Helps for Basic Study
A believer in today's Western world not only has easy access to Bibles; he can also easily obtain a multitude of aids to Bible study. He need not struggle without help through a difficult text. Nor must he endure unsatisfied curiosity about the historical and cultural setting of a passage. Most of these aids are available only in English, however. Any serious Bible student whose native language is not English should therefore consider learning it as a second language.
For every Bible student—for a beginner as well as for someone with long experience—two aids are indispensable:
1. A modern translation. Where English is not spoken, the most easily obtainable translation of the Bible may be written in a modern idiom. But in English-speaking countries, the most popular translation remains the King James Version (known as the KJV), dating from 1611. The name generally used now is unfortunate, since the man himself, King James, was an unsavory character. It would be better when identifying this venerable translation to retain its official name, the Authorized Version (AV).
The AV, derived in large measure from William Tyndale's first English Bible, was outstanding in its literary style, its use of language accessible to the common man, and its attentiveness to the Spirit's voice. Even today, after four hundred years, no translation is better at capturing both the heart and the mind of the original writings. But, unfortunately, the AV preserves a centuries-old idiom that is becoming more and more remote from today's English. Where the language is especially antiquated, a contemporary reader may sink into complete mystification as to the meaning.
The hardest prose in the New Testament is perhaps found in 2 Corinthians. In the Old Testament, many books contain passages so dense or subtle that they frustrate attempts at full comprehension. Translators hundreds of years ago, before modern advances in scholarship, found the Book of Job a particular challenge, because it is written in difficult Hebrew, doubtless a very ancient form.
An enlightening exercise is to read the AV side by side with a good modern translation. The AV still shines as superior in the Gospels, the Psalms, and many of the passages best known to believers. But in obscure passages (such as Hab. 1:9; Mic. 2:8; Hos. 10:10; Job 28:3, 38:31, 39:13; 2 Cor. 9:13; and many others), the modern translation may speak with greater clarity.
But is any modern translation really more reliable than the KJV? Of the numerous modern translations available, which is the best? These questions have fueled a debate currently raging in Bible-believing churches. Combatants take basically five positions:
- The AV is still the best version, and we have essentially no need of any other. Some holding to the so-called King-James-only position go further and insist that God inspired it, making it fully as perfect as the original. This extreme view is clearly a departure from orthodox Christian faith, which has always viewed the Biblical writings in their original manuscripts as the only inspired Word of God.
- The only legitimate translations of the New Testament employ the Greek text known as the Received Text (the basis of the AV).
- Also acceptable, or even preferable, are translations based on the Majority Text, differing from the Received Text only where the majority of manuscripts in the Byzantine tradition—including all those originating in Greece, Syria, and Asia Minor—disagree with it. The textual variation we find in these manuscripts is slight overall.
- Translations of the New Testament based on the eclectic text, also known as the critical text, are the best, provided they maintain close equivalence to the original Greek. The eclectic text gives greatest weight to the two earliest complete manuscripts. Advocates of the first three positions rejoin that the Byzantine text-type is attested by sources that are even more ancient and that a substantial portion of the readings found only in the eclectic text appear to be corruptions.
- Loose translations in an understandable contemporary idiom are legitimate also.
My own practice is to use the Authorized Version for teaching and memorization, in recognition of both its literary and spiritual excellence. I prefer it also for devotions, partly because it helps me recall wording I already know. In Bible study, if I want the perspective of a modern translation, I consult the New King James Version (NKJV), which employs the Received Text. Also helpful are some other translations of the Received Text, especially J. N. Darby's The Holy Scriptures, dating from 1890 (Darby was the leading figure in the Plymouth Brethren movement), and Jay P. Green's The Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, dating from 2001.
One tool useful for determining what a text is truly saying is a parallel Bible, which presents different translations in parallel columns. The best providers are such websites as biblehub.com or biblestudytools.com/parallel-bible, which allow you to view the same text in a wide variety of translations, the exact ones depending on your choice. You can then easily compare the different renderings and treat them as commentaries on each other.
Always when comparing translations you should bear in mind that none is free of problems. None is identical to the original text. As we have pointed out already, many modern translations do not even use the true original text as their starting point. What they use instead for the New Testament is a late corruption. They are therefore less reliable in the New Testament than in the Old.
Among modern translations are many that forsake word-for-word equivalence. In the quest for mass appeal, they replace the real passage with a loose paraphrase giving one man's imperfect understanding of the Spirit's message. These should be avoided.
