Bible Reading 101

Suggestions from four Bible scholars for meaningful Bible study

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The Word of God is changing people and communities around the world, and yet research indicates that the time followers spend daily – and weekly – reading the Bible is decreasing. The data about biblical illiteracy in U.S. churches is old but bear repeating: Less than half of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week, and one in five say they never read it, according to a 2012 LifeWay Research survey. How can we do better with our own personal Bible study? To help answer this question and to encourage us to prioritize Bible reading, the Christian Leader asked several of our Bible scholars for their advice on studying the Bible.

CL: Is there a Bible study approach or plan that you recommend?

Rick Bartlett: Whatever works. Seriously, there are a lot of good plans and strategies to choose from but what’s important is that people do something to regularly engage in the Word. This advice from Youth Specialties founder Mike Yaconelli has stuck with me: “Something is better than nothing.”

Wendell Loewen: When I prepare for a sermon I use an inductive Bible study approach that we teach at Tabor. It involves word studies, outlining the text and referring to commentaries. However, for my personal Bible study I tend to follow the SOAP model. The acronym stands for Scripture, observation, application and prayer.  

Melanie Howard: To invoke the title of the well-known Mennonite cookbook, “more with less” is usually a good approach to biblical texts. I have friends who swear by “read the Bible in a year” approaches, but I worry that such plans tend to encourage a view of this sacred text as an unhealthy snack that is wolfed down as quickly as possible rather than as an exquisite meal in which every bite deserves to be rolled around your tongue over and over and savored until the very last morsel has been enjoyed. Finding a single chapter or book of the Bible to explore again and again can provide a better long-term relationship with Scripture and can encourage a deep and meaningful understanding of God’s Word for the church today.

Brian Ross: We can study and study the Bible and yet keep ourselves rather separate from the content that we are learning. Instead, I want studying Scripture to be an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Most mornings I read a fairly large section of the Bible, possibly a whole chapter and at least half of one. Then I prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to me, within the big picture, what this Scripture means for human life.

Once I discern a particular theme or an image, I prayerfully mash it up with various aspects of my own life, looking for what surprises, disturbs or challenges my assumptions. Specifically, I mashup the biblical theme or image with:

  • the details of my personal life at the moment
  • my relationship with my wife and children
  • my relationship with extended family
  • someone I know that is suffering
  • someone I know who is not a Christian
  • my career/ministry
  • my home church
  • the culture and ways of my neighborhood
  • the culture and ways of our nation
  • a poor and impoverished person
  • the person of Jesus Christ

When I do this, I not only feel like I am learning new things, but that I am having a real encounter with God though the biblical text.

CL: When studying the Bible, should I use more than one Bible translation? Why?

Rick Bartlett: I always like to use two or more different translations when I’m studying. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, when I use a translation that I read all the time, I find I skim the text rather than deeply read it. My memory kicks in and I complete the familiar passage in my head rather than really reading what the text is saying. Using a different translation helps stop that from happening.

The second reason I use multiple translations is because each version has a certain set of parameters the translators had to work with and knowing this can provide different insights.

I learned this from my father-in-law, Elmer Martens, who served on a number translation teams. One example he gave: When he was working on translating one version, the team was given a list of words at a fourth-grade level to use and everything had to fit into that list. This wasn’t for a children’s Bible but for one on the market that is popular today. He struggled at times to fit the thought and flow of the text into the vocabulary list. Every version has a similar story.

Brian Ross: Using more than one translation of the Bible, for in-depth study, can be quite helpful. Translation from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek (or any other language) into English is not an exact science. Every language has a bit of a culture, orientation or worldview that never quite perfectly fits within another language. Reading different Bible translations is a quick and easy way to get a sense of the possible different meanings of the original biblical language into contemporary English. However, so few people give attention to serious biblical study, I am more than thrilled if anyone simply spends time reading any translation of the Bible!

Wendell Loewen: If one doesn’t have immediate access to Bible study reference tools, I think it’s a good idea to use more than one translation. Translations are, in a sense, mini commentaries. Often different translations render particular words in a variety of ways. So, I’ve found it helpful to compare the variety of word choices to help give the text fuller meaning.  

Melanie Howard: Absolutely! While there is no real substitute for reading the Bible in the languages in which it was composed, reading the Bible in multiple translations can help to bring out some of the nuances that may be present in the original language that cannot be adequately conveyed in English. Many words in Hebrew or Greek have rich clouds of possibility for translation in English.

