Outlining A Book Of The Bible? You're Doing It Wrong

The key to outlining a book of the Bible is to make sure you structure it the way an ancient Hebrew would.  If you outline without knowing this ancient way, then you'll be missing out on a deeper understanding of the book that you're studying, or even worse, if you try to force the book into a typical outline, you could completely misunderstand what the Biblical author was trying to say.  Knowing how to outline correctly can help you understand where the author was placing emphasis, and it can even help you remember Scriptures better.

Knowing How Ancient Writers Structured Their Writings Can Help Us Understand Them Better

Several years ago, I was trying to outline Genesis, but the more I tried, the more it seemed like it had no structure.  It just seemed like random stories were just arbitrarily thrown together.  Sure, I could have forced it into an outline and ignored the things that didn't seem to fit, but I wondered to myself if perhaps the ancient Hebrews structured there writing differently than we do.  Turns out they did, and it's called chiastic structure.  @@It's time to stop forcing books of the Bible into outlines they were never intended for@@. They may be using a chiastic structure instead.

How Chiastic Structure Works

The typical Western style outline looks something like this:

I. Introduction
       A. Sub point 1
       B. Sub point 2
II. Point 1
       A. Sub point 1
       B. Sub point 2
III. Point 2
       A. Sub point 1
       B. Sub point 2
IV. Point 3
       A. Sub point 1
       B. Sub point 2
V. Conclusion

Chiastic structure is more cyclical in nature. It looks like this:


A chiasmus uses inverted parallelisms so that the words or idea in A is somehow reflected in A′.
X marks the main point and is somewhat similar to the “conclusion” in the Western outline.

Here's a chiasmus from Genesis 17:1-25:

A    Abram's age
B        The LORD appears to Abram
C            God's first speech
D                Abram falls on his face
E                    God's second speech (Abram's name changed, kings)
X                        God's Third Speech (Covenant of circumcision)
E'                   God's fourth speech (Sari's name changed, kings)
D'               Abraham falls on his face
C'           God's fifth speech
B'       God "goes up" from Abraham
A'   Abraham's age

Chiastic structure can be contained within a few verses or span entire books.  There can also be chiastic structures within chiastic structures, creating complexity and beauty that some consider to be poetic.  

This type of structure can also assist in helping you remember the Scriptures.  If you can remember A, then you know that A' is reflected in some way.  This was helpful in the ancient world when most teaching was orally, and the literacy rate was low.

It's also helpful to know where the author's main point is in the structure.  If the main point is in the middle, and you are looking for it at the end (the conclusion), then you'll be off the mark.

Chiastic structure is much more prominent in the Old Testament, but there are plenty in the New Testament.  If you don't feel that a book uses chiastic structure, then don't force it into one.  Each book is unique and you'll have to determine whether it uses a chiastic structure or not.

Chiastic Structure And Mirror-Reading

Chiastic structure can be beneficial when mirror-reading.  Not only does it help you grasp the overall structure of the book, but can also be useful in identifying key themes and reoccurring word/phrases, which is good to know when mirror-reading.


How To Choose A Bible Commentary And Why You Should NOT Use One

There are 9 rules that will help you determine which Bible commentary to get.  But should you even use one in the first place?  We'll take a look at when and if you should use one.

The Right Commentary Will Offer Depth And Challenge Your Theology

A simple search for "[Book of the Bible] Commentary" will bring up a near endless list of commentaries.  How do you cut through the clutter?  How can you tell which offer the most value? If you're new to the Bible, it's hard to tell which are the good ones and which are the bad ones.  Even worse, you may have a bad one and not even know it!  The 9 rules below will help you navigate the overwhelming world of Biblical commentaries and narrow it down to a more manageable selection.

9 Rules For Choosing A Bible Commentary

1.  Avoid whole Bible commentaries

Look for a commentary that addresses only the book of the Bible that you are studying.  Commentaries that address the entire Bible just don't have the space to tackle the text in depth.

2. Avoid a set of commentaries by one author

An entire set limits you with one perspective and may not be as thorough as individual commentaries. Buy individual commentaries as you study through the different books of the Bible.    The same goes for buying a whole set of a particular series, since the quality may vary, so avoid them if you can.  

3. Pick a scholarly commentary, not a devotional/expository/popular commentary

A scholarly commentary will give greater depth and interact with the Biblical text in a much more serious way than a devotional commentary.  Devotional commentaries do serve a purpose and give practical application but they are basically written sermons that don't offer what the serious Bible student is looking for.  Matthew Henry, Everyman’s Bible Commentary, J. Vernon McGee’s notes and Warren Wiersbe’s commentaries are not what you're looking for. However, some scholarly commentaries can be quite technical, so if you're not quite at that level, look for a scholarly work that is a little more readable and geared for the general public.  The following rules will better define what a scholarly commentary is like.

