William Tyndale lived over four hundred years ago. In his day, the church would allow only its leaders to read and interpret the Bible. It also refused to let the Scriptures be translated from Latin into the language of the people. God gave Tyndale a deep desire to give people a Bible they could read for themselves, but he was unable to convince the church to do this work. He therefore began the enormous task of translating the Bible into English himself.
Tyndale worked feverishly from dawn to dusk, six days a week, for eleven years. He taught himself Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament. All during this time the church opposed his work and even placed a bounty on his head. He finally completed the New Testament in 1525. Since printing had been invented recently, this became the first English New Testament to be printed and distributed widely. Tragically, in 1536 he was captured and executed before he could finish the Old Testament.. Courageous to the end, as he stood before the gallows he prayed, "Lord, open the eyes of the King of England."
Within three years God answered his prayer, for in 1539 King Henry VIII instructed all publishers to permit "the free and liberal use of the Bible in our native tongue." And in 1611 the authorized version of King James I was published--the King James Version still in use today.
Here’s the irony: the King James Version is 90 percent the work of William Tyndale. The king’s scholars employed almost entirely Tyndale’s censored work of a century earlier. God used the sacrifice of this man to give us a Bible we can still read and understand today. In fact, the King James Version remains the most popular Bible translation to this day. If you’re like most people, your first copy of God’s word came mostly from the pen of William Tyndale.
As a young man Tyndale had vowed that he would make it possible for even a plowboy to know the Bible. God fulfilled Tyndale’s desire to help His people read and understand Scriptures. And the Lord continues to use this kind of work today.
In this chapter we will look at the work of modern Tyndales. Where did today’s translations of the Bible come from? Why are there so many? Which one is right for you? What commentaries and other study helps will help you most? These are important questions for all who want to unlock God’s word for themselves.
The story of the English Bible
As we saw in the first chapter, the Bible originally was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Since most people are unfamiliar with these languages, we must rely on a Bible which has been translated into English. For this reason a good Bible translation is your most essential tool for understanding God’s work.
Fortunately, there are scores of such translations available today. In fact, the Bible is the most translated book in the world. Where did our English versions of the Bible come from?
The first translations
Long before Tyndale published his English Bible, scholars were working to give their people a Bible they could read. The first effort of this kind was made by seventy-two Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, the common language of their day. This translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint for the "seventy" who did its work. (It is sometimes abbreviated "LXX," the Roman numeral for seventy.) This version was completed by 100 B.C.
It is interesting to know that this Greek Old Testament was the popular Bible of Jesus’ day. When the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, they usually quote the Septuagint. Most versions today still mainly follow its order of the Old Testament books.
One other early translation deserves our attention: the Latin Vulgate. In the fourth century, a scholar in the Catholic Church named Jerome wanted to give people a Bible in Latin, since this had become the common language of the day. So he made this "common" translation. In fact, the name of his version, the "Vulgate," stands for the "vulgar" or "common" Latin of the day. It is ironic that long after Latin passed from the scene as a common language, the church still insisted that this "common" Bible be used. Later, the first attempts to give people a Bible in "common" English were based on Jerome’s "common" Latin Bible.
The Bible into English
The story of the English Bible begins with the introduction of Christianity into Great Britain, probably around the third-century A.D. The first British Christians made rough translations of the Bible into their Anglo-Saxon language, completing the Gospels and some of the Old Testament by the ninth-century.
Versions of other parts of the Bible were made up to the fourteenth-century. Then John Wycliffe (died 1384) and his followers made the first effort to translate the entire Bible into the people's language.
Wycliffe was a scholar at Oxford. It was his heartfelt belief that the people should have a Bible they could read for themselves. He began this work and his followers completed it. However, the official church rejected his work, and him with it. In fact, his remains were exhumed after his death and burned along with his books. But Wycliffe’s movement to make the Bible available to everyone could not be stopped. His version, known as the Wycliffe Bible, was the first complete Bible in English.
