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: Nave’s Topical Bible

January 11, 2019

The best-known topical Bible is Nave’s Topical Bible. It is the work of Orville J. Nave, who was a chaplain in the U.S. Army. The original copyright dates for the work are 1896 and 1897. He states his purpose in the preface, “The object of this book is to bring together in encyclopedic form and under familiar headings all that the Bible contains on particular subjects.”1 A concordance is an index of Bible words. A topical Bible is an index of Bible topics. The topic word doesn’t necessarily have to occur in the verse listed as long as the idea is there. The original Nave’s has 5,324 topics with more than 20,000 subtopics and 100,000 scripture references. There are 31,202 verses in the ESV which illustrates the fact that a verse may be listed multiple times in a topical Bible. He also has cross references to similar and antithetical topics. Nave originally keyed his topical Bible to the KJV and later added examples from the Revised Version, which was the British predecessor to the ASV.

Like all the other Bible study tools we’ve examined, a topical Bible is a human effort. The user must make certain that the verse cited for a topic actually supports the topic, which means understanding the verse in context. In fact, a topic and verse may not even agree with Nave’s personal views. He warns, “Passages variously interpreted by different religious schools or accepted authorities are cited under the subjects they are claimed to support, without reference to the personal views of the author.”2

What can Nave’s Topical Bible do for you? Under Jesus the Christ, the reader will find many helpful subtopics. He lists the events in the life of Jesus much in the order that you would find in a gospel harmony with references. He provides a list of attributes of Jesus. He gives a list of all the miracles of Jesus, all the parables of Jesus, and all the prayers of Jesus. Titles and names of Jesus are listed among other things. Under circumcision, you find a basic history of that topic, but also helpful is a list of the figurative uses of circumcision in scripture. Under God, you will find a list of the attributes of God. Under Jericho, you find a history of the city with verse references. Nave’s can help you find something quickly or jump start your study of a Bible topic. For some things, it may be quicker than a concordance.

Students will also find The New Nave’s Topical Bible by various publishers. Zondervan’s has been edited by John R. Kohlenberger keying the work to the NIV and adding additional topics. Logos Bible Software has one edited by James Swanson which also has additional topics. Both based on Nave’s original work but with revision. Electronic versions of Nave’s tend not to give verses in full but only verse references, because the references are actually links which makes viewing the verse in full easy to do. (OliveTree’s original Nave’s is only $4.99.) Nave’s is also available online at: https://www.biblestudytools.com/concordances/naves-topical-bible/. Nave’s Topical Bible is a good basic, Bible study tool.

1Orville J. Nave, Nave’s Topical Bible, 1896, 1897, p. 3

2Ibid., p. 4


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.


The Power of Habits

September 1, 2017

Habits are powerful. They are the things we do without having to think about them too much. They represent our routine. When they are good habits, they help us live the kind of life we want.

I’ve been working on healthy habits this year. I’m drinking more water and very little diet soda. I’m trying to eat right, which in my case involves counting calories. I’m walking daily and exercising. But I will confess that forming these new, healthy habits has not been easy, but it has been life changing. I wish I’d done it sooner

How long does it take to form a new habit? One number that is frequently heard is 21 days. This number doesn’t quite represent the original quotations from which it was taken. It would have been truer to say a minimum of 21 days. More recent research would such that it takes on average 66 days, but depending on the complexity of the behavior, it can take longer. But good habits are worth it.

Once you form a good habit, you do certain things routinely. Of course, the danger is that you will lose the habit if you keep breaking it. Habit formation doesn’t take perfection, but it does take consistency.

Spiritual formation also includes habits. I’ve learned important routines in my spiritual life, things that I automatically do. One of the habits I would like to suggest to you as we begin a new quarter in our Bible school program is participation in Bible class on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. For some of us, this is a habit. We don’t have to ponder whether we are going to go. We just go. We have formed this as a habit in our life.

Will every class meet a burning need in my life? Will every class give me a spiritual, mountain top experience? Probably not. I’ve had meals of physical food that were quite memorable. I’ve eaten food that didn’t appeal to me very much (for example, think about your least favorite leftovers), but was still nourishing. The same will probably be true as we attempt to provide spiritual food in our Bible classes. I’ve learned to find something worthwhile in the classes I attend and to be spiritually nourished by it. Besides another aspect of being together is fellowship and forming my identity with fellow Christians. This is even more important for our children.

I suspect in eternity we will not look back on time that we spent in Bible classes and say things like: I wish I’d slept in more. I wish I’d watched more TV. I wish I’d worked more. I wish I’d done more household chores, or whatever else we might have done with this time.

I hope that you will give this habit a try. Remember habit formation will probably take weeks to months. Consistency is important in forming this habit. But maybe at the end of that time, you will say what I’ve said about my new healthy habits: I wish I’d done it sooner.


Handling Accurately the Word of Truth

August 27, 2016

Charles Shultz had a great “Peanuts” cartoon where Charlie Brown is so busy reading his Bible that he forgets to feed Snoopy. Snoopy bangs on the door, enters and fixes his own meal, but before leaving has Charlie Brown read Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.” Charlie Brown cries out in reply, “Give me two weeks and I’ll find a verse to answer you.”

In his cartoon, Schultz poked fun at an all too common approach to scripture. Many people take the verses of the Bible as if they were a string of unrelated statements which can be pulled out to prove just about anything.

