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By now you’ve probably noticed that there are many English translations of the Bible. In fact, you could easily say that there are too many. Having all of these choices becomes overwhelming and confusing to Christians who are wanting to do some serious Scripture study. So what do you do? How can you—a Christian without any special training in biblical study—study the Bible all on your own and actually get something out of it?
Well, let’s start with the basics.
You don’t have any formal training on how to study the Bible—congratulations! This is actually a huge advantage. You see, when you go to some expensive Christian school and pay people to tell you how to study the Bible, all you get out of it is a bunch of denominational brainwashing. Formal Christian Bible study courses and Bible helps actually teach you to read the Bible through a mental filter—and that means they teach you to ignore much of what the Bible actually says. So if you want to do it right, don’t pay. If you’re shelling out a bunch of money for Bible study materials, you’re buying the wrong things. In this post, we’re going to teach you a method of Bible study which won’t cost you a dime and it will help you actually learn the right things—the things that God wants you to learn. After all, the whole purpose in studying the Bible is supposed to be to get to know God better so that you can treat Him better. We don’t study the Bible to become show offs and braggarts.
GETTING INTO THE RIGHT MENTALITY
Now the first step to studying right is to get into the right mentality. You need to be in the right mentality before you even start interacting with materials. Mental approach is huge, and most Christians are taking the wrong mental approach to studying the Bible.
In the Church, you’re taught to view yourself as a dunce when it comes to understanding the Bible. Oh, sure, Christian leaders are always yammering at you to read the Word more often than you do—but while they’re nagging you about frequency, they’re also dropping all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle hints that you’re a lot less capable of understanding the Bible than they are. This is the whole purpose of Christian leaders flaunting their titles and degrees in your face: they’re trying to pull rank on you. “I’m Dr. Pompous, an expert on the Hebrew language.” Or, “I’m Dr. Ego, and I have a Doctorate Degree in Theology from Super Snooty Seminary.” Refuse to be impressed by this carnal flag waving.
It’s surprisingly easy to become more knowledgeable than all of the “experts” who are cranking out the study Bibles and commentaries today. It’s all about who you’re listening to. Guys who need you to know all about how educated they are have been relying on human beings to make them smart. And since wisdom comes from God, anyone who is relying on human beings instead of God to teach him in spiritual matters is going to end up with a brain full of cotton. Since the Church worships humans, you’ll find that all the famous commentaries and Bible study helps she pushes today are filled with a bunch of baloney. We’re not talking about subtle mistakes—we’re talking about major misapplications of Scripture. So if anything in your brain is telling you that you need human beings to help you get smart about the Bible, throw it out. You don’t need humans to teach you wisdom in life—you don’t even need the Bible. You just need God.
Now as we said before, the correct motivation for studying the Bible is that you want to know God better so that you can treat Him better. When God stirs you up to dig into Scriptures, you need to recognize that He is the One whetting your appetite to learn. Then you need to view your whole attempt to understand the Bible as your personal effort to follow God’s personal leading in your life. This is a you and God thing. This isn’t you sitting at the feet of a bunch of human egos. This isn’t you paying some jerk to share his insights with you. Anyone who is trying to sell truth to you is clearly not listening to God. So forget about the “experts”—you don’t need them. You have God. He is going to be your Teacher, your Mentor, and your Guide. When you have questions, you ask Him. Maybe along the way, you’ll read some opinions that other humans have formed about a particular passage—but you never draw a final conclusion until you ask God what He thinks, because this whole thing is your personal adventure with Him.
OVERCOMING THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
Okay, so God is stirring you up to want to dig into some very old historical texts. And here you come to your first major roadblock: the documents you want to study weren’t written in English. They were written in archaic Hebrew and archaic Greek. Well, now what? You don’t want to waste years struggling to decipher those languages—you want to dig into the text today. And you can, because happily a bunch of other people have already translated the old languages for you. This is how we came to have so many English translations of the Bible: over time, many different groups and individuals have taken a stab at translating those ancient languages. Some did a pretty bad job of it, some did alright, and some did better than most. But is there a single perfect translation of the Bible? No, there isn’t.
