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Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews


#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?

With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.

The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.

What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.

But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.

Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.

This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Olive Tree with NIV Cultural Bible
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible on my Android Tablet

(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)

Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.

Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.

Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.

On to Hebrews

To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.

While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.

This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).

Content Comparison

study bible stackI’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)

NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.

OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.

NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.

Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:

NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.

OSB: 54 words. One excursus.

NISB:  75 words. No excurses.

NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.

NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.

The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.


Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.

Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

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Study Bibles and CBCA second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?

I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.

In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.

I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.

The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.

You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.

My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.

The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)

Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):

I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.

I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.

Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!

Keeping Up Greek for Exegesis

Keeping Up Greek for Exegesis

9781893729179mDave Black posted today about keeping up Greek and its importance for exegesis. I’ve extracted that post to the site so as to have a specific link. Everything he said could apply to Hebrew as well. I turned to his passage, though I was confident I would be able to read it. I’ve read the entire gospel of Mark multiple times in Greek as part of keeping up my language skills. I was not disappointed. I learned Greek and Hebrew so that I would be able to read the texts in the source languages, not so that I could occasionally look up a Greek or Hebrew word, or pronounce words tolerably well when I found them in commentaries. I’ve kept up the skills necessary for that.

So how fresh is your Greek? Does it help you?

I’ve questioned our approach to teaching biblical languages in seminaries for a very long time. Quite often I believe that students learn just enough Greek to be dangerous and in a way that is often dangerous. Witness how common it is to hear a preacher say “what the Greek here really means here” or “what this Greek word actually means.” Either of those statements, almost without exception, means that someone doesn’t really know how language works. The result is a new translation. Assuming the preacher involved is using a modern English translation produced by a committee, he’s asking you to accept the “real meaning” as determined by someone with a couple of semesters of the language over the “real meaning” as determined by a committee of qualified scholars.

So do I bow to the “committee of qualified scholars”? I do not! I have my own opinions. I study passages for myself. But when I translate from Greek or Hebrew and use it publicly, or when I comment on the meaning of a passage based on my own study, I identify it as such. It is my opinion after I have studied, not the “real meaning.” It might be the real meaning. I hope it’s the real meaning in that context. But in reality it’s my best approximation of it. Since I’m the one teaching the passage, that’s what I work with.

My thought is that if we are not going to require actual proficiency in the biblical languages, we would do better to teach students just a few basics and then a great deal about linguistics to help them understand what they read from various commentaries or articles. The number of pastors I know who truly apply their Greek and Hebrew in a beneficial way is vanishingly small. I would urge those pastors who have a little Greek to work on getting more. If you are not truly skilled, make sure to use your Greek carefully.

Come to think of it, I publish something useful: “In the Original Text It Says …”, and Dave has written something too, on which I wrote a few notes: Book Notes: Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – What Paul is Thankful For

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – What Paul is Thankful For

I couldn’t end this run of posts on 1 Thessalonians 1 without commenting on the content of the passage: Paul’s prayer of thanks. (See posts on structure and translation survey.)

I think it’s important to notice what Paul is thankful for. He is thankful first for the fact that they received the Word and that action resulted. The action, in turn, resulted in witness and further proclamation of the Word. Within that passage we have an excellent pattern for spreading the gospel.

It is often difficult for us to balance faith and works. That is a good thing, because I don’t think it’s balance we’re looking for. It’s not a proper proportion of faith and works that becomes a recipe for results. Rather, God acts in us by grace, received by faith. God’s grace makes the response of action possible, and the action of God’s grace makes the following witness possible, because the witness must be to what God has been able to do.

Paul is thankful that the Thessalonian believers have become a witness as God has acted through them. God chose them (1:4) because the gospel came to them not just as words but as active power (1:5), which resulted in them imitating those already impacted by the power of the gospel (1:6), which results in them being an example (can we say witness?) to others (1:7), and that, in turn, means that the word of the gospel goes forth from them.

Do you see the generational effect here?

