Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

MSC1401AI’m a big fan of study Bibles. I’ve written about them before and shared many of the benefits of using a study Bible. These resources are especially helpful for those just beginning to study the Bible for themselves. It’s like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand more of the background and the context for biblical books and passages. Study Bibles can be invaluable when beginning to more deeply understand the meaning of Scripture.

But, as with many other useful tools, there are potential dangers when using study Bibles. It’s good for people to know how to use study Bibles in a proper, healthy way—and how not to use them. Here are two danger we want to avoid:

Referring to the study notes every time we read the Bible.
The notes in study Bibles can be incredibly helpful. When we’re having trouble understanding what a certain passage is saying, we can turn to the corresponding note and get more insight into its meaning. But these notes are so helpful, we can begin to automatically stop after each verse and read its note. That’s not a bad thing if we’re studying a certain section in depth, but we need to remember that the Bible is meant to be read. We’re supposed to get a feel for the whole book, to follow the author’s flow of thought. This is really hard to do if we get bogged down reading each study note.

I was recently reading Don Quixote. This classic book was written in the early 17th century, and it refers to things that would have been meaningful to people living in the same time and place as the author, but didn’t mean anything to me now. The edition I was reading included a lot of footnotes. These footnotes were helpful in explaining the historical meaning and significance of these references. The problem was the more I checked the notes, the more I fell out of the rhythm of the story and language of the author. I began to lose the “forest” of the author’s story for the “trees” of the historical references.

So what do we do? Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or choice. We need to do both! Let’s say you’re going to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s one way to approach it: Read the introductory information in your study Bible so you have a good, basic understanding of who is writing, to whom they’re writing, the historical and spiritual context of the letter, etc. After that, read through the actual letter without stopping to read the study notes. There will probably be much you don’t understand, but you’ll begin to get a feel for the whole letter and how it fits together.

Dense-forestAfter this, go back and read the letter bit by bit, especially digging into the passages you don’t understand. The study notes can now help you clarify what these passages mean and what they don’t mean. Once you have a fairly solid comprehension of the shorter passages in the book, read the whole letter again in one sitting. You’ll then see even more clearly how it all flows togethers. But remember, we don’t learn everything about a passage of Scripture by studying it once (or a hundred times!). Studying the Bible is a lifelong process of gaining understanding and wisdom. The Scriptures continually draw us closer to God and help us grow more like him.

Using a study Bible as our authoritative standard for what is right and true.
[This builds on my previous post.] Have you ever been part of a Bible study, and every time a question was asked someone in the study simply read the note in their study Bible? (Or maybe you’ve been the person doing this!) Sometimes we assume that the notes in our study Bible should settle the discussion. After all, they were written by experts, right?

I said above that a study Bible was like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand the context and meaning of the Scriptures. And this is true. But remember, no human teacher is infallible and free from error. The Bible itself is divinely inspired and inerrant—but the study notes are not! They’re very helpful, but they’re not part of the inspired text of Scripture. We need to keep this distinction clear.

Once we know this, it won’t throw us for a loop when people have two different study Bibles with two different views on a particular passage! The study Bible notes are written by people, and sometimes people disagree about what a biblical passage means. Even more importantly, sometimes people can be wrong.  Study Bible notes are there to help us understand the meaning of Scripture; they’re not there to determine for us the meaning of Scripture. We shouldn’t arrogantly think we can study the Bible in isolation and just ignore what all other Christians have studied in the Scriptures for the last 2000 years. But we do still need to do some thinking for ourselves!

The more experienced we become in studying the Bible, the more we’ll be skilled in comparing and sorting out the different views on certain passages. We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Notice these people listened eagerly to the message, but then did the work of studying to confirm the truth of what they’d been taught. This is how we can find balance when we’re taught or when we read things like the notes in our study Bibles. We need to ‘listen eagerly,’ but then ‘search the Scriptures to see if what we’re taught is the truth.’ Study Bibles provide many wonderful resources, but be careful not to turn them into some kind of idol or absolute authority. A note in a study Bible is a helpful tool for studying the Word of God, but it’s not itself the Word of God.