It was translated from poor manuscripts, however, and was never widely available. The work of making a better translation and distributing it effectively was accomplished later by William Tyndale.
Tyndale was a notable scholar himself, educated at Oxford and later at Cambridge. Determined to make a Bible for the people, he worked at the project from 1523 until his death. Official reaction to his work was hostile--the seaports were watched to check imports, many copies were burned, and Tyndale himself was executed in 1536. Despite these efforts, however, Tyndale’s English Bible soon gained wide popularity and set the stage for many similar efforts to come.
In 1535 Miles Coverdale published the first complete printed English Bible. The first English Bible approved by the king was the Matthews Bible in 1537, a version which relied heavily on the Tyndale and Coverdale Bibles. The Taverner Bible of 1539 was the first version to be printed completely in England. The Great Bible of 1539 became the first English Bible authorized by the king for use in the churches.
The most notable effort between Tyndale and the King James Version was the Geneva Bible of 1557. It employed the best scholarship of any English Bible to that point. This Bible was also the first version in English to include verse divisions. It featured maps, tables, chapter summaries, and section titles as well. As a result, the Geneva Bible became the household Bible of English-speaking Protestants. It was the Bible of Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and the pilgrims.
Following the Geneva Bible came the second version authorized by the king for church use: the Bishops Bible of 1568. This became the seventh English Bible to appear in Britain in less than five decades.
The King James Version
In the space of fifty years the English people found themselves with an unfamiliar problem: instead of having no Bible in their language, they had to choose from at least seven different versions! Which one of these should the church read from in worship? Which was best for personal study?
To solve this problem, King James I of England convened a committee of fifty scholars in July of 1604. Their charge was to make a new English translation of the Bible from the original languages, giving the people a version everyone could use. Seven years later they completed their task. The famous King James Version, the most popular English Bible of all time, was the result. From 1611 through the nineteenth-century, this was the Bible of English-speaking Protestants everywhere.
Why so many versions?
For nearly three hundred years, the King James Version held first place in popularity. However, this situation has changed greatly in the last century. The movement toward contemporary versions began with the Revised Version in England in 1885 and its American counterpart, the American Standard Version of 1901.
From then to today, a host of modem Bible versions have become popular. Leading a Bible study in my first church staff ministry, I happened to use a translation other than the King James. After one session, a deacon stopped me in the hall. "Why aren't you using the King James?" he demanded. "If it was good enough for Peter and Paul, it's good enough for you!" Perhaps he thought Peter and Paul lived to 1611, or maybe he believed King James was one of the original disciples. However mistaken his knowledge of history, his feelings were real and popular. Many Christians today want to know, What's wrong with the King James? Why are there so many of these new versions?
Making new translations of the Bible may seem to be a recent development, but in fact it is not. Nearly as long as there has been a Bible, there have been changes in manuscript study, scholarship, archaeology, and language. Barely one hundred years after the New Testament was written, Origen of Alexandria devoted years of his life to gathering and studying the versions of the Bible which existed even then. As we have seen, the King James Version itself is based on other translations and versions of God's word.
The King James is still the most popular version. Many preachers use it, and Christians find God in its pages. However, four factors have contributed to the important role modem translations also play in today's church.
New Discoveries in Biblical Manuscripts
When the King James translators did their work, they were limited to the manuscripts available to them. Of these, they wisely chose to translate those manuscripts which were oldest and thus closest to the original writings of the Bible. However, their New Testament manuscripts were still more than a thousand years removed from the originals. This means that they had accumulated the mistakes of over a thousand years of copying by hand. While few of these mistakes make any difference in important doctrines, many of them do affect the meaning of certain texts.
In recent centuries better manuscripts have been discovered--entire New Testaments six hundred years older than those available to the King James translators, as well as fragments which are nine hundred years older. Old Testament manuscript discoveries have been no less spectacular. The "Dead Sea Scrolls,” Old Testament manuscripts found in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea, are dated from 100 B.C. to A.D. 70, a thousand years older than those available to the King James scholars. Since these newly discovered manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments are much closer in age to the originals, they are a much better basis for translating the Bible.