Think: This was successful ministry. In our ministries, when things aren’t working, where is this broken?


On Ecclesiastes and Disagreeing with Authors

On Ecclesiastes and Disagreeing with Authors

Ecclesiastes: A Participatory Study GuideNo, not the authors of the biblical text, though that’s an interesting topic. I’m talking about disagreeing with a study guide author, in this case a study guide author I chose both to publish and then to use in my Sunday School class.

One class member was surprised—not shocked, annoyed, or disturbed, but just surprised—that I would make those choices.

More on that in a moment. What is it that I disagree on? Well, it is fairly simple and quite broad: authors, date, and the translation of the Hebrew word hebel. Those are the subjects we’ve covered in the first two chapters. I consider Solomonic authorship unlikely. It sounds to me more like someone later writing in a way that will suggest to his readers hearing this later literature in the light of the life and times of King Solomon. Incidentally, while I haven’t studied it that much, this could be a textual relationship, and the methods taught in chapter 2 could be used to discover whether there is, in fact, such a relationship, or if it’s just a relationship of ideas, or none at all. On hebel, I tend to read it more negatively than does the author of the study guide.

This recalls to my mind some of the best times I had in college and graduate school. I would get together with a group of fellow students, sometimes with one of our professors, and we’d hash out issues. The goal wasn’t to find people you agreed with. That was pointless. The goal was to find brilliant people who thought differently than you did. Then you’d argue out the details and you’d all learn new things. The only time disagreement was a problem was when someone couldn’t be reasonably gracious about it. Vigorous disagreement and a spirited defense of one’s ideas was good. We tried not to get personal, and generally succeeded.

What I told my class was that agreeing with me wasn’t even a consideration in choosing what book to publish. If it slipped in, it could just as well be a negative as a positive.

These first two chapters of the Ecclesiastes study guide are brilliant, in my view, because they present views that will be controversial in many quarters, and they do so thoroughly, but in a way that a serious non-specialist can read and understand. You don’t just learn what the author’s opinion is and the names of some people who oppose it. You learn why he made those choices. The introduction to intertextuality is also excellent and gets Bible students to think of things that we often neglect. Just how do two texts/passages relate? Which might have influence the other? That involves sequence and availability. Which was written first? Is it likely that the earlier work was available to the later writer? What characteristics would show that two texts were related?

People from all parts of the theological and spiritual spectrum have an unfortunate tendency to read things they find agreeable. I’m hoping that through both teaching and publishing, I can get them to look at things that are very different. This is not simply to get an idea of the spectrum of ideas. It’s also so that people learn why. In the 21st century it is unrealistic for pastors to assume people won’t get exposed to these other viewpoints. Yet there are still pastors who think they can somehow protect their congregations from discovering this fact.

Bible students all too frequently simply accept what their study Bibles, their pastors, or some Bible teacher says as to authorship, dating, relationships between texts, and interpretation. They don’t understand why those things happen. This guide is attempting to teach people how to examine the nuts and bolts of the process, how to make such determinations for themselves.

I was reminded of the conversation in class during the sermon. My pastor was preaching from Matthew 5, including the portions that discuss divorce, lust, and adultery. I happened to agree with what he drew from the text, but I noticed that it would be nearly impossible for people in the congregation to rebuild his logic. It’s likely a bit much to expect a pastor to get any of that “other stuff” across in a 20-25 minute homily, but I think it is unfortunate that for many congregants, that one discussion will be all that they learn about that passage. They will go home with an interpretation (assuming they remember it), but will be unable to defend it, and would be unable to reproduce it or apply the same principles to another text.

I truly don’t look for authors who agree with me. I look for authors who will educate, because education in turn empowers people to take action.

A Rant about Study Bibles

A Rant about Study Bibles

Study Bibles Galore!
Despite my dislike, all these Bibles were within arm’s reach of my desk

I dislike study Bibles. I almost said I hate them, but since I do tolerate some of them, that would be overstating the case.

