The Importance of Primary Sources

The importance of primary sources in finding the real truth.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a newspaper out there that employs unbiased reporters and never confuses reporting with opining. I know that’s a stretch, but let’s pretend anyway. We’ll call it The Daily Truth.

If you want to know what’s been going on in Congress you have four choices:

  1. Read the Congressional Record, which is a play-by-play created by people who were there and participating.
  2. Read the Politics section of The Daily Truth, which may or may not include reporting by people who were present at the events, but certainly includes narrative based on the Congressional Record.
  3. Read the Opinion page of The Daily Truth, which includes personal opinions about the news reported in the Politics section written by people who definitely weren’t there.
  4. Check Facebook, which is like the Opinion page in the junior high student newspaper. You’ll be lucky if anyone even knows The Daily Truth exists, because it’s not allowed on Facebook.

Now, the Opinion page will certainly have content relevant to current events and even to specific and important political issues, but opinions aren’t facts. If you want to know what actually happened as opposed to what some pundit thinks about what happened, you only have two reasonable options: the Congressional Record and the Politics section of The Daily Truth, and most of the Politics section is probably written by people who don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the events they’re reporting.

So, if you want to get the bare facts–or as close to the facts as possible–then you have to go to the primary sources.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a record of events by someone with first-hand knowledge. Examples include meeting minutes, personal diaries and letters, and first-hand accounts of historic events.

A secondary source is opinion about a primary source. Examples include most news articles, history books (not written by witnesses), academic papers, documentary videos, and commentary.

A Facebook post is a quip about headlines about opinions about primary sources.

Secondary sources can be interesting and informative, but they will never be anything more than opinion about someone else’s reporting of the facts. If you want to know the actual facts, and not opinions, you have to go to a primary source.

Of course, that doesn’t mean secondary sources are useless.

All translations of primary sources are, to a great extent, secondary sources, because translations are always affected by the knowledge and biases of the translator. Many words in one language have no direct equivalents in other languages, and sometimes the same word can have multiple meanings. If you were to translate a personal letter from Russian to English, you would have to make some guesses about what the author meant by some phrases. You would have an even harder time with translating across very different cultures in different eras.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, etc., are almost always secondary sources and can have huge disparities in their reliability.

The solution is to consult primary sources whenever possible and to consult several secondary sources when necessary. Make it your habit to compare Bible translations, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, and commentaries. Over time, you will cultivate a good feel for which of these resources are reliable, which are interesting, and which are safe to ignore completely.

Even then, remember that the most reliable secondary source is still someone’s opinions about a primary source. They might be excellent opinions, but they’re still just opinions.

See this guide from the University of Massachusetts Boston for more information: description and examples of Primary vs Secondary Sources.

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Be Aware of Your Assumptions when Reading the Bible

Everyone assumes.

That’s not a bad thing in itself. We have experiences and we’ve been taught things about the world, and we use this information from our past to help us understand what we experience in the present and what we expect from the future. We will never know everything there is to know about any event in our lives or that we read about, but we make assumptions about things that we can’t see based on what we have seen in similar circumstances before.

If you see a masked figure running from a bank, the movies you’ve watched, the news you’ve read, and your personal experiences with masks and banks will probably lead you to assume that the person has just robbed the bank. You’d probably be right.

Without assumptions, we’d be paralyzed by every new event. We would never be able to make decisions about anything because we’d have to analyze every detail and every detail about those details.

Unfortunately, our assumptions aren’t always right. Maybe there’s an employee costume party going on at the bank or the running figure was a horribly disfigured man late for an appointment with his plastic surgeon. Neither explanation seems likely, but they’re both possible.

The farther a situation is from our personal experiences, the more likely it is that our assumptions about it will be wrong. The passing of only a few decades or a few thousand miles can mean dramatic cultural changes.

Consider the differing experiences of farmers across the world in the same year. The work of a coffee grower in Indonesia, a Chinese rice farmer, a corn farmer in Iowa, and a greenhouse grower in Massachusetts has significant similarities. They plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell, but the differences are also significant. One might be a technician with an advanced degree in botany or biology, while another might be an illiterate slave. They speak different languages, use different tools and methods, have different values, follow different growing seasons and development cycles. They would not use the same vocabulary to record their life stories, nor the same metaphors to communicate their thoughts about God.

War, mass migrations, changes in language, economic conditions, technology… the potential complications can get…um…complicated. Now, extend that across thousands of years, a hundred generations and dozens of genocides, the rise and fall of empires and religions.

Welcome to Bible study.

The Bible was written over the course of 1500+ years, in multiple languages, by people with vastly different personal experiences and assumptions about the world. When you read it, you need to be aware of the historical, cultural, linguistic, and personal context of the original text, and even more aware of your own presuppositions.

If you approach the Bible wearing your modern American assumptions over your eyes, you are going to see much that isn’t there, and you will miss much that is. Your study will tend to reinforce what you think you already “know” rather than reveal what actually is.

The Holistic Nature of Scripture

To resolve apparent contradictions and other points of confusion, realize that Scripture is a palace, not a line. Read and understand it accordingly.

When God made mankind, he put them in the Garden and told them they could eat from every plant, right?

Genesis 1:29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”

Genesis 1:1-2:3 is a summary of creation week. Genesis 2:4-25 tells the same exact story but from a different vantage point. It’s hazy regarding the passage of time, leaves out some details, and adds some others. That doesn’t mean the two accounts are contradictory, only that they have different foci.

There is one problem, however. There is an apparent contradiction between Genesis 1:29 and 2:16-17.

Genesis 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Which is it? Can man eat every plant or not? The answer is yes!

There is no contradiction. The confusion is not in the words, but in the reader who treats them like a mathematical text. Genesis was written to be understood by ordinary people. It’s bare meaning had to be accessible to shepherds and farmers, so it was written in the same basic language that they themselves used.

When a subsistence farmer says, “Let’s get all these fields planted,” does he mean every single field in existence? Of course not. Does he even mean all of his own fields? No again. He only means all the fields that are supposed to be planted at this time, and he expects that everyone to whom he is speaking will understand that.

The ancient Hebrews knew the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they heard or read, “I have given you every plant that grows on the earth,” they didn’t need to hear “except for this one” to understand that there was at least one exception.

We don’t need to hear it either. Instead, we need to understand that God and his words recorded in the Scriptures are holistic. They are a unified whole (echad in Hebrew) with depth and height and breadth. We cannot understand the words of Paul or John without understanding Moses and Isaiah, because the latter are a foundation and framework for the former. Likewise, since we do not live within the cultural context of Moses or Isaiah, we cannot completely understand their words either without Paul and John to finish the walls and trim.

Scripture is a palace, not a line. Read and understand it accordingly.

Patterns, Themes, and Other Advanced Topics

Patterns, Themes, and other advanced topics in Common Sense Bible Study

In this Common Sense Bible Study series, we’ve talked about many tools that can help you gain a better understanding of Scripture, about distractions that can lead you down unending, counterproductive rabbit trails, and about good personal study habits.

In this installment, I want to get into some more advanced topics. We’re going to step just a little bit beyond where basic common sense might normally take you…

Well, that’s odd…

Have you ever read something in the Bible that just left you scratching your head and wondering what possible reason God could have had for inserting that odd bit?

If you haven’t had that experience, then you need to close this email right now and go back to your Bible. You either haven’t read enough of it or you didn’t pay sufficient attention, because there is strange stuff everywhere, and it’s not there just for the entertainment value.

