Tools for Bible study

I was puzzled about a verse I read this morning, and decided to write about it. I also thought it might be useful to share here some of the tools that are available for doing Bible study.

We live in the golden age of amateur Bible scholarship. Thanks to sites like Bible Gateway and Bible.CC, if you have an internet connection, you can compare dozens of translations with the click of a mouse. My church uses the NRSV, which is available online, but not in as many places as the ESV, which I find is a pretty reasonable substitute.

Sometimes, a quick comparison only leads to more questions about which translation “got it right.” There are two ways to answer that kind of question. First, you could ask an expert. If you don’t know any experts personally, you could go read one of their books instead. Those are called commentaries.

The problem with commentaries is that there’s almost always another scholar who takes a contrary position, and the ones who get their commentaries published are usually able to construct a pretty compelling argument. (Stop and consider: the people who make these competing translations are all experts, and the whole problem is that they don’t agree on how to translate something.) So, of the reading of commentaries there is no end: you have to keep reading until you find one that supports your presuppositions. (I kid.)

If the topic is about something important — grace vs. works, for example — you really do need to ask an expert. But a lot of the time, you just want make sure you’re not leaning too hard on what might be an idiosyncratic translation, or — especially with older translations like KJV — a word whose meaning has evolved over the years.

In those situations you can do a word search to see what the word appears to mean in other places where it appears. It’s best to search by the word used in the original biblical language, because translations don’t always translate one word uniformly, because it’s a poor word that has only one shade of meaning. (The word for “angel” is also the word for “messenger,” but not every messenger has wings and a halo. The word for “heaven” can be translated as “sky” and “air,” depending on the context. And so forth.)

Fortunately, you don’t have to know the biblical languages to do this kind of “casual” search. You can look the underlying words in Strong’s Concordance, which assigns each one a unique number.

I was looking for a word (sometimes translated “justice” or “what is right”) in Proverbs 28:5. The Blue Letter Bible has tagged Bibles that let you see the Strong’s number for each word. (It offers both the KJV and NASB, and, while I’m not a fan of either, the NASB at least offers somewhat more modern English usage.)

With the tagged verse in front of me, it was easy enough to pick my word. As it happens, what I wanted was a Hebrew word numbered 4941.

Clicking on 4941 brought me not only a definition but a list of search results showing me all the places the word appeared. There were 421 appearances all through the Hebrew scriptures, so I concentrated my search in the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes).

My purpose in this article is to describe how I did my Bible study, rather than to tell you what it taught me. That’s for another article.

When I first began to read the Bible 20 years ago, I was frustrated by all the page-flipping. Today, you can flip through not just one translation but any number of them, as easily as clicking a mouse.