My problem with them is that they tend to blur the distinction between the text that we’re studying and the commentary made about it.

I have managed to keep my annoyance under control by dividing these Bibles into two classes. The first class is those that present historical and technical data as an aid to the reader. This information is much like what would be found in a Bible handbook, but it is conveniently presented within the same covers as the Bible text. I still would prefer a separate Bible handbook, but I understand the value.

There are still differences in the material presented. What editors choose as the most relevant material to be included in limited space is going to be determined to some extent by their philosophy and view of scripture. Someone who studies the Bible from a secular viewpoint, as history, will be largely interested in the historical context; someone who reads the Bible as the church’s literature will be more interested in theological connections. Both of these items may be valuable to the reader.

Because of the limitations of space, it’s usually not possible to cover a text from all angles, or to provide a wide variety of information that relates to interpretation. So if a Bible student becomes tied too closely to a particular study Bible, which can happen quite easily if it’s the Bible that person carries to church, their perspectives will be limited.

So I’m uncomfortable with these Bibles, but I understand their purpose, and believe that if used appropriately they can be valuable.

But there’s a second class of study Bible. I encountered a number of them over the last couple of days as I looked for a Bible to giveaway at 2014 Reimagine Santa Rosa County. (We ended up using the NLT Study Bible, which I think is one of the better study Bibles, though its notes reflect somewhat more conservative views than mine.) But on the way to buying that Bible, I had to wade through dozens of editions of Bibles with notes by one person. The So-and-So Study Bible. It just doesn’t work for me.

I believe that teachers and scholars are important. I don’t have a problem with commentaries. I don’t mind study guides (I even publish a few.) I would like to see people have the goal of getting to the point where they study the Bible text directly. Use commentaries for backup. Compare notes with others. But get to the text.

In my experience there’s a very real tendency to confuse the interpretations in the notes of such Bibles with the text itself. I recall one man who showed up for a series I was teaching on Revelation with a Jack Van Impe Prophecy Bible. I didn’t mind being challenged by Jack Van Impe’s views. Actually, I don’t find them very challenging. But for this man, what that Bible said a text meant was precisely what the text meant. You couldn’t get him to discuss the text itself. He would only quote the notes.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. One lady called me aside in the church hallway with a question. She had read a text and then read the notes, and she couldn’t see how the writer of the note got that interpretation from the text. She assumed she must be wrong, since the note writers were so much more educated about the Bible than she was, but could I please explain. Actually, I thought the note was wrong. I explained to her how the writers might have gotten their interpretation and then explained why I disagreed, and suggested she spend more time with the text and less with the notes.

While I’m uncomfortable with study Bibles generally, I really can’t see the purpose in the study Bible written by an individual. I think it points away from the text and toward a single expert’s opinion. I think that’s bad.

Well, maybe I nuanced my rant a bit …


BibleGateway Blogger Grid #BGBG2

BibleGateway Blogger Grid #BGBG2

bg-blogger-badge-500x500-e1387301563797I’ve made a change in how I link Bible verses on this blog. This applies mostly to the Participatory Bible Study blog posts which I merged with this one at the beginning of the year. For some time I had used the RefTagger plugin from Logos Bible Software. Recently, however, I was invited to join the Bible Gateway Blogger Grid.

Why switch? Basically, BibleGateway provides its resources free to everyone and is more accessible. I’ve always used it online myself, even though I have certain resources I’ve bought for Logos that I need access to. Nonetheless, I think linking to is of more service to my readers.

I’ll be taking a look at more resources as the days go by!


The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

When I wrote yesterday about the HCSB introduction and its use of the label “optimal equivalence” I fully intended to write another post complaining about that introduction. And I will mention the other issue briefly in this post. But something else was drawn to my attention in the meantime.

