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Blog / Bite-Sized Bible Knowledge: An Interview with Michael Heiser

Bite-Sized Bible Knowledge: An Interview with Michael Heiser

Michael HeiserWhat if aspects of biblical scholarship could be distilled into understandable bite-sized insights you could read each in 60-seconds to unlock the Bible’s individual sections and main teachings?

Bible Gateway interviewed Michael Heiser (@msheiser) about the 60-Second Scholar Series (Zondervan, 2018).

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What is the 60-Second Scholar Series and for whom is it written?

Michael Heiser: The series has in mind any Christian who reads the Bible with regularity. Regular Bible readers want to feel confident in their ability to understand the Bible, and to not be totally dependent on others for spiritual food. They want competence in finding answers to questions, living biblically in the culture, and discerning what God wants them to know from his Word. In other words, the series targets people who read the Bible seriously and who want to think well about what they’re reading.

Because that’s who I had in mind, 60-Second Scholar is different than other books about Bible study. Buy your copy of Brief Insights on Mastering Bible Study in the Bible Gateway Store where you'll enjoy low prices every day There are hundreds of “Bible study” books that are actually studies designed to guide the reader to pre-determined conclusions. Then there are devotionals disguised as Bible study guides and “sermons in a book,” where readers are given a mixture of observations about a biblical book that are then translated into how the writer wants the reader to feel when they’re finished. The 60 Second Scholar series doesn’t steer readers to pre-conceived conclusions. It wants readers to experience the thrill of discovery. It doesn’t preach at readers—it informs the mind, not tugs on the heartstrings. 60-Second Scholar is a series of sound advice, frank do’s and don’ts, and specific strategies for thinking well about the enterprise of Bible study.

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How difficult was it to limit each chapter’s topic discussion to only two pages?

Michael Heiser: In most cases, it wasn’t difficult at all. I’m used to word count constraints having written over 100 articles for Bible Study Magazine.

What do you mean “let the Bible be what it is”?

Michael Heiser: I mean that the path to real biblical understanding requires that we don’t make the Bible conform to denominational preferences. We have to really embrace the obvious. The Bible is an ancient book (actually, a collection of books) written thousands of years ago, in specific contexts, by people whose worldview was dramatically different than our own.

God chose people from a specific time, place, and culture that have almost no resemblance to ours. Consequently, we need to mean what we say about interpreting the Bible in context. The right context for interpreting the Bible isn’t our own denominations, it’s not the Reformation, it’s not the Puritan era, it’s nothing in contemporary culture. No context outside the Bible’s own context is the correct context for understanding the Bible. Don’t filter the Bible through your worldview. Don’t make it sound modern. Don’t turn it into something it isn’t. Just let it be what it is. Bible study needs to be about understanding the Bible on its own terms.

What is the idea of genre in the Bible and why is it a crucial context for biblical interpretation?

Michael Heiser: Genre is a context that’s crucial for interpretation. We might recall from English lit’ class in high school or college that “genre” is a term that refers to a type of writing or document. The kind of writing something is dictates how we should understand what’s written.

To speak of literary genre is to speak of how any given piece of writing should be characterized in everyday life. Genre is how we describe a type of written document. In modern terms, all the following are examples of genres: email, blog posts, letters, receipts, contracts, poems, certificates, tax forms, wills, fiction, and non-fiction. Many of these can be categorized even more precisely. For example, fiction might include horror, sci-fi, comedic, historical, suspense, mystery, and so on.

Genre is crucial for context because the same word occurring across different types of literature or documents will be understood quite differently. Why? Because genre dictates the perspective for interpretation. If I was looking at the word “court” in a legal document I’d interpret the word much differently than if I was holding a tennis magazine. The word “treat” in a doctor’s note means something different than it would if you found it on a grocery list.

So, genre is a context, and we want to interpret Scripture in context.

Explain your statement, “Don’t second-guess God’s decision in inspiration” and how inspiration was a process, not an event.

Michael Heiser: Fundamentally, I mean we need to trust God’s wisdom in inspiration. If God had wanted to inspire Scripture in a modern age he could have done so. It was God who decided to prepare men living between the second millennium BC and the first century AD to produce the books of the Bible. It was God who decided that they were ready for the task, despite cultural attitudes that we would deem backward. It was God who didn’t require the writers to have advanced scientific and technological knowledge to write everlasting truth. These were God’s choices—do we believe they were good choices, or do we wish God had made other decisions?

My answer is that God’s choices were good choices. God is not incompetent. God intended Scripture to be applicable to people who would live well beyond the first century. He also intended Scripture to be understood by the people who received it originally. Since God is omniscient, he could have given writers living thousands of years ago advanced knowledge without their knowing it. But that knowledge could not have been understood by anyone reading the text until millennia later. Untold millions of people living prior to our time would have had no hope of understanding parts of their Bible. That would have defeated the communicative purpose of the Bible. The “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) would not have been comprehensible, which undermines inspiration’s purpose (2 Tim. 3:17).

On the second item, because the Bible says quite clearly that it’s “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), we tend to think about inspiration as an otherworldly event. That’s a misconception.