Even worse are translations that turn the Bible into vulgar slang, or that compromise basic doctrine. For example, "virgin" is missing from many modern translations of Isaiah 7:14, the great prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New English Bible (NEB), and many others replace "virgin" with "young woman," an insupportable translation dictated by unbelief. To justify hiding from Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy, the translators were willing to change what Isaiah says. Some modern translations go so far as blasphemy. In one promoting a religion of gender neutrality, God is sometimes He, sometimes She, as if the exalted One suffers from confused identity.
When using a modern translation, a Bible student must also be alert to renderings arising from carelessness. The root problem might be either the use of a translator with inferior credentials or the pressure put on translators to get their work on the market as quickly as possible, the goal being not to offer the best translation but to generate the most revenue. A typical example is Zephaniah 1:18 in the New American Standard Bible (NASB): "Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them on the day of the Lord's wrath; and all the earth will be devoured in the fire of His jealousy, for He will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth." Giving the Hebrew word as "earth" instead of "land," the choice of good translations, creates a prophecy that will never be fulfilled, for God will never wipe out all mankind in a single stroke of judgment.
Anyone interested in investigating further the relative merits of different translations can look at the extended treatment of this issue elsewhere on this website.
2. A concordance. A concordance tells every place in the Bible where you can find a particular word. For example, if you look up the word heal in a concordance, it lists all forty occurrences, giving the reference for each as well as a few words of context. The three best-known concordances are The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong; Analytical Concordance to the Bible, by Robert Young; and A Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, by Alexander Cruden. (Since the study aids we recommend are easily found by title and author alone, we will not provide publication data.) It has often been said that Strong's is for the strong, Young's for the young, and Cruden's for the crude. Indeed, Cruden's is not as exhaustive as the others. The great advantage of Strong's is that beside each listing of an English word, it gives a number showing where to find the original word in Greek and Hebrew dictionaries at the end of the concordance.
A concordance is useful for several purposes. Most people rely on it mainly to find the reference of a verse that they remember at least in part. Generally, one word is enough to locate the verse. By showing all the texts employing any word of interest, a concordance is also helpful for determining a word's meaning in Scripture. Lastly, a concordance is a good tool for locating verses pertinent to a given topic or question.
Helps for Advanced Study
Whatever your budget, you should obtain a readable translation and a concordance. But if your budget allows, you should add other study aids to your library.
1. Study Bibles. A serious Bible student has many varieties to choose from.
- Topical Bibles. These offer lists of passages speaking on the same subject. Two classics are The Thompson Chain Reference Bible, my favorite as well as my father's, and Nave's Topical Bible. Frank Charles Thompson's work, first published in 1908, is a full Bible followed by an appendix with thousands of topics arranged alphabetically, each introducing a list of texts. Every major text is quoted, so that the user can easily judge whether it meets his need. Orville J. Nave’s work, first published in 1896, takes a different approach. By omitting the full sequential text of Scripture, it gains space to quote an even more generous selection of passages relevant to each topic. A topical Bible is handy for researching what the Bible says about a certain issue or for preparing a topical lesson. Every preacher or Bible teacher needs one.
- Annotated Bibles. The best known work of this kind is The Scofield Reference Bible, edited by C. I. Scofield, which has been a best seller for over a century (originally published in 1909). Its chief rival in recent years has been Charles Ryrie's The Ryrie Study Bible. Both offer an abundance of notes that provide background, expound doctrine, or explain difficulties. Others worthy of use are The King James Study Bible, the Holman KJV Study Bible, and The Henry Morris Study Bible. Despite their conservative orientation, none of these is right about everything. All have faults. If you use an annotated Bible, do not give the notes the same authority as Scripture itself.
- Bibles that facilitate linguistic study. The Bible I carry to church is Spiros Zodhiates' The Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, in the KJV edition. Above every principal word in the English text is a number pointing to its location in the ample Hebrew and Greek dictionaries provided as appendices. This resource is useful during a sermon for making sure that the preacher is defining words correctly.
2. Interlinear translations. Along with the original text, these give a literal translation. Some place the English equivalent above each Hebrew or Greek word, others below it. The result in ether case is a translation between the lines; hence, the name interlinear. Thanks to such translations, a layman without formal training in Greek and Hebrew can still gain a good idea of how any text reads in the original language. The best for the Old Testament is Jay P. Green’s The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew/English. A good choice for the New Testament is Jay P. Green’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. Even better, if you can still find it, is George Ricker Berry’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament.
If a Bible student wishes to delve further into the text as God gave it, he can expand his understanding of the words by consulting a Greek or Hebrew lexicon. Brief lexicons come at the end of Strong's concordance. The most widely used exhaustive lexicon of Hebrew and Aramaic words (Aramaic is the language of a few passages in the Old Testament) is The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. A leading Greek lexicon is the one originally compiled by Walter Bauer and later revised by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich. The newest edition, put out by Frederick William Danker, is known as BDAG, convenient shorthand for the authors. The actual title is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition. The publication date of 2001 assures the latest scholarship.
