Until 1947, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts available to serve as the basis for Old Testament study and translation were the Massoretic Texts of eastern European Jews. These texts of the Hebrew Scriptures date from around 900 AD. The translators of the Authorized Version (King James Version) used these texts as the basis for their Old Testament translation.
Besides the Massoretic texts, the Christian Church had always used the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament made around 200 BC. The Septuagint was used to compare with Hebrew Massoretic Texts to check meaning and accuracy. In the 1800 and 1900s other early Old Testament documents were discovered, adding more textual information.
Add to all of this, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) in 1947, and the huge impact made on biblical scholarship by these very ancient documents. The Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls of Qumran date from the 200s BC to the 100s AD and include every book of the Old Testament except Esther, as well as other kinds of writings. These have been compared with the Massoretic Texts, the Septuagint and other manuscripts to discover how much the text of the Hebrew scriptures may have changed over time as manuscripts were copied.
The result was the amazing fact that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years of copying from 200 BC to 900 AD. The only major differences in the texts were the Massoretic invention of Hebrew vowel points as a refinement over the mainly consonantal biblical Hebrew.
So, the tradition that Jewish scribes used extreme care in copying the scriptures proved to be correct and those who study and live by the Old Testament can do so with confidence.
A Basic Explanation of English Bible Versions
One of the most frequently asked questions among Christians these days is, “Which version of the Bible should I use?”. The wide variety of English Bible translations have indeed been a great blessing in many ways; but at times they have also been a source of confusion. The person hearing a sermon or attending a Bible class may be at a loss because the version they are using reads slightly differently from the one being used by the leader. So how did the English speaking church go from the time in the early Twentieth Century when the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version) was nearly universal among Protestants, to our situation today with easily a dozen widely used translations?
Before we go into a brief history of the English Bible, we should remember that neither the Old or New Testaments were originally written in English. In fact, the English language (as we would recognize it) was non-existent during the period of time in which these documents were being composed. The books of the Old Testament were written over approximately 1000 years, beginning around 1400 BC, with the majority written in ancient Hebrew, while a few of the later ones were penned in the related language of Aramaic. The New Testament was composed in a type of ancient Greek known as Koine (common or trade Greek) during the second half of the First Century AD.
When these biblical languages could not be understood by a significant number of God’s people, there were attempts to translate the scriptures into the languages spoken by them. For instance, in the book of Ezra, Ezra the priest had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Aramaic for the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon and could no longer speak the native language of their ancestors. Several centuries later, in around 200 BC, other Jewish scholars did the same thing for Jews living in Greek-speaking lands. The New Testament was translated in the first several centuries AD into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac and other languages of early Christians.
The English-speaking people did not officially convert to Christianity until the 600s AD. Along with the rest of the Western Europe, they used the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible in worship. Consequently few people had access to the Bible in its original languages. Due to the Roman Catholic policy of using a uniform version of the Bible among its people and closely guarding those scriptures from misuse by untrained people, centuries went by without any serious attempt to translate the scriptures into English. The first successful effort to do so was by the priest, John Wycliffe in the 1370s. He used the Latin Vulgate as the basis for his work, rather than Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. Though Wycliffe’s translation was second-hand at best, its major contribution was to create in the common people a hunger for the Bible in their native English.
The first attempt to use the original languages for translation was by William Tyndale in the 1520s. His excellent work was supplemented in the years that followed by other versions, such as the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible, which were the first English Bibles to be used for public worship. With the growing influence of Puritanism in the late 1500s and the inheritance of the English throne by King James I, there was a renewed desire for a standard English Bible to be used in all the Protestant churches. King James commissioned this project in 1607at the Hampton Court Conference, with a panel of 50 scholars who worked on the translation for four years. This Authorized Version was published for use in 1611 and became the standard for English use for the next 350 years. It is a remarkable combination of quality translation (given the manuscripts available at the time) and an elegant English style.
