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Understanding the Bible isn’t for the few, the gifted, the scholarly. The Bible is accessible. It’s meant to be read and comprehended by everyone from armchair readers to seminary students. A few essential insights into the Bible can clear up a lot of misconceptions and help you grasp the meaning of Scripture and its application to your twenty-first-century life.More than three quarters of a million people have turned to How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth to inform their reading of the Bible. 

This fourth edition features revisions that keep pace with current scholarship, resources, and culture. Changes include:Updated language for better readability.

Scripture references now appear only in brackets at the end of a sentence or paragraph, helping you read the Bible as you would read any book—without the numbers. A new authors’ preface. Redesigned and updated diagrams. Updated list of recommended commentaries and resources. Covering everything from translational concerns to different genres of biblical writing, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is used all around the world. In clear, simple language, it helps you accurately understand the different parts of the Bible—their meaning for ancient audiences and their implications for you today—so you can uncover the inexhaustible worth that is in God’s Word.

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Is one of the best book in the market, and if you are a serios student of a Bible, do not miss to read this book, it will give you a better understanding of Bible applying the hermeneutic principles! You will learn how to interpret the Scripture!
30 November 2021 (23:42) 

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How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: Fourth Edition

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Also by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart
How to Read the Bible Book by Book

Also by Gordon D. Fee and
Mark L. Strauss
How to Choose a Translation for All Its

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth Copy right © 1981, 1993, 2003, 2014 by Douglas Stuart and
Gordon D. Fee
ePub Edition © April 2014: ISBN 978-0-310-51783-2
Requests for information should be addressed to: Zondervan, 3900 Sparks Dr. SE, Grand Rapids,
Michigan 49546

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Fee, Gordon D.
How to read the bible for all its worth/ Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. — Fourth Edition
pages cm.
Includes index.
ISBN 978 – 0 – 310 – 51782 – 5 (softcover) 1. Bible — Study and teaching. I. Stuart, Douglas K.
II. Title BS600.3.F44 2014
220.6'1 — dc23

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, New International
Version®, NIV®. Copy right © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights
reserved worldwide.
For copy rights of other translations see p. 10.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval sy stem, or
transmitted in any form or by any means — electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any
other — except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without the prior permission of the publisher.
Cover design and illustration: JuiceBox Designs Interior design: Matthew Van Zomeren Printed in the
United States of America
14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 DCI 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For our
parents Donald
and Grace Fee
and Streeter and
Merle Stuart, from
whom we learned
our love for the

Abbreviations of Translations
Preface to the Fourth Edition
Preface to the Third Edition
Preface to the First Edition
1. Introduction: The Need to Interpret
2. The Basic Tool: A Good Translation
3. The Epistles: Learning to Think Contextually
4. The Epistles: The Hermeneutical Questions
5. The Old Testament Narratives: Their Proper Us; e
6. Acts: The Question of Historical Precedent
7. The Gospels: One Story, Many Dimensions
8. The Parables: Do You Get the Point?
9. The Law(s): Covenant Stipulations for Israel
10. The Prophets: Enforcing the Covenant in Israel
11. The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours
12. Wisdom: Then and Now
13. Revelation: Images of Judgment and Hope
Appendix: The Evaluation and Use of Commentaries
Scripture Index

Names Index

1 – 2 Sam
1 – 2 Kgs
1 – 2 Chr

1 – 2 Samuel
1 – 2 Kings
1 – 2 Chronicles


Song of Songs



1 – 21

1 – 2 Thess
1 – 2 Tim

1 – 2 Timothy








anno Domini (in the
year of [our] Lord)
before Christ
circa, about,
confer, compare

ch(s). chapter(s)

1 – 2 Pet

1 – 2 Peter

1 – 2 – 3
1 – 2 – 3 John

et al.
How to 1
How to 2

et alii, and others
et cetera, and the rest
id est, that is
How to Read the Bible
for All Its Worth
How to Read the Bible

