Some Thoughts on Bible Study

Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth.—2 Timothy 2:15 ASV

R. E. Evans

All who desire to follow Jesus of Nazareth and have a relationship with their Creator must make a direct and forthright examination of the Bible; not a mere formality of thoughtless reading, but the diligent use of every available means to learn of the instructions set forth by the heavenly Father for his creation.

"Blessed is the man...[whose] delight is in the law of the Jehovah. And on his law he doth meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season...whatsoever he doeth shall prosper" (Psa. 1:1-3 ASV).

Before such an examination can be fruitful, however, an adequate answer must be made to the question, "Is the Bible, as it is available today, the true, unadulterated, message of the Creator?"

Manuscripts

In his second letter to Timothy the Apostle Paul wrote, "Every scripture inspired of God [theopneustos, Strong’s #2315] is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 ASV).

The literal meaning of the Greek word translated "inspired of God" is breathed out by God. Paul did not write "inspired," he wrote expired, or exhaled. To Paul there was no question as to the origin or source of scripture. The words of the Bible were God-exhaled.

The Apostle Peter shared Paul’s belief: "For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21 ASV). Thus, we may have confidence the original writings were given under divine control.

There is no similar assurance such control continued to be exerted as the words were passed down through the generations. In fact, a number of scriptures strongly imply such overruling was neither intended nor accomplished. [See Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18, 19. If God had determined that changes to the inspired records could not be introduced, the warnings found in these texts would have been unnecessary.]

The student, therefore, is placed in a difficult position. Though the Bible was first recorded under divine guidance, no original manuscripts containing the God-exhaled words are known to exist. The earliest extant records date from the second century B.C. for the Old Testament, and the second through fourth centuries after Christ for the New Testament. That these records are not perfect copies of the original is readily evident by the variations found in them.

Translation

Even if the manuscripts had been passed down without error, there still remains the problem of translation. Careful students know that the book they use is printed in a language unknown at the time the original words were spoken and written. So, the accuracy of translation is a vital issue.

It is impossible to make a concise and perfect rendering of any extended writing of another language. If all peoples of the earth possessed exactly the same set of ideas, expressed in exactly the same manner, using one never-changing word for each division of thought, the work of translating would be easy. But such is not the case. It may require several English words to cover all that is contained in one word found in the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts and, conversely, one English word may cover several Hebrew or Greek words.

Repetition

One simple example of the difficulties faced when translating is that of repetition. In modern English writing repetition is avoided by using synonymous words. If done when translating, however, it may cause doubt and uncertainty, if not obscurity. This is a particular problem where a word is used in a figurative or metaphoric sense.

The translators of the King James Version (Authorized Version) often fell prey to this snare, but did not see it as a deficiency. On the contrary, they took pride in their non-uniformity. In their preface, entitled The Translators to the Reader, they wrote:

"Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle Reader, that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure wish we had done—that we should express the same notion in the same particular word: as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by ‘purpose,’ never to call it ‘intent’; if one were ‘journeying,’ never ‘travelling’; if one where ‘think,’ never ‘suppose;’ if one where ‘pain,’ never ‘ache;’ if one where ‘joy,’ never ‘gladness;’ etc.. Thus, to mince the matter, we thought to savor more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist, than profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words and syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free?" (The Translators to the Reader, KJV).

Unfortunately, this preface is not included in the modern editions of the KJV; so, most readers today are unaware of the liberties taken by the translators of King James. It would have been much better if they had been more strictly literal, even though they may have been charged with producing monotonous repetition.

It is the true modern taste prefers a change in sound, but sometimes force and power, as well as accuracy, are sacrificed for its achievement. A case in point may be found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

"Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort [paraklesis, #3874]; who comforteth [parakaleo, #3870] us in all our tribulation that we may be able to comfort [#3870] them which are in any trouble, by the comfort [#3874] wherewith we ourselves are comforted [#3870] of God" (2 Cor. 1:3, 4 KJV).

Here the translators tired of the repetition; not so the Apostle. He had not yet extracted all the comfort out of the blessed word:

"For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation [#3874] also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation [#3874] and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted [#3870], it is for your consolation [#3874] and salvation. And our hope of you is stedfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings so shall ye be also of the consolation [#3874]" (2 Cor. 1:5-7 KJV).

The use of the synonym consolation dramatically attenuates the passion in Paul’s thought. It would have been better had the translators followed the Apostle’s lead.