Toward the end of the 1800s a number of Bible scholars and clergy began to sense that the Authorized Version was no longer adequate for several reasons. More recent discoveries of ancient manuscripts had added to the knowledge of the original language texts. Along with this, English had changed dramatically since 1611, so that the English itself needed updating as well. These concerns led to the Revised Standard Version of the 1880s, which was updated again in 1952. The Twentieth Century saw an explosion of Bible translations. The New American Standard Bible in 1971 was an attempt to translate the Bible into a distinctively American English. While the English style has been accused of being awkward, it is actually one of the most precise translations in the English language.
New theories of translation in the late Twentieth Century added to the mix of versions available. Rather than a closely literal approach, many opted for what can be described as either a paraphrase or a thought-for-thought translation. Among these are the Living Bible (1962), which is a paraphrase, originally designed for children, the Good News Bible (1966) which is another paraphrase designed for people in the counter-culture, and the New International Version (1978) a thought-for thought translation aimed at the entire English-speaking world. The NIV has become one of the most widely-used versions because of its simple, generic English and its accuracy of translation. All of these translation efforts have used the reconstructed original language manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.
There have also been some recent revisions of older translations. The New King James modernizes the English of the Authorized Version, while at the same time, adjusting the translation from updated manuscript data. The New Revised Standard Version is a gender –neutral update of the older Revised Standard Version. Other popular versions of the Bible include the Phillips expanded paraphrase, the Message, which is a more recent paraphrase, and the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem and New American Bibles.
So, which Bible is best for you? Many people like to use a paraphrase or a thought-for thought version for reading, while relying on a more literal version for study. Try sampling a few to find out which suits your needs. Stay away from off-beat, inaccurate and agenda-driven translations, such as the New World Translation of the Watchtower Society. Otherwise, find a Bible you will use regularly and use it!
The last book of the Bible was written just over 1,900 years ago. Empires have risen and fallen in that time: Rome is gone; Charlemagne’s empire has vanished; horrendous wars have been fought; new philosophies have come into vogue and declined; technology has improved. In light of all this, the Bible seems like a quaint, but archaic book, good only for gathering dust on the shelf. What could it possibly have to say that would be relevant to us and our particular needs in the Twenty-first Century?
Surprisingly, it has a lot to say, partly because basic human needs haven’t changed at all in 2,000 years and partly because God speaks to every age. I never cease to be amazed at how the Bible answers the fundamental questions people are asking. For example:
Is there a God, and if so, what is He like? See Psalm 14:1, Romans 1:19-20, John 3:16, etc.
How did the universe come into being? See Hebrews 11:3, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, etc.
What is the cause of the human tendency to do wrong? Is there some basic flaw in us? See Genesis chapter 3, Romans 3:9-18, etc.
Is there some way to correct this flaw and have acceptance with God? See Romans 3:22-23 and Galatians 5:24.
Is there any basis for real brotherhood among people? Genesis 1:27-28, 10:32, Romans 10:12, etc.
Does life have any meaning or purpose? John 10:10, John 17:3.
Is there life after death? Revelation 20:11-15, Luke 23:40-43, John 14:2, Revelation 7:9.
These questions and many more are answered in the book of books.
The chart below represents a comparison of certain popular English Bible versions. The chart is listed in the following categories:Bible Version; Year Completed; Group of Origin and Reading Level (approximate).
CEV (Contemporary English Version) 1991 American Bible Society 5.4
KJV (Authorized or “King James” Version) 1611 Anglican / Puritan 12.0
LB (The Living Bible) 1971 Evangelical 8.3
MES (The Message) 2002 Evangelical 5.0
NAB (New American Bible) 1970 Roman Catholic 6.6
NASB (New American Standard Bible) 1971 Evangelical 11.7
NIV (New International Version) 1979 Evangelical 7.8
NKJV (New King James Version) 1982 Evangelical 8.0
NLT (New Living Translation) 1996 Evangelical 6.4
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) 1990 Mainline (gender neutral) 8.1
PHL (J.B. Phillips Translation) 1963 Anglican 4.0
RSV (Revised Standard Version) 1952 Mainline 10.0
Bible study can be an exciting adventure into the heart and mind of God. Reading and carefully considering its records, accounts and stories can literally be a life-transforming experience. Without the proper preparation, it can also be confusing, frustrating or even misleading. In order to make a good beginning, it is helpful to keep the following pointers in mind:
Set aside adequate time. You need a block of time during which disturbances and distractions will be at a minimum. The time should be sufficient to deal with the passage you plan to study and the issues in it without being rushed.
