Bible study can still surprise in 2019

Katie Mercer reflects on new semesters, new perspectives and ancient texts. 

You may have noticed that parking spaces around the University of Otago are again in short supply. The line at the grocery store is filled with hoodied young people, arms full of lager, frozen pizza and kombucha.

In some quarters, Thursday evenings are now accompanied by reverberating techno tracks (of debatable musical quality). The students have returned and semester 2 is surely upon us.

Students are the lifeblood of universities.

For all their antics, scarfies demonstrate an altruistic desire to make the world better through their enthusiastic support of initiatives such as the #MeToo and Thursdays in Black campaigns, which take a stand against sexual violence, the university's Give Nothing to Racism campaign against prejudice, and Plastic Free July which seeks to reduce human impact on the natural environment.

All of these causes (and many others) work to make the world a better place for all of its inhabitants, human or otherwise.

It is heartening to see so much hopeful activism from students in a world plagued by so many ills.

As a teacher of ancient Greek and Hebrew, my classes can seem far removed from the troubles of Dunedin, let alone the tides of power surging on a global stage.

How does the study of ancient literature contribute to the goal of solving these larger problems?

There are many good answers to this question, but let's start with formation. Studying ancient languages and literature teaches discipline and patience, as my first year Hebrew students can tell you!

It's a lot of work to memorise verb tables, master grammatical rules and learn archaic technical words such as apocopate, preformative and hendiadys.

In a world where so many things are fast and easy, we can fall into the trap of thinking that complex problems must have easy, instant solutions, but this is often not the case.

Some things are just hard, and it's good for students to learn the art, because it is an art, of disciplined attention to something difficult.

Our world would do well to have more patient leaders who took the time to understand complex situations, rather than making snap decisions for the sake of a trendy headline.

The ability to read ancient Greek and Hebrew literature in their own languages plunges the student into a very different world from 21st century Dunedin.

Appreciation of the difference between our world and the world of the New Testament, for example, gives the reader a new perspective on both.

Ancient texts hold up mirrors to our own society and make us ask questions that we had not thought of before.

Other societies may have their own injustices, but they may also have something to teach us to which we ourselves are blind.

Every person and every culture has blind spots, but exposure to other ways of seeing can help us identify these deficiencies.

For example, the Didache is an early Christian document from the first or second century. It teaches Christians, then a religious minority, to "pray for your enemies and fast for those who persecute you" (1:3). Go without food for those who are persecuting you? Surely not!

The attitude that the Didache is trying to cultivate in its readers is quite different from many modern responses to conflict.

I wonder, though, what our world might look like if people of faith joined together to fast and pray for justice, and to give up something of ourselves for the good of those for whom we might otherwise have nothing good to say.

The Hebrew scriptures, regarded as holy by Jews, and the New Testament, together make up the Bible, the sacred literature of Christianity.

Knowledge of Greek and Hebrew mean the ability to read the Bible directly.

What's often surprising for many students is the fact that Bible sometimes doesn't say what we think it does, or what we would like it to.

It challenges our preconceptions and is full of surprises even to those of us who think we know it well.

The Bible, in all its mystery, still has something to say to us. The scarfie who comes across Amos 5:24, "But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream," might find that her own social causes might have an unexpected ally in this mysterious and holy book.

 - Dr Katie Marcar is a teaching fellow in biblical languages in the theology programme at the University of Otago.



To a new believer it is like milk in its storylike way. To a developing believer it is like bread which is more solid and grittier, and to a mature believer it is like meat with tastes and studying bringing stronger perspectives and understandings of why things happen the way that they do.

when I was at school we had bible study 1 day a week. and it was mostly new testament /////////////// it was a pleasant change to normal class study as we had the study then talked of life ...........bring it back.....

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