For this reason, biblical scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart go so far as to say, "This [fact of better manuscripts] is why for study you should use almost any modern translation rather than the KJV (emphasis theirs). We want our English Bible to translate as closely as possible to what the authors actually wrote in their own languages. Modern versions are based on the oldest and best copies available of these originals.
Improvement in scholarship
Bible translations are the work of men and women who have devoted their lives to studying the original biblical languages. As with any profession, these scholars continue to improve their techniques and skills. The twentieth century witnessed many advances in understanding the grammar and language of the original Bible. As scholars learn more about how to translate the first languages of the Scripture, they will continue to revise and update their versions.
This work of revision is not new. In fact, the process affected even the King James Version. Not many people know that this version underwent five such revisions. The 1611 version was revised in 1613, with over three hundred changes made from the original edition. Further revisions were made in 1629 and 1638. In 1653 the Parliament passed a bill permitting further revision when necessary, although nothing more was changed until 1762. In 1769 yet another revision was done--this edition of the King James is the version with which we are familiar.
As biblical scholarship continues to improve, undoubtedly still more Bible revisions and translations will result. We should be grateful for the expertise of scholars who continually study and work to help us read and understand what God inspired.
Findings in archeology
One of the most fascinating areas of advance in biblical research has been in archaeology. As this science unearths records from long-past eras, it gives us windows into history. Many of these discoveries clarify the Bible itself.
For instance, in Hosea 3:2 we find a word which occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament. The word is "lethech," and is used for a particular measure of barley. Since it appears nowhere else, some scholars felt the manuscripts were in error. In two recently discovered texts, however, the word is used as it was in Hosea, to describe a unit of dry measure. Recent archaeology helped us translate this text.
Another example comes from Proverbs 26:23, where the words "kesef sigim" are found. The KJV translates this "silver dross": "Burning lips and a wicked heart are like a potsherd covered with silver dross." But a recently discovered Ugaritic text contains the word "kesapsigim," meaning "like glaze." Undoubtedly this is the word found in Proverbs. The RSV therefore translates the verse, "Like glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart." As new discoveries are made in archaeology, they will continue to affect our understanding of the Bible. Improved translations will be the result.
Changes in the English language
In the King James translation of Psalm 119:147 we read, "I prevented the dawn of the morning." Is this some miracle of nature, similar to Joshua's preventing the movement of the sun and moon (Joshua 10:12-13)? Can the dawn be "prevented"?
Yes, if you know that in the days when the King James Version was translated, "prevent" meant "precede." If you get up before sunrise, you "prevent" the dawn. This is just one example of changes in the English language from 1611 to today. These changes are perhaps the most critical reason why modem versions of the Bible are so important for studying the Scriptures today.
The changes in English from 1611 to today fall into three categories. First, there are words in the KJV which are archaic today but still understandable. Personal pronouns like "thee" and "thou" are examples. You would never use these words, but you can still follow their meaning.
Second, there are words and phrases which are obsolete and no longer understandable to the average reader. In Acts 5 we read about the crowd in Jerusalem, "And of the rest durst no man join himself to them" (v. 13). Few readers would know the meaning of “durst” today.
Third and most important, there are many words in the King James which we still use today but which have a very different meaningfor us than they held for the translators in 1611. These words were once accurate translations of the Hebrew or Greek, but their English meaning has changed and they are now misleading.
In the KJV "let" means “hinder,” “allow” means “approve,” “conversation” means “conduct of life,” “comprehend” means “overcome,” and “ghost” means “spirit.” There are more than three hundred such words in the KJV.
Let's look at some other examples. In 1611 "charity" meant "love." Anyone who has done volunteer work knows that "Charity suffereth long, and is kind" (1 Cor.13:4,KJV), but this is clearly not the meaning of this verse today. When Hebrews 13:5 commands us, "Let your conversation be without covetousness" (KJV), it seems we're told not to ask for things we shouldn't have. But the author actually means that we're not to live our lives covetously.
