Bill Pringle - Bill@BillPringle

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Scripture Study - Original Language Studies


It all began with Charlie Muldowney. Charlie knew the scriptures extremely well. He was teaching a scripture study group that was studying Isaiah at the time, a book I enjoyed reading. He would always have an interesting story to tell about some seemingly ordinary scripture passage. It was very frustrating at first. No matter how carefully I read the assignment, Charlie would always bring out some point that I had completely missed or glossed over.

Finally, it occurred to me that I was reading the Bible, while Charlie was studying it. He would look up the footnotes and cross references. He would read other materials about the Bible and biblical times. He would take one subject and look up all the references to related words to see what the scriptures said. But I was too impatient. I measured my studies by how many times I read the scriptures cover to cover. Charlie planted the seed, however. He also gave me my first Bible reference book: a copy of Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible, a book I would not appreciate until years later.

The next piece of the puzzle dropped into place when our daughter Denise brought home one of those dreaded fund-raising forms that schools inflict upon parents. According to the theory, the children scour their neighborhoods selling something or other to raise money for their school or class. The problem with this theory is that no matter which direction your child goes, several of his or her classmates have already been there, and your child returns home heartbroken. To compensate, the parent(s) take the list to work and attempt to obtain sympathy and (hopefully) a few orders.

What usually happens in our house is that my wife and I end up buying lots of whatever it is she is selling. This particular year it was magazines. As we looked through the list trying to find something we might want to read, we came across the title, "Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR)". With a combination of curiosity and desperation, I checked the appropriate box. I didn't realize at the time the significance of that choice.

As I read each issue of BAR, I found myself getting more and more interested in learning about how the people lived during biblical times. I was learning the environment in which the Bible was written, and it was making many passages spring to life. And there was this advertisement for a book that I keep seeing: "Read the word of God in the original language."

Several people have told me that there are three fields that are so closely related that anyone good at one would be good at the other two. These fields are math, music, and languages. Now, I love math. I have always loved math, and am pretty good at it. I also love music, but have no known musical talent. Languages have never come easy to me. I guess I am the exception to the rule. But I was enticed by the ad and finally ordered the book from EKS Publishing Company, thinking that it wouldn't really help. But it did.

The book was excellent. The lessons progressed in a comfortable fashion, and before I knew it, I could actually read Hebrew. Now, I cannot say that I know Hebrew very well. I have forgotten much of it, but I can usually sound out the words, and even recognize a few. This is more my fault than that of the book. Nevertheless, it motivated me to order all kinds of reference books: concordances, lexicons, dictionaries, etc. Finally, all the pieces of the puzzle were in place.

I had fallen into a detective story. The scriptures were the clues, and I began a quest to unlock what lay behind them. When I was trying to understand a scripture passage, I would compare different translations. When I found discrepancies, I would go back to the original language and try to determine how the different translators reached their conclusions. To understand more about what a particular Hebrew or Greek word meant, I would look up how else it was translated and how it was used. This was exciting! I was actually studying the scriptures! In a moment of exuberance, I set a seemingly impossible goal: to read the entire Bible in the original language. It took me quite while to finish that goal, but the experience was well worth the effort.

Before presenting what I have learned, let me explain some of the tools I have used to study the scriptures. Then I will discuss how I go about my own personal scripture study.

I'm going to talk about books. (You remember books, don't you? They are made out of paper. :^) Seriously, you can now get computer programs to help you study the Bible. They are very handy if you want to find a verse with several words in it. Be careful, however, not all programs are the same. Also, you can get yourself in trouble if you trust a program too much. I almost lost all of my notes when I upgraded QuickVerse on my machine. Fortunately, I was able to write a program to extract my notes and put them into a form I could then work with. If you are a programmer and feel lucky, take a chance; otherwise, be careful. But even if you use a computer program, these books will be very handy. If you can get a package that includes them, that would be great.

I find that the most useful reference book is an exhaustive concordance for the Bible. There are two that I use: Strong's and Young's. They both contain every word in the Bible, but are arranged differently. Depending on what you are trying to do, one may be more useful than the other. I use both extensively. Both are organized alphabetically by English words. After each word is an entry for every time that word appears in the Bible. An entry consists of the book, chapter, and verse, plus an excerpt of that verse, to show the word in context.