And, once again, this ‘listening eagerly and searching the Scriptures’ is an ongoing, lifelong process for the believer. Learning how to use a study Bible is really just the beginning. Welcome to the adventure!

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Sometimes I’m asked, “Why do I have to study the Bible? Why can’t I just open it, read it and do it what it says?” This is a good question. To help us see the need for studying the Bible, I’d like you to read the following and see if you can explain what it means:

It is now my dear Friend a long time since I had a line from you. The Fate of Gibraltar leads me to fear that a peace is far distant, and that I shall not see you — God only knows when; I shall say little about my former request, not that my desire is less, but before this can reach you ’tis probable I may receive your opinion. If in favour of my comeing to you; I shall have no occasion to urge it further, if against it, I would not embarrass you; by again requesting it. I will endeavour to set down and consider it as the portion alloted me. My dear sons are well their application and improvements go hand in hand. Our friends all desire to be rememberd. The Fleet of our allies expect to sail daily but where destined we know not; a great harmony has subsisted between them and the Americans ever since their residence here. I wish to write to Mr. Thaxter but fear I shall not have time. Mrs. Dana and the children are well. The judge has been very sick of a fever but I believe is better. This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety. If it should fall into the hands of an Enemy, I hope they will be kind enough to distroy it; as I would not wish to see such a family picture in print; adieu my dear Friend. Why is it that I hear so seldom from my dear John; but one Letter have I ever received from him since he arrived in Petersburgh? I wrote him by the last oppertunity. Ever remember me as I do you; with all the tenderness which it is possible for one object to feel for an other; which no time can obliterate no distance alter, but which is always the same in the bosom of

Portia

In classes, I’ve had students attempt to make observations regarding this text. What is the author’s “former request”? What is the nature of the relationship between the author and the letter’s recipient? It’s surprising the range of guesses that come from such a discussion—many of them conflicting with one another!

So what would we need to know about this letter to make sense of it? Well, it would help to know who’s writing it, wouldn’t it? (I’ll give you a clue: the author’s name is not Portia.) We also need to know to whom it’s written, and what exactly this person means to the author. We have a few clues as to the timing (the mention of America, the odd spelling and grammar, etc.), but it would really help us to have a little bit more information about the historical context. (“Ah,” I hope you’re thinking, “context.”) Who is the enemy to whom the author refers? What is the “fate of Gibraltar”? Who are the allies? Is there any significance to Mr. Thaxter and to Mrs. Dana and the children? And just where is this letter being sent from and written to?

As you can see, interpreting what we read is not always a simple, cut-and-dried process. The technical term for figuring out what a text means is hermeneutics, and it’s something we do all the time. Every time we read a news article or a spy novel, we’re doing ‘hermeneutics’—we’re interpreting what we read. The more distant the text is from us historically and culturally, the more challenging the task of interpreting what it means. The Bible was written in different languages, over a wide period of time, from different human authors (all writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and in very different cultural settings.

Is this background information really all that important? Only if we want to genuinely understand what we’re reading in Scripture! Here’s a principle worth remembering:

The Bible can never mean what it never meant.

Scripture can’t have some unique, esoteric meaning to me personally that is completely divorced from its historical and cultural setting. It can’t mean something to us now that it never meant to them then. To understand what the Bible means to us today, we first need a sense of what these letters and books meant to the people to whom they were originally written. If we don’t know any of this background information for the Scriptures we’re reading, then we’re as in the dark reading the Bible as we are deciphering the mysterious letter above. And I know that’s just how many of you often feel.

Does this mean we all have to become seminary students just to understand our Bibles? Not at all! Thankfully, we can benefit from the work of dedicated biblical scholars every day. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I recommended using a good study Bible? This is a handy, convenient way of carrying around a handbook on the historical context of Scripture—right in your personal Bible. A study Bible gives you an introduction to each book of the Bible, telling you who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, and a little about why it was written. By simply reading a brief intro, you’re now miles ahead of where you were before in your ability to truly understand the text.

