Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Benefit of Reading Multiple Bible Versions

During my seminary days back in the 1990s, one of the classes I was required to take was Biblical Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a word we usually don't use in everyday conversation. Perhaps the class title should have been what the original class name really means...Biblical Interpretation.

The professor who taught the class was a man named Haskell Stone. He had been a Christian for many decades. I'm thankful for not only his academic knowledge of guidelines for correctly interpreting the Bible but also what he could teach us in the class based on his experience as a believer in Christ.

The one piece of counsel he gave us that has stuck with me over these years has been that we should systematically, over time, read through different translations of the Bible. Professor Stone remarked that the slight differences in the way in which a translation renders certain words and phrases could give us a broader understanding of what the Bible means in a given passage. I have taken up the challenge. Over the years, I have read through the Bible in the King James Version, New International Version and the New American Standard Bible translation. During this year, I have been reading through the English Standard Version.

Following through on Professor Stone's advice to us has really been a blessing. There are variations in these four translations which in many passages provide a depth of meaning of which I would not be aware had I not read that passage in a different translation. These variations can happen for a number of reasons.

One of those reasons happens to be the method in which a translation was made. Of the four translations which I have read, the King James version is probably the most literal translation (i.e. word for word) among the four. The New American Standard and the English Standard Version are also translated more literally, but in contemporary English and not the English of 400 years ago. The New International Version is translated as a "dynamic equivalence" work. This means that a priority is given to translating the Bible in an "idea for idea" method.

Sometimes, there are variations in the way that one biblical manuscript will read from another. These "textual variants" can occur for a number of reasons (which I may explore in this blog at another time). The overwhelming number of variations occurred due to a difference in spelling or simply repeating a word when visually copying a manuscript by hand. However, some variations reflect what a scribe may have thought a word meant rather than the word itself. One example can be found in Jude 1:5. In most of the translations I have read, there is a reference to the Lord saving a people out of Egypt. However, in reading the English Standard Version, the manuscripts from which it was translated used the word "Jesus" and not "Lord". That really grabbed my attention. Really early in church history, some scribe correctly understood that while God saved His people out of Egypt, since Jesus is God, Jesus saved His people out of Egypt.

In reading the Bible, one big help can be reading a translation with cross-references and a list of the textual variants all in one place. In 1 Peter 2:24, we read: "and He Himself (Christ) bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness." The versions of the New American Standard have those cross-references and alternate readings. In some manuscripts, the word "cross" is replaced with "wood." When I discovered this, the meaning of this verse took on a deeper signifance for me. Jesus was placed upon the wood of the cross. However, to read this passage as Jesus was laid on the wood, the imagery of the burnt offerings referred to in the Old Testament really comes out. Jesus being laid on the wood reminds us that of all the Old Testament burnt sacrifices which needed to be done over and over again, Jesus performed one sacrifice perfectly (once for all according to the book of Hebrews).

There are many other examples which I can raise. First, let me encourage you to read the Bible, in its entireity from Genesis to Revelation. Once you have read through the entireity of a translation of the Bible, please consider doing another full reading in another translation. You will be presented with a deeper sense of what God is telling you in the text. It is worth the effort.