“Biblical research” as the term is used on this blog simply means the study of the Scriptures to gain an accurate understanding of God’s Word and thus His will. It involves a lifetime of learning. No few articles on a web site can tell you all you need to know.
On the other hand, it isn’t rocket science. God never intended for his Word to be complicated, intelligible only to a gifted few. He gave His Word so that all men (and women) might know Him. It is supposed to make sense to you from what you can read for yourself. If you are confronted with a doctrine that seems like you would have to be Einstein to be able to understand or Mother Theresa to be able to relate, take a breath and another look. You are probably being fed a line that is not in the Bible. It isn’t supposed to be difficult.
James 3:7 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
If we were still living in the same culture as that of the land and times of the Bible; if we still spoke the same language and were familiar with the common idioms and other figures of speech, and if we still had the original documents, no research would be necessary other than to read it to see what it says. The clear language of God’s Word is further made difficult for modern readers by the hundreds of years of tradition: wrong doctrine that is already in our minds before we read what might otherwise have been clear and easy. We must divorce ourselves of preconceived ideas if we are to gain an honest understanding of the Scriptures.
This brings me to what I believe is the number one most important principle of Biblical research: believe what you read. One cannot set aside a clear verse of Scripture only because it contradicts a previously accepted doctrine and sanely believe he is going to learn more on the subject with further research. Biblical research is different than any other research endeavor in that there is a spiritual element to it. It starts with belief. The things of God are hidden to those who do not believe.
1 Corinthians 2: 14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
If you are approaching the Bible as a mere piece of literature, forget it. You will never understand it. It is the Word of Truth, and it will not be understood by those who deny what it says of itself.
2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
When we read the Word of Truth, we are to recognize it as such and believe what it says rather than try to make it say what we believe. Research that starts with the “answer” and seeks only a way to prove it, isn’t research; and it will not produce a right dividing of the Word of Truth.
God’s Word states that the prophecy of the Scripture is not of your own private interpretation.
2 Peter 1:20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private [idios: one's own] interpretation.
21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
“Prophecy” is a declaration by one who is speaking by the spirit of God. It is not necessarily about future events. All of God’s Word is prophecy. The meaning of prophecy is not subject to the private interpretation of the recipients. It means what God wants it to mean not whatever we might want it to mean. It doesn’t mean one thing to one person and something else to another. “What difference does it make as long as we each come away with something that is meaningful to us?” The difference is whether you have communication from God or do not.
Another basic principle for approaching God’s Word is: think and be reasonable. You can’t throw logic out the window just because you are reading the Bible. (One of the synonyms for “logic” is “sanity”.) Some of you, I’m sure have no idea why I am saying this. Others understand very well. You’ve recognized it many times.
I am not religious. I am a believer. Religion, generally speaking, is the man-invented outward form. It is what people come up with on their own to try to be spiritual. The more religious people are, the more willing they are to ignore reason. One cannot understand the Scriptures while choosing paths repugnant to reason. Is “the old man” referenced in Scriptures dead or must we constantly and diligently put him off? It can’t be both. Have we been made the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus or must we still do something to get cleansed of our unrighteousness? It is one or the other, not both.
Many years ago, I was doing my student teaching before getting my degree and secondary school teaching certificate. Among other classes, I had a 10th grade geometry class. There was a section on logical syllogisms: deductive reasoning with two premises and a conclusion. We investigated the criteria by which a conclusion in this setup may be said to be valid. Notice, I said valid, not necessarily true. The study was to determine what constituted valid reasoning. The truth of the conclusion was irrelevant. I may say for example that all dogs have three legs, and that Felix is a dog, and then conclude that therefore Felix has three legs. The reasoning for this conclusion from the given premises is valid. The students understood the concept. When test time came, they all earned nearly perfect scores. There was one question on the test, however, that every student missed. I had given them a series of syllogisms for them to determine in each case the validity of the conclusion from the given premises. One of them, however, though it was in precisely the same format as others, was quoted from the Bible. I gave them the reference chapter and verse to be sure they would know it was from the Bible. This was a public school, but all the students were of one variety of Christian background or another. Every single one of them totally forgot for a moment that he was taking a math test and wrote a few lines about what he believed about the subject, not noticing that he had not answered the test question. They understood the concept of the logic involved, but automatically blocked out that logic as soon as they knew they were dealing with something in the Bible. My students were not untypical of thinking that is all too common among Christians today.