In Luke 19 we find the famous story of Zacchaeus, the tiny tax collector who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. Do you know why he had to climb the tree? Verse 3 in the KJV says, "And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature." The verse creates for us the humorous image of reporters on the scene, cameras and notepads in hand, preventing Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus. Obviously this was not the case--"press" simply meant "crowd" in 1611. This kind of confusion will only get worse as the English language continues to change.
The translators of the Revised Standard Version of 1952 were right when they said, "It not only does the King James translators no honor, but it is quite unfair to them and to the truth which they understood and expressed, to retain these words which now convey meanings they did not intend." This is why R.C. Sproul concludes, "If we are looking for a beautiful translation, then the King James Version is the one. But, if we are interested in accuracy and purity of biblical translation, we must go beyond the King James Bible." We must have translations of God's word which say today what he said originally.
Notice that these versions are themselves subject to revision. Alongside the New English Bible of 1970 we now have its revision, the Revised English Bible of 1989. The Revised Standard Version of 1952 has now been reworked as the New Revised Standard Version of 1990. As language changes, so will our translations of God’s unchanging truth. These different versions of the Bible are part of God’s work to get his word to us.
How to choose your version
Which of today’s translations is right for you? Finding a version you can understand and trust is important to your study of the Bible. In fact, using the best translations is the first and most important step to better Bible study. But how can you know which to choose?
The sheer number of options can be intimidating. I went to a local Christian bookstore the other day and found over thirty different translations of the Bible. That doesn’t count all the styles--large print, pocket size, ultra thin--and different kinds of study Bibles on the shelf. In reading them, it’s clear that all versions are not the same. Take a minute to look over these different versions of the same text, John 1:11-13:
(KJV) He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
(Living Bible) Even in his own land and among his own people, the Jews, he was not accepted. Only a few would welcome and receive him. But to all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn!--not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan--but from the will of God.
(Revised English Bible) He came to his own, and his own people would not accept him. But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, he gave the right to become children of God, born not of human stock, by the physical desire of a human father, but of God.
(New International Version) He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God---children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.
How can you decide which of these versions is best for you?
Know the different methods of Bible translation
There are three basic ways that scholars translate the Bible. These different approaches account for the differences in the versions available today. When you know which method best meets your needs, you'll be prepared to pick the right version for you.
The Literal Approach: the most common theory until recent times has been the "literal" approach. The most popular examples of this approach today are the King James Version and the New American Standard Version of 1960.
Those who use this approach try to keep as close as possible to the exact words and phrasings in the original biblical language. As a result, these versions help you to know the original words and phrases of the biblical author, which is often very helpful in Bible study. However, there are times when this exact equivalent may not make the best sense in English today.
There’s a Greek phrase in Romans 12:20 which is literally translated, "coals of fire." This is the translation of the King James Version. But no one talks this way today. For this reason the New International Version translates the phrase "burning coals," and the New English Bible renders it "live coals."
Another, more serious example is 1 John 3:9. The KJV renders the literal words of the Greek: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin." This sentence has led many Christians in times of sin to question their salvation. And it is in fact the literal statement which John made. But this is not what John meant to say. There is a way the Greek language could be used to convey a different sense with these literal words, so that they actually mean: "Whosoever is born of God does not continue to sin." This comes close to the NIV's translation: "No one who is born of God will continue to sin."
The "literal" translations are helpful in giving us the exact words of the original author. If you want this kind of information, a literal translation is what you need. But remember, such versions sometimes confuse the author's meaning for us today.
For this reason most people should not choose a literal translation as their primary Bible for personal study. You should, however, consult a literal translation when studying a passage to get a sense of the exact words of the original.
The "Free" Approach: at the other end of the spectrum is the "free" or "paraphrasing" theory. Those who use this approach translate the ideas from the original language to ours, with less concern about the actual words themselves. The most popular example of this approach is the Living Bible of 1972.
