Approaching the Bible
December 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
If you’re thinking about getting a Bible or getting more serious about reading the one you have, I hope that these insights from my own experience will be helpful. I will preface this by saying I’m no expert. I do have behind me a year at Emmaus Bible College, have taught some classes in Sunday School, camps and high school youth group settings, and have been in God’s Word (consistently and inconsistently at times) since childhood—but I still consider myself very much a student, and I ought to know more. That’s the fun part.
The most popular versions include the New International Version (NIV), King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Version (NASB), New Living Translation (NLT), and English Standard Version (ESV), but there are literally hundreds of translations available. Here is an expanded list of what BibleStudyTools.com considers the best known 16 versions and a brief description of each. I think the best approach is to preview some text in each version, which About.com does here for the 6 listed above. You can also do this at Bible sites such as Bible.cc, which has 25 English versions online, and BibleGateway.com, which has 42 English versions as well as many in other languages.
The differences are mainly translation philosophy. When translating into English from early Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic manuscripts, translators can elect a form-driven, a meaning-driven approach, or somewhere in between. A form-driven (also called formal equivalence, or literal) seeks to get as close to a word-for-word translation as possible. Some consider formal equivalence more cumbersome (well, it’s formal) to read but gain more nuances and detail in what the original author penned. Meaning-driven, (also called functional or dynamic equivalence, or free) goes for the overall meaning of the passages, or a thought-for-thought approach. Functional equivalence tends to use a more contemporary and familiar style of language.
On the spectrum from formal to functional, NASB, ESV and KJV, for example, are on the formal side (word-for-word), NLT, CEV (Contemporary English Version) and Living Bible are on the functional side (thought-for-thought), and NIV is right in the middle. On the extreme end of functional equivalence lies paraphrased Bible translations such as The Message, which I’ll talk about more in a bit. But why so many approaches? There is no exact equivalent to every Greek and Hebrew word and every Greek and Hebrew construction in English, so there is room for interpretation to move in varied directions. I’ve thought that most people prefer translations that lie in the middle of the scale or lean toward the functional/thought-for-thought side. One recent survey showed that 61% of Bible readers prefer a more formal word-for-word version, which was surprising. The reason, “when asked about accuracy, the Bible readers also overwhelmingly said they preferred Bibles with strict, accurate translations over ones with ‘easy readability.'” The growing popularity of the ESV and my own Twitter poll favoring the ESV seem to confirm this.
The goal for all Bible translation is and should be a faithful and accurate rendering of the original revelation from God. Of course some versions are disputed. Some claim the KJV doesn’t utilize the most reliable manuscript sources (and some say it’s the only correct translation). I have personally found words in my NIV that I think were poor choices after I examined some sources and commentaries. And The Message has come under fire for being too free and compromising in its interpretation, if we are to consider it a true Bible translation. The Message was written by scholar Eugene H. Peterson, whereas as other translations are developed by teams of scholars in a more rigorous process. I agree with the criticism that The Message should be viewed as one man’s commentary on the Bible, not the Bible itself. Even the author has urged people not to preach directly from it. As long as we understand that, it’s no problem having one on hand as a supplement.
If all that seems overwhelming, try this. Visit a local Bible retailer and try out the few of the most popular versions: NASB, NKJV, ESV, NIV or NLT. A study version of any of those Bibles will have helpful notes that explain historical context, suggest practical application, and include cross references to find other passages related to what you’re reading. With most Bibles on the shelf, you can’t really go wrong.
Personally, I think having more than one Bible is beneficial for Bible study, although multiple versions are available online or for your smartphone (I like YouVersion’s Holy Bible app; my wife has GloBible on her phone and likes it too). I have one NIV study Bible that lives on or near the kitchen table and a smaller ESV (minus the commentary) to pack in a bag or take to church, which also serves as an alternate, slightly more formal translation in case I want to read another version of a passage. I also refer to an old NKJV I’ve had since college. If you’re just starting out with Bible reading, start simple and just get one. You can always add more later.
GOT A BIBLE? NOW GET A PLAN
Wondering what to read? If I’m talking to someone who is new to the Scriptures, I recommend they tackle the first 11 chapters of Genesis, then read John, then Romans, then whatever they like. Genesis 1-11 are events including Creation, the entrance of sin into the world, and the flood, which are events that lay the foundation for much of the Bible’s story of God’s plan of the redemption of man. John’s gospel introduces Christ and the message of salvation. Romans further explains sin and the need for Christ and walking with Him. Most new readers will probably be drawn to the New Testament and that’s okay, but the certain truths and background at the beginning of the Old Testament will help understand the main message.