Book by Book

edited by
exempli gratia, for


New Testament
Old Testament

Abbreviations of Translations

The English Standard Version, 2001


The Good News Bible, 1992

HCSB The Holman Christian Standard Bible, 2003

The Jerusalem Bible, 1966

The King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version),

The Living Bible, 1971

The New American Bible, 1970

NASB The New American Standard Bible, 1995

The New English Bible, 1961


The New International Version, 2011


The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985

NKJV The New King James Version, 1982

The New Living Translation, 1997

NRSV The New Revised Standard Version, 1991

The Revised English Bible, 1989


The Revised Standard Version, 1952

Abbreviations of Commentary

Anchor Bible


Baker Commentary on the Old Testament


Black’s New Testament Commentaries


The Bible Speaks Today


Concordia Commentary


Expositor’s Bible Commentary


Harper’s New Testament Commentary



New American Commentary

New Century Bible Commentary

New International Biblical Commentary


New International Commentary on the New Testament


New International Commentary on the Old Testament


New International Greek Testament Commentary


The NIV Application Commentary


Old Testament Library


Reformed Expository Commentary


Sacra pagina


Tyndale New Testament Commentaries


Understanding the Bible Commentary Series


Tyndale New Testament Commentaries


Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries


Word Biblical Commentary

Copyrights of Translations
Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New
American Standard Bible. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,
1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.
Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked NRSV are taken from the New
Revised Standard Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of
Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of
Christ in the USA. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked RSV are taken from the Revised
Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971 by
the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of
Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked GNB are from the Good News
Bible, Second Edition. Copyright © 1976, 1992 by American
Bible Society. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from The New
King James Bible Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by
Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Scripture quotations marked NAB are taken from the New
American Bible. Copyright © 1970 by the Confraternity of
Christian Doctrine, Washington, DC, and are used by
permission of copyright owner. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked NEB are taken from the New
English Bible. Copyright © 1961, 1970 by the Delegates of the
Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge

University Press.
Scripture quotations marked REB are taken from the Revised
English Bible. Copyright © 1989 by Oxford University Press
and Cambridge University Press.
Scripture quotations marked NJB are taken from the New
Jerusalem Bible, copyright © 1985 by Darton, Longman &
Todd, Ltd. and Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
Reprinted by permission.
Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy
Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by
Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by
permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked NJB are taken from The New
Jerusalem Bible, Copyright © 1985 Darton, Longman & Todd,
Ltd. and Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell
Publishing Group, Inc., Garden City, N.Y.

Preface to the
Fourth Edition
This fourth edition of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
was prompted by a phone call from Doug having to do with
updating the bibliographies in the Appendix. It did not take
much reading of the third edition to realize how much things
had changed in the past decade. Not only did the bibliography
need to be brought up to date, but so did several other matters.
Thus as is my wont, I took down a copy from my shelf and
marked up page after page with red ink, so much so that it
became clear that a thoroughgoing rewrite was necessary. At
the top of the list was my own longtime passion of “getting rid
of the numbers,” so that people will read the Bible the way they
would read any book. In this edition the numbers, that is, the
chapter and verse notations, are kept, of course, but now
appear only in parentheses at the end of a sentence or
paragraph. Understandably this involved restructuring various
sentences; but it also gave us the opportunity to bring several
other matters up to date as well. The result is a fourth edition of
the same book that seems to have benefitted so many readers
of the Bible.
It turned out that the most serious need for revision had to
do with the biblical text itself. The need was clear, since the
original NIV, also known as the 1984 NIV, is no longer
published. As a longtime member of the Committee for Bible
Translation, who are responsible for the NIV, it has been for me

a privilege to bring the biblical text used throughout the book
up to speed, in this case now based on the 2011 NIV. Thus as
with any “revision” of a book, things have here been
“updated” on almost every page. But the basic content has
remained the same. Our aim here has been to make our own
book more readable, but far beyond that to encourage an
ongoing reading of the Bible on the part of God’s people. So
we conclude this preface by repeating those words that St.
Augustine heard that led to his conversion: Tolle, lege —
“Take up and read!” meaning, of course, Scripture itself,
hopefully with this little book helping you to read God’s Word
better, with worship and obedience as the ultimate goal!
Gordon D. Fee
July 2013