Paraphrasing helps you to read the Bible easily because it smoothes out confusing phrases and unfamiliar words. This kind of version is also helpful for those who have little religious background. These reasons have made paraphrased Bibles very popular in recent years.
The problem with this approach is that you sometimes lose the original sense of the text you're reading. The words can be so updated that they lose the author's intended meaning. For example, the Living Bible translates 1 Cor. 12: 1: "And now, brothers, I want to write about the special abilities the Holy Spirit gives to each of you, for 1 don't want any misunderstanding about them." No other version of which 1 am aware translates the Greek word here as "special abilities." The Greek wording which Paul used means "spiritual gifts." For this reason the NIV says, "Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, 1 do not want you to be ignorant." Other versions use much the same language.
Granted, many readers today may not understand what "spiritual gifts" are, especially if they have little religious background. But to make this phrase "special abilities" completely obscures Paul's meaning. So although the Living Bible finishes the verse, "I don't want any misunderstanding about them," it may actually add to the confusion Paul wanted to avoid.
Free translations can help you read the Bible more easily. If you are just beginning personal Bible study or otherwise need a basic translation, this may be your approach. For most people, however, the free versions are not the best primary Bible for study.
The "Dynamic Equivalmce" Approach: the third approach to translating the Bible is called the "dynamic equivalence" theory. Those who follow this approach will translate the original words as exactly as they can, unless this exact rendering obscures the author's intended meaning. At these times the translators will use other words to convey more precisely the idea of the original. As a result, the "dynamic equivalence" approach is a combination of the "literal" and the "free," and the best of both. The New International Version is the most popular example of this approach.
Below is a chart which places today's more popular versions along an approximate line from "literal" to "free":
Literal Dynamic Equivalence Free
KJV NRSV NIV GNB Phillips LB
NKJV NAB JB CP
Use the best of all three approaches
Of all these theories and translations, which one should you use? Actually, the best approach is to use at least one version from each of the three types of translations. For a literal translation, the New American Standard is probably best. It gives you the words of the original as literally as the King James, but uses better manuscripts and avoids outdated English words. For a "free" translation, the Phillips would work well.
For a good reading Bible I recommend the Revised English Bible. In face, this "free" translation is my personal favorite. For your primary study version, the New International Version is likely the best you will find. It was produced by a committee of outstanding scholars, and combines faithfulness to the literal text with wise updating where needed. Fee and Stuart offer the same advice: "We would venture to suggest that the NIV is as good a translation as you will get."
A suggested approach to Bible versions would be to study from the NIV, comparing its translation with that of the NASB and the Revised English or Phillips versions. As no one version is always the best in translating any language into English, so with the Bible. Try using these different versions together. You'll find that they help you better understand what God said. And that is the point of all translations of his word.
A word of perspective
We have been looking together at one of the more controversial subjects in Bible study today. There are those who have the heartfelt conviction that the King James Version is the only proper Bible to study. On the other hand, some insist that you should study almost anything but the King James. And others are adamant that their personal preference should be yours as well.
In this confusing area, it may help to hear William Tyndale's word about Bible versions. As you'll remember, he gave us our first printed English New Testament nearly a century before the King James Version was published. In the prologue to his work, he stated clearly the purpose of his translation and the need for others to revise his work:
As concerning all I have translated or otherwise written, I beseech all men to read it for that purpose I wrote it: even to bring them to the knowledge of the scripture. And as far as the scripture approveth [my translation], so far to allow it, and if in any place the word of God disallow it, there to refuse it, as I do before our savior Christ and his congregation. And where they find faults, let them show it to me, if they be nigh, or write to me, if they be far off: or write openly against it and improve it, and I promise them, if I shall perceive that their reasons conclude I will confess mine ignorance openly.
As Tyndale would agree, translating the Scriptures remains a critical and essential task today. We are indebted to those who render this service to God and his people.
