Basic Bible Study Tools: Maps and Atlas

January 18, 2019

The narratives of the Bible deal with real people, places, and events in history. Maps and atlases help us better understand the places of Bible events. With a map, I find the stories come alive in a way that wouldn’t happen without the map. When we read accounts of journeys, seeing a map of the journey and distances involved aids our understanding. This happens when you look at a map of the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings in the Old Testament or the Missionary Journeys of Paul in the New Testament. When reading the description of the tribal allotments in Joshua, it helps to see those tribal allotments on a map. It makes the descriptions become more meaningful, which otherwise might be a bit dry and meaningless to read. We read of military campaigns and political pressures on Israel. Maps help us visualize the situation. Some atlases may even give detailed maps of important battles. Seeing the various empires surrounding Israel and how those changed over time, helps us understand this history better. It is hard to understand the Babylonian Captivity, if you don’t know where Babylon is?

Many Bibles will contain a few maps at the back. Looking at those may help you understand the kinds of things you will find in an atlas but with greater detail and description. You typically find a topographical map which shows elevations and climate. Often your read of people going up to Jerusalem. If you use a map, you will find sometimes they are coming from north of Jerusalem. I typical say when I’m going south that I’m going down. But when you see the topography of the land, you realize they are talking from the standpoint of elevation. They are going up in the sense that they are at a lower elevation, and they are climbing to a higher elevation in Jerusalem. Climate information helps us recognize deserts and wilderness areas as opposed to places with more water or fertile plains and valleys.

Maps are also given for various historical periods. Typically, you will find a map for the Patriarch period, The Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings, a map of the tribes, the United Kingdom, the Divided Kingdom, the Assyrian Period, the Babylonian and Persian Periods, the Roman Empire, Israel during the Ministry of Jesus, and Paul’s Missionary Journeys. An atlas may also give you maps of the Hellenistic and Maccabean periods between the testaments as well. You may also find a map of Jerusalem, and in atlases maps of other cities of interest.

Using a map correctly means going to the right historical period in which you are studying. It’s helpful to notice the distance scale on a map. Remember there may be multiple cities with the same name. Be aware that some sites are questionable as to location because the memory of them has been lost in history, and a map may give you several alternatives.

My favorite Bible map at the moment is a mobile app called Bible Map from http://www.ploughboy.org. It gives the ESV text on the left with locations underscored as hyperlinks. Clicking on the location puts a pin on a Google map on the right. You can change the view of the Google map between standard, hybrid, and satellite. Clicking on the information button at the site pin will take you to a detailed description with photos. The app is free, but unfortunately, it is only available in Apple’s iOS operating system. I would still recommend using other maps and atlases, but this app provides quick answers when reading.

Maps and atlases are a basic Bible study tool which will enhance your study and knowledge of the Bible.


Basic Bible Study Tools: Study Bible

December 7, 2018

What is a study Bible? It is a Bible printed with commentary. The goal is for the commentary to be brief enough, so the study Bible is still manageable in size to carry (although some study Bibles get to be pretty hefty). The format of commentary printed on the same page as the Bible text is designed to be helpful to the reader. It is there to provide quick answers. The creation of study Bibles has exploded in recent years. I count 22 study Bibles in my personal library, most of which are electronic. On a bookseller’s site I counted about 35 different study Bibles, and I suspect the real number is larger.

Study bibles have commentary for different purposes. Some provide basic commentary on the text. Others focus on helping the reader apply the text to daily life. Study bibles have been written to provide the reader with archaeological information, cultural background information, and even doctrinal background. Study bibles may treat themes like stewardship and justice.

Remember on this page layout you have the inspired text of scripture and uninspired comments. The text of scripture should test the comments. As a teacher, it is frustrating to ask a question about the text and receive the answer, “My study bible says.” Focus on scripture and use the helps of the study bible wisely. The helps of a study Bible (or any commentary) may provide the following.

  1. It provides context for a book: date, authorship, original audience, and overview of the book.
  2. It provides historical and cultural background information.
  3. It provides information on the context of the passage by reminding the reader of context within the book, the particular author, or the Bible in general.
  4. It may treat a difficult passage by explaining how different authors have understood this passage and giving the evidence for you to think through the issue on your own.
  5. It provides helpful information on the original language or aspects of grammar in the original language that impacts the interpretation of the passage.
  6. It provides helpful genre information, e.g., the nature of Hebrew poetry, characteristics of proverbs, characteristics of parables, etc.
  7. It may help you see literary patterns or structure in the passage or book.
  8. It may provide useful maps and charts.

Used wisely, the study Bible can be a useful part of the Bible student’s toolkit.


Basic Bible Study Tools: Bible Dictionary

November 9, 2018

A great deal of Bible study can be done with a few basic tools. As with any tool the questions are: what is it and what do I do with it? Let’s begin with every reader’s friend, the dictionary.

Through the years, I have asked people in classes and one-on-one Bible studies, “What does this word mean?” I have consistently received fuzzy to wrong answers, which is why I keep asking the question. When you run across a word that you don’t know, you may discern the general meaning of the passage by context. But you won’t really know what the word means until you look it up in a dictionary. Guessing rarely works well especially when the goal is understanding. I’m constantly looking up words.

A standard English dictionary has its place in Bible study. The Bible may have words that are not yet in your vocabulary, and the regular dictionary comes to the rescue. However, a standard English dictionary does have a limitation. It is defining what words mean now. As we read the Bible, we are wanting to know what the word meant at the time this passage was written. For example, the standard English definition will define baptism as sprinkling water onto a person’s forehead or immersing them in water because that is the way the word is used in the religious world today.

The Bible dictionary helps by dealing with words in their biblical context and dealing with the specialized words and names of the Bible. What are some of the things you can look up in a Bible dictionary?

  • Words that you don’t know or are fuzzy on, e.g., propitiation, grace, justification, sanctification.
  • People. If there is more than one person by the name you have looked up, the dictionary will help distinguish them. It will give a survey of what the Bible says about this person. Some dictionaries give pronunciations.
  • Bible Places. It will give a description of what happened at this place and what we know about it, and it will describe its location.
  • Books of the Bible. It will provide basic information to the reader: author, date, destination, origin, and an overview of the book.

I would choose a newer dictionary over an older one, so that you have recent archaeological information. The venerable Smith’s Bible Dictionary published in 1863 has Dagon as a fish god. Archaeology has demonstrated he was a grain god. I would choose a dictionary written by conservative scholars (e.g., dictionaries from Holman, Nelson, and Zondervan). Check the preface for theological outlook of the editors and contributors. Dictionaries are also keyed to a particular translation, and some are cross referenced to several translations (like Nelson’s and Holman’s). The preface should let you know the translation on which the dictionary is based. Finally, remember that with all reference works, they must be tested by scripture itself. Bias that doesn’t match up with what the Bible actually says can be found in dictionaries as well as commentaries.