Choose in a place that is conducive to study, thought and prayer. The place should have access to study tools and other materials and equipment necessary for the task. It should be comfortable and as free as possible from distractions.
Look to yourself. Don’t assume that the passage to be studied is for someone else. Study it for your own issues and growth before anything else. Include prayer specifically asking God to give you understanding of the facts of the passage and its application for your life and the lives of others. Decide beforehand to obey what you learn.
If you plan to teach the passage, consider the needs and context of your audience. Are they believers in Christ? How much Bible background do they already have? What are their possible biases toward the passage or subject to be taught? Will they be able to understand you if you speak as you normally do? How long will they be willing to listen? What can you do to make them comfortable enough to learn and respond?
Make use of basic Bible study tools. A Bible atlas helps locate places and describes the geography of the Bible. A concordance lists verse references according to the words each reference contains. A Bible dictionary defines various terms as they are used in Scripture. In a commentary a Bible teacher or scholar discusses and explains scripture. A Bible handbook gives basic information and an outline of Bible books. Language studies give in-depth discussion of the Greek and Hebrew words used in various passages.
Use a basic and reliable translation. Make sure that the version you are using is accepted by a wide range of believers, and not just by a narrow sect. The more precise and in-depth you want to go in your study, the more exactly word-for-word the translation you use needs to be. Use a translation that takes into account the reading level and proficiency of your audience as well as one that is appropriate to the occasion and/or tastes of your audience.
Much could be said about the Bible as the Word of God and how it is to be read, studied and applied to daily life. These issues will be dealt with in other articles. For now, let me simply confine myself to some basic facts.
The Bible contains a total of 66 books in two major sections:
The Old Testament is made up of 39 books, which outline God’s redemptive work in the world before the time of Christ, and focus specifically on the nation of Israel.
The New Testament has 27 books, which describe God’s more complete redemptive work since the time of Jesus’ birth, and focus on the new, multi-ethnic people of God, the Church.
These books were written by around 40 different authors over a span of approximately 1500 years (1400 B.C. to 100 A.D.).
The 66 books of the Bible were written in three original languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic; the New Testament in Koine Greek.
There are several very good English Bible translations, which enable us to read and understand the sense of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.
The various books were written using various writing styles, including poetry, history, logical argument, stories, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.
Though each of the books of the Bible has its unique purpose and setting, a common theme joins each of the books into a whole, showing us God’s holy character, his plans for human redemption and his great love for us, demonstrated in Christ.
Here are some suggestions for getting a grasp on the overall message of the Bible:
Read Genesis for an understanding of early human history and the background of the nation of Israel.
Read Exodus to see how God’s covenant with Israel set the stage for his dealings with the Jewish people and his later work with the entire world by outlining standards of right and wrong, good and evil.
Read Psalms and Proverbs to find comfort, wisdom and help in the issues of life and in worshipping God.
Read Mark and John for a basic grasp of the life and identity of Jesus Christ.
Read Romans to get a panorama of God’s entire plan of redemption.
Read Acts and Ephesians to see how God has implemented a new covenant through the Church to include people from all nations.
Read Revelation to be assured that God’s plan will be fulfilled and his people ultimately given eternal joy.
If you are a beginner to the Bible, you may encounter parts of it which may seem puzzling, boring or hard to understand. The main thing in such cases is not to give up. You may want to temporarily skip over those parts in your reading, making a note to come back to them later when you have gained more knowledge or experience in this amazing book.
Remember: the Bible is not written in code. Both the human authors and God who inspired them, intended for us to understand the basic message. Part of the task is to learn some basic things about Bible times and culture as well as how to separate presuppositions from what is actually in the text. The other part of understanding the Bible is simply asking God to give you insight as you read and study.