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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:

  • Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words
  • Hollman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
  • Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 2 volumes
  • Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible

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:

  • The Chumash: The Stone Edition
  • The Apologetics Study Bible
  • HCSB Study Bible

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.

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

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!

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

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.


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

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 most popular Bible versions, check out this handy chart from A. Philip Brown II

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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Super Secret Bible Study Clubs! Shhh…

Oh, you’re not a member of the club?

In the pevious lesson, I discussed distractions and how interesting little factoids in and about Scripture can lead you far off the track of things that really matter. In this message, I want to tell you about a second way that Bible students can be lured off the trail into the theological weeds.

Wrong Turn 2: Secret Clubs

Have you ever been the first person to answer a riddle or solve a puzzle? It makes you feel pretty special, right?

Some of those rabbit trails can lead to strange and alluring places that harbor some amazing discoveries. Chiasms and parallelisms are good examples: bodies of text with layers of meaning contained in the physical arrangement of words and phrases. Other examples are the pictograms of paleo-Hebrew and gematria (aka Hebrew numerology), both of which can be interesting and might lead to valid insights, but probably weren’t intended by the original authors of the Biblical writings.

Another very common and much more problematic source of Secret Club revelations is ancient, extra-Biblical texts, especially apocalyptic and prophetic writings. The early Christians did a very good job of weeding out books that didn’t measure up, and only those writings that almost everyone agreed on made it into the Bible.

There are some great ancient writings that we can learn a lot from, and I encourage you to explore them once you have a solid foundation in the canonical Bible, but most of them didn’t make the cut for very good reasons. Some writings were tainted by unbiblical teachings, others were known to be forgeries or inventions, and yet others were twisted and demonic. We need to handle extra-Biblical writings with caution and weigh everything they say against the Bible. If it doesn’t measure up, throw it out.

Uncovering hidden gems in the Bible and other texts can be great, enlightening fun, but they can become distractions and false trail markings, too. I call these rabbit trails “Secret Clubs” because the people who follow them tend to feel a certain amount of pride at their discovery and to feel like they’ve joined a secret club of sacred initiates. Knowing and acknowledging the “revelation” becomes more important than serving the people of the Kingdom of God, and attacking or mocking those outside the club becomes a favorite past time.

Special revelations and secret “knowledge” can provoke an intense pride that masquerades as a fierce defense of the truth. It can suck you into a vortex of mysteries, confusion, and paranoia. I know that might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. I see it all the time.

Secret Clubs are a modern analog of the Pharisees that Jesus frequently confronted. Like the Sabbath, the Scriptures were given for man’s benefit. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a tool to teach us how to love God and one another. If the Bible is only comprehensible by an elite few or if it isn’t serving that purpose for some other reason, then it is being misread and misused.

How to Avoid the False Trail of Secret Clubs

You can avoid getting inducted into a Secret Club by applying a couple of tests to new and unusual doctrines:

  1. Is this discovery supported by at least two clear (not cryptic or metaphorical) passages in the Bible?
  2. Has following this rabbit trail tended to create argument or division between you and other believers? Is it becoming more important to you to be correct or to have good relationships with God and your community?

If you answer no to the first question or yes to the second, then be very cautious with this “discovery”. Treat it as an interesting tidbit that might or might not be true. It’s certainly possible for you to be right and every other Bible student to be wrong–remember Noah–but it’s not very likely. More often, it’s just a danger sign that you’re getting off track. You probably aren’t Noah.

Don’t create unnecessary division and always be humble enough to admit when other people hold a view that is reasonable and defensible even if you don’t agree with them. Very few differences of opinion on theological matters are worth it.

In the next lesson, we’ll get into the third category of common errors (sentimentality) and wrap up this portion of the Common Sense Bible Study series before we get into even more meatier stuff.

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3 Wrong Turns on the Bible Study Trail

So far in Common Sense Bible Study, we’ve laid down the ground rules for the series and detailed three important steps to take before you begin your Bible study. In this email, I want to introduce you to three categories of error that Bible students commonly wander into. Then I’ll expand a bit on the first category and give you some tips to stay on the right trail. In my next email, I’ll talk about the second category, and then wrap it all up in a third email.

I’m not a theologian, and I never attended seminary. Chances are good that, if you’re reading this, you didn’t either. I don’t want to bore you or scare you off with a bunch of technical terms for classifying heresies even if I could manage to use the words correctly. Instead, I’m going to use these categories to describe three very closely related kinds of errors:

  1. Distractions
  2. Secret clubs
  3. Sentimentality

Right away, I suspect you’ll have some idea of what these categories describe, and, no doubt, you can think of errors that fit none of them. You would be right, of course, but most of those kinds of ideas get into much rougher terrain than I intend to cover here. On the other hand, as we progress through the series, I think you’ll be surprised at how many very fancy and official sounding doctrines will fit.