4. Verse by verse

A good scholarly commentary will examine the Scriptures verse by verse - word by word even.  It will let the text speak for itself and give a detailed analysis.  Avoid commentaries that briefly review the text and then pontificate the author's favorite theology.

5. Interacts with extra-Biblical literature

Extra-Biblical literature can add additional insight to the Scriptures.  We now have many manuscripts and ancient texts to draw from and if your commentary doesn't utilize these, you're missing out!  Not only can ancient Jewish works, such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees help give historical and cultural background but ancient texts of the surrounding cultures of Israel provide helpful information.

6. Original languages

Look for a commentary that interacts with the original languages.  The author should be competent in the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic that is relevant to the text.

7. Newer

It's not that today's commentators are better or smarter than their predecessors, it's that they have so many more resources.  We've had so many archaeological finds and ancient texts discovered just in the last century.  Today's technology also gives commentators a huge advantage.  Personal computers and Bible software can greatly assist in research.

8. Go digital

As impressive as a set of physical commentaries can look on a bookshelf, you really should go digital if you can.  Bible software such as Logos will link to other helpful resources that you use in the software.  At the very least get something that is searchable on a computer.

9. Look for commentators that are open to mirror-reading

Not all commentators are open to mirror-reading because of its controversial nature. Look for a mirror-reading friendly commentary.  Be warned though, just because they mirror-read does not mean they mirror-read well.  Judge their mirror-reading for yourself and use the information from this site to help analyze it.  Here are a few commentators that are at least open to mirror-reading: John M. G. Barclay, Nijay K. Gupta, Douglas Moo, Ralph P. Martin, David Garland, and Robert Jewett,

Should You Use A Bible Commentary?

Everyone is different but in short, the answer is no... at least, not at first. Give yourself a chance to get to read the text and get to know it.  Read it over and over and over and over... you get the idea.  You basically want to do a Vulcan mind meld with it, so to speak.  Simply reading your Bible is not considered "research" but it will give you a chance to become familiar with the themes, keywords and phrases.  @@Get to know the Book of the Bible you are studying before being challenged by a commentary@@.

On the other hand, if you're already familiar with the book of the Bible that you are studying and have already gone through a commentary or two, then you may find articles from academic journals helpful.  Journals narrow their focus on very particular parts of Scripture. Websites such as Sage Journal provide access to many journals, sometimes for free.

Header Image PHOTO CREDIT: brett jordan cropped from original

Why Is This Bible Study Method So Controversial?

If there was a Bible study method that could give you profound insights into Scripture, would you use it? Or would you let fear stop you from learning?

There is such a method called mirror-reading, but it's not without controversy.  Mirror-reading assumes that Biblical authors were responding to a situation.  They were only one-half of the conversation but the other half can be inferred by what they've written.  And it's figuring out the other side of the conversation that has some people so afraid.  

Overcome Your Fears For Greater Understanding

Hopefully most of us prefer not to be false teachers. Many aspiring teachers of the Bible have James 3:1 "you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" lurking in the back of their minds. Besides the "fail fast and fail often" mantra of silicon valley, most of us probably prefer not to be wrong about things.  When it comes to interpreting the Bible, many want to err on the side of caution, but error is still error whether cautious or not. One only needs to look to Matthew 25 and the parable of the golden talents to see that the cautious servant is not rewarded.  

@@Biblical interpretation must not be determined by fear.@@ This is not a license to be careless but to examine the text with prudence and wisdom.  So open your mind to mirror-reading and embrace the possibility of deeper understanding.

4 Reasons NOT To Fear Mirror-Reading

1. Inference is a legitimate way to reach a conclusion

Mirror-Reading is sometimes thought of as too speculative. In an ideal world, we would prefer to have clear, propositional phrases with which we can use deductive reasoning.  That's not always the case, however, but sometimes we can infer things to reach a conclusion.

Circumstantial evidence is still evidence. You may not have seen the dog chew up the couch but with no other suspects and a history of mischief, we can be reasonably certain the dog did it.  We can never be sure the dog wasn't framed by the cat but the circumstantial evidence is enough to produce a verdict.  