For fuller study of individual words, resources include A. T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament, Marvin R. Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, and Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, by Kenneth S. Wuest.
3. Dictionaries and encyclopedias. These are the best place to find lengthy discussions of all names and terms that a student of the Bible needs to understand. Among the reasonably up-to-date dictionaries, one of the best is Unger’s Bible Dictionary, by Merrill F. Unger. A more scholarly option is Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer, Howard F. Vos, and John Rea. At a more popular level is Holman Bible Dictionary, edited by Trent C. Butler, now in a new edition called Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, edited by C. Brand, C. W. Draper, and A. England.
To illustrate Unger's coverage, we will show the topics treated in a sample of pages chosen at random: Sabbath, Covert for the Sabbath, Morrow after the Sabbath, Second Sabbath after the First, Sabbath Day’s Journey, Sabbatical Year, Sabeans, Sabta, Sabtecha, Sackbut, Sackcloth, Sacrament, Sacrifice, Human Sacrifice, Mosaic Sacrifices, Sacrificial Offerings, etc. The aim of the dictionary is to summarize all we know about everything in the Bible that might be unfamiliar to a modern reader—about every person, group, place, custom, religious practice, theological concept, item of material culture, means of livelihood, agricultural product or practice, species of flora or fauna, etc.
For an even more thorough coverage of ancient society, a student may consult such books as Howard F. Vos's Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Manners and Customs or Ralph Gower's The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times. A question dealing narrowly with ancient geography can be resolved by consulting a Bible atlas. Of the many available, good choices are Barry J. Beitzel's The New Moody Atlas of the Bible or its predecessor also published by Moody Press, The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Howard F. Vos.
An even more exhaustive treatment of such topics is found in a Bible encyclopedia. The classic is The International Standard Bible Enclyclopaedia (better known as ISBE), originally published in 1915. An extensive revision was issued in 1989. All of its authors are authorities in their field, but some are not fully conservative in their outlook, and some of their discussions, especially in the earlier edition, have been outdated by later discoveries. Toward the end of my father’s life, his habit in the evening was to take out a volume of ISBE and sit with it on his lap. I do not say "read it" because he seldom sat long before he fell asleep. Then when some internal alarm told him that it was bedtime, he suddenly woke up and said, "That was sure interesting." I tell this story because it captures exactly what ISBE is like.
4. Commentaries. Commentaries come in two types, devotional and technical. Technical commentaries, assembling the results of latest scholarship on the meaning and background of the text, tend to be quickly dated, and many fall into some species of unbelief. Much better for the layman are devotional commentaries.
The best known of the latter kind is Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, issued in 1708–1710 but still popular today. Unfortunately, Henry carried his commentary only through the Book of Acts before he died in 1712, and other ministers finished it, relying in part on his notes. But despite the work's mixed origins, it sets the standard for godly reflection on God's Word, giving insights that are deep but not dense, wise but not proud, fervent in spirit but not reckless in conclusions.
Another important author is Charles Spurgeon. Apart from The Treasury of David (a commentary on the Psalms) and The Gospel of the Kingdom (a commentary on Matthew), he did not write books in the form of ordinary commentaries. Nevertheless, his sermons may be viewed as the best devotional commentaries from the nineteenth century.
Some people imagine that the use of commentaries is somehow disrespectful to the supreme authority of Scripture alone. Yet a good one has the same value as a good sermon. In fact, most (but not all) good commentaries began as sermons. The commentaries that Christians have viewed as superior represent the best insights of the best preachers—insights resting on a lifetime of study and Christian experience. Thus, although a good commentary is not infallible, it is useful as a source of godly instruction on what the Bible means and how it should be applied to our lives.
Besides the commentators I have already mentioned, I can recommend many others. Among the more scholarly I would endorse Leon Wood, Charles L. Feinberg, Joseph Alexander, and Ralph H. Alexander for the Old Testament; Frederic Godet, F. F. Bruce, and D. Edmund Hiebert for the New Testament. Especially outstanding among the commentators taking a more popular approach are H. C. G Moule, Arthur W. Pink, H. A. Ironside, F. B. Meyer, and Henry Morris.
Also available today are many single-volume commentaries covering the whole Bible or large portions. The most worthwhile are William MacDonald's Believer's Bible Commentary and Albert Barnes's Notes on the New Testament.