If you cannot understand a doctrine, don’t just accept it on faith. This “accept it on faith” line begs the question: faith in who? It can only be faith in the person (or group) who is telling you the doctrine. It cannot be faith in God or His Word. You haven’t seen it in God’s Word, just heard it from the guy who is telling you to believe him whether he is making any sense or not. I believe what I can read and understand in God’s Word, not what people tell me I should accept on faith because it must be in there somewhere or it is something I would understand if I were smarter or more spiritual.
Another great principle in learning to understand God’s Word is: read it. I can see some of you rolling your eyes, but this is really not as obvious as you might think. We should read broad sections of God’s Word repeatedly, gathering the context and scope of the individual thoughts within. Relatively few people do this for the purpose of gaining understanding rather than just for a daily devotional. Some do, but many people are not even looking for how the whole picture fits together, just for aphorisms to put on a plaque or quote at the next church fellowship or otherwise use. Ignoring the context and the broader scope leads to misuse of the Scriptures. I sat in a church service once where the minister actually quoted Psalms 2:8 as the theme verse of his missionary sermon.
Psalms 2:8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
What’s wrong with that? Try reading the next verse. I guarantee that this record has nothing to do with missionary work.
Psalms 2: 9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Read the book of Romans, for example (a good place to start). When you are done, read it again, then again. After 40 or 50 times you are likely to have a pretty good handle on the overall presentation of the book without having to take anyone’s word for it. As you see for yourself the subject flow, you won’t need to have anyone else to tell you that, for example, Romans 1:18 isn’t talking about God’s displeasure with the misdeeds of believers.
Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
You will know for yourself what this is talking about. As I said above, Biblical research isn’t rocket science. God never intended for the study of His Word to be difficult. It requires a commitment, but not unusual ability.
The fundamentals of (1) believe (2) think, and (3) read are simple enough, but they must be accompanied by some “technical” information. When it comes to the ancient languages, a thorough knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew would be the best of course. (Knowing Aramaic would be good too.) Assuming, however, that you don’t already know these languages and you are not going to get them mastered any time soon, I recommend acquiring some computer software. I use Bible Works, but there are also a number of other products on the market that can show you quickly and easily all the pertinent language and search information. Perhaps a more thorough discussion of the available software and what might be of the most value to you should be reserved for a separate article. For now, however, I’ll make two recommendations that are free. Bible searches, lexical (dictionary) information, multiple English versions and more are available on line at www.blueletterbible.org. You don’t have to be a member or even register in.
Another excellent research tool is available at www.e-sword.net. (“The Sword of the Lord with an electronic edge.”) The free e-Sword program is comparable to the one I paid about $350 for. The original download is the basic program with the search engines and such. It includes the King James Version (with Strong’s numbers) and Strong’s lexicon. Then choose from a variety of add-ons. Choose as many or few as you want. There are some with price tags on them, but the list of free ones is very impressive. There are significantly more Bible versions, dictionaries, commentaries (even the Keil and Delitzch 10 volume set), and more “extras” than I have on my program. The author has provided an amazing service at no charge. He suggests that a donation would be nice. I agree. On the flip side, in my view, the most significant weakness of e-Sword is that it does not include the Greek or Hebrew parsing information. Maybe that will come later. It is a relatively new site, still being built up.
