I first came upon the concept of ‘manuscript study’ in Bangkok, Thailand. I realize, a form of studying the Bible is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Bangkok. Nor the second. Nor the third. And yes I did partake of much that Bangkok has to offer–amazing Thai massage, beautiful Buddha statues in temples, and of course green curry, tom yum, and pad Thai with incredible flavor and dirt cheap. No, I did not partake in the ‘other’ side of Bangkok, but I did go on a tour of the red light district with an organization called Night Light that seeks to rescue women from sexual slavery and exploitation. But more on that later.
Back to manuscript study. I was blown away by it from my first encounter. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but each of the three times I’ve participated in this week-long event, it has been incredibly rich. I’ve tried to describe it a few times, including an article I wrote for Princeton Seminary called ‘Wonder Bread.‘ I wrote about it again after my experience with it four years later.
The basic gist is to take a book of the Bible (the gospel according to Mark is what is often used), take out the chapters, the verse numbers, the paragraphs and print it out, as in from the computer. Mark is about 42 pages. Well, the shorter ending of Mark. But that’s another story too. Each page has a page number (in case you drop the pile, it makes for much easier ordering than playing “I wonder what comes next” with the text) and each page is also given line numbers, every 5 lines, so that you can refer to a particular location such as “On page 1, line 10, what does it mean that they were confessing their sins?”
The format is part of it–take the study away from those paper thin pages in that leather-bound book and it can help to make it more accessible, or at least easier to write all over it without feeling guilty for ‘messing it up.’ With no chapters and verses there are no arbitrary stopping or starting points, and the story itself is allowed to dictate where one section ends and another begins.
But more than the format is the style in which the manuscript is studied. I’ve grown up in the church, so I’ve been a part of many Bible Studies, some better than others. What often seems to happen is that the text can be used as a springboard for something else. So, instead of studying Mark, we actually bring in Ephesians or Acts or Revelation, none of which are bad, necessarily, but they are not Mark. In the method of manuscript study (mss) one is forced to stay with the text at hand.
The two main questions, in this format, are ‘What do you see?’ and ‘Where do you see it?’ This, again, helps the study to stay focused within the text in question, and to try to curb the tendency amongst some to leave the text behind and pontificate on a topic of choice.
It can feel limiting at first. It can be frustrating. It can feel slow.
In our Mark 1 group (the first half of Mark–it is a two part series, with each half taking up one week) we spent the entire first day on page 1. An entire day, 9AM to 5PM, on roughly 300 words. Among the other westerners in the group (people come from around the world) you could see the obvious body language of “Okay, I’m done with page 1, can we move on now?!” as they shuffled their papers and fidgeted in their chairs, questioning the decision to devote a week to this madness. But by the end of day 2? They didn’t want to leave at the end of the day. Seriously. It’s that engaging, that engrossing. I know, it sounds a bit crazy. But I’ve flown half way around the world three times to be a part of this process. (well, the food and the Thai massage are enticing as well…)
So, since I can’t make it to Thailand this year I’ve decided that I’m going to attempt a blog version of a Mark study. Will it work? Don’t know, I’ve never tried it before. Seems like it’s worth a shot.