Whether conscious or not, everyone makes inferences to some extent when reading the Bible.  From the New Testament we can infer that there is a conflict in the early Church between Jews and Gentiles.  We can even infer the reasons for the conflict.  At a broad level, most students of the Bible are comfortable mirror-reading.  Issues arise the more detailed one tries to mirror-read.  This site is dedicated to exploring how to mirror-read as accurately and as detailed as possible.

2. You can't know the "what" without the "why"

Some may suggest that we only focus on "what" the text of Scripture says and not "why" it says it.  However, sometimes we can't know the "what" without the "why".  Suppose a father tells his son "Don't use a hammer in the house" when the son is 5 years old.  It would be ridiculous for the son, after becoming an adult, to refuse to fix something in the house because his father said "Don't use a hammer in the house".  @@The reason something is said, impacts it's meaning.@@

3. Verify!

Mirror-Reading can become a cesspool of far-fetched theories, which is why we must always do what we can to verify any mirror-reading we do.  Not only is historical and cultural context important, but the context of the book that one is studying is also critical for finding evidence to support one's mirror-reading.  We must not just looking for possible interpretations of the Bible but the probable.

4. Be honest

If your mirror-reading is speculative, then admit that it's speculative.  Sometimes it's difficult to verify a mirror-reading and that's okay, as long as you let everyone know. Biblical scholar,  John M.G. Barclay, talks about putting mirror-reading into different categories such as:

  • Certain or Virtually Certain
  • Highly Probable
  • Probable
  • Possible
  • Conceivable
  • Incredible
Header Image PHOTO CREDIT: Ryan Hyde cropped from original

This Bible Study Technique Will Blow Your Mind!

You've probably never heard of this method of Bible study, but it can give you incredible insight and understanding of the Bible verses that you care about the most. If you know what to look for, some of the mysteries of Scripture can be solved.  It has totally changed the way I look at the Bible and I'm glad it did.   It's called mirror-reading.

The Bible Will Make More Sense To You

Comedian, Bob Newhart, has a hilarious sketch where he pretends to be an air traffic controller.  He speaks to several different pilots but we only hear Newhart's side of the conversation.  Even with half of the conversation missing, we can still understand the conversation to great comedic effect.  How can that be?  Because we can infer the rest of the conversation by what Newhart says.  We may not know exactly what the pilots said but we know enough to understand.  

Mirror-reading can help us fill in the "gaps" of the Bible. There's an interesting post going around on social media that highlights our ability to be able to fill in the gaps.  You may have seen it before, but those of you who haven't can read it below:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Our minds automatically try to fill in the missing pieces of information.  We do this even when we read the Bible.  The question is, what are you filling in the gaps with?  Are you inferring the other half of the conversation or @@are you filling the gaps in with your predetermined theology?@@

It is said that theologian F.F. Bruce spoke of Paul's letters by saying "Reading the letters of Paul is like hearing one side of a telephone conversation." @@The Bible is not a theological dissertation.@@  It is made up of various genres, including narratives, epistles and proverbs.  The Bible was not written in a vacuum but was written to specific situations and was responding to particular things that were being said.  If we approach Scripture as if it were a theological dissertation, we assume there is no other half of the conversation.  When that happens, we miss out on the full meaning of the text and our understanding suffers.

Just like we can infer what is said by what Newhart says, we can sometimes infer what was being said by what the Biblical authors wrote in Scripture.

Here's How To Mirror-Read

Mirror-reading can be a complex and sophisticated way of studying the Bible but if you're just starting out, here are 3 simple steps.

1. Read it over and over and over

When you pick a book of the Bible to study, you must read it repeatedly.  You want to become familiar with themes, phrases and even words that are repeated throughout the book. This familiarity will help you when you're looking for other verses to verify (see step 3) your mirror-reading.

2.  Ask the opposite

When reading a verse, ask the opposite of what it says.  Take Ephesians 1:1 for example:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Most people blow through this verse and see it as a simple introduction, without any idea of the insight that can be mined from it.  

Were there false teachers in Ephesus saying:

  • Paul was not an apostle of Christ Jesus?
  • Paul was not an apostle by the will of God?
  • They were not saints in Ephesus?
  • The saints were not faithful in Christ Jesus?

These are all questions that we could ask to help us get started on mirror-reading Ephesians 1:1.  However, we can't leave it at that.  

3.  Verify

Whatever questions we ask, we need to verify it with additional evidence, preferably from the same book that is being studied.  Without additional evidence, our mirror-reading becomes more speculative and dangerous teachings could arise from misunderstanding the text.

Header Image PHOTO CREDIT: Rafiq Sarlie cropped from original