Many of us assume that we read texts precisely and comprehend what we read. For the most part, we are probably right, especially when those texts are modern texts written either by people we know (such as letters) or by people who live in a culture similar to ours. When material is highly technical, however, it is important to learn to read more precisely.
Most of the Biblical text was not intended as technical, though certainly the laws of the Torah (Pentateuch) are very technical. But because the Bible is regarded as a sacred text, and because we extract theology, specific doctrines, and commands from it, it is often used technically. Arguments in theology often rely on minor points in the text. When an argument is made based on such minor points, it is extremely important to understand those points correctly.
For those who do not read the Biblical languages, there is a further burden in that you are limited by the choices made by translators. But don’t despair! It is possible to work around this difficulty to a significant extent. I will never downplay the benefits of Biblical languages. They have been a wonderful tool in my personal Bible study. But I will also always emphasize that due to an abundance of English translations, and indeed Spanish, French, and German translations, there are quite a number of very useful tools to allow the person who reads no Greek or Hebrew to study effectively.
There are six areas I want to emphasize in accurately reading a Biblical text. I intend these six areas to be applied to serious study of small portions of scripture. Elsewhere, I emphasize overview reading of large portions. Both the purpose and the method for that type of reading is very different from what I’m discussing here. The areas are:
- Use of multiple translations
- Clarifying key words
- Examining some options for small words
This entire discussion is designed to help you examine a text of scripture and extract the maximum meaning from that passage. This process will be very different from choosing a topic, and then searching for verses that relate to that topic, or choosing a doctrinal position, and creating a Bible study to support it. Ideally, this kind of details study would precede the latter two activities, so that you would be confident that you had chosen your verses correctly.
The key to using multiple translations is to choose the right set of translations for you to use, and then use those effectively. Even if you are working with Bible software (I use the Logos&tm; Scholar’s Library), and have an abundance of translations easily available to compare, you want to avoid getting tangled up in repetetive information. Logos&tm; provides me with an option to display parallel versions and also to display a text in all versions that I have unlocked. I regularly use three or four versions in the parallel window, but only occasionally do I use the display of all versions. When I do so, I do it to group versions according to their approach to a controversial text.
If you are interested in the precise type of study I’m discussing here, you will want at least three Bible versions for regular use.
- One version should be very easy for you to read, something you are comfortable with. In many cases this will be a Bible you’re acquainted with. My wife likes the NIV, not because she objects to many other versions, but simply because she has studied so much from it that it feels familiar. Choose a version that you would feel comfortable reading an entire book from at a single sitting. This version is your overview reading Bible.
- A second version should be a heavier study Bible. For example, if you choose the CEV as your fast reading Bible, you should find something that is at a higher reading grade level, and possibly somewhat more literal, such as the NRSV or the NASB. In general, the translators of the NASB were more conservative than those of the NRSV. These versions also have excellent concordance resources available, which is not true of the CEV. (The NIV also has good concordance resources.) The idea here is to find a version that has good study tools available, is different from your overview reading Bible, and perhaps challenges you a bit in your theological assumptions.
- Your third version should be another study Bible that differs in translation philosophy and perhaps in the makeup of its translation committee from your second version. Possibilities include the REB, the NLT, or the NJB. As a suggestion, if your second version is the NASB, choose the REB, but if your second version is the NRSV, choose the NLT. Why? Because the NLT is the work of a conservative evangelical committee like that of the NASB, while the REB is the work of a broad based ecumenical committee that included interfaith participation like that of the NRSV.
Now, how do you use these versions?
Get your overview, preferably of the whole book, but at least of a few chapters on either side of your passage using your overview Bible. Use your second version, which I’ll call your study Bible, to study the details of the passage. Here is where you’ll find words to look up in the concordance, dictionary, or Bible dictionary. You’ll use that same version for any outlining and phrasing. Wherever you see wordings that make you wonder, or raise questions, compare those wordings to the third version. At some point after you have done most of your study work, you should re-read the passage in all three versions to alert you to any possible translation issues that you might not have noticed.
If you have other Bibles on your shelf, or are working with Bible study software, you may want to look at any difficult passages in a display of all versions. This may help you clarify your understanding.
You will probably find that sometimes there are issues on which you cannot become completely certain. In those cases, you should leave the matter for further study, or if you are sharing with a class or study group, tell people what the options are and why you are uncertain, and don’t be dogmatic about it. It doesn’t hurt to say that you don’t know, or to leave things for further study.
Clarify Key Words
Often in Bible study we make the assumption that we understand the English wording precisely, when we do not. There are two steps to clarifying key words:
- Look up English words in a standard dictionary
If your version is reasonably modern (and I don’t recommend doing serious study from the KJV, ERV, or ASV because of archaic language), your translators were trying to express the meaning of the text in current English. Make sure you see the options. In serious study, if you are in any doubt about the precise meaning of a word in a verse, look it up, and find any definitions that fit in context. Then as you study further, you can focus in on the precise definition that fits in your context.
- Look up Bible place names, personal names, and theological terms in a Bible dictionary. (In the case of theological terms, you can also use a theological dictionary.) Be open to the possibility that you may want to refine your understanding of the word because of its precise meaning in the current context, but start with the hard work other people have done for you.
Examine Options for Small Words
Small English words like by, for, of, and for, among many, many others often carry a great deal of freight. For example, the word of is often used as part of the translation of the Greek genitive. (For more information on Biblical languages, see my essay, Biblical Languages for the Non-Specialist, in which I discuss some of these structures and their meanings for people who do not know the Biblical languages.)
In Revelation 19:10, for example, we have the statement, translated literally, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” You’ll find that many versions translate this as “spirit that inspired the prophets” or something similar. Another possibility allowed by the form, though probably not by context, might be “spirit that is prophecy.” The little word of translates a Greek genitive (the word “prophecy” is in the genitive case) which in Greek indicates a range of relationships between words. So that one little of can carry a lot of freight.