Forget about the myth of a perfect translation of the Bible. Scrub that whole ludicrous idea out of your head, because it will only get in your way. Not only is no translation perfect, but every translation really biffs it in some major ways. No matter what translation you pick up, you’re going to come across some major problems. This is why you don’t want to marry yourself to just one translation. Instead, you need to collect a core group of translations that you’re going to use to try and sift out the best translation of ancient words.
GATHERING YOUR STAFF
Remember how we said mental approach is important? It’s critical that you don’t go into this activity viewing yourself like a numskull. You’re not a numskull. You have plenty of intelligence, and you have God. So when you pick up a translation of the Bible, don’t view it as the work of people who are way smarter and superior to you. Instead, picture yourself like a king who has a panel of advisors who he likes to gather opinions from when he has to make an important decision. Should he go to war or not? Should he raise taxes? Should he form that military alliance? When these kinds of decisions come along, the leaders of real nations today turn to a trusted group of folks and hear what each of those people has to say. After listening to each person’s perspective, the leader then comes to his own conclusion. Sometimes he agrees with some of his advisors, sometimes he disagrees with all of them. Sometimes all of the advisors agree with each other, sometimes they really disagree. This is how it will be for you and your panel of language advisors. You’re the king, and you’re now trying to figure out what some passage of Scripture says. So you need to call in your group of advisors, and see what they suggest. After you hear all of their suggestions, you talk to God and make your own decision.
This metaphorical approach helps you stay in the right mentality: you’re not the dunce, you’re the leader of this group. You make up your own mind, and you have the freedom to disagree with what the “experts” have to say. When you compare various translations with each other, you’re just gathering intel. You’re looking for differences. If there are differences, that tells you that the original language probably wasn’t very clear, and could be interpreted different ways. When all of your advisors agree, then the language probably was pretty straight forward. Once you listen to your translation advisors, you talk to God and ask Him to show you what He wants you to get out of the passage. Then you move on to the next one.
So how many advisors should you have on your panel? Four is a good place to start. Sometimes you’ll want to expand out to six. Over time, you’ll develop favorites. But it’s good to start with several. So now let’s talk about candidates.
You don’t want to choose any random clown to join your staff. You want guys whose opinions you can respect. So now let’s weed out the duds.
Mr. KJV (The King James Version) is the kind of fellow who always talks over your head whenever you ask him a question. He’s hard to understand. Interacting with him is frustrating. He uses archaic language, he uses a lot of big words that no modern day English speaker uses, and for all that, he’s got some really lame ideas about what certain passages mean. So he’s a poor choice for your core staff. Forget about the KJV.
Mr. MSG (The Message) is another useless translation. The Message was penned by one individual who wanted to rewrite the Bible into modern day language. The Message wanders so far from the original text that it’s a joke.
Mr. NAS (The New American Standard) is a straightforward guy. He doesn’t get dramatic. He sounds educated, but he’s still understandable. He doesn’t soup things up. He tries to give you a translation of the original text that’s pretty literal. So when you ask Mr. NAS for the first part of Genesis 1, he quotes it like this:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2, NAS)
But if you ask Mr. MSG for his take on the same passage, out comes the drama:
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. (Gen. 1:1-2, MSG)
Mr. MSG is one of those guys who always wants to draw attention to himself in a conversation. So he’s always over the top, adding words, adding slang, and being ridiculous. Forget about Mr. MSG. Let him take his theatrics somewhere else.
Now there are two general camps that Bible translators fall into. Literal or word-for-word translations care more about being accurate than they do about being smooth. So if the original language translates: “Blue the color the sky is,” then a literal translation might say: “The sky is the color blue.” Literal translations will move the words around a bit to help sentences make sense, but they don’t want to drop words.
The second camp is your thought-for-thought group. These guys care more about the thought or sentiment being expressed than they do about preserving the technical wording. So a thought-for-thought translation would say: “The sky is blue.” They’ll drop out some of the words because they don’t feel those extra words are needed to convey the point.
