Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Bible Study 02 — Comparison [Part 2]

Another instalment in the re-presentation of our 2013-2014 series about studying the Bible using methods deduced from the Bible itself. The series introduction can be found here and the previous post here.

Last post I concluded with the idea that the best interpreter of scripture is more scripture, as opposed to culture, history, political correctness and other external sources of meaning that we are often tempted to impose on the word of God. Our first Bible study tool is comparison.


A few qualifiers here:

  1. Word study alone will not give you an infallible interpretation. It’s a starting point, one that reduces the number of legitimate possible meanings and eliminates goofy ways of reading the text. But reducing the number of legit possibilities often leaves you with one or two to think about rather than four or five, and that’s a good thing.
  2. Word study in English is of very limited value (as is word study in any other modern language), given that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In order to accurately convey meaning and remain literary in another language, even the most literal English translations could not avoid using different English words to translate words from the original language when the context in which those words occur indicates that they clearly mean different things. Context means considerably more to interpretation than finding that you have ‘the same Greek word in several places’.
  3. Synonyms are used in both the source language and the language of translation, so finding all the references to a particular word in the source language is no guarantee that you have found everything the Bible says on any given subject.
  4. There are no ‘literal’ translations, though I have heard King James Version advocates claim that their favorite translation is literal. A literal, word for word translation from another language is unreadable gobbledygook.
  5. If you start with a bad translation, you’ll struggle, particularly when your translation is excessively euphemistic or exchanges one metaphor or image for another. And unless you are a scholar of ancient Greek or Hebrew, you will be starting with a translation. Some translations are more literal than others, some are more like paraphrases. In general, more literal is better than less literal, but if you get too literal you’re bound to get lost. Choosing a good translation is a subject for another post (or several), but there are a number of decent ones.
  6. Compare good translations of a passage. This is very useful to someone who is not a Greek or Hebrew scholar. If three good translations agree on ninety percent of a verse, you are not likely to have any reason to mistrust their scholarship and you can concentrate your efforts on finding the meaning of the areas they have translated differently. While it’s possible, even likely, that an individual translator may bring a cultural, linguistic or theological bias to his translation of any particular passage, the chances of two or three groups of skilled scholars translating years apart and in different places, balancing each other’s prejudices and assumptions and then all coming to the wrong conclusion about the meaning of a passage is staggeringly unlikely.
  7. The differences between decent translations are frequently vastly overstated. Yesterday I happened to read a King James-er ranting (no, it really was a rant) about the ways in which the NASB, ESV and NIV translations fail in a particular verse. In fact, his entire blog is dedicated to showing the failures of modern translations. And you know what I took away from his carping? That even a ‘bad’ translation (sometimes even a wild paraphrase) is often adequate to convey the Lord’s message. The differences between the four were so subtle as to be virtually meaningless to anyone but an obsessive compulsive. You may come across a translation that fails to perfectly convey all the subtlety of meaning in a passage. You may come across a translation that could’ve been more elegant. But you will never come across one that teaches the opposite of what is intended, unless you’re reading one of those ‘cult specials’ that are produced within a particular sect. I’m open to correction on that, but I’ve never seen it.

This is getting lengthy, so I’ll stop here for now. (One of my desires with this series is to keep the suggestions in manageable bites.) There are lots of good (and lots of better) Bible study help tools out there, but many of the ones I’ve seen are so densely packed with information that the average reader would never wade through them.

One more thought: The best Bible study methods in the world, with the best and most trustworthy tools in the world, will never compensate for a failure to read, pray and meditate, or overcome a spirit of unbelief:

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Stay tuned. I’m going to post on this subject three times a week for the next month.

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