Think of the English term “love.” I can say that I love ice cream or that I love my mother. While the word “love” is the same in both phrases, I expect that a native English speaker will understand that when speaking about my feelings toward ice cream, I am drawing on one meaning of “love,” but when I am describing my affection for my mother, I am working with a different nuance of that word.

The same is true in Hebrew and Greek. A single word can have several different possibilities for English equivalents, and since most Bible translators will only choose one of these, we cannot always get the full picture of what a biblical author may be trying to say. Reading more than one translation can help to overcome this deficit.

CL: What translation(s) do you personally use for Bible study and why?

Rick Bartlett: I switch around quite a bit. Currently I use the New International Version (NIV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the New Living Translation (NLT). When I’ve done my study and interpretation of a text, I like to read The Message to see what this paraphrase has to say on the passage.

Brian Ross: When preparing a sermon, I often use the NIV because it is a very familiar, easy to read translation, that many contemporary churches use for public worship. In my personal times of Bible reading, I also use The Message or David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament.

 Wendell Loewen: I use the New Living Translation a lot. It’s a very readable alternative to some of the other more well-known translations. Elmer Martens, Rick’s father-in-law, served on its translation committee.  

 Melanie Howard: I tend to use the New Revised Standard Version as my go-to translation. There is always a balance between trying to convey the biblical text as literally as possible while also making it as readable as possible. The NRSV tends to approach that balance in a way that seems faithful to the original language while not being overly wooden. As a woman, I appreciate the NRSV’s inclusive language approach.

 CL: What apps or online resources have you found that can enhance Bible study?

Rick Bartlett: I like the Olive Tree Bible app for the iPhone. Unlike many other apps, the Bible is downloaded onto my phone. Because I travel internationally, I know I always have a Bible with me even if I don’t have cell service. The app allows me to make notes, look up words in Greek or Hebrew and to use other reference materials.

Wendell Loewen: On my computer I use BibleGateway.com for its accessibility and all the translations it carries. On my phone or tablet I prefer the YouVersion app. I particularly enjoy the “compare” feature in which I can highlight a verse and then compare how that verse is rendered in various translations.

Melanie Howard: There are a number of websites to which I often direct my students when I am encouraging them to explore biblical texts.

As a basic access to the Bible in several English translations and some non-English languages as well, biblegateway.com provides a user-friendly interface to read large chunks of the Bible on a single webpage.

When I am looking to compare several English translations of a particular verse quickly and easily, I find biblehub.com to be a helpful tool for pulling up several versions side-by-side.

Although it takes a bit of practice to discover how best to use its many resources, blueletterbible.com also provides some helpful resources, especially in terms of gaining at least a cursory understanding of some of terms in the original languages.

Some websites will have links to Bible commentaries. If you can find it for free on the Internet, there’s probably a reason. A little bit of research will quickly reveal that the websites can offer these resources for free because these works were originally published over 300 years ago and have long since gone out of print!

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s, our understanding of biblical texts has grown exponentially, and older publications lack the important nuance that more recent commentaries can provide based on such discoveries. If you absolutely must use online commentaries, Google books provides at least “preview” views of several reputable commentary series such as Interpretation, Abingdon Old Testament/New Testament Commentaries, Anchor Bible, Old Testament Library/New Testament Library, New International Greek Testament Commentaries and Sacra Pagina, among others. Any of these more recent commentary series would be a better choice than what you are likely to turn up by doing a simple internet search for “free Bible commentary online” or the like.

 CL: What kind of resources/tools (reference or study Bibles, commentaries, etc.) do you recommend for personal Bible study?

Rick Bartlett: Lately I’ve been loving the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. It’s nice to use for personal study, and I’ve been amazed at how meaningful the text becomes when I understand what is going on at the time. I’ve said for years that context is critical when looking at the Bible: context for a specific verse, a book of the Bible, or the wider cultural context at the time the passage was written. This study Bible provides all that in an easy to follow format.

Wendell Loewen: I recommend a good study Bible in your preferred translation. The book introductions and notes below the text are very helpful. Beyond that, I would recommend the Believer’s Church Bible Commentary Series, Interpretation Commentary Series and the NIV Application Commentary Series. Some of the commentaries found online for free tend to be somewhat dated.  

