’, you might open a search engine in a concordance, Bible software or through the internet. If you are using a Bible in your native language such as English, you would have to choose the translation of the Bible and which books of the Bible to investigate. If you want to look at it in the Greek, you might look for the word charis through a tool such as BibleHub: Greek word charis. There you will find there are five spellings for the word charis in the Greek.

But what about those times where Jesus extended grace to someone but the word ‘grace’ was never used? When Jesus met the woman at the well, some would suggest that he extended grace rather than criticism for her. And when he met Paul on the road to Damascus, the Lord's demonstration of blinding power was done with grace rather than condemnation. Hopefully you see that word searches can be limiting.

Topical Studies
Three times I've tackled the topical study of Proverbs – the second of those has been published. Here is my approach:
  1. The first and possibly most obvious thing I did was download a copy of Proverbs to my computer using a translation that I liked. On my first attempt, I failed to check the copyright permissions for that translation – ultimately that decision led to my abandoning that attempt. My second attempt used the NET Bible (New English Translation) because it is free of copyright restrictions as long as you stay within their rules.

  2. In my opinion, the Bible verses should be placed in a database application. While a spreadsheet might work for a while, I believe you will quickly outgrow that approach unless you are extremely clever. I used Microsoft Access which worked very well for me, placing each verse in a separate row in one common table. I also had tables that listed each book of the Bible and each translation that was being used. When the Bible verses were added, I recorded the ‘address’ information: translation, book, chapter, verse number and verse text.

  3. I then created two additional tables: keywords and topics. Keywords and topics were added as I discovered them. For each keyword, I tentatively identified the topics. Even the keywords were tentative at this stage because what I was looking for a working set of topics.

  4. The next part was a bit more complicated: I designed two more tables that contained just the relevant verses for each topic. In the case of Proverbs, many times the reference was restricted to just one verse but that was not always the case. If you are working with a narrative portion of the Bible, it is important to know the beginning and end of the passage. There also can be breaks where the narrative begins for a few verses, something irrelevant is discussed, and then then passage continues. The relevant portion may also be restricted to just a portion of a verse. The two tables that I designed were a) the reference and b) the specific verse portions for each reference.

  5. The time consuming portion came next: I read the entire text in context. By using the keywords, the references were located along with the verse portions. I found it absolutely necessary to read what preceded and what followed the identified verses, else I incorrectly categorized something or missed verses that were relevant. During this period, I finalized the list of topics and added other passages that the keyword search did not identify.

  6. I can't tell you how many times I analyzed Proverbs but it was a lot. At times it was numbing. Most of the time I found it necessary to categorize a verse into more than one topic. When I've looked at how others have categorized Proverbs, that is most important: verses are often not restricted to one topic.
    “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down into a person’s innermost being.” (Proverbs 18:8 NET)
    That particular verse was categorized under ‘Gossip / Rumors’, ‘Heart’, and ‘Speech that Destroys’.

  7. In time, I found that the English language sometimes twisted the original intent of the passage. I found a location that had all the Strong's Numbers for each verse, loaded that into another table in the database, and used that to refine my queries. This proved very helpful.

  8. To each topic / reference combination, I identified a keyword or keywords that qualified the passage. In the case of Proverbs 18:8, for example, the word gossip was highlighted for the ‘Gossip / Rumors’ topic which the words innermost being were highlighted for the ‘Heart’ topic.

  9. Sometimes I had comments to make about the passage that I felt were relevant to the topic. For example,
    “‘I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.’” (Proverbs 8:17 NET)
    The words “I” and “me” give personification of Wisdom.
    You too might wish to add relevant comments either for your own use or eventually end up being published.

  10. Using database software, it was a relatively easy matter to prepare the final text in alphabetical order with the references organized sequentially. In my case, I was able to create a PDF from Microsoft Access that was sent to the publisher – it never touched a word processor.

I took the above approach because I like a challenge and because I believe that the Lord prompted me, “Tom, you can do something that many other people are not trained to do.” However, by the third time I went through Proverbs, I became ready to move on – that work remains nearly finished but unpublished.

If you are considering the analysis of just one topic such as “money”, this type of structure may an overkill. A word processor might do just as well. But whichever you use, be very, very careful to never modify the Biblical text. Your final proofread should include a line-by-line comparison of your text with a paper copy of the Bible. Never assume your work is error free.

For more information about Tom, see A Bit About Me. You may also want to see more details about A Topical Treasury of Proverbs.