Another example is found in our Lord’s parable of the marriage feast (Matt. 22:2-14). The King James translators chose to use both call and bid to render the Greek kaleo, #2564. In so doing they disregarded the unique meaning often given this word by the inspired writers in such texts as: ". . . and whom he foreordained, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30 ASV); and ". . . they . . . that are with him, called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:14 ASV).

The use of the word bid in the parable obscures its linkage to these and similar texts and to that special meaning. As shown by the concluding thought, the lesson of the parable depends on this singular application of call ". . . many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14 ASV).

So, the use of bid divorces much of the parable from its concluding thought. This results in confusion and misunderstanding. With such evidence before them, then, the students of the Bible dare not let down their guard.

King James Version

Non-uniformity in rendering a given word is not the only difficulty with the KJV. Its overall position is tellingly summarized in the Preface of the Revised Standard Version:

". . . the King James has grave defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of biblical studies and the discovery of many manuscripts more ancient than those upon which the King James was based, made it manifest that these defects are so many and so serious as to call for revision of the English translation. . . . The King James Version of the New Testament was based upon a Greek text that was marred by mistakes, containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries of manuscript copying" (Preface, RSV).

Thus the student must be diligent when using the King James Version.

Other Translations

But what of the other translations? Is there not one that may be used in confidence? To seek an answer, let us turn to another preface, that found in the New English Bible. There the translators declared:

"We have conceived our task to be that of understanding the original as precisely as we could (using all available aids), and then saying again in our native idiom what we believed the author to be saying in his. We have found that in practice this frequently compelled us to make decisions where the older method of translation allowed a comfortable ambiguity. In such places we have been aware that we take a risk, but we have thought it our duty to take the risk rather than to remain on the fence" (Introduction to the New Testament, NEB). [Author’s emphasis.]

Instead of leaving ambiguities students could resolve for themselves, the translators felt compelled to take a risk and to make decisions. How much greater risk do students take when they read this translation and accept its rendering without question!

With every translation a similar problem exists. We must be ever alert, otherwise we may learn the words of the creature and not those of the Creator.

Guidance

What is the student to do? Is the task impossible? No! It is difficult, but not impossible. Paul provided the guidance: ". . . prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21 ASV); "Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15 ASV).

In the last text the phrase "handling aright" (rightly dividing in the King James) comes from the Greek orthotomeo [#3719], which means "to cut straight," "to dissect correctly."

BASELINE OF HARMONY: The cutting straight of the Bible is not achieved in a single stroke but gradually, bit by bit. Each small advance of truth must be proved. The student must dissect correctly each new thought and weigh it against a baseline of harmony.

The proving of a thought can only be accomplished by a careful comparison of all that the Bible contains concerning it. The truth should never be assumed as long as there is a single passage that apparently contradicts or is out of harmony with other passages, or if the thought is inconsistent with God’s character. Contradiction, inconsistency, and discord are all signs of misunderstanding and, possibly, error.

The Bible must be and is, when rightly understood, one harmonious whole. It could never teach that which any portion of it contradicts. Neither could it teach that which is not in harmony with God’s attributes. The perfect correspondence of every statement of scripture with respect to any subject is the only proof of the correctness of an interpretation. It is the best guard we have against the error that may be introduced through faulty manuscripts and poor translation.

GOD’S CHARACTER: To establish and use this baseline of harmony it is necessary to know of God’s character. As the designer and creator of all that we perceive, God ordered and established the laws of nature; laws whose beauty and consistency of operation we see and admire. Let human reason do its best to trace known facts to a known and competent cause; but, back of it all stands an omnipotent God—". . .Because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things which are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: . . ." (Rom. 1:19, 20 ASV).

To perceive the power of God will result in dread of that omnipotence unless he can be seen also to possess benevolence and goodness. Without such counterbalance his creation would live in constant fear. That there is such balance we are fully assured through the same evidence that proves his power.

Not only does reason force the conclusion that there is a God, and that his power is incalculable beyond that of his creation, it also forces the conclusion that the creature is not superior to the Creator. The greatest manifestation of benevolence and love in the creation must be inferior to that of God, even as is its power.

There are those who do not accept the presumption of a merciful and loving God. They insist the Bible presents an entirely different picture. Their god is a god of wrath and vengeance. Those who take such a position fail to realize they are in effect saying the creature is superior to the Creator. If fallen humanity can establish systems that govern by laws based on mercy; if fallen humanity can realize that retribution does not have to be commensurate to the crime (many countries today no longer practice capital punishment); if fallen humanity can feel compassion for those who are dispossessed through no fault of their own, but because of race, color, inherited inability, deformity, etc.; then, should we not expect the same, if not much more, from God? In the coming kingdom will not the love, the mercy, the compassion of God far exceed anything exhibited by his fallen creation? If not, what kind of kingdom would it be? God’s love must be and is infinitely superior to any love manifested by the creature.

