How to study the Bible
How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart, is a classic in the Bible study literature. Written at a higher level than Warren’s book, it is still accessible and well-written. Link
Which version of the Bible should I get?
Have you ever studied a foreign language? It can be a daunting experience as every world language is unique. And indeed, for anyone that's studied a foreign language, or speaks more than one language, exact translation can be a difficult endeavor. Sometimes a word in one language doesn't have an exact match in another. So now consider the Bible: the Bible is a collection of ancient documents that were originally written in three languages that few people know today--Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. So, any English Bible you read is a translation of those documents from the original languages, and sometimes translators disagree on how to translate a word or phrase into English. This is what gives rise to the many translations (versions) of the Bible today.
Broadly speaking, there are two philosophies for translating the Bible: word-for-word and thought-for-thought. Bear in mind, these two philosophies really lie along a continuum. Some translations adhere very faithfully to a word-for-word or thought-for-thought approach, while most are more of a hybrid, using whichever philosophy they deem most appropriate for the text at hand. Each philosophy has unique strengths and weaknesses. Let's briefly review them.
Word-for-Word translations take as their starting point the fact that each word of Scripture in the original languages is inspired by God for our growth and knowledge (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). They believe that if God inspired each word of Scripture, then each word should be translated as closely as possible.
This translation philosophy has two key advantages:
- It seeks to be as faithful as possible to the original text of Scripture, ensuring that no word or phrase is lost in translation.
- There is generally less room for translators to mistakenly import their own interpretation into the translation.
It also has two distinct disadvantages:
- These translations are generally more difficult to read. The language can appear 'choppy' and not flow as easily as thought-for-thought translations.
- It is often harder to understand what the text or passage means. Because the translators are preserving the original wording and context as much as possible, the reader might need some knowledge of the background or context of the passage to understand its full meaning.
Thought-for-Thought translations take as their starting point that the intended meaning of the text is more important than the literal form in which it's written. Again, returning to our foreign language example, it is often impossible to directly translate one phrase into another language--especially with word order. Languages simply work differently. And indeed, both Greek and Hebrew work rather differently from English. Therefore, the translators have sought to grasp the original text's intended meaning and then render that meaning in English as clearly as possible. This method of translation also has two advantages and disadvantages which directly correspond to the one's above.
- The text is generally easier to read. Often the words and sentences flow together well so that it reads like a native English speaker wrote the passage.
- It can be easier to understand what the text means. The translators have done the difficult work of researching the background context and rendered the passage in English to take that context into account.
- These translations can be less faithful to the original wording of Scripture. Words are often added or removed to better convey what the translators believe the original text meant.
- These translations will have more of the translators' interpretation of the text built into the text itself. This means you may be reading something different from what the original author meant. This can occur if the translator misunderstood the intended meaning of the passage, or if the translator was unable to convey all the nuance or meaning of the original passage.
So which translation philosophy is better? It depends on what you value more and on how much homework you're willing to do. Every translation is ultimately a hybrid between those two translation philosophies. Some lean more heavily towards word-for-word while others lean more heavily towards thought-for-thought. There are indeed some thought-for-thought translations that take so much liberty it's hard to truly call it a translation of the Bible, but those are very few. Our own belief at Neighborhood is that actually reading the Bible, in any translation, is far better than owning a good translation but not reading it.
All that being said, we recommend the following translations: Excellent word-for-word translations include the NASB, ESV, and NRSV. An excellent "middle of the road" translation is the NIV. And one of the better thought-for-thought translations is the NLT (2nd ed.). We actually recommend that you own and read several translations when doing in-depth Bible study, though you should generally pick one to be your daily translation for reading and memorization.
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