Let me lay a foundation. Some years ago I was chatting about a particular Bible passage with a young person who was also a new Christian. We were discussing the best rendering of a particular verse in the Old Testament and when I defended the version we were looking at he said, “Wouldn’t ____ (naming a well-known figure) know best, since he reads Hebrew?” Now I didn’t point out that I read Hebrew as well, which was, perhaps, relevant! But I did point out that the translation we were examining had been made by a committee of several people, each of whom read Hebrew, and then it was reviewed by editorial committees, many of whom read Hebrew. They should get some credit!

This is one thing that concerns me when I hear pastors or teachers say, “This is how this text should be translated …” or “What the Greek text really means is ….” I’ve commented before that you’re generally about to be misinformed when someone says that. But even when an expert makes a comment about just what a translation should be, I have concerns. (Note that I’ve never heard someone say “what the Greek text really means” who was well-qualified in the language. They just don’t talk that way.)

My concern even when the linguistic information to follow is accurate is that this suggests to people that our Bible translations are carelessly put together by people with less language skills than the average pastor. Anyone with a few minutes and a reasonable pastor’s library can correct the work of the Bible translation committee! That’s simply not accurate. It also feeds a concern amongst many Christians that they cannot truly get to the meaning of scripture because so much is lost in translation, and they don’t have the time or talent to acquire facility with the source languages.

People like these come up to me in church hallways all the time. They’ve heard me introduced as knowing Greek and Hebrew, usually in exaggerated terms. “Reads Greek as well as you read English,” is one line that’s been used. I don’t know where they get that. No, most English readers exceed my speed at reading Greek. My main claim to fame is that I have kept my Greek and Hebrew up. I read my devotions in the original languages, so my comprehension is better than average, but I have not kept abreast of all the best linguistic scholarship. Nonetheless, people ask me what’s the best Bible translation. Can they trust the translation they’re using? What wonderful insights can I give them quickly that are missing from their Bible version?

These kinds of questions result, I think, from a profound ignorance about how Bible translations are made, who makes them, and the general quality of the work. I don’t want to diminish the value of knowing biblical languages. I wouldn’t trade that training for anything. But the best use to make of such knowledge is to deepen your own understanding of the scriptures, and then express that deeper understanding in words that people in the pews can understand. You don’t have to tell them with every insight how wonderfully smart you are because you know the languages.

The fact is that we have a very good set of translation options. Most—nearly all, I think—significant errors in interpretation can be avoided simply by carefully studying your text in context from your translation, and then comparing a few other translations to check your work. Properly using the linguistic comments of a few commentaries will help you even more. (May I recommend a book that I publish, “In the Original Text It Says …”?)

My point here is that Bible translators, in general, are a skilled and dedicated group of people who have provided a number of excellent translations for the English-speaking world.

Barring a couple of really troubling efforts, such as Jack Blanco’s Clear Word, any critique I offer relates to details and general approach. I don’t intend to call a translation bad unless I say it outright, for example, The Clear Word is a bad translation, if it can even properly be called a translation. So when I publish a couple of posts criticizing something in the HCSB introduction, I’m not trying to tell you it’s a bad translation. It’s not. It’s quite good. As with most translations, I disagree with some renderings.

Here’s some key points I try to remember in order to avoid the potential pitfalls. How successful am I?