Writing materials in the centuries in which the Bible was compiled were very expensive. For most of history, scribes and printers used parchment and not paper for making Bibles, and they had to be copied by hand. There were no printing presses and no computers, not even a typewriter. It could take years of manual labor and the skin of hundreds of sheep to make a single copy of the Bible. Even if it were only the work of men and not God, they would have tried to keep the waste to an absolute minimum.

Surely God would put at least as much thought into the content of his communications as men would theirs!

I think we can be fairly certain that there is no wasted text in Scripture. Every word is important and is intended to convey meaning, and scribal errors have been repeatedly shown by competent scholars to be vanishingly rare. So if there seems to be something odd or pointless, the problem isn’t in the text. The problem is in our understanding of it. 

Four Scriptural Oddities

There are four kinds of Scriptural oddities that I want to call your attention to:

  1. The dull
  2. The weird
  3. The repetitive
  4. The contradictory

The Dull

Patches of dullness are scattered through the Old Testament like sheep in a pasture. Genealogies, lists, censuses, textual schematics, detailed rituals… It’s difficult getting through some of those passages.

None-the-less, they are important. There was an immediate, practical purpose to everything recorded.

  • Some genealogies were included to show lines of inheritance.
  • Censuses show us the relative sizes of families and tribes, and help to explain why this tribe had this territory and that tribe had another.
  • The Tabernacle was the focus of God’s presence among the people, and detailed instructions for its construction and use were absolutely necessary for the priests who would atone for sins and work in proximity to the unimaginable power of God. It was vital to the health of the nation and to the daily survival of the priests that they get it right.

But is that all there is to it, just public records and an instruction manual? Definitely not.

For example, Ezekiel 43:10 says, “As for you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and they shall measure the plan.” There is something about the design of the Temple that ought to make us ashamed of our sins. Clearly, the details weren’t written down just to make sure it was built correctly.

The original readers of Exodus and Ezekiel probably understood things about the symbolic meanings of numbers, shapes, and materials that we don’t. By examining how those things are used elsewhere in Scripture, we can get clues about what God meant by what he told Ezekiel. For example, various metals appear to be associated with spiritual ideas: gold with righteousness, silver with blood, and bronze with judgment. 

For another example that might have been more obvious to ancient peoples, look at the many genealogies. In some cases, they are there to provide historical context or to prove lines of descent. In other cases, there is almost certainly something deeper intended. Keep in mind that names in the Bible have meanings and that something important about a person might be memorialized in the name–or names, since they sometimes changed–that has been passed down to us.

Think of a dull part of the Bible like a tapestry that seems plain and gray from a distance, but that becomes more detailed and complex the closer you examine it.

The Weird

There are sooo many strange things in the Bible, and not just because it’s the product of a very foreign culture. There are mysteries and things that are just plain beyond our comprehension.

How would you explain sales technique to an ant? It doesn’t use money or even barter. It doesn’t use speech, but has a language consisting of a small vocabulary of dance moves and pheromones.

That’s like God and us.

There is a great deal about himself and his thoughts that God hasn’t told us, either because it’s not our business or because we couldn’t understand it if he did. His language, his motivations, his plans are more complex than we can imagine.

Just as our communication methods are more varied and complex than that of ants, so are God’s more complex than ours. He can’t communicate with us directly in his own way. The closest we have ever come was at the foot of Sinai, and it nearly killed us.

Instead of spelling everything out in plain words, God couches much of his communication in stories, parables, and metaphors. A picture can communicate much more than a thousand words in a single glance. It can tell bare facts, but it can also reveal character and even relationships. Likewise, a well crafted story can tell more than just the story. An interlocking network of stories can describe plots within plots, sub-plots, a universe, perhaps even layers of universes. 

A master story teller leaves indications–shadows–in his text of the stories behind the story, and God has left these clues everywhere in the Bible. Whenever you see something especially odd–an inexplicable action, a bizarre ritual, or a talking donkey–it’s a signal that you should stop and take a closer look.

Consider Balaam’s donkey. Although stories of miracles in the Bible are usually meant to be understood as literally true, some stories seem more out of place than others. Animals don’t talk, and there is no hint anywhere else in Scripture that we should expect them to as a miraculous manifestation of God’s power, so when the Bible tells of a talking animal, then the real story isn’t the talking animal, but something hidden beneath the bare text. When I was considering this portion of this article, I realized that there is only one other story in the Bible that involves a talking animal: the serpent in the Garden. The two stories must be connected.

Although the elements of the two stories are not in the same order, the parallels are astonishing: the crushed heel, the angel blocking the way, the questioning of God’s instructions, etc. Clearly the author of the Balaam story wanted his readers to see the connection, but since he didn’t explain why, he must have also wanted us to think through the connections for ourselves in order to learn something deeper.

Now, all sorts of truths and lessons could be derived from this particular connection, and I don’t intend to talk about them here. My point is that the connections exist. There are profound lessons to be derived from them if we are willing.

When something in the text stands out as odd or out of place, you can often gain a better understanding and even make some startling discoveries by looking for thematic connections with other passages.

The Repetitive

There are three different kinds of repetition in Scripture. 

  1. A single phrase or theme might be repeated within a short span of text.
  2. A set of images, actions, or objects might reappear together in a distant part of Scripture.
  3. A word or phrase might be repeated with a twist in spelling or usage.

There is a lot of overlap in this section with the previous two. The first type of repetition often seems tedious and the second type signals thematic connections that highlight deeper truths behind seemingly unrelated passages.

Parallelisms and Chiasms

Parallelisms and chiasms are some of the more interesting examples of repetition. They are literary structures meant to serve as mnemonic devices as well as to draw the readers attention to contrasts, central points, and connections within a block of text. 

One of my favorite chiasms is in Genesis 27. In verses 18-19, Isaac asks Jacob, “Who are you?” and Jacob responds with “I am Esau, your firstborn.” In verses 31-32, Esau approaches Isaac and says “I am your firstborn, Esau,” and Isaac responds with “Who are you?” If you read this entire passage in a single sitting, when you get to verse 32, you might be left with a vague sense of deja vu, and you’re supposed to. If you work forward from verse 18 and backwards from verse 32, you’ll find a series of parallel events and statements in reverse order until you get to the center of the story in which Isaac sets aside his doubts and believes Jacob’s lie.

I posted a graphical representation of that chiasm here: A Chiasm Centered on the Deception of Isaac.

You can see my growing list of chiasms and parallelisms here: An Index of Biblical Chiasmi and Parallelisms.

Thematic Repetitions

Thematic repetitions, like the serpent and the donkey discussed above, are less structured than chiasms, but are no less significant. The Bible is packed full of them.

For example, the imprisonment and resurrection of Joseph is a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Yeshua.

In another example, the competing claims of Mephibosheth and Ziba on Saul’s inheritance during the reign of David (told throughout the book of 2 Samuel) are almost identical to the claims of the two women on the same baby during the reign of Solomon (told in 1 Kings 3). The former story was left with an unsatisfying resolution, but in the second story, the child was restored to his real mother because of Solomon’s shocking proposal to cut the baby in two. The writer’s intent was probably to show how the son’s wisdom had eclipsed even that of David, his illustrious father.

There are many, many more examples.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repeated use of the same or very similar words in successive phrases or sentences as a form of emphasis or parallelism.