Strong's contains every English word in alphabetical order, and then every verse in the order it appears in the Bible. Next to each verse is the number which corresponds to that word (each Hebrew and Greek word used in the Bible was assigned a unique number by Strong.) This number is used in other reference books, which we will discuss later. In the back of Strong's is a numerical list of all the Hebrew and Greek words with a short definition of each.

Young's also has every word in alphabetical order, but it often combines singular and plural, past and present forms of the same word. Within each English word, they are grouped according to the original Hebrew or Greek word, which is transliterated phonetically. Thus, every verse where a Hebrew or Greek word is translated the same way is grouped together. In the back of Young's is an alphabetical list of the transliterated words, all the translations of that word, and how often it is translated each way. Some editions of Young's include the Strong's number as well.

As you can imagine, Strong's is very good if you have a particular verse in mind, but don't remember exactly where it is, you would look up one of the words in the verse and scan the list for the verse you want. Young's is very good if you want to see the different shades of meaning for a Hebrew or Greek word because you can easily see how else it is translated and used. (This is something that most computer programs can't do.)

Another useful reference tool is a lexicon. A lexicon contains definitions for every Hebrew or Greek word used in the Bible. The lexicons I use are the Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew- Aramaic Lexicon (BDB), and Thayer's Greek Lexicon. Both have editions that are keyed to the numbers from Strong's Concordance. Either the entries should be in numerical order, or an index should be provided so that you can look a word up by the Strong number.

To illustrate how these books can be used together, let us study the word "repent." If you have any of these reference books, you can look the words up yourself; otherwise, you can follow along to see how the process is done.

Let's look up "repent" in Strong's Concordance. We find that in most cases, the Hebrew word is number 5162 (nacham), while 7725 (shub) is used twice. The Greek word is 3340 (metanoeo), except for two cases of 3338 (metamelomai).

In the back of Young's Concordance, we find that metamelomai is translated repent five times, and "repent one's self" once. Metanoeo is translated repent all 34 times it appears. Nacham, on the other hand, is translated as comfort 41 times, repent 38 times, variations of comfort 25 times, and variations of repent three times. Shub is usually translated return again (369 times), plus other variances such as turn back, come again, go back, etc. Only three times is it translated as a form of repent.

Going to Thayer's Lexicon, we find that the word metanoeo comes from the root "to turn back," implying a reversal of direction or action. In the BDB Lexicon we see that nacham means "to sigh or breathe heavy," implying giving comfort to or easing the burden of someone. Both are translated into English as "repent," even though they mean different things. The Hebrew shub is closer to the Greek word metanoeo, whereas nacham implies a comforting rather than a restoration or reversal.

Therefore, when the Bible says that the Lord "repented" the evil that he was going to do, it is not saying that God was "repenting" or reversing his original thought in the same way as the Greek word. It is saying that God decided to ease the original burden. The difference may be subtle, but it is significant.

If you are interested in learning more about the original languages, then an Interlinear Bible would be very useful. An Interlinear Bible has the original text with the equivalent English word or phrase above or below the Hebrew or Greek word. Often, the interlinear translation is literal, and some standard translation (e.g. KJV or NIV) is given in a parallel column. Some Interlinear Bibles are also coded to Strong's, with the Strong number next to each word. This is the best type to get, since it is easier look up the meaning of a word. You don't have to be able to read the language to use one, but it helps if you learn the alphabet and maybe even how to pronounce some of the words.

Interlinear Bibles help you get a feel for the language: the idioms, phrasing, etc. You can also see the many puns and other word plays that you can't get using translations alone. More importantly, you will recognize some of the passages that are difficult to translate. Certain portions of the original text are missing or make no sense literally. Some words appear only once in the entire bible, and are not known in any outside sources. This makes translating that particular word very difficult, if not impossible. Most Bible translations don't identify those passages, they just give you their best guess without telling you that it is guess. I heartily recommend The New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament) called "Tanak" (The Hebrew Bible is divided into the Torah ("Law"), The Prophets ("Nevethin"), and the Writers ("Kethubin"), which is where "Tanak" comes from. When you compare different translations of these passages, you might find significant differences.