  • Most “errors” reported in a Bible translation are not errors. Yes, I mean that. I have found very few translations for which I cannot find the justification. I may not agree with that justification, but it exists. For example, the following are not errors: Choosing a different textual variant than I prefer, translating a Greek genitive as a different type than I think appropriate, finding the English translation in a different part of the semantic range of a word, choosing a different option for what a clause modifies, using English words that I think are less than well-known by people in the pews. Each of those things can be annoying. I’ll criticize it in the translation. But that simply means that I would make another choice than the translation committee did. In general, there were more of them with higher level degrees. Read my arguments and make your choice. Reserve the word “error” for an error of fact, such as citing that reading incorrectly, proposing a meaning for a word that has no foundation at all, or using an English word that doesn’t fall in the semantic range of the word in the source language. You’ll find that translation committees make very few errors under this latter definition.
  • Say “I disagree” or I would prefer” rather than “this is wrong” or “the right way to translate this is.” It’s not a matter of uncertainty, or not caring about the truth. It’s a matter of giving credit to qualified people who disagree.
  • Don’t preach about translation differences. Preach about the text and the message of the text. You can almost always do this well in English without trotting out your Greek and Hebrew knowledge.
  • Say some good things about Bible translators. I have some concerns about the priority placed on providing more and more English translations as opposed to providing for those who have no translation, or even don’t have the quality we have in English. But these people are doing good work for the Lord and your congregation should know about them and be thankful for them.
  • When the foundation of your difference is theological, make sure people know it. Sometimes our theology influences our translation. It could hardly be otherwise. That overlaps closely with thoroughly studying the context. If I understand Paul’s theology in one way, I am going to be influenced away from a linguistically sustainable translation that has him teaching something else. The theology matters.

But this last point leads me to my other complaint from the HCSB introduction. It’s under the heading “The gender language policy in Bible translation.”

Some people today ignore the Bible’s teachings on distinctive roles of men and women in family and church and have an agenda to eliminate those distinctions in everhy arena of life. These people have begun a program to engineer the removal of a perceived male bias in the English language. The targets of this program have been such traditional linguistic practices as the generic use of “man” or “men,” as well as “he,” “him,” and “his.”

I resemble that remark. Well, not very much. You see, I prefer “people” to “men,” “humankind” to “mankind,” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “brothers” or “brethren.” I’ve found, in surveying folks I teach, that there is a bit of a generation gap on these terms. Younger people tend to hear “men” as referring just to male persons. Older folks understand it generically. So my approach in translation is to translate as I think my audience understands the term.

I was quite amused by a former pastor of mine who complained bitterly about the use of “brothers and sisters” to translate the Greek adelphoi. In the NRSV this is done when the translators thought the referrent was a group including both genders. He preferred the older RSV because of this issue. Yet when he read from the RSV in church and came to “brothers” he’d look up and say, “That means you sisters as well!” He complained about the translation, but he knew about the problem with understanding, and his pastor’s gift kicked in to make sure nobody felt left out.

But having said that, I don’t think I’m ignoring the Bible’s teaching on “distinctive roles of men and women.” I disagree on where lines should be drawn. You may think I’m wrong, but I assure you my motivation is not to avoid the teaching of scripture. I simply read it differently.

Could we not simply say something like, “We believe that gender distinctions should be maintained in the language and have translated according to the Colorado Springs guidelines? (The introduction references these in the next paragraph.)

The issue of gender roles and gender languages is a legitimate topic of debate. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t make this kind of issue, on either side, a matter of questioning one’s commitment to scripture or the quality of one’s work on Bible translation.

In my little charting program ( I rate translations on such issues. The point is that you can use this information to pick a translation that you are comfortable with. Find the NRSV annoying because of gender language? The ESV handles the issue differently while otherwise following a similar translation philosophy. And so on …



Next time I have the opportunity to teach Greek, I’m going to ask the students to watch this video, not because I need them to know about English dialects, but because it’s helpful to know how dialects change and are formed (HT: Dave Black Online).

One of my more interesting experiences with phonetics came in Hungary where I went on a couple of mission trips. I was trying to learn Hungarian words. Now in print, this isn’t all that difficult, but both vowel and consonant length, i.e. the length of time the sound is held, are phonemic in Hungarian. What I was taught about vowel length in elementary school isn’t really “length” but rather a change in the sound, in which the length itself is rarely phonemic. What I found particularly difficult was lengthening a vowel with accenting the syllable. I got nowhere with that. Of course, anyone who actually speaks Hungarian may be able to correct my “short term mission” knowledge of the subject!

But my purpose in making Greek students listen to this would be to build flexibility. I’ve found people who have not spent significant time in a foreign language don’t realize the difference in the range of sounds and how they apply to meaning, or how easily a regional dialect can develop.