This third category of repetition might be the easiest to miss and sometimes can only be clearly seen in the Hebrew. In Biblical anaphora, a word or phrase is repeated in order to emphasize different meanings. The repeated text might be changed slightly to illustrate a difference in perspective or intent, as in the commissioning of Joshua in Deuteronomy 31 (See more detail on that here: Shadows of Jesus in Joshua) and Yeshua telling Peter to feed his sheep in John 21, but it could also use the exact same words each time, relying on oral tradition or greater context to draw out the real meaning, or even on puns that are frequently lost in English translations.

Remember that God doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t repeat himself without reason, so when you see repetition, ask why, and look for differences and similarities.

The Contradictory

We’ve all heard about the many so-called contradictions in the Bible, and since you’re still reading this, you probably already figured out that most of them aren’t contradictions at all. They’re obviously taken out of context and deliberately misinterpreted by dishonest people with an anti-Christian agenda.

On the other hand, we have to be honest with ourselves about some troublesome passages too. There really are some sticky conundrums in the canon. I’m willing to concede that there might be some scribal errors in some of the historical books, but there are some other apparent contradictions that can’t be dismissed so easily. 

Take this one, for instance:

Deuteronomy 15:4 says, “There will be no poor among you.” Yet just a little further down the page, verse 11 says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” Which is it? Will there never be poor or will there always be poor?

For another example, one of God’s many titles is YHWH Tsevaot, which means, God of Armies. Yet Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:33 that he is a God of peace. Which is it? Is he a God of Armies or a God of Peace?

Whenever you encounter apparent contradictions like these, the first thing you can be sure of is that there is no contradiction. The conflict can be resolved by adjusting your perspective. One or more statements could be metaphor or intended to be limited in scope. In the example from Deuteronomy 15 cited above, one statement could be meant as a goal, while the second could be an observation about how life is actually going to play out. No plan of battle ever survives first contact with the enemy, as they say.

There could be any number of explanations for apparent contradictions, but you’ll have to dig for them. You’ll have to study and think to find a resolution, and that’s a good thing! The Bible isn’t a children’s story book, and it wasn’t designed for casual reading.

God Loves Patterns

His creation is a complex weave of interconnected, synergistic parts and modular sets of instructions that serve multiple, simultaneous purposes in widely varying circumstances. His word written on paper is built on the same principles as his word written in the stars and in DNA.

When you step back from the Scriptures and examine them more broadly, you will see things that you can’t see from close up. When you examine them in minute detail, you will see things you can’t see from a distance. And when you turn them just so to look from another angle, the light is refracted as in a diamond into yet more beautiful patterns.

You will never know everything there is to know about God and his plan. You can study the Bible for a dozen lifetimes and still find new layers, new truths, new wonders that testify to God’s infinite wisdom and creativity.

Enjoy the treasure hunt. It’s part of what we were built for.

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Guilt by Pronunciation: How the quirks of language can waylay unsuspecting Bible students

The Apostle Paul wrote,

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:8 KJV

What a curious thing to say. Paul wants Jesus to eat us all!

No, really. It says so right there.

Wait. That’s not what Paul meant, you say?

Well, of course not. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s easy to see that the original intent isn’t what it seems to be in plain English, so we know that Paul was using an expression that just didn’t translate well. With a little thought, we can work out that he actually meant “with the heart/affection of Jesus”.

Every language uses metaphors and colloquialisms that can be difficult to translate. In the case of Philippians 1:8, the King James translators used English words that people of the 17th century were likely to understand, but that have changed meaning over the centuries or fallen out of usage altogether. The result is very strange and startling to modern ears. Fortunately, it’s so odd that very few people will take it literally.

However, there are a number of similar mistakes that people commonly make either because they are not considering potential problems with translation or because they are unfamiliar with the historical realities of how languages, culture, and expression change over time.

Cognates and False Cognates

Let me give you two examples of bad interpretation resulting from a failure to understand history and language that remain bizarrely persistent despite obvious problems.

If you’ve ever studied another language, you have probably encountered the term cognate, which means a word that sounds the same or very similar to a word with the same meaning in another language. Here are a few examples:

  • English “music” – Russian “muzika”
  • English “perfect” – Spanish “perfecto”
  • English “sabbath” – Lithuanian “sabatas”

Cognates are very common among languages within the same family. Russian, Spanish, English, and Lithuanian all descend from a single, ancient language that linguists call Indo-European because it is the ancestor of languages that are spoken today from India to Europe and everywhere that those people have migrated. There are many language families in the world. You can get an overview of the topic here: https://infogalactic.com/info/List_of_language_families.

Even worse, some words in the same language can have the same sound or spelling, but still have different meanings or linguistic origins. Consider the English word “ball”.

  • Ball – An air-filled sphere used as a toy or as an integral part of a sport.
  • Ball – A party characterized by formal dress and dancing.

Without more information, the meaning of even a simple sentence like “Let’s go to the ball.” is ambiguous.

One language can also have words that sound similar to words in other languages, but have completely different meanings or descend from different original words. These are called false cognates, and they can be very tricky for students. Languages in the same family frequently have false cognates (Carpeta doesn’t mean carpet in Spanish. It means folder or binder.), but they can also occur in languages from different families, like English and Hebrew.

  • English “show” – Japanese “sho“, which means document.
  • English “data” – Portuguese “data“, which means calendar date.
  • English “offer” – Swedish “offer“, which means victim.

I’m sure you can see how all of this might be very confusing for someone who isn’t fluent in both languages. Frequently, a little knowledge can get people into trouble in this respect.

God vs Gad

Another good example that I see on social media all the time is the English word “god” and the Hebrew word “gad“. They sound the same and are even spelled the same (gd) if you use Hebrew characters instead of English, because Hebrew doesn’t use vowels. The English word is a generic noun we use to refer to any deity, while the Hebrew has several possible meanings.

One of the Sons of Israel was named Gad. Translators disagree about what his name means because there are at least three Hebrew words that are spelled and pronounced in the exact same way. They variously mean “fortune”, “troop” or “crowd”, and “coriander”. So was Gad named Fortune, Troop, or Coriander? We can probably eliminate Coriander, but translators disagree about whether his name means troop or fortune.

To complicate matters even further, many ancient cultures had gods of fortune or prosperity, and Isaiah 65:11 contains a reference to such a deity that went by the name Gad, literally the god of fortune.

This seems like a pretty minor issue, until you learn that some people believe we shouldn’t call YHWH “God” because we are commanded not to call on the names of false gods. If they are right, then we might be guilty of idolatry (at worst) or disrespect (at best) by referring to YHWH as “God.”

Here is where an awareness of history, linguistics, and common sense comes in very handy. If there is a real historic or linguistic connection between the Hebrew Gad and the English God, then we should seriously consider this objection. If there isn’t, then it’s safe to dismiss it as nonsense.

Gad – All three Hebrew words come from a common Hebrew root verb (gadad) that means to cut or furrow. The derivation probably came from one of three possible implications of cutting:

  1. Almost all wealth ultimately comes from the ground, whether it be through farming, ranching, or mining. All of which involve cutting or furrowing the ground to get something valuable out of it.
  2. Uncovering a hidden treasure requires digging, cutting, or breaking something to get to it.
  3. Wresting wealth from someone else’s control requires force, which usually involves a troop with weapons designed for cutting or piercing.
  4. There is no real doubt among linguists that the word gad is native to Semitic languages and probably wasn’t adopted from some other language family. In other words, the Hebrews didn’t borrow the word from the Germans or their ancestors.