The Bible is a divine book given what 2 Timothy 3:16 says, but it’s also a thoroughly human book. The notion that the words dropped from heaven or were downloaded into the brains of the Gospel writers is deeply flawed and, frankly, dangerous.

Why? Because that idea can’t accommodate what you actually find in the text of Scripture. For example, the notion that God handed out every word just doesn’t work with the Gospels. Three of them (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) overlap in content a lot of the time with respect to what they include about the life of Jesus. But they often have things in different order. Dialogue isn’t always the same. Even when it sounds the same in English, in the Greek text the same words might be used but they might be in different verb tenses or grammatical forms. Certain details of episodes in the life of Jesus might be in two accounts and missing in the third. And when it comes to the Gospel of John, 90% (literally) of what’s in that Gospel isn’t in the other three. The content clearly is not dictated, and if it’s “downloaded,” why would God keep tweaking it, changing it, removing parts of it, etc.?

The Bible never describes inspiration as some sort of paranormal event. What it describes are very human acts. Writers record events and thoughts. They build arguments. They express themselves in poetry. They use sources. They create links between their work and other parts of Scripture. The writers weren’t robots being programmed.

How is Bible doctrine ultimately about engaging the mind?

Michael Heiser: This is true because Bible doctrine is what’s produced by careful consideration of what the Bible says, what its stories imply, and what the behavior of the characters illustrate. In other words, Bible doctrine not only arises from the words of the text, but by thinking carefully about the words of the text—connecting dots, systematizing the content. No doctrine in all its fullness and precision can be found in a single verse. Doctrine is formulated by thinking carefully about the content of many parts of Scripture.

What do you mean Bible study isn’t like marriage?

Michael Heiser: That comment is based on a good piece of advice I got after I’d been married a while (that could have served me well even from the start). In a conversation about handling conflict in marriage a friend asked me this question: Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right? I caught the drift. Winning a debate and making your spouse happy aren’t interchangeable ideas.

But that doesn’t work for Bible study. When it comes to interpreting Scripture, you want to be right. Flawed analysis and poorly-formed conclusions about what the Bible says aren’t going to produce Bible study bliss. And if we’re teaching others, our goal cannot be keeping people happy with what we discover are flawed beliefs and interpretations. Bible study is meaningless if we aren’t striving to understand God’s Word correctly.

What is your opinion of the importance of memorizing Scripture?

Michael Heiser: Memorizing Scripture is a good thing, but really understanding the meaning of a Scripture passage you might memorize is much better. This is an obvious truth that’s often missed. Memorization isn’t Bible study. Memorization is committing something to memory for later recall. But being able to recollect a verse with precision does not mean you understand it. You could memorize your tax forms, but would that mean do you understand the tax laws? Like I said, this is obvious.

Memorization and study are not interchangeable concepts. Real Bible study demands thinking. Memorizing words is not the same as pondering what words mean and then discovering their meaning.

Why do you recommend using more than one translation in Bible study?

Michael Heiser: First, we need to be clear about what I mean. The wording in the question is important. I’m not recommending to switch Bible versions from time to time when you study Scripture. Rather, I’m suggesting that you have several translations at hand while you’re studying.

Having several English Bible versions open is very useful for detecting things in a verse or passage that might deserve serious attention in your study. Let’s look at an example from Genesis 49:10:

  • NASB (1995) — The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
  • ESV — The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

The two translations are quite different in the boldfaced portion. If you were using more than one translation, you’d notice that easily. So using more than one translation is a good thing to do to spot items that need attention.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Michael Heiser: Psalm 82:1 – “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (ESV). When I finally came to understand what this verse was saying, it changed the entire way I read the Bible. I actually wrote a book about that (really, two), but the short answer is tucked away in one of the 60-Second Scholar books!

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Michael Heiser: I work for a Bible software company, so I don’t need to be persuaded that digital tools are tremendous assets for Bible study. Bible Gateway is an amazingly useful free online tool—now made accessible anywhere with the App. And it’s more than the Bible—you actually get resources to enable you to understand what you’re reading in the Bible. Honestly, if you’re enthusiastic about reading Scripture and knowing it better, why would you not take advantage of a tool like Bible Gateway?

Where can readers learn more about Scripture from you after they’re done with the 60-Second Scholar series?

Michael Heiser: We seem to be living in the era of podcasts, and I’m no different. I hope people will become avid listeners of my podcast: the Naked Bible Podcast. I post one episode per week and this year we’ll cross the 5 million download mark! If you like the 60-Second Scholar Series (and I know you will), you’ll love the Naked Bible Podcast.

The 60-Second Scholar Series is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Michael Heiser is a scholar in the fields of biblical studies and the ancient Near East, and he is a Scholar-in-Residence at Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. Michael has an MA in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania, and he has an MA in Hebrew Studies and a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published widely in scholarly journals and popular periodicals such as Bible Study Magazine, and he teaches ancient languages online at MEMRA. Learn more about Dr. Heiser and his writings at

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Filed under Bible, Bible Study, Books, Interviews, Literacy, Theology