A study Bible will tell us that Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (and that he was a Gentile). This gives us much better insight into both books. A study Bible can explain what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah have to do with each other, helping us to better understand both. A study Bible will help us sort out just who the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) were writing to and what they were writing about.

Who were the Galatians, and why did Paul so quickly get on their case in his letter to them? A study Bible will help you understand what’s going on in their letter. Why was Paul wanting so badly to get back to the Thessalonians? (Who were they anyway? Where did they come from?) Who was Timothy and why did Paul feel such a close, fatherly bond with him? Why in his first letter to Timothy does Paul speak of coming soon to where Timothy was (Ephesus), but in his second letter to him Paul speaks of his own impending death? What happened between these letters?

One of the most important things we can do while studying the Bible is to ask these kinds of questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? A study Bible is like a gifted scholar sitting down beside us explaining how everything fits together. If you’re reading the book of 1 Corinthians, it will help you understand the situation in Corinth, why Paul wrote to the Corinthians rather than go immediately to them, why he wrote to them the way he did, and how 2 Corinthians relates to 1 Corinthians. In a few brief paragraphs, it gives you the lay of the land and helps you see everything in perspective. As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about study Bibles!

I once heard of a competition between two woodcutters. A young woodcutter had been boasting he could out-cut the older pro. So they had a competition. The morning of the contest, they were given identical axes. It didn’t take them long to discover they both had the same problem—the axes were dull. The young kid just worked harder, thinking he could muscle his way to victory. But the veteran woodcutter stopped and took the time to sharpen his axe. When he finally got to actually using the axe, he was far behind his young opponent. But as the day went on, he caught up with and surpassed the challenger. When the competition was finished, the young upstart was so exhausted he could barely lift his arms, but what he had produced paled in comparison to the older, more experienced woodcutter.

I think the lesson is clear. We can’t simply muscle our way through the biblical text and expect to get much out of it. We need to take the time to sharpen our axe. A crucial part of any job is making sure we’re using the right tool, isn’t it? And we need to know the tool is in proper working order, and that we know how to operate the tool correctly, don’t we? One of the best tools we have in understanding God’s Word is a study Bible. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the study Bible I recommend to most believers who are just beginning to dig into the Bible is the Life Application Study Bible. If you’re a little more experienced at studying Scripture or if you’re going to be teaching others, I love the NLT Study Bible. I don’t have any connection to the publishers; I just love all the helpful features these study Bibles have, and I’m excited about getting them into the hands of Christians who can then use them to better understand the Bible.

If you choose a different study Bible—great! Just use it! Take the time to sharpen your axe. To mix our metaphors, don’t be satisfied with me or anyone else giving you fish—learn to fish for yourself. Sharpen your skill in studying the Bible for yourself and being able to understand it. My responsibility as a pastor isn’t just to feed you; it’s to teach you to feed yourself. That’s the whole point of our current series. Once you get a taste of digging into God’s Word for yourself, it will just make you hungry for more!

(PS: For those who are still wondering, the letter I quoted at the top is from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams [who would later become the second president of the U.S.], and it was dated December 23, 1782.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible? [see above]

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Which Bible version should I use?

I regularly receive questions about Bible translations. ‘Why do we have so many versions of the Bible?’ ‘Why are they so different sometimes?’ ‘Which one should I use?’ Along with a vibrant prayer life, reading and studying the Scriptures are essential for our spiritual health. I want to take a few weeks to explore some simple principles for studying the Bible—principles that any believer can use. But before we discuss how to study the Bible, it’s helpful for all Christians to understand a little about the Bible itself and why we have different translations from which to choose.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek and some short sections in Aramaic. Not many of us fluently read ancient Hebrew or Greek, so we can’t simply pick up these manuscripts and read them for ourselves. We need the Scriptures to be translated for us so we can read them in our own language and clearly understand what’s being communicated.