God – According to etymonline.com, the English word god has remained unchanged in meaning for at least 1500 years, but comes from a Proto-German word that probably meant “that which is invoked” or from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant “poured out”. In either case, it is definitely of Indo-European origin, and not Semitic. In other words, the proto-Germanic people didn’t borrow the word from the Hebrews.

Here are the possible connections:

  • They sound alike…but that’s not really a connection since both words have ancient, unrelated roots in different language families.
  • Isaiah 65:11 mentions setting a table for “Gad” and filling cups for the God of Destiny, and a possible Proto-Indo-European root for “god” might have something to do with pouring stuff. However, the god associated with pouring drinks in Isaiah is Destiny, which, in Hebrew, is meni not gad.

Seems pretty weak to me.

The Hebrew word is a common noun that was expanded to a title (god of fortune), that was then shortened again to be used as a proper noun (Gad/Fortune). Misuse of the word gad doesn’t make it pagan anymore than the words sun and moon, both of which have had their associated deities. If we had a god of fortune and over many centuries came to call it simply “Fortune”, that wouldn’t make the word “fortune” pagan. It would only make pagan those people who worshiped fortune as if it could be a god, when in fact, the true God really is a fortune in almost every sense of the word.

We can’t abandon every word simply because some group of pagans might have once slapped it onto an imaginary being.

As I hope you see, the connection between “gad” and “god” is so extremely tenuous that I think it’s safe to say there is no connection there at all. Gad and god are merely false cognates, words from different languages that sound the same, but aren’t.

Jesus Doesn’t Come from Zeus

There are many, many other examples of mistaking false cognates for true ones.

For example, some people claim that the name Jesus is derived from Zeus (as in Yay-Zeus or something like that), despite it being spelled and pronounced very differently. The Hebrew name Yeshua was commonly transliterated into Greek as Iesous (Iesou plus the masculine ending -s) long before Jesus/Yeshua was born. Being a transliterated Hebrew name, and not a translation at all, it is meaningless in Greek, so claiming that it means “healing Zeus” or “hail Zeus” is pure fantasy, as every scholar of ancient Greek will attest.

Be Skeptical of Theological Claims Based on Spelling or Pronunciation

I could give you more examples, but I hope this is sufficient to demonstrate that similar sounding words in different languages don’t necessarily share any meaning or history. Whenever you encounter theological claims based on the spelling or pronunciation of English words, be very skeptical. The English language didn’t even exist until many centuries after the last book of the Bible was written, and the Old Testament was written in languages that aren’t even in the same linguistic family tree as English.

When in doubt on any similar kind of question, check with a reputable linguist and historian, not with a theologian or blogger, not even one who wrote a book or two. Especially don’t rely on the claims of social media denizens.

In the meantime, don’t stress about it. Focus on what’s clear and important first. Worry about obscure questions and gray areas more after you’ve mastered love and mercy.

—— Back to Common Sense Bible Study home page ——

More Tools for Bible Study

Tools for the serious Bible student. Commentaries, dictionaries, atlases, and more.

So far in Common Sense Bible Study we’ve looked at setting up for your study time, how not to get lost in irrelevant theological weeds, a few tips on how to read the Bible in its historical context, and some essential Bible study tools.

In this installment, we’ll look at a number of other Bible study tools of varying importance, starting with those I believe to be most important and working our way down to “eh”. I want to let you know what’s available without boring you to tears, so I’ll try to keep this brief.

Full disclosure: I earn a small commission on anything you buy from Amazon through the links on this page.

Bible Commentaries
Bible commentaries contain verse-by-verse (or at least passage-by-passage) discussions of the whole Bible or of individual books. They can be very helpful for understanding the meaning of difficult passages–and even many passages that appear to be simple– but remember that they are only the teachings of men, and different teachers can have very different interpretations of the same passages. No commentary has the same authority as the original Scriptures themselves. Just as with Bible translations, I recommend that you don’t rely too heavily on any one. Contrast and compare.

Here are some commentaries I recommend (not saying I agree with everything they contain):

  • Any of Tim Hegg’s commentaries on individual books.
  • Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (included with e-Sword)
  • John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible (included with e-Sword)

Bible Dictionaries & Encyclopedias
Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias define words and concepts found in the Bible. Pretty straightforward. They are especially good for identifying people and place names. Most Bible apps include several of each, and there are many more that you can access for free on the Internet. If you prefer hard copy, here are a few good options:

Histories
What kind of culture did the Hebrews leave behind in Egypt and what did they find in Canaan? How did the tense relationship between Rome and Jerusalem affect the Sanhedrin’s treatment of Jesus?

Histories can provide important background and contextual information for understanding the Biblical texts. Unfortunately, many historians of western civilization ignore the Hebrew contribution and treat the Bible as fiction, despite it’s having proved itself to be more reliable than any other history book that has ever been written. There are some good ones out there, though. Here are some that I think you will find interesting and useful:

Bible Atlases
Bible atlases contain maps of the lands in which the events of the Bible took place. A good atlas will include information about people groups, political contexts, international conflicts, and the movements of individuals and groups of people at various points in history. Most hard copy Bibles have some maps in the back, but these don’t come close to providing the level of detail that a real atlas does. You can find a lot of great geographical information on the Internet, but it can be hard to determine the reliability of any particular source. Here are a few hard copy atlases that should be pretty accurate and detailed:

Study Bibles
Study Bibles are usually popular translations of the Bible interspersed with commentary. I made this a separate category from Bible Commentaries because a novice Bible student might mistake them for being more authoritative than other commentaries because the text is set side-by-side with the Bible, and yet they tend to be less rigorous and less reliable for that same reason. Keep in mind when reading any study Bible, that it is only commentary. I would avoid study Bibles with a pop focus, such as those written specifically for women, teens, or athletes. Here are a few that I think are better than most:

Lectionaries
Lectionaries provide lists of Bible passages to be read on specific dates or events. In my opinion, their greatest value lies in leading the reader to thematic connections between different passages that might not be obvious at first. Jewish tradition pairs a reading from the first 5 books of the Bible (this reading is called a Parsha) to a related passage in the Prophets (called a Haftarah). The second passage illustrates or expands on the meaning of the first. Many Christian denominations use lectionaries as well. If a lectionary includes liturgy, devotionals, or commentary, it could be a problem, but if it only pairs related Bible passages, it could make for some very interesting study material.

Devotionals
Devotionals are collections of short essays on Biblical topics, usually intended to be read daily. Their quality, value, and depth are all over the map. There are great devotionals and terrible devotionals. There is probably more devotional-type literature published than any other. I’m confident that you will find some great content in these:

Bible/Gospel Harmonies
A harmony is an attempt to create a single, chronological text from different accounts of the same events. For example, a gospel harmony combines the narratives of all four gospels into a unified, chronologically arranged account. Such a work necessarily involves some extra-biblical interpretation, because there are ambiguities in the original texts that require making some assumptions about the author’s intent to make them line up with the other accounts. I have only seen harmonies made of the gospels, but I’m sure someone must have attempted harmonies of the Torah and the historical books of the Old Testament as well. You can find them on the Internet or in book stores.

In general, I view harmonies as curiosities and little more. They never seem to deliver the value or clarity one would expect. On the other hand, you might learn a lot from compiling your own.

