I have a confession – I’ve never enjoyed or gotten much out of “word studies.” Ya know, where you use Strong’s Concordance, traditional Vine, more current Mounce, and maybe more advanced sources like TWOT. Every so often a word study will give me a deeper understanding of a verse or issue, but generally not. However, as admitted, I don’t do word studies that often.
I actually find that just comparing several good translations can give me a sufficient understanding of what the original Greek or Hebrew meant. If I look at NKJV, NIV, NASB, and NRSV – and see the slight differences or nuances in wording – this helps me see some synonyms and get a deeper grasp of the idea being put forth. I may also look at some paraphrases of the Bible such as TLB.
For example, in Revelation 3:19, there is a command to be zealous and repent. I wondered about that word zealous (NKJV, NASB) , and saw it is also translated as earnest (NIV, NRSV). Then I looked in TLB (paraphrase) and saw it as “become enthusiastic.” Be…zealous, earnest, enthusiastic. This expanded my understanding without doing a word study.
Basically, I am trusting the translators. And why shouldn’t I? Most translations are done by a team of scholars and experts who have studied the original languages and want to be accurate and faithful to the original meanings. They are way smarter than me and have a knowledge base much broader than mine. Of course, translation bias is possible and no one is 100% objective, but that is one great thing about the variety of translations we have available today.
There are both Bible translations and paraphrases by the way, and different translations have different goals. For example, some translations such as NASB, are translated word-for-word with the goal of being literally accurate but still understandable. While other translations, such as NIV, are translated phrase-by-phrase and clarity (ease of reading) is the goal. A paraphrase is…a paraphrase, and not a translation. Much more liberty is taken with a paraphrase.
It is not a good idea to do “Bible study” using primarily a paraphrase. Yes, a paraphrase can give you a fresh, modern reading of the text and be great for devotional reading – but meaning can be lost. Important theological words are left out as they are changed to a modern phrasing. Some of these theological words (such as redemption or repentance or atonement) are important to know and understand, especially if you are really trying to study and go deeper.
What got me thinking about all this was a recent post over at Baker Book House entitled “Do You “Know” Greek? Some Wisdom from F.F. Bruce.” The post begins with this:
We have an abundance of resources to help a layperson “understand” Greek. But, the old adage of “knowing just enough to be dangerous” is more true here than anywhere. All too often I get customers who want something to help them understand what “the Greek really means.” When pressed I offer them a Greek lexicon to which they inevitably say, “I can’t understand that. It’s in Greek.” I then offer them something like Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. I once had a lady look up a word and after reading the definition said, “Well, this is just what my Bible says.” I said, “I guess your translation is right. You’d be surprised just how often it is.”
Keep reading the post for a great quote from FF Bruce which makes it clear how translating from an ancient language is much more involved than just looking up a word in a dictionary and selecting the equivalent.
Something I enjoy more than a word study is using a cross-reference work such as The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, and I see there is now a “new, new” edition that was updated again in 2005. (I have the 1992 edition.) Good study Bibles typically have a few cross-references, but this book is exhaustive! Looking at one verse, you can find other verses in the Bible that use similar phrasing or are about the same concept.
Anyways…those were some rambling thoughts on word studies and Bible translations. There is a time and place for word studies. It can be a helpful practice, especially with unique or challenging words. But I don’t think you should feel ashamed or inept (as I used to) because you don’t do them routinely. It’s okay!