The Skill of Observation
Contributed by Karelynne Gerber Ayayo
“Did you get a haircut?” I ask my husband as he walks in the door.
“Yes,” he says with a smile. “Three days ago.”
It is embarrassing to admit, but I have conversations like this all too often! Although in many contexts I am actually quite detail-oriented, I am notoriously bad at noticing things that pertain to a person or topic that feels familiar to me.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I have become so committed to engaging in observation as part of the process of studying and understanding the Bible. Having grown up around the Bible, its passages and texts feel familiar to me.
But I have discovered that observing what a text says has multiple benefits. Making good observations:
- Keeps me from thinking that a passage says something that it doesn’t.
- Keeps me from easily making the text say what I want it to say.
- Lays the groundwork for valid interpretations.
Observation vs. Interpretation
The process of studying a text includes both observation and interpretation, but they are not the same thing. When we observe, we notice what is actually there. When we interpret, we explain or understand what is there in a particular way.
Observations are factual. No one can disagree with an observation. For instance, while I sit at the coffee house and look at the building across the street, I might observe that a man opens the door for a woman. If we were to pull this moment up on the surveillance video, we can confirm it. It happened. Everyone who is watching can see it. We all agree.
Interpretation asks the follow-up question. What does it mean? For instance, in our example, should we conclude that the man has romantic intentions? Is he simply being helpful? Perhaps it is his job, and he opens doors for people all day!
The same facts can be open to multiple interpretations. Additional context is needed to determine the meaning of the facts that were observed.
It is not wrong to interpret. But we need to be aware of when we can assert a claim (observation) and when we must defend one (interpretation).
Five Tips for Observation
- Take Your Time
When I open up a passage of Scripture I am eager to move along and determine what it means and how it applies in my life. That’s my goal. As a result, it is tempting to rush through the observation stage and be content with a list that barely scratches the surface. In those moments I recall the lesson I learned when I took a course on biblical interpretation in seminary.
The professor indicated that we would need to make 40 observations from a particular biblical passage. I shook my head in disbelief, but I started observing the assigned text, listing things quickly at first. After a cycle of several lulls followed by fresh insights (a process that took hours), I arrived at the required number, convinced that I had exhausted what the text had to offer. But I was wrong. When we compiled the observations from all of the students in the course, we must have had nearly 100 observations.
- Ask the “5 Ws and H”
To prompt observations, I draw on the classic questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Who is present in this historical narrative? What words are repeated? Where does Paul say that he has to go? Why does the prophet say God will destroy Jerusalem? How does God lead the Hebrews through the wilderness? The details will vary between the different literary genres, but I find that the 5Ws and H will always move me forward.
- Choose an appropriate translation
Because no two languages parallel each other precisely, the process of translating the Bible from its original language always involves some degree of interpretation. But interpretation is precisely what I am trying to avoid when I make observations. For this reason, I work from the original language text (for New Testament passages since I have a good grasp of Greek) or from an inter-linear Bible or a formal equivalent translation such as the NASB or the ESV (for Old Testament passages since my Hebrew is rather rusty).
- Use full sentences
While it is tempting to list just words or phrases, composing observations in complete sentences forces me to be clear about what it is that I actually see. It is more precise to record “Jesus spits on a blind man’s eyes (Mark 8:23)” than it is to write just “blind man” or “spit.” It is more enlightening to note “Malachi 2:10-16 repeats the phrase ‘deal[ing] treacherously’ (NASB) five times (2:10, 11, 14, 15, 16)” than it is to record “deal treacherously.”
- Provide verse references
As I continue to study a passage, I find myself returning to my observations days and even months after I initially made them. Sometimes I struggle to locate what it was in the passage that prompted the observation. Adding the verse reference to my notes makes it that much easier to find the right place.
With this encouragement and these tips, I invite you to choose a passage and get started. My husband’s helpful suggestion? “Maybe you should look at the story that records when Samson gets his hair cut!”
SELECT BOOK/ARTICLE TITLES
Ayayo, Karelynne Gerber and Henry Virkler. Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Ayayo, Karelynne. “Magical Expectations and the Two-Stage Healing of Mark 8.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24.3 (2014): 379-392.
Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, eds. Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, and Mark Strauss. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. Contributed 27 articles: “Anna,” “Apostle,” “Birth,” “Birth Control,” “Caesar,” “Cenchrea,” “Chloe,” “Council of Jerusalem,” “Dalmatia,” “Deacon,” “Epaphras,” “Epicureanism,” “Evangelism,” “Gift of Tongues,” “Glossalalia,” “Head of the Church,” “I Am,” “Joanna,” “Laodicea,” “Lazarus,” “Magnificat,” “Mark, John,” “Parables,” “Rufus,” “Salome,” “Smyrna,” “Syntyche.”
Archaeology Study Bible, eds. Duane Garrett and Walter Kaiser. Zondervan, 2005. Contributed 20 articles: “Adoption in the Roman World,” “Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles,” “The Church from the Resurrection to the Conversion of Paul,” “Did Paul Write Ephesians,” “Early Christian Heresies,” “Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus,” “The Gnostics and Their Scriptures,” “The Historical Value of Luke-Acts,” “House Churches and the Early Christian Church Buildings,” “The Letter from the Laodiceans,” “Letter Writing in the Roman World,” “The Missing Letter from the Corinthians to Paul,” “New Testament Canon,” “Pauline or Deutero-Pauline,” “The Role of Women in Religious Life in the Greco-Roman World,” “The Roman Empire,” “Rome,” “The Synoptic Problem and ‘Q,’” “Thessalonica,” “Travel in the Roman Empire.”
Karelynne Ayayo is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies and Coordinator of the Online Bachelor of Arts in Ministry program at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida. Dr. Ayayo holds a B.A. in Religious Studies (The College of Wooster), M.A in Missions and Evangelism (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), M.A. in New Testament (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), and Th.D. in Practical Theology and New Testament (Boston University). At PBA, Dr. Ayayo has taught an array of courses in Bible, New Testament, Biblical Greek, hermeneutics, missions, and gender issues. She enjoys helping students grow in their faith as a result of greater Biblical and theological grounding. In her personal life Dr. Ayayo is passionate about helping women to discover what it means to be both Christians and women. Her family’s own experiences have opened doors for Dr. Ayayo to minister in the contexts of adoption and autism. She and her husband, Michael, an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention and a Licensed Social Worker, along with their two children, Zachary and Megan, worship at Parkside Church – Green Campus in Green, Ohio.