You can probably find hundreds of examples for each of these types of resources. I recommend researching the authors and their likely biases before ascribing much authority to them, and, of course, weigh everything they say against Scripture. You are unlikely to ever find an author or organization who agrees with you on every important detail, so don’t reject a tool just because it contains something you don’t like. Look at the whole work and decide for yourself whether you can learn enough from it to balance its potential errors. In time, you might even discover that that the author wasn’t wrong, but you were.

Pray. Read. Study. Meditate. Pray some more. May you be blessed and may God be glorified in everything that you do.

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Essential Tools for Bible Study

In the last lesson of Common Sense Bible Study I talked about reading the Bible for what it is, considering context and purpose before assuming the meaning of any particular passage. In previous installments we looked at Bible translations and several ways that a student of the Bible might get lost in the theological weeds.

In this lesson, I’m going to talk about Bible study tools, starting with the most essential.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Encyclopedias, commentaries, dictionaries… Super exciting stuff! #Sarcasm

But you have no idea how exciting a good concordance can be!

Nah, not really. You’d have to be pretty desperate for entertainment to find a Bible concordance exciting.

Seriously, though, Bible study tools might not sound very exciting, but they are important. Reading the Bible by itself with much prayer and meditation will take you a very long way toward an understanding of God’s wisdom and his will for mankind, but a person would have to be a very determined fool to ignore the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years of intelligent and dedicated people who spent their lives studying the Scriptures. They haven’t always been right, but they have often been insightful and even brilliant.

There are many kinds of study tools, so I’m only going to talk about those you are most likely to encounter and that are most likely to be useful to you.

Ready? Go!

The Essential Tools

The Bible

Of course, a good, formal translation of the Bible is the most essential tool. Unless you can read the original Hebrew and Greek, you can’t study the Bible without one. (And if you can read the original Hebrew and Greek, you’re probably not taking this course.) Not just one translation. I recommend having a few so that you can compare to get a good grasp of plausible alternative meanings.

Here are some good choices:

  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)
  • New King James Version (NKJV)
  • Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Although the King James Version is quite literal, I didn’t include it because it’s very difficult to understand for most readers today.

I also recommend having a few dynamic translations and special-purpose Bibles for the added perspective. Just don’t take them too literally. (Hah! That’s a pun.)

Here are some good choices of non-literal Bibles:

  • Brenton English Septuagint (Brenton). I included Brenton with the non-literal translations because it’s an English translation of a Greek translation of the Old Testament, introducing another layer of potential errors.
  • Complete Jewish Bible (CJB). The Old Testament is more literal than the New Testament. The CJB is an attempt to restore Jewish thought patterns and names to the Scriptures, and so necessarily incorporates an amount of speculation.
  • New International Version (NIV) Not Today’s NIV nor the NIV, Inclusive Language Edition, both of which have been compromised with political and ideological agendas.
  • The Voice

This isn’t an all-inclusive list. There are other good Bible translations. See the previous lesson on Bible Translations.

The cheap way to build a collection of Bibles is to use an app that you install on your phone or computer (like e-Sword) or one of a number websites (like https://www.biblegateway.com/). Electronic Bibles have the added and important benefit of being searchable, which is a literal God-send when you remember reading something, but just can’t quite remember where it was.

On the other hand, many people like to highlight and make notes in their Bible. You can do this with some Bible apps too, but clicking and dragging and typing notes into a database isn’t really the same thing. If you appreciate a more tactile approach to your Bible study, you’ll need a paper Bible or two. If you’re going to fill the pages with color and ink, you’re going to run out of space eventually, so you should consider something on the cheaper side so you can periodically start over with a clean copy without breaking the bank.

Concordance

A Bible concordance is your electronic Bible’s search function, but in a book. Basically, it’s a list of every word found in a particular English translation of the Bible, with each word indexed to all of the verses where it can be found.

That’s helpful, but in the digital age, I don’t consider an index of English words to be all that special. What elevates a concordance to an essential Bible study tool, is its cross-referencing of the English words to the Hebrew or Greek equivalents, and the reverse index that lists every verse where a particular Hebrew or Greek word can be found.

That last is most important, and electronic tools shine here again. Most Bible apps come with a concordance, and the best of them will include an English Bible (usually KJV) that tags every English word with its Strong’s Concordance index number. Here’s a screenshot from e-Sword.

Notice the little purple numbers next to each word in the upper pane? Those are called Strong’s Numbers for short. They are index numbers for Greek words (If they were Hebrew, they would start with an H instead of a G) from Strong’s Concordance of the King James Bible. When I click on the G1135 next to “women” in Acts 1:14, e-Sword brings up the Greek word (γυνή), a transliteration using Latin characters (gunē), and an index of verses that contain that Greek word.

Looking at how a word is used throughout Scripture can really open up a world of meaning. For example, take a look at this article I did on the meaning of various Hebrew and Greek words that can be translated into English as “love”: God’s Loving Graciousness.

There are two drawbacks to e-Sword’s KJV concordance:

  1. It’s not really complete. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t always list every instance that a word appears in the text. I don’t know if that’s because the word was missing from the original source or if something went wrong when they imported the index into the software.
  2. It’s KJV-only. Some more recent translations use different source texts than that used by the KJV, and while the variations don’t affect any major Christian doctrines, it would be nice to have more than the one index.

There are other concordances available with other study apps and websites. For example, Biblehub.com uses the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance.

Hebrew & Greek Dictionaries

Knowing how the original word is used in the Bible can tell you a lot about what it means, but many words don’t appear more than a handful of times, and some words appear only once. Dictionary creators also consult contemporary usage in extra-Biblical sources to get a better understanding of how words were used by the original readers of the Biblical texts. Good Hebrew & Greek dictionaries can tell you what a word meant in Biblical times without having to look up every time it’s used in Scripture.

E-Sword comes with a couple of free dictionaries in both languages:

Hebrew

  • Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary
  • Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions

Greek

  • Strong’s Greek Dictionary
  • Thayer’s Greek Definitions

Most other free apps will use these same dictionaries. They’re a very good starting place and are sufficient for most Bible students, but they were all compiled more than a century ago, which is why they’re free. Modern linguists have access to much older and many thousands more ancient manuscripts, so really serious scholars will want to invest in more up to date dictionaries.

There are a number of other study tools that I’ll cover in the next installments (see below), but I consider having several good Bible translations, a concordance, and Hebrew/Greek dictionaries to be the bare essentials of Bible study.

Coming up:

  • Bible Commentaries
  • Dictionaries (not the same as Hebrew & Greek dictionaries)
  • Encyclopedias
  • Bible/Gospel Harmonies
  • Histories
  • Study Bibles
  • Lectionaries
  • Devotionals
  • Atlases

I’ll be a little more brief in discussing these tools. I promise to keep it as pain-free as I can!

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Read the Bible Just Like You’d Read Any Other Book

The late R. C. Sproul once said that you should read the Bible like you would read any other book. There is plenty in that statement to argue with if you’re looking for argument—The Bible isn’t like any other book!—but if you step back and try to understand what Sproul meant by it, you’ll find a fundamental truth to Bible study instead.

Read the Bible like you'd read any other book. -R.C. Sproul

If you pick a random book off a shelf at the library, how do you approach reading it? You ask several questions before you start:

  • Who wrote it?
  • For whom was it written?
  • What is it about?
  • What kind of literature is it?
  • When was it written?