Preface to the
Third Edition
The appearance of How to Read the Bible Book

by Book
(2002) prompted the authors to revisit this first book and give it
a thorough updating. In part this was occasioned by the fact
that we regularly cross-referenced the present book (dubbed
How to 1 in that book, which in turn has been cross-referenced
in the present edition as How to 2). In the process of this
cross-referencing we came to realize how much we ourselves
had learned since we wrote the first book in 1979 and 1980, and
how out of date some of the material had become in the
meantime. Not only did we need to change all “century”
references from the “twentieth” to the “twenty-first”(!), but we
became aware of other “dated” items as well (indeed, the
mention of our secretaries’ typing and retyping the first edition
[p. 23] made us both feel a bit Neanderthal!). We also wanted to
reflect several significant advances in scholarship (especially
regarding biblical narrative). So that in brief explains the why of
this present edition. But a few further explanations are needed
as well.
The most obvious chapter that needed reworking was
chapter 2. Although most of the explanation and examples of
translational theory remain the same, every translation listed in
the second edition except for the NRSV has undergone
revision within the last two decades. That not only made much
of the discussion of the translations themselves out of date,

but also required some additional explanations of the reasons
for the revisions of these well-established and well-loved
expressions of the Bible in English. In the first edition we
offered many of our comments in contrast to the King James
Version; and we have become aware of how few among the
majority of people in the United States and Canada (namely,
those under age thirty-five!) presently have any serious
acquaintance with the KJV. So that, too, needed to be revised
in this edition of How to 1.
The other obvious item that needed serious revision — and
will need revision again as soon as this edition becomes
available(!) — is the list of suggested commentaries in the
appendix. New, good commentaries appear with some
regularity. So, as before, we remind readers that they need to be
aware of this and try to find help where they can. Even so, our
present list will provide excellent help for years to come.
But we felt other chapters needed some overhaul as well.
And this, too, reflects both our own growth and what we
perceive to be a change in the climate and makeup of our
readership over the past two decades. At the time of our first
writing, we had both come from backgrounds where poor
interpretation of Scripture was an unfortunately frequent
phenomenon. That caused us in some chapters to lean heavily
toward how not to read certain genres. Our sense is that many
of today’s readership know less about these poor ways of
“doing Bible,” in part because we are also going through a
period where we find a frighteningly large number of people
who, by and large, are biblically illiterate. So in some chapters
our emphasis has changed decidedly toward how to read well,
with less emphasis on the ways texts were abused in the past.
We also hope that those who have read thus far will go on

to read the preface to the first edition, where we made only one
slight change to a sentence to give it greater clarity. Though
some things there are dated (especially the mention of other
books of this kind), it still serves as a genuine preface to the
book and should help orient you to what you can expect.
A word about the title — since we have received as many
“corrective” comments here as about anything else in the
book. No, neither we nor the publishers made a mistake. The
“Its” is a deliberate wordplay that works only when it appears
without the apostrophe; and in the end our own emphasis lies
with this possessive. Scripture is God’s Word, and we want
people to read it because of its great value to them. And if they
do it “for all it’s worth,” hopefully they will also find its worth.
Again, we are glad to thank several people to whom we are
indebted for helping to make this a better book. Maudine Fee
has read every word several times over, with a keen eye for
things that only scholars would understand(!); special thanks
also to V. Phillips Long, Bruce W. Waltke, and Bill Barker for
input of various kinds.
We are both humbled and delighted with the measure of
success this book has had over the past two decades. We pray
that this new edition may prove to be equally helpful.
Gordon D. Fee
Douglas Stuart
Advent 2002

Preface to the
First Edition
In one of our lighter moments we toyed with the idea of calling
this book Not Just Another Book on How to Understand the
Bible. Wisdom prevailed, and the “title” lost out. But such a
title would in fact describe the kind of urgency that caused this
book to be written.
How-to-understand-the-Bible books abound. Some are
good; others are not so good. Few are written by biblical
scholars. Some of these books approach the subject from the
variety of methods one can use in studying Scripture; others
try to be basic primers in hermeneutics (the science of
interpretation) for the layperson. The latter usually give a long
section of general rules (rules that apply to all biblical texts)
and another section of specific rules (rules that govern special
types of problems: prophecy, typology, figures of speech, etc.).
Of the “basic primer” type books we recommend especially
Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul (InterVarsity Press). For a
heavier and less readable, but very helpful, dose of the same,
one should see A. Berkeley Mickelson’s Interpreting the Bible
(Eerdmans). The closest comparison to the kind of book we
have written is Better Bible Study by Berkeley and Alvera
Mickelson (Regal).
But this is “not just another book” — we hope. The
uniqueness of what we have tried to do has several facets:
1. As one may note from a glance at the table of contents,

