Sixth Key: Use Bible Helps Properly
Can we understand all aspects of Scripture from the Bible alone? Certainly a good grasp of the Bible is possible through applying the keys discussed earlier. However, our understanding can be enhanced by taking advantage of the work of scholars who have studied culture, language, history and archaeology as they relate to biblical events and characters.
We live 2,000 to 3,500 years removed from the time the Scriptures were originally written. The Bible's authors wrote in the languages and settings of their times. Culture and language were different from today's culture and language. Since the original languages of Scripture (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic) are so different from our modern languages, Bible helps are useful to enable us to better to grasp the Scriptures as they were written and understood.
Paul told Timothy, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15, New American Standard Bible). As a craftsman makes use of a tool kit, we can use proper tools to help us better understand the Bible.
Besides often quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, on occasion the apostles quoted other sources to drive their points home. For instance, Paul used a quote from a Sicilian poet, Aratus, to convey to the Athenian philosophers a principle about God (Acts 17:28). Likewise, the apostle Jude quoted from a work called the Book of Enoch (Jude 14). Besides the Scriptures themselves, these men sometimes quoted other sources to help the brethren in their understanding of the Word of God.
What are some of the biblical tools at our disposal? Here are a few.
Other Bible versions: The most helpful tool for Bible study is, not surprisingly, a Bible-or, more properly, several Bible versions, among which you can compare wording. People will often seek to find the translation that is most accurate, most literal or easiest to read. However, no single translation fits all these requirements.
More than 60 English versions of the Bible are available. We can divide them into three broad types: word-for-word, meaning-by-meaning and paraphrased. Most Bibles explain, on their introductory pages, which approach was used in preparing that particular version.
The word-for-word versions most accurately follow the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. Generally speaking, the King James Version and its modern counterpart, the New King James Version, are word-for-word translations. They are readily found in most bookstores. In its publications the United Church of God most frequently quotes from the New King James Version.
How trustworthy is the King James or the New King James Bible we have available? Other manuscripts discovered since the King James Version was translated show it to be extremely reliable. For instance, when the King James Version is compared with what was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, "the King James Bible is 98.33 percent pure" (Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, 1974, p. 263).
In the New Testament the sheer bulk of thousands of copies (4,500 Greek manuscripts) means that many minor variations among the manuscripts will be found. The King James Version, for example, is based on the majority of the authoritative Greek texts.
About 98 percent of the known Greek manuscripts agree with the basic text of the King James Bible. Even the variations that do exist rarely affect the basic meaning in the remaining 2 percent of those manuscripts. The preservation and transmission of the text of Scripture has been done remarkably well.
The Old Testament books are equally trustworthy. Although a few textual errors are to be found in some of the manuscripts used in translating the King James Bible, comparisons with other Bible versions can easily clarify most problems.
As an expert on textual criticism remarked, "if any book from ancient times has descended to us without substantial loss or alteration, it is the Bible. The Bible is the best-attested book from the ancient world! This has prompted Sir Frederic Kenyon to say: 'The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world' " (Neil H. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 1963, p. 120).
The accuracy of a version is obviously of utmost importance. Although the King James Version contains mistakes (see "Mistakes in the King James Version?"), to establish sound doctrines the first choice of versions should be a more-literal edition such as the New King James Version or New American Standard Bible.
What about the meaning-to-meaning versions? They, too, can be valuable, as secondary sources, to put the Scriptures into more-understandable wording. For instance, the New King James Version of Romans 8:5-8 reads:
"For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God."
The New International Version, a meaning-to-meaning translation, has: "Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God."
The latter explains Paul's point more clearly for most readers, although the former is a more-direct translation of the original language. So, when the text is not clear, many times a modern meaning-to-meaning translation can help. The Revised English Bible, Good News Bible and Jerusalem Bible are other popular meaning-to-meaning translations.
Paraphrased Bibles, such as The Living Bible, can be useful. The Living Bible can be described as an interpretive translation. Its goal is to make the Bible easily understandable. Caution is necessary in working with this text, however, because the authors exercised poetic license to transform some basic terms according to their own religious ideas.
Paraphrased versions can be consulted to better grasp the story flow but should not be used to establish doctrine. They should be considered poor sources for accurately determining the meaning of any text.