Now as you might guess, both of these camps can get too extreme. Suppose a sentence literally translates like this: “David much hunger within his stomach felt when the day was late in time.” That’s a very awkward sentence, and needs some cleaning up. Here the literal guys might say: “David felt much hunger within his stomach late in the day.” They try to save as many words as possible because they care about literal accuracy.
But now the thought guys come along, and all they care about is conveying the bottom line sentiment. If they feel using some slang will help get that meaning across, they have no problems using it. So they might translate our awkward sentence like this: “That evening, David was starving.” See the difference? The super literal guys sound clunky and awkward, but the thought guys can take a lot of liberties with the text. As someone who is trying to study what Scriptures actually say, you’re better off sticking with guys who are in the middle of these two extremes: guys who don’t get too literal, or too dramatic. There are many translations that fit in this middle range. So now let’s talk about who some good candidates for your staff would be.
Like Mr. NAS, Mr. NKJV (the New King James Version) is a pretty literal guy, but he’s way more understandable than his cousin Mr. KJV, and he keeps up to date with modern English. A major plus is that Mr. NKJV is one of the few English translators left who still use reverential capitals for pronouns that refer to God. This is a huge help in many passages—especially prophetic passages when the speaker often changes and it can be hard to tell whether “he” is referring to God or a human. Mr. NKJV also sticks close to the original language—and that can be handy when you’re suspecting that some of your other advisors are being a bit too dramatic. Mr. NKJV is an educated guy—so he uses bigger words which can be closer to what the original author said. Because Mr. NKJV does use bigger words, sometimes he can be a bit hard to keep up with, which is why you probably won’t want to use him as your main source.
Mr. NCV (New Century Version) is a great addition to your staff and a fine compliment to Mr. NKJV and Mr. NAS. Mr. NCV is a simple speaker. He uses shorter sentences and a much more limited vocabulary. When you’re feeling confused about what’s being said, Mr. NCV is your go to guy. He’ll quickly help you understand the basic sentiment, and then you’ll be able to dialogue with your other advisors more easily. To give you a sample of how helpful Mr. NCV can be, let’s look at one of the apostle Paul’s wordier passages.
Here’s how Mr. NKJV translates Romans 8:30:
Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (NKJV)
The apostle Paul was an educated guy, and we’re seeing a lot of big words in use here. But big words can be confusing, so here’s where you can turn to Mr. NCV to help you grasp the basic concept. Mr. NCV puts the same passage like this:
God planned for them to be like His Son; and those He planned to be like His Son, He also called; and those He called, He also made right with Him; and those He made right, He also glorified. (NCV)
So now you’ve got Mr. NKJV giving you a version that’s closer to the original language, but sometimes hard to understand, while Mr. NCV really simplifies things. These two make a nice pair, but you need a beefier staff than this.
Mr. EXB (Expanded Bible) is a great candidate to consider, even though he’s not long on social manners. Mr. EXB is a chronic interrupter. When you’re trying to talk to Mr. NCV, Mr. EXB is constantly chiming in with random bits of facts and trivia which he thinks are relevant to the discussion. As annoying as Mr. EXB’s disruptive style can be, he actually has some useful things to say. Mr. EXB will help you spot many places where the original text is unclear by listing off alternate translations. Mr. EXB also slips in a lot of historical facts—telling you what years various kings reigned, and giving you some helpful insights into ancient cultural practices. You don’t want to have a long conversation with Mr. EXB, because he’s so full of random comments that he can be tiring to listen to. But for gathering quick notes and cross-references without having to bother with a study Bible, Mr. EXB is a valuable resource.
