Bible Study Tools: Part 1
The Bible is a complex book that often generates more questions than answers. Thankfully, we’re not left on our own to sort things out. God has given us many tools we can use to build our faith and gain wisdom. In the coming weeks we will look at various study aids, discuss their value, and put together a small library of the best resources.
Today we’ll discuss the first and most important implement in the toolbox: an English text that effectively communicates God’s Word. The book we call the Bible is actually a collection of 66 books that are divided into two parts. The Old Testament was originally written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. These languages have not been in use for centuries, and scholars disagree about everything from word/phrase definitions to the reliability of the various ancient copies of the text. As a result, numerous ways to translate the Scriptures have appeared. Most fall into one of three categories:
Word-for-word translations (also known as formal equivalency translations) replace the words of the original language with the closest English language equivalents. Examples include the English Standard Version (ESV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), New King James Version (NKJV), and the venerable King James Version (KJV).
Thought-for-thought translations (also known as dynamic equivalency translations) attempt to convey the meaning of the original sentences and phrases. Examples include the New International Version (NIV), New Living Translation (NLT), Today’s English Version (TEV), Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the New Century Version (NCV).
Idiomatic translations (also known as paraphrases) attempt to convey the meaning of the original text in colloquial language. Examples include The Message (MSG) and The Living Bible (TLB).
Thought-for thought translations and paraphrases are helpful–reading the same thing said in different words can help us better grasp the nuances of a Bible passage, but your primary reading Bible should be a word-for-word translation. And please do not use a study Bible for daily reading–you will be tempted to read “from the bottom up.” Instead, let your first reading be the text alone, influenced only by the Holy Spirit. There is a time for study aids, but we will never find a more able helper than God’s Spirit, so the first thing to do when we come across a confusing passage is to ask God to make the message understandable.
The best (most faithful to the text) word-for-word translations:
English Standard Version (ESV)
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
New King James Version (NKJV)
King James Version (KJV)
Which is best for you? Well, I own and appreciate every one of these translations, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. A few personal observations:
I love the beauty and dignity of the King James Version, but those who do not grow up reading the KJV often struggle to understand the archaic language. The version was updated in 1982; the New King James Version retains much of the majesty of the KJV while making the message more intelligible to modern readers. It’s a good translation, but weakened by the fact that the NKJV, like its predecessor, is based on the Textus Receptus (compiled by Erasmus in the 16th century). All modern translations of the New Testament rely on a more critical Greek text that gives greater weight to the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts. But this does not mean the KJV or NKJV should not be considered, especially if your church or study group uses it. There are only minor differences between the Textus Receptus and the more critical Greek texts, and none of the differences affect fundamental doctrinal issues. So if you know and love the KJV or the NKJV, you have a good primary Bible.
The New American Standard Bible is the most precise word-for-word translation available–this is both good news and bad news. The good news is found in its accuracy; it is a great version to use when studying the Scriptures, particularly word studies. The bad news is its readability. Clarity was sacrificed for accuracy, and many readers find the NASB text to be wooden and difficult to read. So while it is a good choice for study, there are better options for an everyday reading Bible.
The New Revised Standard Version is both accurate and reader-friendly. It is gender-inclusive and less formal than the NASB. This is always one of the first versions I consult when studying a passage of Scripture. The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the English Standard Version are also excellent translations, and either would be a terrific choice for an everyday reading Bible. My personal favorite is the ESV, but be sure to do a comparison for yourself. Read some familiar passages side-by-side (ESV/HCSB/NRSV/NASB/NKJV) in one of the online parallel Bible sites (e.g., Bible Gateway) and determine which version you prefer for an everyday reading Bible.
Ready to go deeper in your New Testament studies? Add an interlinear Bible to your collection. These contain the Greek text with the equivalent English word(s) above the Greek. They can be challenging to read because ancient grammar and sentence structure were quite different, but the fruit is worth the effort. My favorite is by Paul McReynolds (Tyndale), but you can also find free interlinear Bibles online (e.g., Bible Hub).
Before consulting other tools like study Bibles and commentaries, do this:
First read the passage in one or more word-for-word translations (e.g., ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NASB, NKJV).
Then read the passage in an interlinear New Testament, taking note of the Greek word order.
Then read the passage in one or more thought-for-thought translations (e.g., NIV, NLT, TEV, CEV, NCV).
Finally, read an idiomatic paraphrase of the passage in The Message.
Reading multiple translations will broaden your understanding of the passage. Ask yourself some basic questions about the context (who is speaking, what is the subject, etc.). Ask the Lord to open the meaning of the passage to you.
We begin our list of study tools with your primary Bible because the best Bible study tool is the Bible itself. Always start your research with just your Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After you’ve read the passage in multiple translations and sought the counsel of the Holy Spirit, you are ready to access the secondary tools.
Next: Study Bibles