Most people don’t even think about these questions consciously. They ask and answer them all in a few seconds subconsciously as part of the process of deciding whether or not to read the book. But consciously or not, we all ask these questions, because we need to know what kind of book we’re holding before we can know how to read it. You wouldn’t read a chemistry text book the same way you’d read a mystery novel or a book of poetry. If you try to read William Blake’s “The Tiger” as if it were a how-to guide for constructing jungle carnivores, not only will you fail to get a tiger, but you will fail to get the point.

The Bible—or rather the individual components of the Bible—is no different from other books in this respect. You have to know what kind of book you’re holding before you can know how you ought to read it.

Who Wrote It?

Although the Bible’s authors were inspired and guided by God, they still wrote in their own peculiar styles and from their own perspectives. The culture, religion, politics, and attitudes of an author will influence how he expresses himself and can add a significant depth to his words that might not be obvious otherwise.

For example, this verse from Ecclesiastes sounds like it’s about farming or some other hard manual labor:

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
Ecclesiastes 2:18

It’s a great and satisfying thing to build something that will last for generations, but this verse is talking about more than houses and even temples. It takes on whole new dimensions of meaning when you realize that it was actually written by a fabulously wealthy scientist-philosopher-king. There are many kinds of hard labor and the struggles of a righteous ruler for the sake of his people are as real as the bloody knuckles of a stone mason, even if they are not as visible to the naked eye.

The Bible was written by at least 40 different authors across more than 1500 years. They were scholars, priests, lawyers, kings, warriors, shepherds, and fishermen. Their professions, backgrounds, and current events gave each of them a different perspective on the world. We don’t know the names of every Biblical author, but, where there is doubt, there are usually sufficient clues to tell us what kind of people they were. At the very least, we can know that they were Hebrews in an agrarian society with no electricity, no running water, and no transportation that wasn’t powered by muscle or wind.

The one thing we must never do is read the Scriptures as if they were written by Americans in modern English.

For Whom Was It Written?

The identity of the intended audience of a text is just as important as the identity of the author.

Good relationships require good boundaries.

This statement will have very different—though related—meanings, depending on whether it was addressed to marriage counselors, property surveyors, or salesmen.

Paul’s letters were primarily written to specific groups of former gentiles who had no cultural background in the Scriptures and had only begun earnestly studying after their relatively recent conversion. James’ letter and Peter’s first letter, on the other hand, were written to Greek-speaking Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They were familiar with the teachings of the Pharisees and had heard the Old Testament scriptures read and taught in their local synagogues every Sabbath since they were children.

Unlike Paul and Luke in the New Testament, who wrote mostly to former gentiles, almost all of the Old Testament authors wrote for the benefit of Israelites with a thorough knowledge of their own culture, Scriptures, and prophecies. The people to whom Jeremiah preached and wrote knew the Torah well. They saw the Temple and the daily offerings with their own eyes. They had a deep cultural inheritance of the promises of God to Israel, of Messianic theology and expectations. A letter written to the people of Jerusalem in 700 BC is likely to be very different in content and expression to one written to recent converts living in Rome in 60 AD.

Keeping the background of a text’s intended audience in mind, especially when reading Paul, can aid understanding by eliminating some possible interpretations as being very unlikely and make other interpretations almost self-evident.

What Is It About?

Everything we read has a topic. Each discrete sentence or passage is about something or it wouldn’t exist, and the Bible is no different. If we want to know what a Bible passage means, we need to know what topic the author was discussing and to be careful about applying the words more broadly than the author intended or to the wrong topic altogether.

For example, if a paragraph says that gold is the worst of all elements and should never be used by anyone for any reason, you might be very confused if you didn’t know that the topic under discussion is the construction of tools that must not transmit electrical charges. It doesn’t mean that gold is unsuitable for any purpose whatsoever, only that you shouldn’t make solid gold screwdrivers for electricians.

Some topics have a narrower focus than others. For example, Daniel’s prophecy about the four beasts is about the rise and fall of kingdoms and not at all about winged leopards and horned monsters. We might be able to draw from it some valid lessons for studying history and politics, but we would be adding meaning to the text that Daniel didn’t intend. Once you start interpreting a passage beyond its original topic, you are on treacherous ground where the text can be twisted into any shape imaginable.

What Kind of Literature Is It?

Different genres of literature can have very different rules of grammar, structure, and interpretation. When reading in English, we all understand that a poet has more artistic license to exaggerate and distort the literal truth for the sake of the art than does a clinical researcher when describing the methodology and findings of his latest study.

Nobody accuses William Blake of lying for describing the tiger as being forged by a master smith. We all know that he was just using picturesque language and didn’t really believe that tiger brains come out of furnaces.

The Bible contains a variety of literary genres, frequently within the same book, and we need to apply the same kinds of mental filters when reading the Bible as we would when reading other books. Here are some of the broad categories of biblical genres:

  • History – Tends toward factual with heavy emphasis on names, dates, and places, but often leaves out details such as cultural information that wouldn’t need to be explained to the original audience. Sometimes presented as stories and dialog, sometimes as bare factual data.
  • Law – Heavy on formulaic literary structures, but often omits the cultural context of a law unless it’s directly relevant to how the law is to be obeyed. Frequently contains bits of history, but not always in chronological order.
  • Poetry & Wisdom – Rhymes, allegory, hyperbole, and dramatic imagery that isn’t necessarily meant to be understood literally.
  • Correspondence – Informal and personal with advice and theological exposition. Always omit details that both correspondents would have taken for granted, like cultural context, personal histories, and the contents of previous letters. Expect ambiguity and normal, conversational language.
  • Prophecy – Dreams, visions, allegories, et cetera, full of symbolism that might (or might not) have obvious meaning to the author’s original audience. Some prophecy is straightforward prediction of future events, but much is deliberately obscured so that it’s meaning is only clear in hindsight or to those who understand the symbolism.

There is frequent overlap between these genres. For example, Genesis contains all five in various places and the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 is History, Poetry, and Prophecy simultaneously.

You can almost always tell what genre you are reading by the context, but it can be obscured by translation. For example, the original texts might be arranged in meaningful ways, such as word order, white space, etc., or might contain rhymes and puns that are lost in translation. Most literally translated English Bibles attempt to preserve these elements, but it can be very difficult—often impossible—to translate poetry and allegory without losing much of the original art.

When Was It Written?

Some books and passages contain explicit statements concerning their time of writing: “In the seventh year of the reign of So-and-so, son of So-and-so…” A good Bible timeline can help you place these writings in the correct historical context.

Most English Bibles are arranged in roughly chronological order, so if a book doesn’t say when it was written, you can get a good idea by where it falls in the Table of Contents. There are exceptions, of course. The book of Job might have been written earlier than Genesis, for example, and all of the books of history, including the Acts of the Apostles, span long periods of time in which other books were begun and completed.

The time when a passage was written can sometimes have a dramatic impact on the meaning. For example, a prophecy of a future event is meaningless without knowing what “future” meant to the author. The Old Testament prophets contain many prophecies about the kingdoms of Judah, Israel, and the surrounding nations. If a passage talks about the future reunification of the two kingdoms, was it written before or the Assyrian conquest of Israel? Before or after Ezra and Nehemiah returned from Babylon? The answer to that question could change our understanding of the author’s intent.

The Bible Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

A thorough treatment of each of these topics could fill multiple volumes and probably has, but I did say at the start that this isn’t a masters course in Biblical hermeneutics. If you have the time and resources to invest in that kind of study, more power to you. For most of us, a little thoughtful common sense will have to suffice.