Figures of speech are an interesting part of God’s Word. The Bible is to be taken literally wherever possible, but when a passage or portion of it is not true to fact, it is a figure of speech. There are also figures of speech involving form. Perhaps, for example, a word is repeated to draw attention to it. There are many different kinds of such figures in the Scriptures. Understanding figures of speech and their applications will bring to light many records that would otherwise be not understood or only partially so. There is no more comprehensive or authoritative work on Biblical figures of speech than E. W. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. (See our bookstore for a link to where this can be purchased.) I could not find it on line, though a portion of it can be found at:
Idioms are sometimes classified as figures of speech and sometimes considered separately. They are words or phrases used in a way peculiar to a culture or group within the culture or sometimes even a particular individual. For example, when God’s Word states that Jesus opened his mouth and taught the people, what does it mean? Obviously, one must open his mouth to speak.
Matthew 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
“Opened his mouth” is an idiom. It means there was nothing held back. He opened his mouth and let the words flow out. His heart and soul were in it. It indicates full communication as is shown by the use of this idiom in Matthew 13.
Matthew 13: 35 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
A similar wording occurs in 2 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 6: 11 O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged.
I first heard the meaning of this idiom when I read it in someone else’s research article, but I believed what I had read when I saw from its uses in God’s Word that the given explanation was the only thing that made sense in each context.
The idiom also occurs in Ephesians.
Ephesians 6: 18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
19 And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel,
20 For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.
The ancient Hebrews did not leave us a dictionary detailing what each idiom meant. We can know only by examining each use in its context and identifying the common element.
Understanding the culture of the land and times of the Bible is also illuminating. What, for example, did the psalmist mean when he said he had become like a bottle in the smoke?
Psalms 119: 83 For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes.
This is the only occurrence of this phrase in the Bible, so we cannot check the context of other uses to see what the common element might be. A word study on “bottle” or “smoke” won’t help. The bottle was, of course, not a glass bottle. It was a goatskin prepared for the purpose of holding liquid. The word “smoke” just means “smoke”, and that doesn’t really get us anywhere in trying to understand the phrase. All we can gather from this context is that it was something bad.
The sight of a goatskin in the smoke was apparently a familiar one to people who lived in the culture of the psalmist. According to Bishop K.C. Pillai (whose books on ancient Eastern culture may be found through our bookstore), this is the explanation:
“This represents a man in a hopeless condition, in a tremendous crisis. The “bottle” was made of the skin of a goat turned inside out. It would carry 2-3 gallons of water. The poorer people hang the bottle from a pole in the ceiling of their mud hut. When the wife cooks food, the heat and smoke go to the hanging bottle. It becomes cracked, it leaks and is in a helpless condition.”
Bishop Pillai’s explanation is consistent with the context, but is he right? Probably. I have no reason to believe otherwise, but we have not gained this understanding directly from God’s Word. And so it is with all who have written on the culture of the land and times of the Bible. That precise culture no longer exists. These writers must base their conclusions on having studied artifacts and documents from those times (or in the case of Bishop Pillai, having lived in a similar culture). The classic works on this subject are scholarly, and in all likelihood they are correct the vast majority of the time, but there is some disagreement among them. The best course of action is to read the works of more than one author. (Refer to The Brown Bible bookstore for links to recommended works on Biblical culture.)
When studying God’s Word, one must also take into consideration that we have no originals. Various English versions of the New Testament were translated from critical Greek texts. (Roman Catholic Bibles were translated from Latin.) Critical Greek texts are put together from whatever ancient manuscripts were available at the time the work was done. Any given manuscript may have perhaps a single sentence or a number of chapters or more, but not likely the entire text of the New Testament. An editor compares these manuscripts to put together a complete text. For any given verse he might have hundreds of manuscripts to compare. If they are all in complete agreement, he has no decision to make. If there are variations, he must make a decision on which reading he will use. Different editors used different criteria by which to make these decisions. Obviously, if there are 492 manuscripts that are exactly the same and one that has one word with a slightly different spelling, an editor will conclude the one variant was caused by a scribe’s mistake. Not all decisions the editor must make are that easy. Even so, the degree of agreement among the manuscripts is very high.
