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Trying to study the bible without knowing the original languages is like trying to play Beethoven on a mouth organ. I mean—it’s just not going to be hugel– you may be able to get something-of-a-tune, but it won’t actually be what the guy had in mind. And it’s really worrying because people don’t realise in our very pragmatic age, that actually there isn’t a one-on-one equivalent for many of the great Hebrew and Greek words. And in order to understand what Paul was getting at, what Isaiah was getting at, what _Jesus_ was getting at, it simply isn’t enough to say this word means that, you know—”dikaiosune” means righteousness. Well, what do _we_ mean by righteousness? How’s that English word changed over time? …
Don’t be fooled like everyone else into thinking that the bible is an easy book to read, that by merely holding an ESV or NIV or whatever in our hands, God’s word is somehow readily available to us.
Yes, parts of the bible are superficially understandable by reading only ESV or whatever. But to read much of the bible beyond a very superficial level, not only do we ideally need to learn Hebrew and Greek, but we also need a whole lot of additional information that lies outside of the bible itself. Tons of information about the culture in which the author lived, how the people at the time might have understood the author’s words, how the New Testament described Jesus, Paul, etc. as interpreting the Old Testament in creative ways that differed significantly from the way it was traditionally understood, etc.
The bible is NOT easy to read at all!! Even pastors themselves, when preparing their sermons, rely largely on commentaries and extra-biblical sources for their message. Very few of them actually interpret the bible from scratch or even read it in the original Hebrew/Greek.
So it becomes a kind of farce when pastors spend most of their time reading commentaries and other extra-biblical sources, and yet the official advice for lay people who are even less equipped to read the bible directly, is to read the ESV / NIV or whatever official bible translation.
Yes, it could be argued that reading a translation of the bible is better than nothing. But lay people at least deserve to be informed that they are not supposed to get much out of that kind of superficial reading, and in fact are very likely to wrongly interpret the bible to mean all kinds of things that the original author never intended to say.
(On a related note, occasionally some foolhardy elder decides to give a sermon and attempt to interpret the bible without relying on commentaries, and it often results in embarrassing mistakes that could have been avoided if they simply had the intellectual humility to rely on at least one commentary.)
This post was originally in response to a friend sharing an article titled “What to do when reading your Bible feels pointless”, which offered only one advice that can be summed up in this quote at the end of the article:
“If you start asking God for His Spirit as you read His Word, you’ll start to see more and more power and revelation as you grow in Bible-reading.”
Unfortunately, no matter how many times we recite a phrase or plead with some deity for magical power, simply reading a contrived English translation is going to be largely pointless for the purpose of reading and understanding an ancient text written in languages and cultures that are very different from our present-day languages and cultures.
Actually until now I’ve only described the problem, and have not really proposed any solution.
There are two “obvious” solutions:
Someone who really wants to read the bible for himself would need to dedicate himself to reading plenty of extra-biblical resources about biblical Hebrew / Greek and the cultures of the biblical time periods. On top of all that, he would have to use all that knowledge and analyse everything on his own and come to his own conclusions about what the bible is really saying. Even then, his own interpretation may be at odds with that of the real experts, in which case he would have to carefully compare his interpretation with that of the experts, and find some meaningful way to deal with the different interpretations.
Alternatively, just rely on religious experts to read and interpret the bible for us. But because religious experts seldom agree on anything, we would need ways to decide which religious experts’ teachings to follow. Which is a whole tricky issue in itself.
In light of the above-mentioned difficulties, I prefer a rather different approach to religion in general. Stop being so caught up with an idealistic concept of “truth”, as though “truth” were so easily derived simply by reading a collection of ancient writings. Instead, focus more on the concept of “good”, and see the competing religious ideologies not so much as competing versions of “truth”, but rather, we should see competing religious ideologies as competing (or perhaps even complementary) versions of what “good” should look like.
Because in the end, what good people really care about is how to live a good life by doing good. (https://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/truth-vs-good/)
Matthew 16:25-28 (NRSV)
25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Christians who are caught up in finding some idealistic but practically impossible version of “truth”, are ultimately just interested in believing the “right” things, or reciting the “right” magic words to guarantee themselves a place in some supposed paradise in the afterlife.
Instead, good people are more interested in finding moral inspiration and enlightenment. They are more interested in doing good, than obsessing over some paranoia that a person who tries his best to do good will end up in eternal torment simply because he did not believe the “right” things or recite the “right” magic words.