What other study tools are best?
Good translations are the most important tools for your Bible study, but not the only ones you need. Scholars have produced a wide variety of other tools, also, all designed to help you get more from God's word.
Let's begin with one of the most popular tools: commentaries.
What is a commentary? A commentary may be defined as a scholarly work which is intended to help you better understand the Bible. It can be one volume covering the entire Bible, or a large set of volumes on the individual biblical books. Usually a commentary will introduce you to the book you are studying, answering questions such as: Who was the author? When, where and why did he write? To whom? What is the book about? The writer then usually tries to explain the book verse by verse.
A commentary often includes a set of maps, a glossary of biblical words, and introductory articles such as "The History of Israel," "The Life of Jesus," "The Formation of the Bible," "Doctrines of the Old and New Testaments," "The Life of Paul," and so on.
A good commentary supplies three things. It helps you to know the historical and cultural practices of the text. It helps clarify and explain the verses themselves. And it discusses difficult passages, showing you their possible meanings.
The dangers of commentaries. A good commentary can be an indispensable friend in your Bible study. However, a commentary can also hinder your study if you depend upon it too much. Remember, every commentary writer is a fallible person who is giving you his or her opinions. No commentary is guaranteed reliable, for no scholar is perfect.
For this reason, you should study the text for yourself before consulting any commentary or other study aid. First see what God says to you in his word, and then see what others say as well.
Evaluating commentaries. Once you know how and why to consult a commentary, which one(s) should you use? There are seven factors to consider.
The commentary should devote most of its space to explaining the biblical text(This is called an "exegetical" commentary). Many popular commentaries devote more space to the writer's applications than to the biblical text itself (these are called "homiletical" or "devotional" commentaries). They will offer insights into ways to preach or apply the passage, but do not help as much with the actual words of the text. For this reason, the best commentaries for study purposes are the exegetical. You want a commentary to guide you to better understand the Bible itself.
The author should work with the biblical languages rather than depending on English translations. You want the writer to be familiar with the text as it was originally written.
When a text has more than one possible meaning, the writer should discuss all the possibilities. He or she should evaluate them and then give reasons for these opinions. While many commentaries give only one approach to every text and question, you want a commentary to explain all the options so you can decide for yourself. This is perhaps the most important consideration in choosing a commentary.
The writer should discuss questions about the original text and its wording where they affect the meaning of the passage. If differences in the ancient manuscripts are important to thestudy of the passage, you need to know it.
The author should give you the historical background of the text where this is helpful.
The author should tell you about other studies of the text or subject so you can do further work yourself.
The writer should introduce the biblical book so that you know about its author, his times and readers, and his basic themes.
Are there some specific commentaries to suggest? The Word Biblical Commentary is one of the most exhaustive available today, though its discussions may sometimes involve scholarly issues beyond the interest of the average student. For most readers, the Tyndale series on the Old Testament is usually helpful. The New International Commentary is gaining popularity every year. Other popular sets include The Bible Speaks Today, the Bible Student's Commentary, the Communicator's Commentary, the Expositor's Bible Commentary, and the New Interpreter's Bible.
For the New Testament, the most popular set remains Barclay's Daily Study Bible series. While I sometimes disagree with Dr. Barclay's theological conclusions, I am always helped by his excellent historical insights. The Tyndale New Testament series is also very helpful. The old American Commentary series on the New Testament contains some classic individual volumes, especially its commentary on Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament is excellent. And the new studies being released by Tom (N. T.) Wright are both readable and erudite.
In addition, don't over look volumes which are not part of a set. These individual commentaries on a biblical book are often among the best treatments of that subject. And don't neglect the more technical volumes which are intended for use by scholars, such as the International Critical Commentary. Any commentary which deals with the seven issues detailed above will help you get more from the Scriptures.
A Commentary checklist
Does the commentary explain the text thoroughly?
Does the writer use the original languages?
Does he or she give all the options for interpreting the passages?
Does the author discuss the original text and its wording?