The EXB uses the same text as the NCV—it just sprinkles in a bunch of extra notes. Let’s compare:
Here’s the NCV:
During the time that Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah, the word of the Lord came to Micah, who was from Moresheth. He saw these visions about Samaria and Jerusalem. (Micah 1:1, NCV)
And here’s the same passage in the EXB:
During the time that Jotham [C ruled 758–743 bc], Ahaz [C ruled 743–727 bc], and Hezekiah [C ruled 727–698 bc] were kings of Judah, the word of the Lord came to Micah, who was from Moresheth [C a town in southern Judah]. He saw these visions about Samaria and Jerusalem. (Micah 1:1, EXB)
While dating the Bible gets tricky, the EXB’s dating system and geographical tidbits can be very useful for helping you understand when God is talking and who He’s talking to. When it comes to God’s speeches in the prophetic books of the Bible, the EXB continues to be helpful. Yahweh intentionally played a lot of games with the original Hebrew that He used. He’d often use words that sounded alike on purpose to emphasize points. You totally miss how clever He’s being when you just read the plain English. But Mr. EXB helps clue you in to some of the games Yahweh is playing. In this passage from Micah 1, notice how Yahweh keeps playing off of the names of ancient Hebrew cities:
I will ·cry loudly [wail] like ·the wild dogs [jackals] and ·make sad sounds [moan] like the ·owls [or ostriches] do, because Samaria’s wound ·cannot be healed [is incurable]. It ·will spread [or has spread] to Judah; it ·will reach [or has reached] the city gate of my people [C where the city’s affairs were conducted], all the way to Jerusalem.
Don’t tell it in Gath [C sounds like Hebrew for “tell”; Gath and the cities in this list were in Assyria’s path of destruction in 701 bc].
Don’t cry ·in Acco [or at all; C the Hebrew for “cry” sounds like Acco].
Roll in the dust at Beth Ophrah [C “house of dust”].
Pass on your way, naked and ashamed, you who live in Shaphir [C “beautiful” or “pleasant”].
Those who live in Zaanan [C sounds like Hebrew for “come out”] won’t come out. (Mic. 1:8-11)
Thanks to Mr. EXB’s love of trivia, you get a lot more out of this passage from Micah 1 than you would if you were just slogging through a bunch of strange names and totally missing all of the clever word play that’s going on. So even though Mr. EXB’s style is far from straightforward, he’s a good guy to have on your team.
Now Mr. HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) is another very good candidate for you to consider. He’s a balanced guy—he doesn’t get as literal as Mr. NKJV, and he isn’t as simplistic as Mr. NCV. But he’s clear, he uses those reverential capitals, and he does a better job of preserving the cultural flavor of Scripture than the famous Mr. NIV.
Mr. NIV (New International Version) is the most popular Bible translation among English speakers, but Mr. NIV is also quick to adjust the text to fit modern trends. Mr. NIV compromises a lot, and in doing so, he messes up a lot of cultural references that are an important part of you understanding the Bible well. For example, the ancient Jews were a very male dominated society. This fact affected many of the laws that Yahweh gave the Jews, it affected how Yahweh and Jesus chose to communicate to the Jews, and it affected the teaching of the New Testament apostles. Well, today a lot of people get in a silly huff over the fact that males are emphasized in the Bible. Of course males are emphasized—the biblical records are from ancient Jewish society, and that society elevated males. To complain about the male bias in the Bible is like complaining that a book of seafood recipes talks about fish more than it does beef or chicken. The fact that males were favored in Jewish society is not an indication that God thinks men are better than women. The fact that God chose to work within the silly biases of Jewish society does not mean that He approved of those biases. When you try to scrub out cultural biases from the Bible, you actually end up confusing yourself and missing some very important lessons. God works with us within our cultural framework—this is a critical point to understand. But you’re going to miss this point when you start going down the road of using neutral gender language and pretending like the Jews weren’t as obsessed with males as they actually were.
Now because Mr. NIV cares a lot about keeping up with social trends, he works hard to tone down the male bias of the ancient Jews by changing words like “men” to “people”. Here’s how Mr. NIV translates Matthew 4:19:
“Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Matt. 4:19, NIV)
Well, no, this is ridiculous. In this passage, Jesus is speaking to Jewish men who were taught to view men as superior. When God is talking to Jews, He talks like a Jew. Mr. NKJV gives you a far more accurate version of what Jesus said:
Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt. 4:19, NKJV)
Unfortunately, this neutral gender thing has become all the rage, and many translations have switched over to it. Mr. HCSB also uses too much gender neutrality, but he holds the line in other areas. For example, the Jews used the term “house” to refer to Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem as well as to refer to family lines. Mr. HCSB preserves this cultural language, while many other translations throw it out and substitute other terms that help you understand the sentiment. Understanding sentiment is very important—but you also want to appreciate cultural flavor. Let’s check out Isaiah 2:5.