the basic concern of this book is with the understanding of the
different types of literature (the genres) that make up the Bible.
Although we do speak to other issues, this generic approach
has controlled all that has been done. We affirm that there is a
real difference between a psalm, on the one hand, and an
epistle on the other. Our concern is to help the reader to read
and study the Psalms as poems, and the Epistles as letters. We
hope to show that these differences are vital and should affect
both the way one reads them and how one is to understand
their message for today.
2. Even though throughout the book we have repeatedly
given guidelines for studying each genre of Scripture, we are
equally concerned with the intelligent reading of Scripture —
since that is what most of us do the most. Anyone who has
tried, for example, to read through Leviticus, Jeremiah, or
Proverbs, as over against 1 Samuel or Acts, knows full well that
there are many differences. One can get bogged down in
Leviticus, and who has not felt the frustration of completing
the reading of Isaiah or Jeremiah and then wondering what the
“plot” was? In contrast, 1 Samuel and Acts are especially
readable. We hope to help the reader appreciate these
differences so that he or she can read intelligently and
profitably the nonnarrative parts of the Bible.
3. This book was written by two seminary professors, those
sometimes dry and stodgy people that other books are written
to get around. It has often been said that one does not have to
have a seminary education in order to understand the Bible.
This is true, and we believe it with all our hearts. But we are
also concerned about the (sometimes) hidden agenda that
suggests that a seminary education or seminary professors are
thereby a hindrance to understanding the Bible. We are so

bold as to think that even the “experts” may have something to
Furthermore, these two seminary professors also happen to
be believers, who think we should obey the biblical texts, not
merely read or study them. It is precisely this concern that led
us to become scholars in the first place. We had a great desire
to understand as carefully and as fully as possible what it is
that we are to know about God and his will in the twentieth
(and now the twenty-first) century.
These two seminary professors also regularly preach and
teach the Word in a variety of church settings. Thus we are
regularly called upon not simply to be scholars but to wrestle
with how the Bible applies, and this leads to our fourth item.
4. The great urgency that gave birth to this book is
hermeneutics; we wrote especially to help believers wrestle
with the questions of application. Many of the urgent problems
in the church today are basically struggles with bridging the
hermeneutical gap — with moving from the “then and there” of
the original text to the “here and now” of our own life settings.
But this also means bridging the gap between the scholar and
layperson. The concern of the scholar is primarily with what
the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with
what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have
both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us
can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every
imaginable kind of error — because it lacks controls.
Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure
of that most important of all hermeneutical skills — common
On the other hand, nothing can be so dry and lifeless for

the church as making biblical study purely an academic
exercise in historical investigation. Even though the Word was
originally given in a concrete historical context, its uniqueness
centers in the fact that, though historically given and
conditioned, this Word is ever a living Word.
Our concern, therefore, must be with both dimensions. The
believing scholar insists that the biblical texts first of all mean
what they meant. That is, we believe that God’s Word for us
today is first of all precisely what his Word was to them. Thus
we have two tasks: First, our task is to find out what the text
originally meant; this is called exegesis. Second, we must learn
to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different
contexts of our own day; we call this second task
hermeneutics. In its classical usage, the term “hermeneutics”
covers both tasks, but in this book we consistently use it only
in this narrower sense. To do both tasks well should be the
goal of Bible study.
Thus in chapters 3 through 13, which deal in turn with ten
different kinds of literary genres, we have given attention to
both needs. Since exegesis is always the first task, we have
spent much of our time emphasizing the uniqueness of each of
the genres. What is a biblical psalm? What are their different
kinds? What is the nature of Hebrew poetry? How does all this
affect our understanding? But we are also concerned with how
the various psalms function as the Word of God. What is God
trying to say? What are we to learn, or how are we to obey?
Here we have avoided giving rules. What we have offered are
guidelines, suggestions, helps.
We recognize that the first task — exegesis — is often
considered to be a matter for the expert. At times this is true.
But one does not have to be an expert to learn to do the basic

