How to Study the Bible, Part 2

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Μy last article gave examples of the first two reasons for differences between English translations:

  1. alternate or more precise ways to express the original in English, and
  2. disagreement about how to interpret the original Greek/Hebrew text.

The third reason for such differences is disagreement regarding the original wording in Greek/Hebrew. Luke 2:14 contains a well-known example of this.

Luke 2:14b reads, “…peace, good will toward men” (KJV, NKJV) or “…peace among men with whom He is pleased” (NASB, ESV, NIV, NET). This significant difference in meaning is the result of just one letter in Greek: eudokia vs. eudokias. The loss/addition, whichever is the case, of that last “s” is what creates the difference.

Translator’s notes in the NKJV, ESV, net and other versions alert the reader that this difference arises from a difference in the Greek manuscripts. Determining the correct reading would require a vast knowledge of Greek, Latin, Greek scripts, manuscripts, the habits of particular copyists, NT transmission history, etc. and shouldn’t be an English reader’s focus.

What is important is to:

  1. be aware of the difference,
  2. think through the implications of the options,
  3. avoid taking a dogmatic position on the meaning of the disputed text, and
  4. not base a doctrinal position, which cannot be supported elsewhere in Scripture, on a disputed text.

Check Commentaries

After studying context and comparing translations, the third step is check commentaries. A few words about commentaries in general may be helpful.

  1. All commentaries are not equally valuable. Bestcommentaries.com provides a helpful starting point.
  2. Some commentaries are written by unbelievers.
  3. An author’s theological perspective colors his comments but does necessarily skew his perspective.
  4. Commentaries are often valuable resources for understanding the historical and culture background for a text. Ignore them at your own loss.

Commentaries fall into three primary categories: technical, expositional, and devotional. Technical commentaries focus on explaining the significance of the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the original language for the original audience.

These commentaries are often the most valuable for understanding what a text means. Examples of recommended technical commentaries include Adam Clarke, Keil & Delitzsch (OT), the New International Commentary on the Old/New Testament, and the Baker Exegetical Commentary series. I would turn to these commentaries for help with understanding the passage discussed above.

Expositional commentaries focus on explaining the meaning of the text in English. Comments on the original languages are put in footnotes or endnotes. Such commentaries can serve as valuable guides to the meaning of the text.

I recommend the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., the New American Commentary, the Tyndale OT/NT Commentary, NIV Application Commentary, and the new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. Any commentary written by Derek Kidner is worth reading.

Devotional commentaries focus on applying the text to the modern audience. Examples include William Barclay’s commentaries (beware some of his theology) and Matthew Henry (an English Puritan whose devotional comments are helpful, though he occasionally mishandles difficult passages).

Use the different commentaries according to their purpose: technical for detailed information about the original languages; expositional for interpretations of each verse or section of the passage; devotional for practical and personal applications; volumes of sermons (Alexander, MacArthur) for examples of how the passage can be developed into a sermon.

Read the Whole Bible Regularly

After studying context, comparing translations, and checking commentaries, my final recommendation is to read the whole Bible regularly. Nothing else will provide you with the same broad knowledge of God’s word. Seeing the sweep of God’s design in human history, uncovering the OT roots of nearly everything NT, appreciating the essential continuity of God’s self-revelation in Christ running through both testaments—regularly reading the whole Bible yields all of these fruit and more.

 


 

Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brown
Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).