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Why a Tanzanian campus ministry is using manuscript discovery

In TAFES, as in other movements across IFES, inductive Bible study has been considered a desirable practice. However, the steps involved – including ‘observation, interpretation, application’ – are not necessarily easy to absorb, even for tertiary students. Students in Tanzania may be unaccustomed to in-depth reading other than for the purpose of writing exams and assignments.

For many years, TAFES expedited the process of inductive Bible study by publishing Bible study guides. These were written with an inductive approach, but there wasn’t much success in transmitting the approach itself, especially without the consistent input of staff or associates on campus. Meanwhile, simply teaching the theory of ‘inductive Bible study’ is a pretty poor approach to creating good habits. Bible study is something of a lost art in this context. What would it mean to rebuild?

A year or two before I started working with TAFES, a different approach began to emerge, popularized especially through Berean Safari retreats. This approach, ‘manuscript discovery’, provides a way for a group to immerse themselves in a book of the Bible by rendering the text in a simpler, additive-free way. It was discovered (or rediscovered) in the 1950s within the American IFES group, InterVarsity.

Christians commonly give a great deal of attention to matters of Bible translation, but much less to Bible design. The overwhelming majority of Bibles are designed for the purpose of reference and/or maintaining a compact size. These design factors are subtle but ever-present, and they can seriously hinder a positive reading experience.

But rather than going into detail about this, the best thing is to give participants an alternative experience, plus the ability to pass it on.

Manuscript discovery = ‘manuscript’ + ‘discovery’

  • Manuscript => Each of the documents collected in the Bible comes as a whole. The basic unit of meaning is the book, not the verse or the chapter.
  • Discovery => There is an enjoyable, challenging environment of discussion and mutual learning. Participants will not take turns to teach or preach.

TAFES has started using this at staff retreats and national conferences. Participants receive a ‘manuscript’, a copy of an entire Bible book (get instructions here). With reference formatting removed – verse numbers, headings, double columns, cross-references, paragraph breaks – the text stops looking like a textbook, and provides the opportunity to read and explore in a creative way. As the group works through it together, they use pens to mark the manuscript. This act of marking the manuscript provides a highly visual and tactile experience that takes us from ‘talking about’ the text to somehow ‘touching’ the text.

This has added benefits in our ‘Non-English Speaking Background’ context, where English is not the common language, yet is desirable as a language of instruction and learning. However, it’s important to use an English version that is accessible, such as the CEV. While manuscript discovery is sometimes said to be about experiencing Scripture in its ‘original form’, Bible versions touted as ‘literal’ tend to use archaic or sophisticated English that hinders the reading experience.

Because literacy and English in Tanzania is so tied to academic progress, we hope that participants will experience manuscript discovery less as a classroom and more as a creative interaction. The ultimate aim is to encounter God together, but this depends on the creation of an enjoyable learning environment. For leaders, the main thing – more important than preparation or biblical knowledge – is their ability to form the group, put people at ease, and create good conditions for discussion and learning.

Image credit: Raul Petri at Unsplash

Categories: Bible Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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