We don’t need to rehash all of the ways in which traditional approaches to studying the scriptures can leave us parched; the question is: how can we slake our thirst?
After pondering that question, I decided to write a book that would be a guide–not a commentary, not a devotional, not my personal reflections, not a pastiche of authoritative quotations, but a guide–to studying the gospels. I structured it a bit differently: the book consists of brief bits of background information, to orient the reader to discoveries from the larger world of biblical studies, followed by questions. No answers, just questions. Here’s a little sample from my treatment of Mark 5:35-43, which is the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead:
Might it be symbolic that Jairus’ daughter dies while Jesus is helping another person?
Does the word “afraid” (verse 36) surprise you? Does this verse suggest that fear (not doubt) is the opposite of faith?
How must Jairus feel at the end of verse 36? (How) could he believe in Jesus at this point? How is this relevant to your life?
Why does Jesus tell the crowd that the little girl is asleep (verse 39)?
Why does Jesus include Peter, James, John, Jairus, and Jairus’ wife in the raising? What does this teach about Jesus?
Why does Jesus take the girl by the hand (verse 41)?
“Talitha cumi” is Aramaic for “damsel, I say unto thee, arise.” (Remember that Mark is writing in Greek and Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic.) Why does Mark include the Aramaic words at this point? (Other times when Mark includes Aramaic words and their translation: 3:17; 7:11, 34; 14:36; and 15:22, 34.)
Mark notes (at the end of the story, nonetheless) that the little girl is twelve years old (verse 42). The bleeding woman had her condition for twelve years (verse 25). What insight do you gain if you interpret this symbolically? (See Genesis 17:20, 35:22, 49:28; Exodus 24:4, 39:14; Leviticus 24:5; Numbers 7:84–87; Joshua 4:3; and 1 Kings 7:25.)
Why does Jesus ask the witnesses to the raising not to tell anyone (verse 43)? Won’t the mourners from verse 38 surely know what has happened?
Why does Jesus command that the girl should be given something to eat (verse 43)? Is this symbolic?
Compare the raising of Jairus’ daughter with the two stories of raising the dead in the Old Testament: 1 Kings 17:17–24 and 2 Kings 4:18–37. How do these stories compare?
The Greek word ekstasis is used only twice in Mark: for the reaction to the girl’s raising (verse 42) and the reaction to Jesus’ Resurrection (16:8). What else do these two events have in common?
Do you think it is significant that the girl is raised at an age when she is on the cusp of fertility and the bleeding woman is restored to normal fertility? Can you understand these women symbolically?
Consider 3:10 and 6:56. Why do you think Mark chose to tell the story of the bleeding woman in detail?
Notice that verses 25–34 are a story within another story (verses 22–43). Why do you think Mark chose to narrate events in this manner?
Compare Jairus with the bleeding woman. What do they have in common? In what ways are they different?
Are there any clues in this story as to how Jairus is able to avoid the hostile attitude towards Jesus that most of the Jewish leaders possess?
Based on verses 22–43, how would you describe Jesus’ attitude toward women?
Why didn’t I just write a standard commentary? Well, as much as I think it is important to incorporate the findings of the academic study of the Bible, I also think it crucial for the reader to preserve her autonomy in evaluating those claims. To restate that idea in Mormonese, I believe in the Spirit’s ability to inspire the reader as she ponders, but I think it helps to give the Spirit something to work with! By providing some new information along with specific encouragement to think about what one is reading, I hope to position readers to, in effect, generate their own informed and inspired commentary.
When we approach the scriptures as if we already have the answers, we find that we do–in the sense that we can learn nothing new with that attitude. But if we approach the scriptures instead with questions, then “by study and also by faith” we can be informed and inspired in new ways. I hope that Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels will help you do just that.
Julie M. Smith has a graduate degree in Biblical Studies from the GTU in Berkeley, CA. She writes for Times & Seasons and lives near Austin, Texas, where she homeschools her children. She is on the executive board of the Mormon Theology Seminar and the steering committee of the BYU New Testament Commentary, for which she is writing the volume on the Gospel of Mark.