"Oh, give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; for his loving kindness endureth for ever. Let Israel now say, That his loving kindness endureth for ever. Let the house of Aaron now say, That his loving kindness endureth for ever. Let them now that fear Jehovah say, that his loving kindness endureth for ever."—Psalm 118:1-4 ASV

AN EXAMPLE: So, given a wise, powerful, and loving God, how can students of the Bible use the baseline of harmony to prove all things, to ensure they are handling aright the word of truth? Perhaps it may be shown best by example.

For centuries chronic mistranslations of Isaiah 13:11 have distorted God’s intentions for his earthly creation. "And I will punish [#6485] the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity: and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible" (Isa. 13:11 ASV).

Scholars have said that there is no other Hebrew verb that has caused translators as much trouble as the one here translated punish (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Harris, Archer, Waltke—Vol. 2, pg. 731). It has the sense of making a visitation and is translated visit 57 times in the KJV; yet, here it is rendered punish.

The word points to an active intervention in the affairs of the one visited—an intervention to produce change. Ezekiel declared the purpose of God’s world visit in clear and concise language: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Saith the Lord Jehovah; and not rather that he should return from his way and live?. . . For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord Jehovah: wherefore turn yourselves and live" (Ezek. 18:23, 32 ASV).

These words make the import of God’s message through Isaiah readily apparent. God will visit the world to effect change, to turn it from its evil ways—to rehabilitate its people. The heavenly Father will visit the world, not to punish but to heal.

He will visit the world to bring deliverance from sin and death (Rom. 8:2). He will purge the arrogancy and haughtiness of his creation. He will change the hearts of stone to hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26)—the work of the kingdom! ". . . if the wicked turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he hath committed shall be remembered against him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live" (Ezek. 18:21, 22 ASV).

Mental Baggage

All who sit down to study the Bible carry with them a great load of mental baggage—baggage that began accumulating at a very young age. From the Christmas and children’s Bible stories to the film industry’s biblical (?) epics, from the pulpit of the corner church to the blaring messages of television evangelists, they have developed their sense of the truth of the Bible; but, these stories and messages are seldom faithful to their source. Rare, indeed, are the Bible lessons of Christendom presented in an honest and reliable manner.

Those who want the truth must open the Bible with reverent caution and be aware of their long-held bias and prejudice. If they desire to cut straight the Scriptures, they must be willing to discard their mental baggage and strive for an open mind. More importantly, to dissect correctly they must be ever vigilant to the bias and prejudice of others (translators, commentators, expositors, etc.). They must ensure these twin foes of truth do not add or remove color from the picture they so painstakingly develop as they prove all things. This is not to say that all bias is necessarily bad. To be biased toward the Bible vis-a-vis science is definitely a healthy attitude; yet, an open mind is still needful.

An apparent consequence of such mental baggage is found in Peter’s first epistle: "… receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:9 ASV). Note the addition of "your" to modify "souls." As indicated by the italic typestyle, this word does not appear in the Greek.

Translators apparently felt constrained to make the text agree with their belief, their bias. Rather than render it as written, they changed it to conform with their understanding of salvation. Christendom knows of only one salvation—an egocentric salvation that offers a heavenly home. So, they render Peter’s writing in accord with that inept view.

Literally, the text as given in the best manuscripts is a wonderful statement of the altruistic salvation of the church: "… receiving the end [purpose] of the faith, the salvation of souls" (1 Peter 1:9 Edited). God’s purpose for developing the church is the salvation of souls—the blessing of all families of the earth (Gen. 12:3), the comfort of which Paul wrote.

It Can Be Done

As we have seen, students of the Bible must carefully prove each advance in knowledge, insisting on harmony with God’s attributes and harmony of scripture with scripture. Many valuable aids are available today to assist in that task. Concordances, lexicons, many new translations (particularly those with Hebrew and Greek interlinear texts) are just some of the tools that should be used in the search for such understanding and harmony.

There is nothing in the Bible, however, to indicate this search is to be easy. In fact, just the opposite is taught. We must always be alert and on guard. "Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Col. 2:8 ASV)

Presentations of others must find acceptance only in proportion as they are proved to be in harmony with the Bible and the character of God.

The road may be long and arduous, but the reward far surpasses any sacrifices required. In times of discouragement the student should always keep the precious promise of our dear Master in mind: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matt. 7:7, 8 ASV).