Just remember that the Bible didn’t spring into existence from nothing. It was written by real people, for real people, in the midst of real events. You can read the Bible like it’s just another coffee table book full of platitudes free of context, and you’ll still get some value out of it, but if you want real understanding, if you want to know what meaning the original authors intended to convey, then you need to have at least a passing understanding of who wrote each particular book or passage, to whom they wrote it, when, and why.

You can get most of that information from the text itself. Where the text is unclear, a good Bible Encyclopedia can be helpful, but remember that even the experts disagree about many dates, authors, etc., of some books. Believe what the text says and take what the experts say with a large grain of salt.


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A Brief Guide to Bible Translations

A brief guide to Bible translations

There are a lot of Bible translations out there, probably more in English than any other language. In some ways it’s embarrassing, like the thousands of Christian denominations. Why can’t everyone just read the same translation? There are some surprisingly good reasons for the many English Bibles and some disappointing ones too.

I’m going to get a little more technical in this installment, but it’s important information, so bear with me.

In part, the variety of translations are a reflection of the variety of source texts. Before the invention of the printing press, every Bible was copied by hand from an older copy. Letter shapes and vocabulary changed over time, writing faded, manuscripts were lost, and some were even deliberately changed. Some amount of error and variation was inevitable.

Today, there are thousands of ancient manuscripts that can be used to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, but they almost all have minor variations in the text. A number of factors will influence which original a translator uses for any particular passage: readability, historical and linguistic analysis, contextual clues, and theological bias, for example.

Some translations include additional passages or even entire books. For example, Catholic Bibles include the Macabbees, Esdras, and other books that Protestant Bibles do not. Some ancient manuscripts contain passages that are missing from others, and there is always debate about whether the passage was added to one manuscript or removed from another.

This is especially true for the Gospels. For example, Matthew 17:21 is present in the Tyndale Bible (1500s), Rheims New Testament (1582 and later), and the King James Version (1611 and later editions) which are based on the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts available in the 16th century, but is missing from the New International Version (1973), the Holman Christian Standard (2004), and the English Standard Version (2001) which are based on older Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that were only discovered within the last century.

There are two important points to consider about the use of older source manuscripts for translating the Bible:

  1. Older doesn’t necessarily mean better. There were false cults and poor copies two thousand years ago, just like today. Translators need to be very careful to be aware of all the possible factors involved in selecting source texts, not just the age of the manuscript.
  2. The oldest manuscripts we now have of any Biblical texts date to about the 2nd century BC and they differ very little from manuscripts that were created a thousand years later. The differences that exist are almost entirely due to individual letters or spelling variations. There are exceedingly few differences that have any impact on the theological meaning of the text. This is one of the most remarkable characteristics of biblical manuscripts and, by itself, makes the Bible unlike almost any other religious text in the world.

Some English translations have been based on Latin or Greek texts that were themselves translations from Greek or Hebrew. For example, the Wycliffe and Coverdale Bibles were both based on the Latin Vulgate and the Brenton English Septuagint is based on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. These kinds of translations can provide an interesting historical perspective on how Greek and Latin speakers might have understood the Scriptures in the early centuries of the Christian church, but they’re more likely to obscure the original meaning of the Bible than to illuminate it.

Another reason for making new translations is the evolving nature of English. The King James Version is barely readable for most English speakers today, and the meaning of enough words have changed over that time that some passages have completely changed meaning. For example, in modern English the word “replenish” means to restore something that has been depleted, like refilling a water glass, but that’s not what it meant when the KJV translators rendered Genesis 1:28 to say “replenish the earth”. Back in the 17th century, it just meant to fill it up. It’s the difference between refilling a glass and filling it the first time. It helps to have a Bible written in the same language we use every day, which only makes sense, since much of it was originally written using the same vocabulary and grammar that ordinary people used at home and in the market.

Unfortunately, such practical considerations aren’t the only reason to retranslate the Bible. Some translations were created because someone or a group of people didn’t agree with an existing translation. That’s not entirely unreasonable, but others have been created specifically to promote a theological agenda that might be foreign to the original meaning. The translators often believe they are correcting a misunderstanding, but in reality are introducing one or more.

Complicating the matter further are the different translation styles. Two linguists might agree on what a particular Greek phrase means, while still disagreeing on how it should be translated into English. Should it be translated literally, word-for-word, or should it be translated more loosely.

Take the phrase, “kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” for example. If you had to translate that from English into a different language for a people who had no knowledge of Aesop’s fables, you would have to decide whether to translate it literally and hope your readers could understand the meaning from the context or else translate it into a similar phrase in the new language.

These two styles of translation are called formal equivalence (word-for-word) and dynamic equivalence (sense-for-sense).

Formal equivalence will give a more accurate rending of the original, while dynamic equivalence will necessarily include more of the translator’s own biases. To an extent, though, all translation is dynamic because many Hebrew and Greek words have no precise equivalent in English and they can also carry extra meaning (connotations) that are unique to a particular culture or time period. Some words carry political baggage. Word order and grammar rules are different across languages. Translation can be a complicated process and even the most literal translators have to make a lot of judgment calls about what the original author really meant.

There is a spectrum even within those two general categories of formal and dynamic. For example, the King James and the English Standard Versions are both literal, but the KJV is more literal than the ESV. Young’s Literal Translation is even more literal as you could probably guess by the title, but it still has to be somewhat dynamic in order to be comprehensible.

At the extreme end of the dynamic equivalence end of the spectrum lie Bibles that are more properly called paraphrases than translations. The Message and The Living Bible are paraphrases and probably shouldn’t even be called Bibles since they are more like commentaries. Paraphrase Bibles are usually the work of one or a few authors who want to make the Bible more accessible to introductory readers and new converts. If they were labeled as commentaries or even as story Bibles, that would be fine, but they are so far removed from the original text that they are completely unreliable for any kind of real Bible study. They make great social media quotes, but unless you are unable to read or comprehend above a third-grade level, I don’t recommend wasting any time with a paraphrase Bible.

There is yet another category of translation that defies any clean labeling. I’ll call them special purpose Bibles. These are translations made in order to highlight a one or another aspect of the texts or to assist in a particular mode of study. Some might disagree with me, but I put the Complete Jewish Bible in this category. It’s a good, dynamic translation in most respects, but some words and phrases in the New Testament have been translated into Hebrew in order to emphasize the Jewish cultural background of the authors. These passages weren’t mis-translated, just translated in a peculiar manner to further an agenda. The translator, David Stern, was very open about his purpose, and wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. It’s not wrong, just…different. When you read with the understanding that it isn’t a literal translation, the CJB can give the reader a very useful perspective.

Young’s Literal Translation and the Amplified Bible are also special purpose Bibles, but fall at the opposite end of the formal-dynamic spectrum as the CJB. The YLT is difficult to read casually, but provides useful insight into the meaning of the original text without having to look up every word in a Hebrew or Greek dictionary. The Amplified Bible fills a similar niche, and might even be more literal. However, unlike the YLT, the Amplified Bible puts alternative translations in parenthesis so that it’s like reading a Bible and a Bible dictionary at the same time. Needless to say, it too is not a Bible for casual enjoyment. Most people will not want to read it straight through.