Which version of the Bible should you buy? The King James Version, although both accurate and popular, is increasingly difficult to understand simply because the English language has evolved considerably over the nearly 400 years since its publication. The meanings of some of its words have changed over time. Many readers find the archaic language distracting and difficult to follow. Literature published by the United Church of God most often uses the New King James Version, which, while retaining much of the beauty of the original King James wording, is more readable and is still usually faithful to the original text.
Modern translations like those mentioned above are helpful for comparing and clarifying the meaning. Many people find a parallel Bible, which contains two or more versions side by side on the same pages, to be helpful.
Regardless of the Bible version you choose, it should be considered an investment in which a little more expense up front will pay off in the long run. Consider buying a version with wide margins that will allow youto add notes from your personal study over the coming years. Although more expensive, a higher-quality leather-bound Bible will last years longer than a hardbound or paperback volume and should become a lifelong companion.
A concordance: In importance, certainly the first basic Bible help is a concordance. A concordance is simply a compilation of many or all of the verses pertaining to a specific word as it is used throughout the Bible. Each word appears in alphabetical order, starting where it is first used, followed by many of all of the verses with the term until its last use in the Bible.
By looking for a particular word, you can quickly locate nearly any verse in the Bible. Because it lists every use of a given word, a complete or exhaustive concordance is extremely helpful for compiling, examining and comparing all the scriptures on a given topic, enabling you to gain an overall view of nearly any subject.
The three most popular concordances are Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Young's Analytical Concordance and Cruden's Complete Concordance. Cruden's is smaller, less expensive and easier to use. Strong's and Young's are massive books, but give brief explanations of the original Hebrew and Greek words and so are suitable for more-detailed study. Although most concordances are compiled from the King James Version of the Bible, others based on other versions are available.
Similar tools are topical Bibles, which are indexed to subjects rather than individual words, and expository dictionaries, which offer much more detailed analysis of the original Hebrew and Greeks words used in the Bible.
A Bible encyclopedia or dictionary: Next in importance is a Bible encyclopedia or dictionary. This kind of reference explains a given subject or what a word meant in Bible times. Be prepared for an enormous variety, from simple one-volume editions to four-, five- and 10-volume works. For a start, a current one-volume dictionary or short encyclopedia written by conservative authors should provide a good, basic meaning for biblical words and subjects. New Bible Dictionary and Unger's Bible Dictionary are such works.
Be aware, however, that many such works exhibit the author's bias when discussing theological issues, thus they are often not a reliable guide in doctrinal matters. Conservative authors tend to be more accurate because they tend to believe the Bible is divinely inspired and thus trust what it says. Some other authors treat the Bible only as a combination of historical and mythological ethnic literature.
A Bible commentary: A commentary is another potentially valuable Bible help. It is just what the name implies: The writer comments on the verses covered in that particular volume. The contents vary greatly, from one-volume to multiple-volume works, some by one author and some by several. Keep in mind the backgrounds and biases of the authors. They can range from conservative scholars who believe in the literal inspiration of the Bible to theologians who regard much of Scripture as uninspired and just literature. Naturally, their comments vary considerably from those of the conservative authors and frequently contradict them.
Therefore, biblical doctrine should not be established by what these authors write in these Bible helps. Only by "comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:13) can true doctrine be established. We should never put men's writings on the same level as Scripture. Bible helps are just that: limited resources to help us understand the ancient setting of the Scriptures through geography, language, culture and history.
Many Bible versions and helps, like those listed above, are available as computer software in both floppy-diskette and CD-ROM (compact disc-read-only memory) formats. They usually include a host of additional Bible helps. Some CD-ROMs include several versions of the Bible, dictionaries, concordances, atlases and commentaries-virtually entire Bible reference libraries-at prices only a small fraction of what you would pay for the printed versions. These generally offer more-thorough and quicker study and searching abilities than are possible with traditionally printed materials.
Such software Bible helps are to be found in Bible bookstores or can be ordered through religious magazines. They save quite a bit of money and space if you have the necessary computer hardware available to you. For several years Biblical Archaeology Review has run an annual review and comparison of such Bible-study software programs, including full lists of features, content and pricing. These comparisons are an excellent resource if you are considering such a purchase. (see "Computer Bible Helps")
This takes us to the last key to understanding the Scriptures.
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