In 2012 I read through the Bible in a year for the first time (New Years is a perfect time to consider something like this, right?). I used a chronological reading plan to get a historical overview of what happened in what order, since the books and chapters of the Bible are not arranged in order of when the events occurred. The chronological plan is mostly ordered like your traditional Bible, except at times you will be jumping back and forth from 1 and 2 Samuel to Psalms and 1 Chronicles. It’s an adventure! It gave me a different perspective and in a way affirmed the historicity of the Bible.
Any way you slice it, reading the whole thing in a year is 3 to 4 chapters a day, so I wouldn’t recommend this for a someone who doesn’t love to read or who might be easily discouraged if they got behind schedule. It makes a great future goal though. The downside is that with a higher volume of daily reading, there is less time for in-depth study or mulling over a passage for a more thorough understanding. I admit I have “skimmed” parts in my daily reading to keep up, mainly in Numbers and Leviticus, but again my goal was a chronological overview.
My friend and neighbor Ashley McCoy put together her own New Testament in a summer reading schedule while in college. Let me know if that sounds like a more suitable challenge for you and I can hook you up.
Devotional books are helpful to guide you through reading passages from scripture and then suggesting a practical application. Most are formatted for short daily readings. There are too many good ones to suggest a short list here, but there are plenty available, just hit up your local Christian book store.
As far as methodology for scripture study, two books I have read (at least in part) are great. 40 Questions About Interptreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer deals with very common questions on the subject. Living by the Book by Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks explains the inductive process of observation, interpretation, application, the importance of context, and other helpful principals. There are many others too.
How-to books aside, I think the best methodology for reading scripture is to simply read it like you would read anything else. God intended that we understand the Bible, so there really is no cryptic messages to decipher or special ordination required for the reader in order the grasp its truth. Just read it.
GET AT IT AND STAY WITH IT
How do you start and stay consistent? Find a time that works for you, first of all. If I read at night, it’s not long before I fall asleep, but maybe that works best for you. I read over breakfast for about 45 minutes most days because I’m reasonably alert and ready to learn in the mornings, and it works with my schedule. Even busy people can find or create a half hour of time for reading on most days—maybe some days it’s 5 minutes. If you can’t manage that, then you probably need to drop something from your schedule before an ulcer kills you.
You may not be able to read every day, but make it a priority to read as much as you can as often as you can. Pretend it’s important, like eating. On the busy days, some food is better than none. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t important so we have to pretend it is. It’s God’s message to us, so of course it is. Often we need to tell ourselves truth in order to believe it. After a month, it will hopefully become a habit and much easier to commit to.
Pray before you read and ask God to show you something, and ask Him to help you keep at it. This works. A simple prayer for the Holy Spirit to open your heart to truth is sufficient I think. Below is part of the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom, as a model for attitude, not necessarily liturgical eloquence.
O Lord Jesus Christ, open Thou the eyes of my heart, that I may hear Thy word and understand and do Thy will, for I am a sojourner upon the earth. Hide not Thy commandments from me, but open mine eyes, that I may perceive the wonders of Thy law. Speak unto me the hidden and secret things of Thy wisdom. On Thee do I set my hope, O my God, that Thou shalt enlighten my mind and understanding with the light of Thy knowledge, not only to cherish those things which are written, but to do them…
Accountability is a great idea. Tell a friend that you’re reading the Bible and have them ask you how it’s going and share what you learn. It will keep you in it and may get them in it too. Return the favor. I text verses out almost daily, from what I read in the mornings, to about 50 people. They range from grade school to adults in their 50s, some Christians, some not, all willing recipients. One purpose of this is accountability—50 people will wonder if I’m still reading my Bible if they stopped getting these texts. The other purpose is of course to spread the Word. Scripture changes lives when it gets in front of people, which I’ve heard from many of the recipients of those texts.
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrew 4:12, NIV)
I’ve personally seen the truth of that verse in action as lives have been changed by God’s word, at least three this year, and many more in years past. Whatever your schedule or level of motivation, do what you can to get the Bible in front of you. Then get it in front of others.