Does the writer provide historical background to the text?
Does the author give you sources for further study?
Does the commentary introduce the biblical book thoroughly?
Remember that a commentary is a means to an end. If it helps guide you in meeting God in his word, it has accomplished its purpose. As an elderly lady said to one of my seminary faculty colleagues following his Sunday morning sermon, "The Bible sure throws a lot of light on those commentaries."
Other study tools
A number of other reference guides will also help you to study the Bible for yourself. Let's look briefly at some of them.
Concordances. A concordance is a book which lists alphabetically the words of the Bible, with a list of verses in which the word is found. This is one of the most helpful tools you can own.
The word "concordance" means "of the same heart." The first one is said to have been made in Latin by a Cardinal Hugo, who died in 1262. Five hundred monks helped him arrange the 773,000 words of the Bible. The first English concordance was done by John Merbecke in the reign of Edward the Sixth (1547-53).
If you need to find a verse but can only remember a few of its words, a concordance is what you need. This tool can also help you trace a word through the Bible. For instance, if you need to know everything the Bible says about the "Passover," look this word up and you will find every verse which uses it.
A limited concordance is found in the back of most Bibles. These will list most of the references to the more common biblical words. To get a complete listing of all words and verses you need a large-volume concordance such as Strong's or Young's.
Dictionaries. A Bible dictionary defines the words which appear in the Bible. It gives their background and use in the Scriptures, and shows their historical context as well. In studying a particular word or concept, a Bible dictionary can be invaluable.
For instance, the Holman Bible Dictionary article on "love" defines the word and then describes its use in the Old Testament, the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of Paul, and the writings of John. The article then closes with a discussion of the question of love and judgment. Such help will greatly deepen your knowledge of the Scriptures and their meaning today.
Most study Bibles include a small dictionary. For more help, you should buy a good Bible dictionary for your personal study library.
Encyclopedias. A Bible encyclopedia is a kind of expanded dictionary. It treats not only biblical words but also concepts, themes, and events. For instance, if you look up "Bible" in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia you will find eleven pages treating names for the Bible, languages, divisions, literary origins and canonicity, inspiration, and chapters and verses.
The more you need to know about a word or concept, the more you will want to consult a Bible encyclopedia. There are several one-volume encyclopedias available today. To get the kind of expanded help you need, however, a multi-volume set will be better. While these sets can be expensive, they will repay your investment with a lifetime of enriched Bible study.
Atlases. A Bible atlas is a volume which sets out maps of the biblical lands and times. While most Bibles have a few maps in their study helps section, an atlas will give you much more detail and discussion. As you are able to locate events geographically, you will better understand their meaning and significance.
For instance, in Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan he tells of a man going "down" from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus said this because the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, while only about twenty miles in length, drops in elevation some 3,600 feet. An atlas with elevations will illustrate this fact clearly.
The more you can picture the geography of biblical events, the more real these events will become to you. A good Bible atlas is therefore an important tool in your study.
Topical Bibles. Another popular tool is a topical Bible--a volume which traces the major topics and themes of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. If you are preparing a study on the family, for instance, it will help you to have in one place all the biblical references and teachings on the subject. This is what a topical Bible is designed to give you. Some study Bibles, such as the Thompson's Chain-Reference Bible, will give you great topical help. Other volumes, such as Nave's Topical Bible, are devoted only to this approach. For those wanting to understand the larger biblical teachings on specific subjects, a topical Bible is a great help.
Study Bibles. One of the most popular trends in Bible publishing and study today is the "study Bible." A study Bible is any Bible which gives you some kind of study tools along with the text. Most today offer a wide variety of helps, and for this reason have become very popular. Since they give you some of all the tools described above, they are an easy place to begin investing in a Bible study library.
Beware, however, of letting a study Bible be the only source you consult for the more difficult passages. No study Bible can be as thorough in treating a subject or problem as a commentary or other larger volume. When you come across a difficult passage, you will need more options and guidance than a study Bible will have space to give. This is the fault of space limitations, not the author, but it is a problem nonetheless.