Another example is found in Mark 1:4. Here we are told that John came proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In this case there can be a number of interpretations. Did the baptism cause the repentance, result from the repentance, symbolize the repentance, complete the repentance, or something else? Does the baptism or the repentance cause the forgiveness, lead to the forgiveness, or display a forgiveness that is already received? All of these issues hang on these little words.
Think of the various options (and my essay above will help suggest more), and compare translations. Normally multiple translations will use different phrasing to represent the different relations between those words, and this can give you an idea of where to go as you study deeper into the verse. Normally, the context will make it quite clear what the precise relationship is, but if you don’t realize what options you have, you may settle for forcing a less natural option to work.
Outlining seems complicated to many people, but it really is a simple process, partly because there is no absolutely required way to do it. The idea is to pick out the key points in the passage, and relate them to one another. You can go however many layers you want. Normally, outlines are numbered with some succession of characters and indented indicating the level of each element. A fully detailed outline can end up containing almost all the text of the passage. In that case it overlaps phrasing in purpose.
Avoid going into that level of detail–it tends to defeat the usually purpose of outlining, which is to make the key points stand out. An outline might look like this:
I. Main point
b. Next level down
Phrasing differs from outlining in that it uses all of the text you are working with and arranges it logically, placing subordinate clauses under the items they modify. If you are not acquainted with the grammatical concepts involved, you may find this takes you more time, though you can normally manage to phrase just using the meaning. With each phrase in the text simply ask what other word or phrase it adds information to. Put the words or phrases that tend to stand alone at the left hand side of the page, and then indent the phrases under those that describe them. If you come to a new word or phrase that opens another topic, put it at the far left.
Because Greek and Hebrew are often arranged differently than English, you may sometimes find yourself changing the order of some of the phrases. That’s OK. You want to find out what the role of each statement is in creating the main theme.
Some people like to do sentence diagramming which is even more detailed, but unless you have done diagramming before and enjoy it, it will probably take more time than it’s worth and not give you much advantage over phrasing.
By questioning, I don’t mean doubting the text, though you should not exclude questions that come up. The idea is to come to God, via the medium of the Bible, with questions about your life. It’s not the questions that hurt, it’s the conclusion. So ask your questions.
But as part of your study, you need to ask the obvious questions. What is the main topic (necessary for outlining). What precisely is the writer telling me about that. Is he talking about people in general, or one specific person. As you study, other questions will come up. You will benefit by having either a study group or by making opportunities to share. Other people will have different questions, and their different perspective may help you to get a deeper understanding of the text.
I will demonstrate outlining, phrasing, and questioning on a passage from Colossians.
Colossians 1:1-14 – Outline, Phrasing, and Questioning
I’m using my own translation for this example, available online as the Totally Free Bible Version. Thus far it’s just the place where I post the translations I do for my own notes, but I continue to work on it, and hope that others will join in producing a restriction free version of the Bible for internet use.
- Greeting (1-2)
- Thanks for what God has done (3-8)
- Prayer for God’s continued activity (9-14)
Note that my points align with my paragraphs, though I have stopped in the middle of a paragraph to keep the example short. This point outline doesn’t give us much information. It simply tells us in general what Paul is trying to do in these verses. Let’s try a little more detailed of an outline.
- Greeting (1-2)
- Paul and Timothy writing together
- Address to the saints and faithful ones in Colossae
- Standard wish for grace and peace
- Thanks for what God has done (3-8)
- Paul and Timothy pray constantly
- Gospel is bearing fruit in Colossae as it is elsewhere
- Epaphras taught them
- He is a fellow-laborer of Paul and Timothy
- He is a faithful servant
- Prayer for God’s continued activity (9-14)
- Prayer continues that they would grow
- Same faith is bearing fruit there as in all the world
- They work according to God’s power
- Jesus is their redeemer
There are any number of things you could change in that outline. Don’t use it as is. As an exercize, criticize it and make it work for you.
Now let’s try phrasing this passage. In this case I copy the entire translation text into a file, and manipulate it on the computer. Some translations, including mine, will have made choices for you. In particular, because this passage consists of long Greek sentences, sometimes these are broken up. Compare my translation to the CEV on the one hand, which will have shorter sentences, and to the NRSV or ESV on the other. You may change some of your choices if you are working with those versions.
Timothy my brother,
To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ
the love which you have for all the saints.
it is in all the world bearing fruit and growing as it is also among you,
who is also a faithful servant of Christ on your behalf.
He has also made clear to us your love in the Spirit.
that you might fully know God’s will in wisdom and spiritual understanding,
so that you can live in a way that is worthy of the Lord in all favor,
bearing fruit and growing in every good work
in the knowledge of God,
doing so with full strength, empowered accoring to the power of his glory,
with joy giving thanks
forgiveness of sins.
- Why does Paul specify that he is an apostle “by the will of God?” Aren’t all apostles appointed by the will of God?
Look at some of the openings to Paul’s other letters to give you a hint.
- What is it Paul is thanking God for?
- What defines the “genuine word of the good news?”
- What are Paul’s major aims or desires for the church in Colossae?
- Is both their faith and their love the result of the hope laid up for them in heaven?
- Why is God the Father, rather than Jesus specified as the one who redeemed us from the authority of darkness?
You will undoubtedly think of many more questions.
Remember that these methods are primarily designed for studying the theological portions of the scripture, such as large portions of the epistles, sections of the wisdom books, and smaller sections of the gospels and Acts. Don’t forget to use the methods and exercises that help you apply the message to your own life as well. Getting the precise details right is good, but applying the word appropriately is even more important.
You may find the information in my essay Understanding Context.