Wrong Turn 1: Distractions

Joe: “This sign says the trail goes this way.”
Frank: “Look at these neat vines. The leaves are shaped like mittens.”
Joe: “It’s getting dark. Let’s follow the sign.”
Frank: “What if we get lost? We need to determine if these are edible.”

Looking at the foliage and the birds is great. Everybody should spend some time in nature and in the geekier aspects of Bible study. Who doesn’t like a good rabbit trail now and then? But when your goal is to get from point A to point B before the sun sets, progressing down the right path takes precedence over everything else.

The Bible is full of fascinating stuff. Sometimes I love to dig into obscure aspects of a passage–you should check out my growing list of chiasms–but it’s important to keep things in perspective. For example, whether Hobab (see Numbers 10:29) was Zipporah’s brother, uncle, or someone else could be an interesting topic to explore when you have some spare time one day, but whatever conclusion you reach doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The precise identity of Hobab will probably never have any impact on your personal salvation, your relationship with God, or your behavior at the office today, so don’t get too hung up about it.

Does it really matter all that much if John the Baptist was an Essene or whether every hair on your head has an actual, pronounceable name or not?

No matter how strongly you believe that Hobab is Zipporah’s half-brother by Jethro’s second wife, it’s about on the same level of importance as your favorite color. It’s a bad idea to build doctrine around speculation and obscure passages. Even logic is on unsteady ground if it isn’t supported by unambiguous Scripture.

Whenever you decide that a passage means something that isn’t supported by at least two other, more clear passages, ask yourself these two questions.

  1. Does this conclusion change your relationship with God in any significant way?
  2. Does this conclusion change your behavior in any significant way?

If the answer to both of these questions is no, then the next thing to do is relax and not take it too seriously. You might be right or you might be wrong. Either way, it’s mostly academic. Don’t argue about it with strangers on the Internet and don’t start a new religion called Hobabism. Those things are some of what Paul referred to as foolish controversies in Titus 3:9. Just make a note of it as an interesting aside and keep to the straight and narrow path.

We’ll talk about Wrong Turn #2 next time: Secret Clubs. Shhh!

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3 Steps to Prepare for Bible Study

Three steps to prepare for Bible study: Environment, Planning, and Prayer

I debated whether or not to include this post in my Common Sense Bible Study series, but I decided it’s better to include it than not. I can’t know who is going to be reading this nor where they’re coming from, and even the most veteran students need a refresher now and then. Preparation for study can be almost as important as the study itself. What’s the point of putting time and effort into something that you don’t get anything out of?

Create an Environment for Study

You will think and learn better in an environment free of clutter and distractions. An office, library, or other place you can go that will be free of distractions is ideal, but if you can’t escape, then rearrange your current environment with a goal of clean surfaces and no distractions.

If your cell phone is likely to tempt you, turn it off or put it in another room.

Some things will be different for everyone. I study better with music playing; silence invites my mind to wander. My wife studies better in complete silence; if she hears music, she’ll want to sing along or get up and dance.

Just as with background noise, Whether you use a stand-up desk, a lounger, or a chair and desk depends on what works best for you and what tools and books you will want to have at hand. I don’t recommend lying down, though. I can’t imagine that works for anyone.

Plan Ahead

Have your Bible, your computer, and any study materials collected before you start so you don’t have to get up and find them later. I use the Bibles & other tools built into e-Sword (must-have software!), the commentaries of a couple of teachers, and a few hardcopy books when I study. I don’t use all of those every time, but I do like to have them close at hand so I don’t have to hunt them down.

If you’re going to need some snacks or something to drink, try to have them ready before hand. If you know that you’ll need a break, know what’s available so you don’t have to spend a lot of time rummaging through the refrigerator.

I recommend having a regular time scheduled and set aside so that it’s easier to tell yourself that it’s study time, not television or play time. Make sure everyone knows that this is study time. Although I might do some Bible study on almost any day of the week, Saturday morning’s are especially set aside for that purpose. I almost never plan anything else for that time.

Know what you are going to be studying before you start. Go through the Bible chapter-by-chapter, create your own plan, or find a plan on the Internet. I have some thoughts on what kinds of reading/study plans are preferable, but I’ll tell you more about the plan I follow and what I recommend on that score later.

You’ll need to have some means to take notes. Even if you have a photographic memory, taking notes will be very useful.

When you read something, the information is processed one way. When you hear it read aloud and if you speak it, you process it in another way. And when you write down thoughts about what you have read or heard, you push those thoughts through yet another process involving arranging them into coherent sentences and logical structures that will engage other parts of your brain and possibly lead to greater insights.

Taking notes will help you to think through what you’re learning and to retain it better. I keep all of my notes in a computer file, but many people find that pen and paper works better for them.