The King James (or “Authorized”) Version was translated from the Stephens critical Greek text done in 1550 AD. Since that time, many more Greek manuscripts have been discovered, giving subsequent editors additional evidence unavailable to Stephens. George Ricker Berry’s “The Interlinear Greek New Testament” (first published by Zondervan Publishing House in 1958) gives the Stephens text with an English translation under each word. It also shows where and how each of the following critical Greeks texts varied from Stephens:
Tischendorf, Eighth Edition, 1865-1872
This is a valuable research tool (available through our bookstore). When these editors (maybe other than Elzevir, 1624) depart from Stephens and are in agreement with each other, it is a clear indication that they are basing their decisions on manuscript evidence unavailable to Stephens in 1550.
One might think from this that more modern English versions would be more accurate than the King James Version. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true. It could have been true, if the translators and editors of these versions had been concerned only with providing a translation completely true to the original text, but, alas, that was not always the only criterion. I’ll give you an example. Here is 1 John 5:13 from the King James Version, translated from Stephens.
1 John 5: 13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. [KJV]
All of the above editors (except Elizevir, 1624) agree (as do more modern Greek scholars) that the words near the beginning of the verse, “that believe on the name of the son of God” are translated from Greek words not in the original texts. They unanimously make this same call on the words, “and that ye may” near the end of the verse, though there is disagreement as to whether these last words should have been, [ye] believers or [you] who believe. The New American Bible appropriately translates this verse from what is now known to be the weight of the manuscript evidence as follows:
1 John 5:13 I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God. [NAB]
The KJVstates that the 1 John record is addressed to people who believe on the name of the Son of God. The NAB indicates that it addresses people who believe and people who do not, stating that those who believe have eternal life. It is apparent from looking at the critical Greek texts that the NAB is translated from the best textual evidence. The error in the King James Version is honest. They were translating from the Stephens text. It was what they had available at the time. One has to ask, however, why this error was carried on in the New International Version:
1 John 5: 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. [NIV]
I don’t mean to be picking just on the NIV. They are not the only ones who did this, but why? I can think of no other reason than a willingness to stick with generations of tradition rather than reflect the best texts.
There are several reasons why I use the King James Version as my standard English Bible (though I also check other versions as well as the Greek and Hebrew and occasionally Aramaic). One reason is the italicized words. Italics in the KJV indicate words that were supplied. They were not translated from a Greek or Hebrew word. Usually, they are supplied appropriately to improve the readability of the translation and they do not change the meaning of the text. Some times, however, the supplied words change the meaning and are an inappropriate addition. All other translations do this, but they do not tell you which words were supplied. I like to know what actually comes from the Greek or Hebrew text and what does not. Another advantage of the KJV is that it translates idioms or other expressions as they appear in the “original” texts, not as what they think the expressions mean. For example,
Romans 6: 6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. [KJV]
The word translated “man” is anthropos and it means man or a human being whether male or female. A number of modern versions have “our old self”. Some have “our old nature”. It depends on what they think “our old man” means. I don’t care what they think it means. I want to read what the text says.
The King James Version is also very good in its consistency. There is often not an absolute equivalence between a given Greek (or Hebrew) word and any English word. We may not have a word that means exactly the same thing as the Greek or Hebrew word, so it is not appropriate to always translate the word with the same English word in each context. Consistency, however, as much as possible, is helpful to the student of Go’s Word. The KJV is impressively consistent in this regard. It is a work of precision.
So there you have it, some introductory thoughts and suggestions as pertaining to Biblical research; my sincere compliments to you who have read this. It shows you really care about learning God’s Word for yourself. I thank God for you. Thank you. (This is only an introduction. More articles will follow that will expand on various topics above.)