Differences in translations can be due to several factors: sometimes it is a difficult passage to translate; other times it is because they are using different source documents. There are a number of old manuscripts of the scriptures. Differences exist between them. Some translations are based on a single document, while others rely on several versions. There are a number of books that will provide you with a good understanding of all the different versions of the Bible and its translations. Besides being very interesting, this knowledge helps you understand why some translations are so different from others.

When I study scriptures, I read a literal interlinear translation, and compare it with the KJV version. If there is a discrepancy, or if I am curious about some particular word or phrase, I will look up the relevant words in a lexicon. I then compare other translations. Finally, I summarize what I have learned in the margins of my Bible. As you can see, I have also gone back and compiled and expanded some of these notes onto my PC. I start each study session with a prayer. I ask the Lord to help me in my studies. I ask to be shown those things that I should learn at this time. In going back to compile these notes, I found additional information. I fully expect to find more each time I do this.

Many other books can be used: Dictionaries, Word Studies, and even Commentaries. A good reference book will always include references to the Bible text so that you will be able to verify what is being presented.

If you have a personal computer, there are a number of programs that can help you in your studies. There are a number of scripture study programs that contain the entire bible. Many of these programs include several translations, the orginal Hebrew and Greek, and even sermons, commentaries, etc. Find one that matches your needs (spiritual and financial).

I will pass on to you the advice Charlie Muldowney gave to me about Commentaries: Commentaries usually give you one person's opinion. You should not be afraid to hold a different opinion. In fact, you should probably wait until you have formed an opinion before you read a Commentary. If you read one, you should probably read several.

I have often found that when some article appears in BAR which is written as if there is no other possible interpretation, in the next issue some other scholar disputes the original interpretation. In fact, BAR sometimes deliberately publishes two articles presenting opposing views in the same issue, to provide the readers with both sides of the matter.

BAR now has a sister publication "Bible Review (BR)." This magazine deals with the text of the Bible. I heartily recommend both BAR and BR. Remember however, that these articles are written by scholars who do not always accept the current text as the inerrant word of God. Many consider certain portions to be in error, or to have been modified by an editor. Many different ideas and beliefs are represented in the articles. Some people cancel their subscription because they disagree with some opinion expressed in an article. If you cannot tolerate hearing other people's opinions or views, then these magazines may not be for you. And that would be a pity.

Once again, your goal should be to discover what the scriptures mean to you at this particular point in your life. What they mean to others may be interesting, but not your primary goal. We should all be tolerant of how others view the scriptures. We may not agree with them now, but we might agree with them later.

What follows are some of the things that I have learned when studying the scriptures. I try not to present conclusions or interpretations, but only the facts as I see them. Interpretations and opinions are identified as such. Unless stated otherwise, the information given came from the reference books listed above, mainly Strong's, Young's, BDB, and Thayer's. I accept full responsibilities for any errors. The discussions are very detailed in the beginning to illustrate how much there is to uncover. Later, only the major things are pointed out. You might want to do your own research on certain words or phrases that have special significance to you.

There is so much more to learn about the scriptures; this is just a beginning. There are many books and articles that will go into a discussion of the background of certain passages, customs, and traditions. The more you read, the more the scriptures will come to life. Remember through it all, however, that you are looking for what the scriptures mean to you. While it is useful to learn what others think, the final evaluation belongs to you. Don't let someone else tell you what they mean. I am not trying to show you the right way to study; I don't think such a thing exists. Each person has a different way of learning, and so each person has to develop his or her own way of studying. What I will show you is how I am currently studying.

Don't believe anything I tell you. Preface each sentence with "According to what I have learned so far ..." Verify what I say. Try to find where I am wrong. You will learn more that way, and it will mean more to you. If you find any errors, let me know. I am still learning, and hope to continue to do so. It is my hope that you decide to try a similar study method. It can be done, and you don't have to learn any languages to do it. It just takes desire, time, and patience. There are many reference books at your disposal to help you. And now, on with the quest!

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