The most important, most overlooked, most easy and most superlative tool in scripture study: Part 2

(Part 1) I have my functional stylish desk, sharpened pencils, scriptures and a clean slate…. and there it sits, stubbornly remaining that way… blank.

Many people just don’t know what to write in their notes, which often means that they haven’t really crossed the line from scripture reading into scripture study. (The problem with scripture study is you can often barely get through a verse without running down all kinds of interesting rabbit trails, questions, etc.)

1) questions- This is one of the master categories, and is very fruitful. Lots of my notes take the form of questions, and questions can be of many different kinds. Questions focus your thinking. Basic journalistic who-what-when-where-why-how questions can be very useful  in getting your facts straight, identifying things you’re unsure of, and remembering things to look up and hunt down. “Which Herod is this?” “where was Jericho, and what’s the significance of mentioning it here?” “how does this follow from the previous verse?”  “We already KNOW Laman and Lemuel are older, why is Nephi telling us again?”

My scriptures are filled with questions I don’t yet have answers to, and I think that’s the way it should be, i.e. having a knowledge of the truth but always continuing to seek and learn (to invert some Biblical criticism).

John Welch ( BYU law prof, gentleman and scholar) has some useful thoughts on question-asking here though really, read the whole article; Faulconer (BYU Philosophy prof, gentleman, scholar, and Patheos columnist) also addresses question-asking in Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions. (Really glad to see that online now.) And of course, he has lots of questions on each Gospel Doctrine lesson at T&S/FUTW.

2) answers- Sometimes when I return to a verse, I have an new perspective on an old question, or new data (see below), so I write it in. I tend to date my notes, so I can see that I had a particular question in May 4 of 2006, and found an answer in December of 2008. And a further correction and thought in July of 2009.

3) references- As I read books, magazines and blogs, I come across useful bits that pertain to particular passages. I’ll go to those passages and write in the reference and maybe a 1-line summary. If it’s an electronic source, I’ll link the reference title to the blogpost or article. So, for example, I have recently added a link in my John 21:5 notes to this post by Bill Mounce (well-known grammarian of NT Greek). I have a link for Alma 30 to “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy” Ensign, July 1992. That article introduced me to things like “epistemology” while on my mission.

I also write in other kinds of references, like my own cross-references and relevant scriptures, as well as competing or contradictory scriptures.

4) text from those references – Oftentimes, I don’t just want the bibliographic reference, but some actual text, the money quote. Sometimes I copy in a line or two, sometimes a whole paragraph or more.  Since my notes are electronic, there’s no space limitation, and I can copy in lengthy passages. I try not to do that too much, because it both dilutes the power or relevancy of the note and makes it difficult to find things in it if it’s too long.

In the case of reference materials, sometimes I do copy in everything relevant. My Book of Mormon notes have lots of lexical entries, where I’ve copied in information on a particular word from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, usage elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, historical usage from the OED, as well as lexical info from the Hebrew/Greek translated that way in the KJV. I’ll copy in information from commentaries, Ensign articles, and anything else relevant that I want to have instantly at hand in that verse. Material of prohibitive length or secondary importance gets a link or reference.

I’ll also write in textual changes, notes about different translations (and the reasons for the differences), or the JST/1830 Book of Mormon/ Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic meaning, textual variants, etc.  Sometimes I write in information I disagree with, as well as my argumentative counter-notes.

In my Book of Mormon notes, I have marked the original “chapter” divisions, which are much larger than the current divisions by Orson Pratt for the 1889 edition. Our current layout and divisions contribute to atomizing the text, to decontextualizing it, breaking up the flow of thought into sometimes arbitrary groups. (FWIW, King James chapter divisions do this too, with chapters and verses sometimes dividing up sentences.)  Jacob 4 and 5 were one large thought-unit in the 1830, but today we’ve divorced chapter five from the reason it’s given, in chapter four.

5) impressions- Note taking is not just for useful facts and interpretations, but also for spiritual progression. Several papers have been written on how remembering or forgetting one’s deliverance, whether spiritual or physical, contributes to spiritual progression in the Book of Mormon (e.g. Alma 29:11-12, or Alma 60:20); remembrance of past spiritual experiences is life, forgetfulness likely means regression and a return to past mistakes. (See here for a short treatment. More available for the asking.) If you don’t write it down, odds are you’ll forget at some point.

6) significant dates- This might be dates of some event described in the text (e.g. “Assyrian conquest- c. 722BC”), a date relevant to the writing of a revelation in D&C,  or more personal dates (“I visited Hebrew on March 3, 1999.”)

7) things to look up later- When I’m away from my references or the internet, and come across something, I’ll often make a note of what I want to look up and where. I even have some shorthand, such as CG and CH for “check Greek” and “check Hebrew.” “What did goodly mean in Webster’s 1828?” “Is honey honey?” (Answer: in the Bible, milk and honey usually aren’t what we think of. Milk was predominantly from goats or perhaps camels, not cows. Bees weren’t domesticated in Israel, so what is called honey is most often devash or dates boiled down to a sweet thick syrup. Honey as we think of it is sometimes termed “wild honey,” because that’s the only way they got it.) “Didn’t Gardner/Peterson/Barney/Skousen/FUTW have something to say about this?”

8) Summary material – paraphrases, outlines, headings; Each of these is qualitatively different from those above.

  • Paraphrases- Just as reading in a foreign language forces you to slow down and pay attention to each word and phrase, writing your own paraphrase of each verse really makes you analyze the words as well as the logical flow and progression of thought. If you work on each verse separately, and then read several of them together, does it make sense? Does it flow well? If not, you haven’t really understood the verses. I did this on my mission and got totally stymied at Alma 13.
  • Outlines- At BYU, I required my BoM students to outline a book once, 2nd Nephi I think. Whether you outline a chapter or a book, doing so can help you see how each piece is supposed to fit together. Jim Faulconer has a short chapter on outlining in Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions.
  • Headings- At a slow job in times past, I printed off Book of Mormon chapter headings and spent some time learning them. It really facilitated my knowledge and understanding of the structure and narrative, as well as where this story or that story is. Even more useful is writing your own and putting them into your notes. Since, according to the Apostolic author of our current chapter headings (scroll down to On Aids and Helps for quote and refs here), they are not perfect, not meant to establish doctrine and undoubtedly have mistakes, feel free to write your own.

Coming in part 3- Now that you have all this great stuff, where do you keep it all so you don’t lose it?

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  • http://curledupwithagoodbook.blogspot.com Erin

    Fabulous post, Ben!

  • http://www.keepapitchinin.org Ardis

    Ooo — lots of good ideas here. Thanks, Ben.

  • http://www.heavenlyascents.com David L.

    These are some really helpful ideas, Ben. I appreciate you putting this together. I’m looking forward to Part 3!