Mr. HCSB keeps the cultural flavor by using the “house” language that was so popular with the Jews.
House of Jacob, come and let us walk in the Lord’s light. (HCSB)
Mr. NIV drops the cultural flavor and helps you understand what “house” means by substituting the term “descendants.”
Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. (NIV)
There is value in both of these approaches, which is why having both Mr. HCSB and Mr. NIV on your staff can be helpful. But there’s another fellow that shouldn’t be overlooked: Mr. NLT (New Living Translation). Here’s how Mr. NLT translates Isaiah 2:5:
Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (NLT)
Notice that exclamation point. Mr. NLT is an emotional guy, but his emotions are appropriate. He’s not just one big drama pup like the ridiculous Mr. MSG. Instead, Mr. NLT does a fabulous job of reminding you that the Bible is filled with passion. The Jews were a highly emotive, exclamatory people. They didn’t go around making solemn statements all the time. They were high energy, theatrical, enthused. You won’t feel their passion coming through sober guys like Mr. NKJV or Mr. NCV. It’s Mr. NLT who will really help you out with feeling the emotion, even if he does cheat with the text here and there.
Every culture has special words and sayings that it likes to use. Many ancient Hebrew sayings don’t make any sense to English speakers today. So what’s the best choice when a passage is using one of those sayings? Should we focus on preserving cultural flavor and literal accuracy by translating the phrase as it is, or should we ditch the special language and use whatever words best convey the sentiment? Your panel of advisors will choose different strategies in different passages, which is why it’s important that you have a panel instead of just listening to one voice. In Amos 2:6, Yahweh uses a Hebrew saying which sounds awkward to English speakers. Mr. NIV—the same fellow who ditches male pronouns and cuts out a lot of other cultural references—surprises us by sticking to the script in Amos 2:6. Here’s his take on this passage:
“For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent.” (Amos 2:6, NIV)
Well, the accuracy is nice, but what does this mean? Here’s where Mr. NLT’s looser, more emphatic style helps us out. Mr. NLT says it like this:
“The people of Israel have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished!” (NLT)
Yahweh is angry in this passage, and Mr. NLT’s exclamation point helps us feel Yahweh’s emotion better than Mr. NIV’s calm period. So you see, every translation brings something useful to the table. It’s your job to sift out the good and ignore the bad.
A STARTING PANEL
So now let’s summarize the candidates we’ve discussed so far.
Mr. NAS & Mr. NKJV are two sober guys who will give you a more literal version of what the text actually says. They can be clunky, and they can use a lot of big words, but they’re good to refer to when you are suspecting that one of your other advisors is taking too many liberties with the text.
Mr. NCV is your simplifier. He uses shorter sentences, smaller words, and he helps you quickly grasp the main concepts. He can be especially helpful in helping you understand the prophetic books and the New Testament epistles.
Mr. EXB uses the same text as Mr. NCV, only he squeezes in a ton of extra facts and study helps which can be very illuminating. His formatting takes some getting used to, and he’s tiresome to read for long periods, but he’s definitely a great tool for a quick look up or when you’re trying to see alternate ways that a text can be translated.
Mr. NIV & Mr. HCSB are both trying to give you a fairly smooth read. They try to stay within the general range of literal accuracy, but they are much easier to understand than the clunky NKJV and NAS.
Mr. NLT uses punctuation to add back in a lot of the emotion that other translations leave out. Mr. NLT cares more about helping you understand concepts than he does with being literally accurate—but he doesn’t get nearly as carried away as the ridiculous Mr. MSG.
These seven candidates can provide you with a nice starting panel. As you use them, you’ll develop favorites, and you’ll probably end up with two or three versions which you use most often while you have some back up versions that you go to when you’re running into difficulties. Of course the list we provide here is just to help you get started–as you explore other translations, you’ll probably do some swapping out. Other versions worth checking out are the following:
Mr. GW (God’s Word Translation) balances the literal word-for-word approach with the looser thought-for-thought style. The vocabulary level is similar to the NCV.