The Voice represents another–and unique–kind of special-purpose Bible. The creators attempted to capture the unique voice of each of the Biblical authors using a variety of styles. I haven’t seen it yet, but the concept sounds intriguing if dangerously close to being just a more trendy paraphrase than others.

Here’s a list of a few of the popular translations currently available that I am comfortable recommending:

Formal Equivalence

  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • King James Version (KJV)
  • New American Standard Version (NASB)
  • New King James Version (NKJV)

Dynamic Equivalence (less dynamic)

  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
  • New International Version (NIV)

Dynamic Equivalence (more dynamic)

  • Contemporary English Version (CEV, not the CEB, which is the Common English Bible)
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
  • New Living Translation (NLT)

Special Purpose Bibles

  • Amplified Bible
  • Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

I have included several translations, such as the NIV and CEV, above that I don’t personally use very often because a few passages that I believe to have been mistranslated annoy me too much. Your mileage may vary, of course. Remember that no translation is perfect, and some will be better than others. Even the existent Greek and Hebrew texts have variations.

If you want a little more information about today’s popular Bible versions, check out this handy chart from Cokesbury

Some people will claim that the King James Version is the one and only true English Bible, but it is trivially easy to point out glaring–even deliberate–mistranslations in its text. (Do I hear the sound of an angry mob approaching?)

Don’t misunderstand me. The KJV is outstanding. It is one of the best English translations available, but it’s still not perfect. Fallible humans were involved in its creation and printing, and they were not inspired in the same way that the original authors were. Additionally, there are very good arguments that some older manuscripts, which were not available to the KJV translators, contain superior source texts.

The existence of multiple translations of the Bible in itself isn’t a bad thing. None of the Biblical books were written originally in English–Modern English didn’t even exist as a language until about 700 years ago!–and having access to several translations is almost like being able to ask a panel of linguists what they think the best translation is for a passage. Comparing their conclusions can give us greater perspective on what the words could and couldn’t mean.

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
(Proverbs 11:14)

I recommend that you own and use several translations. (E-Sword is a great, cheap way to accomplish that, if you don’t mind reading on a computer screen. See below for more info.) For everyday reading, choose a translation on the dynamic side of literal (like the ESV or NKJV) or on the literal side of dynamic (like the HCSB or NIV). For more serious study, use formal equivalence (literal) translations alongside a Bible dictionary and a concordance. Personally, I really like the NKJV even though I usually quote from the ESV because it’s included with e-Sword for free. (See below!)

Avoid translations that were created by a specific denomination or sect and treat any translation made by a single individual as suspect. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Latter Day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church, and other religious organizations have created their own “approved” translations, and while they might be fantastic, the nature of such works make them much more likely to be agenda driven or skewed by theological bias.

You should find a Bible that resonates with you and that a broad range of qualified Bible scholars consider to be accurate. Stick to that as your primary Bible, but make sure to consult other translations frequently, especially when a passage seems at all confusing. Weigh every passage against the rest of Scripture.

Remember that no verse stands alone and the Bible must be interpreted in an internally consistent manner.

P.S. My favorite Bible study tool is e-Sword, phenomenal software created by Rick Meyers to facilitate access to Bible commentaries, dictionaries, translations, and other resources. It lets you quickly switch between multiple translations and even to see them side-by-side. Inclusion of dictionaries lets you look up the meaning of Hebrew, Greek, and English words in every verse. On the computer I’m using right now, I have 16 different translations, 2 Hebrew dictionaries, 2 Greek dictionaries, several encyclopedias, and 13 commentaries. Once you have the software installed, you can use the built-in tools to download and add dozens of translations, both free and paid, in dozens of languages. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you don’t have it, you can download e-Sword for free at http://www.e-sword.net/. Consider donating or buying some of the paid modules to support the continued growth and refinement of the software.

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A Wrong Turn down Sentimental Street

God Is Love!

A couple of lessons back, I introduced you to three kinds of errors that Bible students commonly make. I started with distractions, which might make an entertaining hobby, but add very little to your understanding for the amount of time you spend with them. Next I talked about secret clubs, mysterious trails that feel like great discoveries, but actually lead to pride and division.

In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the third category: Sentimentality.

Sentimentality

“I can’t believe a loving God would do that.”
“Listen to your heart. Your heart knows what’s right.”

What’s a word for someone who finds their way by feeling? Blind.

Everybody is familiar with John’s statement in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love”, but too many people today think that it means love is God. This is a terrible error. Just a few verses farther on, John explained that love is defined by the commandments of God. To paraphrase 1 John 5:2-3, “We know that we love the children of God if we love God, and we know that we love God if we are keeping his commandments.”

God created love like he created everything else, but elevating love above God is worse than animistic religions that worship animals, trees, and other creations. When people subconsciously translate “God is love” into “love is God”, they don’t mean the love that God created, but their own idea of love, a thing of their own creation.

They are making themselves out to be God: the creator and judge of all that is good and right.

Feelings, intuition, instinct…

These are all good things that God built into us just like our eyes and ears. They are tools we can use to sense and interpret the world around us as well as the written word. They are channels through which God communicates to us, but God isn’t the only one who uses them. Other people, ungodly spirits, and even our own desires can communicate with us through these channels too. It can be very difficult to tell which is which.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter whether we like anything that God does or says. It doesn’t matter whether or not we like his rules. The world and everything in it, including you and me, belongs to God. He makes the rules, not us. He defines right and wrong, not us. Our emotions are meant to help us understand Scripture, not to define it for us.

Puppies are wonderful…but we don’t build doctrine on cuteness.

If we don’t like how a Bible verse makes us feel, the right thing to do isn’t to reinterpret the verse to fit our sentiment, but to pray and to keep studying until we are sure that we understand what God intended the verse to say. If our understanding of a verse doesn’t align with the rest of Scripture–because all of Scripture is a unified whole–then our understanding is wrong.

Don’t Be Blinded by the Maudlin Light

To keep from getting blinded by sentimentality, whenever you feel offended, shocked, or otherwise disturbed by what a Bible passage seems to be saying, and you tell yourself that it can’t possibly mean what it seems to be saying, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Is your understanding of the passage in question supported by at least two other unambiguous passages?
  2. Does your understanding make the passage to mean something that is in clear contradiction to other passages?

If your answer to the first question is no or your answer to the second question is yes, then you are probably allowing your personal feelings to interfere with what God is trying to tell you. Remember that the process of working out your salvation (Philippians 2:12) involves being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2), so that what you think and feel now is necessarily flawed and needs to be retrained to align with Scripture.

The One Rule to avoid distractions, secret clubs, and sentimentality

You probably noticed while you read these three lessons that there was one rule that can help keep you from getting lost in all three kinds of weed patches: Treat the Bible as a unified whole. Every book must be read and interpreted so that it agrees with the rest, and unclear passages must be interpreted in light of clear passages. I’ll talk more about that in a future installment. For now, I want you to remember this:

We are human and imperfect. Mistakes are inevitable. It’s unlikely that any of us will ever attain a perfect understanding of anything in our lifetimes, and we must never allow our pride to tell us otherwise. Our goal in studying the Bible is to learn God’s ways and allow him to mold our lives and our thinking into his image, not to force the Bible into the image of modern sensibilities.

So keep reading and use these rules as guideposts to help you stay on the right trail and out of the weeds.

P.S. Remember those vines with the mitten-shaped leaves that caught Frank’s attention in the lesson about Distractions? Let me save you a little trouble–or a lot. They’re poisonous. Don’t eat them.

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