The day of printed and bound books is rapidly drawing to a close. They are being replaced by books in digital form. On my own computer I have two powerful Bible-study tools. One is a package of helps provided free by Online Bible. The Web address is onlinebible.net. I have only downloaded a small portion of resources available, but from this supplier I have obtained the whole Bible in several translations, Strong’s concordance, a Greek lexicon (Thayer’s), a Hebrew lexicon (Brown-Driver-Briggs), Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, and Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge (a thorough collection of Biblical cross-references).
I also have on my computer the huge collection of books called Master Christian Library from Ages Software. It includes the complete church fathers as well as a generous sampling of commentaries, historical works, theological works (among them Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas), and biographies. It is incredible that so much writing can be squeezed onto a few small disks.
Others who sell whole libraries of Christian books in digital form are Logos and WordSearch, both with a presence online. Although not cheap, the packages they offer are considerably cheaper than the same works would be in hardbound editions. Another digital format is the e-book—a book downloaded from the Web. Sources brimming with options include Kindle Books from Amazon.com and NOOK Books from barnesandnoble.com. Many other sources can be discovered simply by doing a web search for Christian e-books.
Probably the software that Bible students have found most helpful is e-sword, an amazing compilation of resources available free to users of Windows. To download it, you need only go to e-sword.net and click a button on the home page.
Virtually all of the printed materials we have recommended are available today from internet suppliers. Another source, although generally more expensive and with less to offer, is Christian bookstores, but you must patronize them with discretion. They also offer much that is either worthless or contrary to sound religion. Let me explain why.
Some years ago I tried to get a publisher for my Daniel commentary. I decided the best way to go about it was to obtain a literary agent. A legitimate agent requires no money up-front, but takes a percentage if he can sell the book. So, he accepts as clients only a small percentage of writers who apply. I found a successful agent, a lady, who thought she might sell my book if she could get an editor to read the first chapter. But she had little experience in the field of Christian nonfiction and did not realize that my book is unpublishable—a conclusion she reached after sending my proposal to about ten major Christian publishers. Her final advice to me was that I should write a novel.
The rejection letters she received are very enlightening. Since they were sent to an agent rather than to an author, they are unusually candid. I will quote excerpts from the one sent by a publisher that for many years was a dependable source of good Christian literature. Many excellent books in my library were issued by this publisher back when it was still a bastion of sound Bible teaching. The letter was signed by the acquisitions editor.
She said, "So you know: our greatest challenge in nonfiction acquisitions these days is finding the tightly focused book." She meant they want single-idea books in an attempt to reproduce the huge success of such best-sellers as Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez and Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. It does not matter if you repeat essentially the same idea in every chapter. Publishers assume that today’s reader prefers a book that avoids confusing him with two ideas. So, in their view any book brimming with ideas is unmarketable.
The editor said they want a book "appealing to the largest (never too niched) audience." Other spokesmen for the same publisher have said clearly that they want ecumenical books. They prefer something that can be read by both conservative and liberal Protestants, as well as by Catholics and perhaps even such cultists as Mormons. Since my commentary is forthright in endorsing inerrancy and espouses a dispensational view of prophecy, it is out of the question. It would not be welcomed by anyone outside the niched audience of Bible-believing dispensationalists.
Continuing, the editor said the book should have "an author with a helpful platform to help promote and publicize the book." In other words, the author must be a prominent figure whose name attracts buyers. If you are Billy Graham, they will publish anything you write, good or bad. If you are a nobody, chances are they will publish nothing you write, however good it may be.
The editor advised, "I’m looking mostly for creative nonfiction"—that is, something different from what Christian publishers put out in the past. Then also, she desired "topics of interest to women." She seems to take for granted that men do not read. How shameful to this generation of men! Moreover, she wanted books written on a "popular level." Probably her intended message here is that she did not want any book that makes people think.
Another feature of a publishable book is that it offers "deep insights to Christian living"—a worthy goal indeed for Christian literature. But it is exceedingly strange that after setting this requirement, the editor adds, "Unfortunately, we’re not publishing much in the Bible study or devotional category these days." How exactly do you arrive at deep insights to Christian living without Bible study or devotional meditation on the Bible?
But the red flag warning of advanced apostasy appears in the editor’s requirement that a book should be "not too churchy of language." In other words, it cannot contain any doctrinal or Biblical language that would diminish its ecumenical appeal. It must offer vague religiosity rather than uncompromising fundamentalist Christianity.
The editor concludes, "I hope this helps give a clearer picture of where we’re heading." Yes, it certainly does, and the picture we see is sad indeed. It is obvious that Christian publishing by and large no longer deserves to be called Christian. It is just another branch of the modern entertainment industry, specializing in products that help people feel religious but that avoid any Biblical demand that would make people feel uncomfortable.