We must guard ourselves against this danger. Even though the Bible is inspired by God, we must use the same kind of common sense approach that we would use in understanding other books. We need to ask what kind of writing is this? For example, is this part of the Bible narrating history? Is it a letter? Is it prophecy? Is it poetry? After determining what style of writing it is, there would be further questions. To whom is it written? (In answering this question, we would want to include in our answer whether it is written to people under the old covenant or the new covenant.) And we need to ask who is speaking. After all, Satan is quoted in the Bible.

We would want to understand the verse within its immediate context (the surrounding verses and chapter), the wider context of the book, and the overall context of the whole Bible. We would want to interpret difficult and obscure passages in the light of clearer passages on the same subject.

There are in fact two distinct steps: (1) what does the passage mean, and (2) how does the passage apply to me. In the first step, we are asking what did the passage mean when first written and read by its first readers. After determining that, we may ask how do we apply this to ourselves.

Let us go back to the example of Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.” In the psalm this quote is spoken by God. He is rebuking his people for combining wickedness with worship. They continue to offer the sacrifices, but it is not matched by right living. He reminds them that the sacrifices are not made because God is hungry or has needs, “for the world is Mine, and all it contains” (Psalm 50:12b). In application to us, this psalm can remind Christians that we must serve God in all things, both in our worship and in our everyday behavior. God doesn’t need us; we need him. But clearly the verse means something different in the context of scripture, than it did in the context of the conversation between Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Their error is an easy one to commit, but with care an easy error to avoid.

The Bible is not an impossible book to understand as long as we approach the Bible the right way. May we follow Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB).


Improving Your Bible Literacy

August 22, 2014

By Bible literacy I simply mean having a good working knowledge of what is in the Bible and feeling comfortable reading and studying the Bible. Bible literacy in our country is at a low according to recent surveys. How do you buck this trend in your own life? First, make a commitment to read the Bible. Here are a few tips for improving your Bible literacy by improving your reading.

Get an Overview of the Bible Story. The Bible is a library of books divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. We need to become familiar with this library. The first step is to become familiar with the historical narrative of the Bible: the overall story of the Bible I would recommend beginning with the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and Acts. They provide the story overview of the New Testament. Reading Genesis through Esther provides the story overview of the Old Testament. With this historical framework, you are better prepared to explore the whole library.

Look Up Words in a Dictionary. The Bible has unfamiliar words: apostles, disciples, redemption, justification, propitiation, and the list could go on. Look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. I would start with a Bible dictionary, but a regular English dictionary is helpful too. Every good reader I know uses a dictionary frequently.

Ask a Reporter’s Questions. The Bible is understood in the same way we understand any other book. Yes, I value the Bible as inspired by God, but because God has chosen to communicate in written language, we use the normal tools for understanding something written. We ask the same questions a reporter asks. In “The Elephant’s Child,” Rudyard Kippling made the questions memorable:

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

There names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

Asking and answering these questions is an important part of reading for understanding.

Context, Context, Context. Sentences mean something in context. Lifted out of their context, they may appear to mean something they do not. That’s why we need to read books of the Bible and not just proof texts here and there. Examine the context of the passage, the broader context in a given book, and the context of the Bible as a whole. We also attempt to learn what we can about the historical context. All these are important strategies for reading and understanding.

Construct a Timeline. The Bible covers a lengthy period of history. It can help your understanding to look at a timeline or construct a timeline with major events and people on it. The NIV Study Bible has a very nice timeline in it. The ESV Study Bible also provides a timeline via tables with dates and events.

Look Up Places on a Map. The Bible has unfamiliar places. Looking them up in a Bible atlas aids in understanding. Journeys and battles may make more sense once we see things on the map.


What Are Strong’s Numbers?

August 15, 2014

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible was first published in 1890. It is a concordance of the King James Version. The concordance was compiled under the direction of Dr. James Strong, but more than 100 colleagues aided in the production of the concordance. Produced in the nineteenth century everything had to be done by hand. It was a very labor intensive project, but it has been useful to Bible students ever since.

The unique feature of this concordance was that it exhaustively cross-referenced every English word of the KJV with the word in the original languages. Each word in Hebrew and each word in Greek were assigned a number. These numbers are known as Strong’s Numbers.

Strong’s numbers allow the English readers to get back to the original language without knowing Hebrew or Greek. If they are curious about a particular word, they can look up the English word in the concordance, locate the verse reference, and then find the Strong’s number. This number tells them what original language word stands behind the English translation. With the number, the word can be looked up in the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries at the back of the concordance. This feature is helpful in digging deeper in a passage, evaluating translations, and doing word studies.

With a Strong’s number a student can do a word study on the original language word. He or she could find every occurrence of the particular Greek or Hebrew word regardless of how it may be translated. Most translations render the same Greek or Hebrew word with some variety due to the range of meaning each word has. But doing a word study on the original language word may help the reader see this range of meaning. It may help the reader see connections within the text that become lost in translation.

For example in John 21:15-17, John uses two different Greek words for love in Jesus’s question and Peter’s reply. Does that have significance or not? Some say that it does. I tend to think it is just a case of synonyms, and the main concern is that the question is asked three times (reminiscent of three denials). By using Strong’s Numbers a reader could look at John’s use of these two words for love in the entire gospel.

Strong’s numbers have been applied to translations beyond the KJV. The numbers have also become searchable in some Bible software packages and apps (e.g., Logos, Accordance, and Olive Tree Bible Study App to name a few). In computer-based searches, the search can be done much more quickly than with Strong’s Concordance and looking up all the references by hand in a Bible.

In addition some dictionaries and word studies use Strong’s numbers, so the reader can find additional information (e.g., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (by Harris, Archer & Waltke), or The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition.)We are blessed with tools that help us carefully look at the text of the Bible.