Essay / Education

An Olympian Standard of Bible Study

In the preface to Bernard Knox’s book Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time, he tells this story:

As an undergraduate at Cambridge I had been awestruck by a statement of Walter Headlam, a brilliant Cambridge scholar whose career was cut short by his early death at the age of forty-eight in 1908. He claimed that when embarking on the elucidation of a Greek poetic text, the scholar should first learn the text by heart and then read the whole of Greek literature looking for parallel passages. I cannot claim to have lived up to this Olympian formula (though Headlam seems to have done so for his uncompleted edition of the Oresteia), but I did read through all the extant Greek literature, early or late, that might help me understand the resonances of Sophocles’ words and phrases….

It’s really no big deal, just
Step one: learn the book by heart.
Step two: read all other relevant literature looking for parallels.

Knox, himself a classics scholar of daunting acumen, seems to despair of ever reaching the standard dictated by Headlam. “I cannot claim to have lived up to this Olympian formula,” he says, indicating that it’s a scholarly standard more appropriate for the gods than for mortals. Maybe back in the golden age people read that thoroughly. And they were also eight feet tall, lived for centuries, jumped mountains and threw mighty sequoias as javelins. But in these decadent latter days we’re living in, who can aspire to such tasks?

You know who comes close to this Olympian standard? Ordinary Christians who take Bible study seriously. Not even professional scholars, the kind of Bible student I’m talking about pays close attention to a book of the Bible for an extended period of time, “getting it by heart” if not exactly memorizing it. For example, my church is preaching and studying through Romans 1-8 right now, from about Christmas to Easter. That’s several months of soaking in one text. Meanwhile, many of them are reading through the entire Bible in one calendar year, on the MCheyne plan or some other schedule. The combination should be an experience of the first half of Romans against the background of the large body of literature most relevant to it. Again, these aren’t even professional classicists working in a university setting, but bankers, nurses, salespeople, teachers, contractors, and full-time parents.

Of course there are also actual professional Biblical Studies scholars trying to live up to the Headlam-Knox standard more precisely: memorizing biblical texts in their original languages rather than translation, and reading much more widely in the literatures of the surrounding cultures. These people spend years or even whole careers on one book of the Bible, and when they set out to read everything related to it, they mean everything down to the inscription fragments on ruins, the markings on coins from the period, shopping lists on parchment, and city council meeting minutes from ancient Athens. This is serious scholarship! Even Headlam would be satisfied by the thoroughness of the scholars who contribute to things like Zondervan’s Bible Background Commentary. First memorize, then read everything else, then write a commentary.

But when I first read Headlam’s formula, it wasn’t the top-flight scholars I thought of; instead my mind went to the ordinary Christian growing in their knowledge of the word of God. It doesn’t take any special training to do this. Such a high level of insight is readily available to all of us who set our hearts to study the scriptures.

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