Consult a good commentary or two as well. Never give the notes in the study Bible the same authority as the text itself.
An example of this problem is the continued popularity of a particular system of dating which was included in the notes of the first Scofield Bible. This approach teaches that creation began in the year 4004 B.C. As a result in the margin of the first edition of the Scofield Bible beside Genesis 1:1 there appears the date "4004 B.C." This dating method was abandoned in the later editions of the Scofield Bible and is followed by very few today. However, there are still Christians who think that Genesis "teaches" that creation began that year because they read the date in the old Scofield Bible note.
Remember that the notes in all study Bibles are the work of fallible men, not the Lord. Check the opinions found in the study notes against those of other scholars. Most study Bibles are the work of a single individual, and thus express his or her own opinions. No one set of human opinions is the last word on any subject.
A study Bible is a good place to begin building your Bible study library, but only the beginning. The other resources described above will provide guidance no study Bible has space to give. Using each of these tools is an important step in studying the Bible for yourself.
A final note
In this chapter we've surveyed the large field of translations and other study helps. These are important tools to help us better understand God's word. However, no work of human knowledge can replace the leadership of the Holy Spirit. You must first depend on him for guidance. Only then, as he leads, should you turn to the work and wisdom of others.
Martin Luther, one of the most influential preachers and commentators in church history, made this point well. Let's close with his statement, drawn from his personal experience:
When I was young, I read the Bible over and over again and was so perfectly acquainted with it, that I could, in an instant, have pointed to any verse that might have been mentioned. I then read the commentators, but I soon threw them aside, for I found therein many things my conscience could not approve, as being contrary to the sacred text. 'Tis always better to see with one's own eyes than with those of other people.
The purpose of Bible study is to help you see God in His word, through your own eyes, so that you might know Him personally. Study tools, while valuable, can never substitute for your own work. The more personal your study, the more personal your faith will be
For an excellent introduction to the history of the English Bible, see F. F. Bruce, The History of the Bible in English, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). For shorter introductions, see “Bible” by J. Orr, in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, gen. ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:482-492; Allen Wikgren, “The English Bible,” in The Interpreter’s Bible. gen. ed. George Arthur Buttrick (New York:Abingdon Press, 1952), 1:84-105; and Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1963), 96-117.
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1963), 96-117.
McKnight, Opening the Bible, 117.
The Oxford Annotated Bible: Revised Standard Version, ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), xiii.
R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 118.
For the best recent introduction to translation theories, see Fee and Stewart, 35-36. This section is taken from their excellent analysis.
Updated from Fee and Stewart, 36. The abbreviations: KJV, King James Version; NKJV, New King James Version; NASB, New American Standard Bible; NRSV, New Revised Standard Version; NIV, New International Version; NAB, New American Bible (a Catholic version); GNB, Good News Bible (also known as Today’s English Version; JB, Jerusalem Bible; REB, Revised English Bible; CEB, Contemporary English Bible; Phillips, J.B. Phillip’s translation; LB, Living Bible; CP, Cotton Patch Bible.
Fee and Stuart, 42.
From William Tyndale's preface to his New Testament of 1534; Tyndale's New Testament, ed. David Daniell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 15-16.
For a good introduction to this area, see James P. Martin, "Tools of the Interpreter," in Bernard L. Ramm, et. Al., Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987) 140-52.
Taken from Fee and Stuart, 220.
For more information, consult Tremper Longman, Old Testament Commentary Survey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1991). This work is a buyer's guide to one-volume commentaries, sets, and individual commentaries.
Edgar V. McfKnight, "Love," in Holman Bible Dictionary, gen. ed. Trent C. Butler (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 896-8.
J. Orr, "Bible," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., gen. ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), 1: 482-92.
The Table talk of Martin Luther, ed. With intro. By Thomas S. Kepler (New York: World Publishing Co., 1952), 22.