Toward Becoming a Gospel Scholar
Gospel scholarship reads the scriptures very closely. Little details are important in scholarly discussions, even though they may not be of eternal gospel earthshaking significance. It has been said that God is in the details. This applies to gospel scholarship.
I go back, most often, to individual word studies as my point of departure. Words are the building blocks of sentences, chapters, and eventually books. What do the scriptural words mean?
A gospel scholar needs to know as much English, Greek, and Hebrew as possible. This does not mean that every gospel scholar must be expert or even proficient in working with these languages, but even the amateur must be willing to invest time studying words and languages in order to work with the dictionaries, concordances, commentaries, computer programs, and many other tools that are readily available to most readers. All students should be acutely aware of the need to listen for such information in scholarly discourse and to withhold final judgment until questions about the original intent of the words in the scriptures have at least been asked and checked out.
Sometimes these little points help us in understanding the narrative. For example, when Mary places Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the "inn" (Luke 2:7), the Greek word behind this translation probably does not refer to a public house, a pandochion, like a hotel or motel, but rather to a guest room in a private home, a kataluma. Interestingly, the Greek word kataluma appears only in two episodes in the Gospels, the first time in the infancy narrative of Luke and the second time in the passion narrative (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). When Jesus and his disciples needed a room in which to eat together at the Last Supper, they borrowed a man's kataluma, his guest room, for the occasion. Apparently, Mary and Joseph preferred to move into the stable portion of their ancestral Bethlehem home rather than share its crowded guest room with other relatives. But it does not appear that some unmentioned innkeeper rudely turned them away.
Other times, word studies are of extreme importance for theology. How should we understand the word teleios in Matthew 5:48, when Jesus instructs his disciples to be "perfect"? The word probably has much to do with being finished or completed, particularly in the sense of being fully initiated into sacred ordinances.
Even if a person cannot learn much Greek or Hebrew, he or she can easily study etymologies in standard dictionaries and can use interlinear Bibles that offer word-by-word translations. Beginning students may be relieved to know that Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible uses a numbering system so that any reader can locate the Hebrew or Greek word that stands behind every English word in the King James Version of the Bible.
Gospel scholars read texts in blocks or literary units. At this level of reading, it is important to understand the context, the overall construction, and the underlying purpose of the unit of text itself.
Sometimes it is easy to tell where a block of text begins and ends, such as is the case with the speech of Benjamin or the speeches of Alma. It is more difficult to tell in the book of Isaiah where one prophecy begins and ends.
Once these units have been identified, a gospel scholar can get a firm handle on these scriptures. For example, knowing the main purpose of Alma 32-33 (a speech that is better if not divided into two sections, but read as a single discourse), a gospel scholar can understand the logic of that block of text, which deals with not only planting the familiar seed of faith, but the themes of humility, prayer, faith, and specifically faith in Jesus Christ as well.