Wandering the savage garden…

The value of word studies

When I mentioned Philippians 4:19, I mentioned having done a word study, my first word study focused on the Greek language.

What’s the value of a word study? Should it be how people study Scripture?

Well… my thought is that word studies are a useful tool, but that this tool should be one among many. You shouldn’t feel you have to rely on word studies to learn God’s Will.

In fact, I’ll go one further: if a word study is required to understand a passage, then you’re being informed incorrectly.

It’s one thing to do a word study and add to your enlightenment regarding a passage in the Bible – it’s another thing altogether to do a word study and use that as your sole source of enlightenment.

Different translations have their strengths and weaknesses, to be sure, but nearly every translation in general availability is clear enough to be used for evangelical purposes. (I’m not suggesting that books like the Book of Moron – I mean, Mormon – and other such works are canonical, mind. The Bible says that it’s not to be added to.)

By this I mean that if you’re reading the NIV, you’re not getting a fundamentally different gospel message than if you read the ESV or the KJV. There are certainly differences, primarily in the source texts used, and some use these differences to claim that one translation or another is a false Bible, but I find this spurious.

A minor side point about translations

The NIV, especially, gets blamed as a “devil’s Bible” because it’s “missing verses.” For example, Acts 8:37 is claimed to be “missing” in the NIV… and I find that it’s not quite accurate, for a few reasons.

Consider: the NIV translators acknowledge that it’s there, even if the translation doesn’t include the verse inline – because 8:38 is the same no matter what translation you use. So the verse gets a “placeholder” at the very least.

Also consider: I don’t have a single NIV that doesn’t contain the verse! Admittedly, the “main NIV” I have – not my “go-to Bible,” which is an NASV translation – has a footnote that includes the verse as a whole, and a footnote isn’t the same as an inline verse – but it’s still there.

What does this mean? Has the NIV taken away something from the Bible, or added it? Many are anti-NIV because it leaves verses out (of the inline text, I suppose) – but they’re not thinking of why.

I’m not an NIV apologist, per se (okay, maybe I am, since I’m defending it here) but the verses excluded from the mainline content are excluded because there’s some question about which source texts contained what. In general, from what I’ve seen, the older manuscripts contained less than the later manuscripts used to translate the King James Version, and the NIV uses those older manuscripts.

If the Bible is not to be added to, then, I’d suggest that the older manuscripts might even be more authoritative than the newer manuscripts.

The only shift is in conservative preservation of the value reportedly possessed by the KJV. If it’s your reference point as far as what verses contain what, then the Bibles that use older manuscripts would be invalid – because it uses verses added later (because they’re not present in the older manuscripts we have).

But if we’re picking on Bible translations, I’d say the later manuscripts have a weaker position than the older ones.

The key for me is this: does the NIV contain the gospel? Does it contain the gospel in such a way that the whole message is not changed?

The answers are yes, and yes: it contains the gospel, and it does not change the message. At no point does it say specifically something that counteracts the gospel, although there are points of emphasis the later manuscripts contain that can add clarity (Acts 8:37 being a good example of this.)

Back to word studies…

Word studies can provide insight into the further meaning contained in the original texts. For example, Philippians 4:19 uses the word “wealth” (or “riches,” depending on your translation), and I was wondering what it actually meant by the word outside of the context of the verse, so I did a quick word study into it.

The context of the verse doesn’t change through the word study; I didn’t find new meaning in the word study. I established further meaning and clarification of the word, and added just a tiny bit of Greek knowledge, but the word study didn’t do more than glorify God.

Word studies could instruct, I suppose. If you don’t understand a passage at all, a word study could give you the insight you need as a lever to expose for what something was meant.

But in my humble opinion, a word study should enhance, not serve as an underpinning of knowledge; relying on it for primary sources of knowledge yields an interpretation that the Bible is a mystery, that you have to have special knowledge and understanding (and interest) to read it, and that serves as a barrier between you and God.

Further, emphasizing word studies can serve as a barrier between others and God. For example, I rather enjoy word studies when I do them. (Well, when I do them with Hebrew – I dislike Greek!) But I try to be careful when referring to them when I talk to people, because I don’t want to send the impression that someone who’s not done a word study is “less prepared” than I am.

That’s not the case, after all – a believer has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is no respecter of persons. My approach is not better than or more holy than yours, no matter what your approach is, or what my approach is.

And making it seem as if that’s not the case – e.g., that my way is better – is wrong, and harmful to others.

Shalom.

(Originally published on January 26, 2012.)

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