Digging into the Bible in Translation: A Layman’s Guide


My post “A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation,” when viral, and now a lot of people are sending questions over email or Facebook, asking: “We never dug into this in seminary; where can I learn more?” or “I want to learn more about the meaning behind phrases, words, or passages in the Bible, or about what translation issues there are, but how can I do that without spending years learning Greek and Hebrew?”

There are lots of very good articles and books to recommend on particular words and passages, but the underlying question appears to be, “I’m a layman, and I care, … but where do I start?” What do you do if you’re just starting from the beginning, and what can you do that’s really easy and won’t require you to become a master translator?

The important thing to know is that a lot of biblical scholarship and scholarship on languages is happening all the time – and being published or blogged in English. Here are a couple of easy steps to find it. This is written for the absolute beginner, and the steps ramp up in level of effort as you scroll down.

1. Fall in love with Strong’s concordance.

There is a fully searchable online version of Strong’s at www.biblehub.com.There’s a lot you can do there. You can look up any verse in any of a large number of translations (in English and other languages). You can compare translations. And once you have looked up a verse, on the right side of the webpage there is a section called “Study Bible,” where each word in the verse is hyperlinked. If you click on one of the words, it will take you to the Strong’s concordance page for the original word in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. You will find a dictionary definition of the word. Now, some of the time, the accepted dictionary definition will be useless. Don’t take anything for granted! (And even when the definition’s roughly accurate, be aware that the grammar of another language may significantly change the meaning of the word. For example, Greek has verse tenses that don’t exist in English, and that add meaning to a sentence that is very difficult to capture in our language.) But, there’s a lot more on Strong’s besides just a definition. You will also find some very basic etymological information, maybe a list of other verses where the same word appears, and maybe quotations from famous commentaries on the word. And you can then look up those specific commentaries at the library, the bookstore, or online to read more from them.

So you can use Strong’s to find out what the word or phrase or verse was in the original language, and a couple of quick resources to learn more about that word. But once you know what the word or phrase was, you probably want to know more about the shades of meaning, the concept, and the context behind it. So the next couple of steps are how you can do that…

2. Research the word or concept that interested you.

Let’s say you want to dig deeper into a particular word. You want to know what nuances of meaning it may have. Well, find the original word (using Strong’s, if you don’t know it). Let’s say the word is “teshuvah.” That’s Hebrew for “return.” We translate it “repentance,” but repentance is such a Latin term, and there’s a lot more going in that word. But how do you find out what? Here’s some things you can do:

– Type the word into Wikipedia. Many of these words have Wikipedia entries. Now, the Wikipedia entry itself may often be suspect, but if you scroll to the bottom of the entry, you may find a list of sources and hyperlinks – this is a great place to find books, articles, and other resources on this concept.

– Type the word into Patheos. Patheos is a website that is basically a massive repository of popular articles on religious studies. If you type “teshuvah” into the search bar at Patheos, you will get about 20-30 articles written by different people of different religious backgrounds. Obviously, you’ll want to check who wrote what you’re reading (what is their education and qualifications). Some of the article authors may have also written books on the subject, or have websites where you can learn more. Some of the better articles may include links to commentaries or to current scholarship or to online articles that dig in much more deeply. Regardless, now you have a place to start looking and learning.

– Google the word. You’ll need to sift through the chaff, through. Look for articles that are in journals or on sites like Patheos. If you just click through to a blog, be aware that you may get a wide range from something very simplistic to something very in depth. But you can also Google smarter. “Teshuvah” is a Hebrew word. So you could Google “Jewish commentary on teshuvah.” You could Google “midrash on teshuvah.”

3. Hit the stacks.

A lot of exegesis (biblical interpretation) gets written without ever really reaching the public. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t easily reachable if you want to find it. You could search on Amazon, for example, for commentaries on a particular section of the Bible. Maybe you want to pull up all the published books about the Beatitudes, or about the Sermon on the Mount. You can do that. And thanks to the wonder of online bookstores, you can check the author’s qualifications and read a free sample to see if the book will be useful, before you buy or borrow it.

For the Old Testament, here are two quick, wonderful resources that can work as jumping-off points:

A) Etz Hayim. This is a side-by-side English/Hebrew edition of the Torah that was created for synagogue reading and private study. It’s out of print, so you’ll need to get a used copy. The glorious thing here is that the bottom half of every page consists of quotations and paraphrases of passages from centuries of rabbinical scholarship. Want to know what’s going in that story of Cain and Abel? You can find several schools of thought at the bottom of that page. There is also a lot of discussion of etymologies and of the nuances behind certain key words. It’s an invaluable resource. And because the sources of individual interpretations are often mentioned, you can go look them up to learn more.