For many years, the common translation for most English-speaking Christians was the King James Version. But we no longer speak to each other in the archaic English used in the KJV. In fact, the language has changed to the point where many words found in the KJV have completely different, even opposite, meanings from what they meant in 1611 when the KJV was first published. Because of this, most people today find the KJV to be indecipherable or even misleading. The purpose of the KJV translators was to “deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they understand.” For most of us, this means choosing a modern translation—but which one? How do the translations differ from one another?

The most significant difference between the modern translations is how they’re translated. There are three basic approaches. Let me explain the different translation styles, and then we’ll compare them.

Some people say they prefer “literal” translations. While there is no truly literal, word-for-word translation, some Bible versions strive to be as close to the original languages as possible. They focus on the meanings of individual words, and they try to retain the original word order as much as they can. This is known as a formal approach to Bible translation. Examples of formal translations would be the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Other Bibles are extremely free and dynamic in rendering the original into English. This kind of Bible is called a paraphrase. Paraphrases try to make the Bible as understandable and fresh as possible, but sometimes by going beyond the meaning of the text. The most well-known paraphrase currently is The Message.

Other translations aim for a median approach, striving for a thought-for-thought translation (which is the standard method of translating) as opposed to a word-for-word translation. Rather than focusing on individual words, these translations seek to accurately convey the meaning of whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Examples of these functional translations would be the New Living Translation (NLT), the New International Version (NIV), the New English Translation (NET), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

Which is the best kind of translation? It depends on how you intend to use it. All of these versions can be used effectively. But you’re also going to discover some limitations. For instance, anyone familiar with a foreign language will understand that a truly “literal,” word-for-word translation is seldom possible. The familiar Spanish phrase “como se llama,” would have to literally be translated as something like: “as it is called.” But anyone who knows even a little Spanish recognizes this isn’t what the phrase means. The “literal” translation doesn’t accurately convey the actual, literal meaning of the phrase. (Which is why we don’t translate that way.) To accurately translate the phrase, we have to put it into a corresponding, functional English phrase: “What is your name?”

A great way to illustrate how the different approaches work is to translate the French expression: J’ai le cafard. [I’m borrowing this illustration from James R. White’s book The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?] If we were to translate this as literally as possible, we would end up with: I have the cockroach. So now would you understand what your French friend is talking about? Not unless they were speaking of a literal cockroach (which they wouldn’t be). We haven’t really gotten that far, have we? We’ve translated the individual words into English, but we haven’t conveyed the idea the person is expressing. We’re as much in the dark as we were before. We’re still stuck with a sentence we don’t understand.

But what if we were to translate the whole phrase instead of just the individual words? What if we took what the entire expression means in French and conveyed it in clear English? Then we would have something like: I am depressed. Or—since this is a colorful French idiom—we could even try to find a similar English expression, such as: I have the blues. This is the functional approach. Since this method of translation conveys to us what the phrase really meant to the original speaker, it’s actually much more accurate in translating the meaning of the original than a strictly “literal” translation would be.

On the other hand, a very dynamic paraphrase will go to great lengths to make sure the phrase is understandable. A paraphrase of this French saying could be something like: I’m having a lousy day! This is definitely more expressive, but we have to be careful. The more freedom that’s taken in the paraphrase, the more the chance that accuracy will be sacrificed.

How does this actually work with Scripture? Let’s look at an example from Luke 9:44.

NASB
Let these words sink down into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.

NLT
Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

The Message
Treasure and ponder each of these next words: The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands.

Which of these most accurately communicates the original meaning to us? Have you ever tried to get someone’s attention by telling them: “Hey, let these words sink down into your ears”? We just don’t speak that way, do we? The literal translation may tell us something about Greek colloquialisms, but it doesn’t communicate the actual meaning as clearly as the other two. But then, was Jesus telling the disciples to treasure and ponder each of his words? You can see how the paraphrase embellishes the actual meaning of the text. The NLT, though, gives us a very clear reading of the passage and one which is easily understood in our common language. So, in this example, the NLT most accurately translates the meaning of the text.

