There are more Bible study tools available to us today than ever before. But did you know that the Bible itself can be the most important study tool?
What is a biblical manuscript?
Manuscripts (with regard to Bible translations) are the Greek and Hebrew documents used as the basis of a Bible translation. The two major Greek manuscript types are known as Alexandrian and Byzantine, and each has subtle (but important) differences.
The Bible is not just for reading—it’s for studying. It’s been called the most read yet least understood book. This is due, in part, to a lack of awareness of how to use it as a study tool. Please do not underestimate how this can enrich your understanding of the Bible.
Below are three fundamental types of Bible study tools focused on the Bible itself:
- Different Bible versions.
- Bible concordances.
- Being aware of the underlying New Testament Greek manuscripts of Bible versions.
Different Bible versions
Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of different versions of the Bible? Some versions of the Bible are called word-for-word (or “formal equivalence”) translations due to the effort to accurately translate meanings of individual words. Other translations, that will be considered later, emphasize concepts over individual words.
What is a “word-for-word” Bible translation?
A word-for-word translation (such as the New King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version) aims to translate each word from the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible as accurately as possible.
Below are some word-for-word translations:
- King James Version (KJV).
- New King James Version (NKJV).
- English Standard Version (ESV).
- New American Bible (NAB).
- New American Standard Bible (NASB).
- Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
- Young’s Literal Translation (YLT).
Overall, word-for-word Bibles are most beneficial for word studies that can unlock a deeper meaning of a passage. The default translation for this website and other material from the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, is the New King James Version, unless noted otherwise. This translation uses more modern language than its predecessor, the King James Version.
What is a “thought-for-thought” Bible translation?
A thought-for-thought translation (such as the Good News Translation) aims to translate the intended meanings of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (rather than each individual word). These translations are more susceptible to mistranslations due to bias or misunderstandings.
In contrast to word-for-word translations, other versions of the Bible are called thought-for-thought (or “dynamic equivalence”) translations, where translators focus more on capturing meanings of whole sentences. Consequently, words are added if they’re deemed to better reflect the intended thought in a passage.
Below are some thought-for-thought Bibles:
- New International Version (NIV).
- New English Translation (NET).
- New Living Translation (NLT).
- Good News Translation (GNT).
- Contemporary English Version (CEV).
Thought-for-thought Bibles have become very popular in recent years, often by those who find them to be more user-friendly. But if a thought behind a passage is misunderstood, then these Bibles can lead to more personal interpretations and, therefore, misrepresentations of Scripture. This is especially true for paraphrase Bibles (for example, the Message Bible), which have even looser translation parameters than typical thought-for-thought Bibles.
Using Bible concordances
Ever wonder where a word is in the Bible or how often a word is used? This is where a concordance enters the equation. A concordance is an “index of words used by an author” (Encarta Dictionary). It’s probably the most common Bible study tool, outside of a Bible version itself.
The most well-known one is Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, which also assigns a number to each word (commonly recognized by other word study sources). One of the benefits of Strong’s Concordance is that it typically provides the pronunciation (or phonetic spelling) of the Hebrew or Greek word. Additionally, it spells the Hebrew or Greek word in English (a.k.a. transliteration). Another concordance that does this is Englishman’s Concordance. Strong’s also provides root words, enabling one to trace the origins of a word.
To demonstrate the benefits of a concordance, let’s consider Acts 12:4:
“And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people” (KJV).
Strong’s Concordance indicates that the Greek word for “Easter” is pascha (#3957), which is pronounced, “pas'-khah.” And it refers to “Passover.” All other places this word is used it is translated Passover. Therefore, the correct word for Acts 12:4 is also “Passover.” This is the rendering in the NKJV and most translations (whether word-for-word or thought-for-thought). If you would like to conveniently confirm this information, an online concordance is available at http://concordances.org/strongs/greek/3957.htm.
Being aware of the underlying New Testament Greek manuscripts
A manuscript can be defined as a “handwritten book” or an “author’s original text” (Encarta Dictionary). Since the authors’ original texts of the New Testament no longer exist, the Greek manuscripts around today are copies of the original words of the New Testament authors preserved by scribes.
The manuscripts used by the New King James Version and King James Version are called the Received Text. Many who prefer these manuscripts note that they are derived from manuscripts that were carefully copied and preserved. They are part of a large group of manuscripts known as the Byzantine text type, which comprise about 95 percent of all ancient Greek manuscripts. The Received Text is very similar to the Majority Text, which was made by comparing this large group of Byzantine manuscripts.
On the other hand, most recent translations (e.g. NIV, NLT) use the Alexandrian manuscripts (from Egypt). Some prefer these because these few copies are dated much earlier than the Majority manuscripts. But there have been many questions regarding the accuracy of the Alexandrian manuscripts.
Most of the information in these different manuscript families is the same. Some argue that few, if any, of the differences are doctrinal in nature. Nevertheless, the manuscripts used do impact the words that we read in our Bibles. Consider the close of the prayer outline in Matthew 6:13:
- (NKJV) “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
- (NIV) “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
- (Message) “Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.”
The last sentence of the NKJV (“For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen”) is omitted from the Alexandrian manuscripts. Therefore it’s omitted from some recent translations, whether word-for-word or thought-for-thought. And the rendering in the Message Bible can come across as excessive, both in emotionalism and liberal literary license.
Overall, the text of the Alexandrian manuscripts has slightly less material, as in fewer verses. Consequently, if the Alexandrian text had become the standard first, verses such as these would have been omitted from most Bibles for years. Yet these words can be, and have been, of utmost importance to those who believe the Majority text is more accurate. The next example is from Acts 18:21:
- (NKJV) “But took leave of them, saying, ‘I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.’ And he sailed from Ephesus.”
- (NIV) “But as he left, he promised, ‘I will come back if it is God’s will.’ Then he set sail from Ephesus.”
The NIV omits the words, “‘I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem” because these are absent in the Alexandrian manuscripts. However, this omission could mask the keeping of God’s festivals, which was a norm for Paul, as well as Jewish and gentiles Christians (Acts 17:2; 18:4).
The Church of God, a Worldwide Association, continues to keep these festivals today. Have you proven whether these festivals are still viable for Christians today? For details on the plan of God represented in these Christian festivals, see our section on the “Plan of Salvation.”
These are three basic Bible study tools for you to consider to more effectively use your Bible as a study tool. This endeavor concerns more than just gaining knowledge—ultimately it leads to making better decisions and therefore improving the quality of your life—now and forever!
For more information, see the other articles in this section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”