Mr. NOG (Names of God) promotes an inappropriate obsession with the original Hebrew Names of God. But if you can look past that, it does help tune you in to how many different titles Yahweh refers to Himself by in the Old Testament. It also uses the actual Name of Yahweh instead of replacing it with “the Lord” as most versions do.
A good rule of thumb to bear in mind is that if a translation has the word “New” in front of it, there was probably an earlier version of that translation which is a lot harder to understand. The King James Version is pretty useless due to its ridiculous obsession with preserving archaic language. But the New King James Version is much better. In the same way, you’ll get a lot more out of the New American Standard Bible than you will out of the plain old American Standard Version (ASV).
When it comes to translations which you’re better off avoiding, here’s our short list:
Mr. MSG (The Message) is an overly dramatic, irresponsible mess which contains a heavy theological bias from its one-man author. That’s a common issue which you need to be aware of: when humans translate the Bible or talk about the Bible, their personal theological biases always get in the mix.
Mr. AMP (Amplified Bible) is another very biased mess. It works off the very creative idea of trying to help you understand the text better by stuffing a bunch of extra adjectives into the mix. But when you get into the prophetic books, you’ll find a bunch of commentary notes urging you to interpret things a certain way, and the theology being pushed is very problematic.
Mr. WYC (Wycliffe) and Mr. YLT (Young’s Literal Translation) are two translations you should avoid unless you’re in the mood to strain your brain. They are very clunky, very awkward, and hard to understand due to their obsession with literacy.
Mr. DRA (Douay-Rheims) is the English translation you’ll often be handed when you’re looking for an English translation of The Vulgate (aka Biblia Sacra Vulgata)–a very old Latin translation which is still popular among some conservative Catholics. But the DRA is like the KJV, WYC, and YLT—it’s clunky, awkward, and one of those “stuck in time” versions which uses a lot of archaic language. Once a word changes meaning and we still insist on using it, misunderstandings become inevitable. There’s nothing holy about using translations which refuse to acknowledge that human languages are constantly evolving. Such stubbornness only gets in your way.
TALKING TO GOD
Now once you have collected a group of versions that you want to use, you find an internet site that lets you browse those versions for free. Many sites will let you compare versions side by side on your computer screen, and this is very handy. Reading through several versions of the same passage helps you get a good idea of what’s being said. Then it’s time to ask God for help with application. Remember the bottom line goal: getting to know God better so you can improve your treatment of Him. The Bible is filled with good and bad teaching—all of which can draw you closer to God if you are depending on Him to guide your study. So make sure that you are depending on Him, and not just accepting ideas that anyone throws at you without asking God for His opinion. God is the only Teacher you can trust.
On our site, we write a lot of articles that cover certain portions of Scripture. Our Know Your Bible Series is a series of lessons that will give you a quick overview of the Bible in chronological order—and understanding time order can really help you understand the historical context of what you’re reading. The purpose of all of our Bible based articles is to inspire discussion between your soul and God. We intentionally cover a lot of passages that rarely get discussed in the main Church. We present you with a lot of radical ideas and shocking new perspectives. We teach you to think critically, and we show you how to read with discernment. But always remember that God must be the Final Authority on all things for you. He is the only Teacher you can trust. We feel that our material can do a great job of challenging you and helping you mature in your walk with God, but you can’t let anyone take the place of God in your life. Our material is just food for thought—only God can tell you if it’s something you should swallow or something you should spit out.
How far you get in your pursuit of God is determined by how directly you are seeking Him in life. You have to talk to Him yourself. You have to be purposeful about trusting Him. You have to be willing to follow Him even if He’s leading you in directions that other Christians say are wrong. God comes first. If you listen to Him and pursue Him and put your trust in Him alone, He will take you to awesome places. So don’t compromise. Life is about pleasing God, not about conquering ancient texts.
How We Got the Bible: A Reality Check for Christians
It’s Biblical: God Talks to People Without Using the Bible
The Prophetic Books of the Bible: Who’s Talking?
Practicing Discernment: Bible Promises
Escaping the Boredom of Reading the Bible