But some protest that they like the more formal translations because they “sound like the Bible” to them. For these people, when the Bible reads a little awkwardly or uses language that sounds holy or spiritual, it feels like the Word of God. (One example is what some of us call ‘Yoda translations.’ They’re called this because you can almost hear the familiar voice of the Star Wars character as you read the strange, backward sentence structure: “Fear not,” “Fret not yourself,” “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” etc. [examples from the ESV].)

Now, in one way, I wouldn’t want to argue with this perception because the best Bible for you is the one you’ll love and use. If this is merely a personal preference, that’s fine. But I also want us all to understand that this isn’t really a good way to evaluate a Bible version. You see, when the Bible was first written it didn’t sound like a religious text. To those who love the familiar cadence of traditional readings and word orders, the original Bible wouldn’t sound like the Bible! It was written in normal, everyday Hebrew and Greek, using common words and expressions. So if we want the Bible we’re reading to be as similar as possible to how the original Scriptures were read, they should be translated into common, everyday English.

Sometimes the literal translation may be a little cumbersome, but still understandable (as with “let these words sink down into your ears”). Sometimes the wording may just sound so odd that it inspires giggling, like calling Jesus a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19 in the NKJV) or claiming that “the ants are a people not strong” (Proverbs 30:25 in the ESV, and notice again the strange, Yoda-like syntax).

Other times though, the “literal” wording actually obscures the true meaning. Continuing in Matthew 11:19, the NKJV tells us “wisdom is justified by her children.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? I’ve asked this many times of students, and I haven’t had one guess correctly (and they all had to guess). Compare that with the NLT reading: “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” Isn’t this much more clear? Or what of the NASB’s statement from the Lord in Amos 4:6: “I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” Is the meaning clear in English? (Does it have something to do with oral hygiene?) Because the meaning is perfectly clear in it’s original Hebrew context. Is this more understandable (again from the NLT): “I brought hunger to every city”? We shouldn’t need someone to translate the translation for us!

So am I suggesting that formal, “literal” translations serve no purpose? Not at all! They can be very helpful, particularly for those who teach and need to do word studies or get the feel of the original structure of the text. But for general reading, the formal translations are usually too wooden and frequently obscure the flow of the passage. Paraphrases also can be useful by expressing the text in a completely new way that can be fresh and thought-provoking. But we shouldn’t rely on paraphrases to determine the precise meaning of a certain passage. It’s best—especially for teachers—to compare different kinds of translations when studying the Bible. But for general reading and studying, I recommend choosing a functional translation.

Our church uses the New Living Translation (NLT), and I haven’t found any other translation that combines accuracy and clarity so effectively. A good test when comparing translations is to read whole chapters in a book such as Romans or 1 Corinthians, first in one translation and then the other. As you read, see which one makes it easier to follow the flow of thought in the passage. You won’t always understand the concepts that are communicated in Scripture, but if you can’t grasp even the wording in the passage, then it’s really not doing you much good to be reading it! I was delighted when I saw how refreshingly easy the NLT was to understand without sacrificing the accuracy of the text. For a teacher, this means I don’t have to waste time explaining an unclear translation; I can devote that time to actually talking about the main points of the passage.

One final tip for this week. If you don’t already have a good study Bible I encourage you to invest in one. The best introductory study Bible I’ve found is the Life Application Study Bible, and it’s available in the NLT. I’ll write more next week about why this is important, but for now, the Life Application Study Bible has generally balanced notes and tons of in-text maps and charts. It will answer a lot of your questions as you’re reading, and it makes studying the Bible more fun. (If you’d like to see some of the features of this study Bible, just click on the book cover to the right.) Next week, we’ll start looking at some tips for digging into the Bible on your own.

(For a Spanish translation, I recommend the Nueva Traducción Viviente [NTV]. And for those who will be teaching or who have moved beyond a beginner’s study Bible, my favorite study Bible is the NLT Study Bible. By the way, I should clarify that I don’t receive any form of payment for products I recommend.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use? [see above]

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

The NIV controversy, part 2