Melanie Howard: A study Bible that keeps the biblical text itself central is always a good choice. The Harper Collins Study Bible and the New Oxford Annotated Bible are good options in that regard.

It is important to ask what you want to get out a Bible study tool. Are you looking for something that can help provide more historical context? Make connections with other biblical text? Offer suggestions for modern application of biblical texts? There is a myriad of Bible study resources available, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Your goals for studying the Bible should affect the kinds of questions you ask when choosing resources.

So, for instance, if you are interested in how Paul’s letters might have emulated ancient Greek rhetorical practices, you should probably look for sources written by a credible scholar with historical training who has published through a rigorous peer-reviewed process. If, however, you are interested in finding biblically-based encouragement for parenting or daily devotional thoughts, the credentials of a given author may be a less important issue.

Brian Ross: After years and years of using (and purchasing) academic resources for biblical study, I use very few anymore. However, two small commentaries that I have found invaluable are The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament and The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. These two volumes make a very handy and compact resource that illuminate specific words, phrases and concepts within the biblical text which had a specific meaning to people within the original cultures in which they were written. It is amazing how much insight is offered up in these two volumes.

CL: How do I choose which Bible translation to buy? What should I consider?

Brian Ross: Honestly, any translation that you would actually read on a regular basis is the one that you should purchase. Every translation has its strengths and weaknesses (again, translation is not an exact science) and so I would not get hung up on what is the “right” or “best” Bible translation. Any version that you are motivated to read regularly is a good one.

Rick Bartlett: This is a difficult decision today with so many options. I was talking recently with a friend who works for Wycliffe Bible Translators and he pointed out something I had not considered before. He stated that one of the reasons for many different translations comes down to copyright. Notice how each of the major Christian publishers has their own version, which makes marketing and such work. It is important to consider the theological perspective of the publishing house translating the version chosen. Each translation has an “angle” and a bit of research will help uncover where it is coming from.

I recommend choosing a translation that you find easy to read. The New Living Translation is one I often encourage people to check out. It is one of the translations that Elmer worked on, and we used to tell our kids, “Grandpa wrote the Bible.” (I imagine the kids will need counseling in the future.)

Wendell Loewen: Translations find their place on a spectrum from word-for-word (literal) to idea-for-idea (dynamic). I think most thoughtful Christians would want a translation that was as faithful to the original language as possible. However, those may not be very readable in our contemporary English. Often there is something, as they say, “lost in translation.” So, finding the right balance between the two is important. These days, it seems as though one’s translation has become a theological statement or sorts. Since few of us are highly trained in biblical languages, it can become about trusting those who are doing the translation.

Melanie Howard: Friends and students will sometimes ask me, “What’s the best Bible translation?” My favorite answer to this question is, “All of them!” In truth, reading the Bible in several translations can help to provide the fullest picture of what is going on in a given text. However, if you are simply looking for an every-day, go-to Bible translation for more casual reference, it is important to ask yourself what you want that translation to do for you.

Are you hoping to get as close as possible to the original language while still reading in English? Or, are you hoping to use something that will convey the larger ideas in more readable prose?

Different theories of translation approach the task of translation differently. If you are hoping for a more word-for-word approach to translation that tries to reproduce the original languages as closely as possible into English, translations like the New American Standard Bible, English Standard Version and Revised Standard Version are good choices.

If, on the other hand, you care less about proximity to original languages and more about the readability of the text, translations like the New Living Translation, New International Reader’s Version or Contemporary English Version may be good choices.

Of course, there are also a whole host of translations that try to bridge the gap between both approaches. So, options like the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version and New Century Version fall somewhere in the middle.

 CL: What’s the difference between a paraphrase and a translation?

Rick Bartlett: A translation begins in the original language and translates into a new language, Greek to English, German, French, etc. A paraphrase starts and ends in the same language.

Wendell Loewen: In short, the way I like to describe the difference has to do with the level of strictness in the translation process as well as who is and how many people are doing the translating. The hard work of a committee of biblical scholars would produce a translation. On the other hand, the poetic or elegant expressions of an individual would be considered a paraphrase. There’s more to it than that, but that’s my short answer.

Melanie Howard: If this were my classroom, I could give a whole lecture in response to this question! Let me try to keep things short, though.

