There are four basic things that every English speaker can do that will take them a long way down the path of Bible study without knowing the original languages or having formal training in hermeneutics.
First, study context. Every word has the following biblical contexts: word > sentence > paragraph > section > book > author’s other works > other books of the same genre > New Testament (NT)/Old Testament (OT). If you are working in the NT, the OT forms the largest context. If you are working the OT, then you must also consider how the NT interprets your passage.
Cross references are your friend for identifying OT backgrounds to NT texts or NT uses of OT texts. It is a lot of work to study things in context, but there is no substitute for it.
It is a lot of work to study things in context, but there is no substitute for it.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:31 I read, “I die daily.” To find out what Paul means by this sentence I check the immediate context before and after this verse. In v. 30 Paul says he is “in jeopardy every hour.” In v. 32 he talks about fighting with beasts at Ephesus.
Checking the paragraph this verse occurs in (15:28-32), I see that Paul is arguing that suffering for the gospel is pointless if there is no resurrection. So, both the immediate and sectional contexts clarify that Paul is talking about being in danger of dying physically. He is not talking about some kind of spiritual death to self.
Second, compare translations. While you study the contexts of your passage, you should check your version for footnotes that offer alternate translations and compare your version with other English translations of the Bible. There are three basic types of translations available in English:
- word-for-word (KJV, NASB, ESV, LEB),
- thought-for-thought (HCSB, NIV, TNIV, CEB), and
- paraphrases (NLT, CEV, LB, Message).
Regardless of which text you are studying, you should check at least one other version from each of these categories. When you compare translations, you are looking both for differences and for similarities. Similarities assure you that there is general agreement among a large variety of scholars regarding the text’s meaning. Differences alert you to three possibilities:
- there are more precise ways to express the original in English,
- there is disagreement about how to interpret the original Greek/Hebrew text, or
- there is disagreement regarding the original wording in Greek/Hebrew. Let me give you an example of each of these.
In Romans 13:13, the KJV reads, “Let us walk honestly.” If I read only the KJV text, I will conclude Paul is admonishing the Romans to avoid being deceptive and to conduct themselves transparently. Checking the KJV margin I see “or, decently.” When I check other versions, I see they read “Let us behave properly” (NASB), “Let us behave decently” (NIV), “we must live decent lives” (NLT).
Checking the Oxford English Dictionary, I learn that the first sense of “honestly” is “in an honorable or respectful manner, honorably, worthily, respectably; in a seemly or becoming manner; decently,” but now this sense is obsolete. So, I conclude that the KJV meant “decently” by their use of the word “honestly,” and modern versions have chosen words that express that meaning more clearly.
In Psalm 68:19, the KJV reads, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits.” The fact that so many words are in italics (meaning they were added by the translators) prompts me to check the margin and compare other translations. My KJV has no marginal note here. Other versions read, “who daily bears us up” (ESV), “who daily bears our burden”(NASB); “day after day He bears our burdens” (HCSB, NIV); “you treat us with kindness day after day” (CEV).
All my modern word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations agree this verse is about God bearing me or my burdens up. That suggests they have a different understanding of the original text. That will lead me to my next step: check the commentaries.
Continue reading: How to Study the Bible, Part 2.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.