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

When you are finally ready to begin, take some time to pray. Many very intelligent people have spent years studying the scriptures only to dismiss them as fairy tales or hate-filled bigotry. Intelligence, knowledge, and good study habits are all great, but real understanding of the Bible only comes through the Holy Spirit.

God knows what he told Moses to write on the stone tablets. He knows what he told the Prophets and what the Apostles meant when they wrote letters to the first Christians scattered across the Roman Empire. If anyone can open the Scriptures for you, God can.

There are no hard rules for how you need to pray. Jesus gave us a good pattern to follow in The Lord’s Prayer, and the Bible is filled with more examples, especially in the Psalms.

You can pray aloud or silently. You can sing your prayers or write them down. Whatever you find works best for you.

Some people find it helpful to start with written prayers, whether traditional and formal or something from a book of daily devotions. As you become more comfortable with regular prayer, it will become easier to express yourself in your own words. If you don’t know what to say, start with this:

  • Be grateful. Thank God for all the wonderful things he has created.
  • Praise God. Try to imagine our unimaginably awesome God and tell him how wonderful he is. Trust me. He likes it, and the fear of the Lord truly is the beginning of wisdom.
  • Ask for wisdom. Ask God to open your eyes, heart, and mind and to give you insight as you work.

Make prayer a habit in your daily life. The things you learn in your studies will come to mind throughout the week and daily prayer will help you stay on track and open to whatever revelations God has in store for you.

When you get your environment and your resources ready, you have a good plan, and you’re prayed up, then you’re really ready to get to work.

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Common Sense Bible Study Ground Rules

The Ground Rules of American Torah's Common Sense Bible Study series

Who is this series for?

People who want more.

This series is for Christians, Jews, and Messianic believers who have had enough of going to church or synagogue to hear a sermon, just to go home, forget it all, and go on with life as usual. It’s for people who yearn to go a little deeper, but don’t know where to start. It’s for people who want more out of the Bible than you can get from casual reading, but don’t have time for college classes and language study.

People who have questions.

It’s for people who are tired of being told what to believe and want to find the truth for themselves. It’s for people who have heard an interesting, shocking, or just plain weird thing about what the Bible says and want to know whether it’s true or not. It’s for people who are confused by the thousands of denominations and conflicting doctrines and don’t know how to weigh the competing claims.

What are the prerequisites?

I know that there are all kinds of people out there who want to know more about the Bible and how to understand it: Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Atheists, you name it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m capable of communicating effectively with every possible student in the same study. I would approach the topic of Bible study very differently for a Hindu or atheist than I would for an evangelical Christian. So that I don’t waste everyone’s time, I have to set some minimum requirements for my readers. Of course, anyone is welcome to read this series, but if you don’t meet these prerequisites, you will get limited value from it.

I am going to assume that you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I don’t particularly care if you’re a unitarian or a trinitarian, a preterist or a premillenialist, a Catholic or a Coptic. What exactly you believe about God isn’t as important as that you believe he exists and that you want to worship him and know him.

I am going to assume that you believe all 66 books commonly included in the Bible were inspired by God and accurate in their original forms and languages. If you’re Catholic, Mormon, or of some other sect that holds additional works as authoritative, you will still be able to get significant value from this series. I’m not aware of any Christian* denominations that don’t accept the core 66 books, even if they might add a few others.

If you are Jewish and don’t accept the New Testament books as authoritative, you too can get significant value out of this series. Almost all of the principles of study that I will be discussing work equally well when applied only to the Tanakh. However, I will be assuming that my readers believe that Jesus, aka Yeshua, is the Messiah and that the New Testament is as authoritative as the Tanakh.

I am going to assume that you are willing to be wrong about some of your most tightly held assumptions about God and religion. If you think you already know everything, I doubt there’s anything that I can teach you. But you already knew that, right?

What will you get out of it?

Here’s what I hope you will get out of this series:

  1. Confidence that you can read and understand the Scriptures for yourself.
  2. The ability to decide whether or not a doctrine is solidly biblical, plausible, or completely nuts.
  3. The ability to weigh the relative importance of a doctrine, to tell what’s core to the faith, and what is peripheral.
  4. Confidence to stand up to Internet crazies who want to drag you into the theological weeds of irrelevancy or paranoia.

Most of all, I hope you will gain a better understanding of God’s Word and, through it, God himself. I hope that you will spend more time studying the Bible and that it will draw you closer to the Author of everything.

If you aren’t subscribed, add your name and email address below so you don’t miss anything!

What I need from you…

You can help make this series better by sending me feedback. I want to hear about what is confusing you, what is bothering you, what questions you need answered, and what I can do better. All you have to do is reply to one of these emails. I can’t promise to get back to you right away, but will do my best to consider your thoughts and to respond to your questions.

May God bless you as you study his word!
Jay Carper

* Different sects have different definitions of “Christian”, but I think the statement is true for most of us.

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