The difference between a paraphrase and a translation is kind of like the difference between texting and video-calling someone. A text message comes in handy as a quick and effective way for one person to share ideas with another. A smiley face emoji can quickly tell me that you’re happy.

However, if I want to have the closest sense of what you are actually trying to communicate with me, a video-call is far more effective. I can hear your tone of voice, listen to you laugh, see the corners of your eyes crinkle when you smile and watch you nod in agreement. While neither a text message or a video-call will let me experience you live and in-person, the video-call will give me more information to take into consideration than the text message alone.

A paraphrase and a translation are similar. In neither case can I get back to a biblical author’s mind. However, I can try to access that information in different ways. A paraphrase can be an efficient way of conveying larger ideas in a way that is accessible and easy to understand (think: a smiley-face emoji).

If I want more depth, though, an emoji will probably not give me as much information as I would want. So, a translation will aim to convey more of the information that is encoded in the word-choice and grammatical constructions that a given author uses. Just like text messages and video-calls, there can be a time and place for both paraphrases and translations depending on the kind of experience that you hope to have with the biblical text.

 CL: Highlight a lesser-known or recent version of the Bible of particular note.

Rick Bartlett: The Contemporary English version from the United Kingdom is designed to be read aloud. The format and layout make it easy to read in worship.

Wendell Loewen: The New Living Translation, for the reasons I gave earlier.

Melanie Howard: I imagine that this question was hoping for a far more serious and scholarly answer than what I’m about to give. Nonetheless, two of my favorite recent versions of the Bible are “The Brick Testament” (www.thebricktestament.com) and “The Action Bible” (www.theactionbible.com).

Both aim to make the biblical message accessible especially to a younger and more visually-oriented audience by making use of Legos (in “The Brick Testament”) or comic book design (in “The Action Bible”). While these more light-hearted approaches to encountering the biblical text could seem a bit shocking at first, I think that they can also help us to recognize the places in this holy text that could be inviting us to laugh, play and enjoy the Word of God.

Brian Ross: I recently began reading through the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. It is certainly an acquired taste and is not for everyone. However, Hart is a real master of the Greek language and Greco-Roman culture and has produced a literal translation which is quite different than most others currently on the market. I am not a Greek scholar, and I cannot personally discern the quality of his translation, but I am finding very different angles on biblical texts than I have previously. This alone leaves me fascinated with his translation.

CL: Do you have a comment about studying the Bible that addresses an issue not covered by these questions?

Rick Bartlett: I encourage journaling alongside prayer, reading and study. God’s people are reminded numerous times in the Bible to “remember” what he had done. Journaling is a great way to keep a record of ways that God speaks, thoughts that come from reading and prayers for yourself or others. It’s an essential part of my routine.

Melanie Howard: Studying the Bible is like playing the piano. It is open to anyone, but it also rewards hard work and effort. As a young child, I could bang my fists on a piano keyboard and produce sound. In that sense, I was a “pianist.” However, if I would have ever desired to play Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto Number 3,” I would have had to devote hours and hours of practice to the task—and even then, may not have succeeded. Studying the Bible is similar. Everyone can read and study the Bible. However, getting the most out of this rich and sacred book takes a lifetime of delightful and rewarding work.

Brian Ross: If it is true that human beings are made in the image of God and that the church is the body of Christ, then part of how I see and understand Jesus is how he shows up through other people. There are so many new things about who our Lord is and how he is working in the world, that I will only learn by listening to how people (who are very different from me) read and interpret the Bible. Bible study should never remain a solitary pursuit!

Rick Bartlett is director of theological education and assistant professor of ministry at Tabor College. He is a graduate of Fresno Pacific University, MB Biblical Seminar and George Fox Evangelical Seminary. He has been a senior pastor, youth pastor, camp director and dean of students and was the short-term missions coordinator for British Youth for Christ.

Wendell Loewen is professor of youth, church and culture at Tabor College and is the executive director of Faith Front. He is a graduate of Fresno Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a former youth pastor and was the Southern District Conference youth minister.

Melanie Howard is assistant professor of biblical and religious studies at Fresno Pacific University. She is a graduate of Messiah College, the University of Notre Dame and Princeton Theological Seminary. She says God called her to a ministry of teaching when she was 16 years old.

Brian Ross is assistant professor of pastoral ministries at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster Bible College Graduate School and George Fox University.  

Interview by Connie Faber  

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Connie Faber
Editor
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law and one son-in-law. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.

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