B) Get a copy of Maimonides’ A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is centuries old, but it is a classic, a monument of rabbinical literature. And each chapter focuses on a specific Hebrew word that is important in Old Testament reading. That means that after you read Maimonides’ exploration of the word, you can look up that word elsewhere to learn what has been researched about it ever since. More generally, paging through this glossary-style commentary of key concepts will help open your eyes to new possibilities for questions you could ask about biblical texts. For these reasons, it’s a great starting point.

Another thing you can do is look for resources on how another religious tradition (other than those with which you are most familiar) read a particular text. What have Quakers seen in that passage? What did medieval Catholics see in it? What do Coptic Christians think of it? How do Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews each read this passage? Etc. This will not necessarily help you with the translation issue specifically, but it can help challenge assumptions about what is obvious or most important about a given passage.

4. Ask some experts.

I can’t stress this one enough. In the U.S. particularly, we so rarely think to just -ask-. You could send questions to (or meet with):

– A reference librarian at a public library
– A reference librarian at a university library
– A professor of theology
– A professor of Jewish studies
– A professor of Greek or Hebrew
– A professor of Near Eastern studies
– A history professor
– An archaeology professor

Etc. You can find them by going to a college or university webpage, looking up the relevant department (e.g., Jewish Studies, Archaeology, Classics, etc.) and then looking for a list of the department’s faculty. At non-profit institutions of higher education, you will generally find both contact information and information about each faculty member’s research specialty, so you can find the right people to ask.

Most experts will be very glad to help. They like being asked.

And this can be a key step, because again, you aren’t just looking for a dictionary definition of a word. You want to understand the contexts behind a particular concept. And faculty who study those contexts can often help you.

Now, for the intermediate level research-hunt, I would recommend that on particularly sticky issues, you ask several faculty. For example, if you want to dig more deeply into a controversial passage about gender, don’t just ask white male faculty at one seminary. Talk to several faculty of different backgrounds from different schools.

And of course, there are other things you can do. You can write a letter to the author or publisher of a commentary you loved (assuming they are alive). You can audit select college courses. You can attend a talk by an expert at your local college — many of these one-time lectures or panels by visiting experts are free or nearly so, and many of them deal specifically with controversial issues and will provide or mention resources for learning more. To find out what talks are coming up, try emailing the relevant academic department.

And if you enjoy deeper research and you are an alum of a university and you have alumni access to an academic library, ask your reference librarian if your university subscribes to a scholarly database or to specific journals of biblical studies that you can search through. Then you can surf more of the current scholarship.

5. Look for translations written by lone academics

Most Bibles that appear in churches are translated by large committees. There are very good reasons for this. Because these Bibles will be used for corporate worship, bible study, and devotion, the seminaries and publishers that commission these translations want the new translation to represent a consensus view. And it is a good practice for the translators to have peer review, because translation is a wild and messy business. However, the drawback that comes with this is that these translations necessarily favor the most traditional possible interpretation, and not necessarily the most accurate or the more nuanced. So one thing you can do (by searching a library or bookstore catalog, or by asking a reference librarian or professor) is look for translations of individual biblical books by single authors or by smaller teams. These books won’t appear in a church because they aren’t a complete Bible. But many of them are thought-provoking and take advantage of the most up to date scholarship on biblical texts. Many also come with introductions that explain the translation choices and the philosophy behind the translation. Those introductions may cite sources, may point to recent discoveries about the source texts, or may make you aware of ongoing discussions of certain passages and what some of the perspectives are. One great example is Marcia Falk’s “Love Lyrics of the Bible.” This is a translation of the Song of Songs plus an 80-page study of what we find when we look at the Song of Songs closely in Hebrew, and in its literary and historical context. There are many other books like this out there – translation projects of specific parts of the Bible by lone academics who weren’t hindered by committee or by the requirements of producing a worship text. If nothing else, they can alert you to where there is opportunity for deeper discussion about a particular text.

And, of course, if you DO want to learn Koine Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, you will make some language professor’s day. However, if you are not a languages nerd but you DO want to dig into what’s going on in the nuances of these texts, then hopefully the ideas above will give you a few easy, quick places to get started. Good hunting, friends!

Stant Litore

One thought on “Digging into the Bible in Translation: A Layman’s Guide

  1. N. A-B.

    This is really good ‘how to do the research’ advice for any field. Thank you for posting it! and for posting your essays. It’s really a wonderful thing to read the results of intensive research, conducted primarily out of affection for your topic. I appreciate it. And I also appreciate the fact that you make clear by doing that scholarly research is not the sole purview of the academy, which frustrates me as an academic artist. Most of my peers, despite being academic, have that attitude towards research. Thank you.


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