tasks of exegesis well. The secret lies in learning to ask the
right questions of the text. We hope, therefore, to guide the
reader in learning to ask the right questions of each biblical
genre. There will be times when one will finally want to consult
the experts as well. We shall also give some practical guidelines
in this matter.
Each author is responsible for those chapters that fall
within his area of specialty. Thus, Professor Fee wrote chapters
1 to 4, 6 to 8, and 13, and Professor Stuart wrote chapters 5 and
9 to 12. Although each author had considerable input into the
other’s chapters, and although we consider the book to be a
truly joint effort, the careful reader will also observe that each
author has his own style and manner of presentation. Special
thanks go to some friends and family who have read several of
the chapters and offered helpful advice: Frank DeRemer, Bill
Jackson, Judy Peace, and Maudine, Cherith, Craig, and Brian
Fee. Special thanks also to our secretaries, Carrie Powell and
Holly Greening, for typing both the rough drafts and the final
In the words of the child that moved Augustine to read a
passage from Romans at his conversion experience, we say,
“Tolle, lege” — “Take up and read.” The Bible is God’s eternal
word. Read it, understand it, obey it.1
1. Permission has been granted by Baker Book House,
Grand Rapids, Michigan, to use material in chapters 3, 4, and 6
that appeared earlier in different form as “Hermeneutics and
Common Sense: An Exploratory Essay on the Hermeneutics of
the Epistles,” in Inerrancy and Common Sense (ed. J. R.
Michaels and R. R. Nicole, 1980), pages 161 – 86; and
“Hermeneutics and Historical Precedent — A Major Problem in

Pentecostal Hermeneutics,” in Perspectives on the New
Pentecostalism (ed. R. P. Spittler, 1976), pages 118 – 32.


Introduction: The
Need to Interpret
Every so often we meet someone who says with great feeling,
“You don’t have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what
it says.” Usually, such a remark reflects the layperson’s protest
against the “professional” scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday
school teacher, who by “interpreting” seems to be taking the
Bible away from the common person. It is their way of saying
that the Bible is not an obscure book. “After all,” it is argued,
“anyone with half a brain can read it and understand it. The
problem with too many preachers and teachers is that they dig
around so much they tend to muddy the waters. What was
clear to us when we read it isn’t so clear anymore.”
There is a lot of truth in this protest. We agree that
Christians should learn to read, believe, and obey the Bible.
And we especially agree that the Bible need not be an obscure
book if read and studied properly. In fact we are convinced that
the single most serious problem people have with the Bible is
not with a lack of understanding but with the fact that they
understand many things too well! For example, with such a text
as “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Phil 2:14),

the problem is not understanding it but obeying it — putting it
into practice.
We are also agreed that the preacher or teacher is all too
often prone to dig first and look later, and thereby at times to
cover up the plain meaning of the text, which often lies on the
surface. Let it be said at the outset — and repeated throughout
— that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is
not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before.
Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can
usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the
rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein
the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by
the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested
interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in
dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique
interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the
correct understanding of a passage may not often seem unique
to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that
uniqueness is not the aim of our task.
The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain
meaning of the text,” the author’s intended meaning. And the
most important ingredient one brings to this task is an
enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is
that it makes good sense of what is written. Correct
interpretation, therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a
prick or prod to the heart.
But if the plain meaning is what interpretation is all about,
then why interpret? Why not just read? Does not the plain
meaning come simply from reading? In a sense, yes. But in a
truer sense, such an argument is both naive and unrealistic

because of two factors: the nature of the reader and the nature
of Scripture.

The first reason one needs to learn how to interpret is that,
whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an
interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also
understand what we read. We also tend to think that our
understanding is the same as the Holy Spirit’s or human
author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that
we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior
understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring
to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else
causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.
Thus, when a person in our culture hears the word “cross,”
centuries of Christian art and symbolism cause most people
automatically to think of a Roman cross
, although there is
little likelihood that that was the shape of Jesus’ cross, which
was probably shaped like a T. Most Protestants, and Catholics
as well, when they read passages about the church at worship,
automatically envision people sitting in a building with “pews”
much like their own. When Paul says, “Make no provision for
the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom 13:14 NKJV), people in most
English-speaking cultures are apt to think that “flesh” means
the “body” and therefore that Paul is speaking of “bodily

But the word “flesh,” as Paul uses it, seldom refers to the
body — and in this text it almost certainly did not — but to a
spiritual malady sometimes called “the sinful nature,” denoting
totally self-centered existence. Therefore, without intending to
do so, the reader is interpreting as he or she reads, and
unfortunately all too often interprets incorrectly.
This leads us to note further, that in any case the reader of
an English Bible is already involved in interpretation. For
translation is in itself a (necessary) form of interpretation. Your
Bible, whatever translation you use, which is your beginning
point, is in fact the end result of much scholarly work.
Translators are regularly called upon to make choices regarding
meanings, and their choices are going to affect how you
Good translators, therefore, take the problem of our
language differences into consideration. But it is not an easy
task. In Romans 13:14, for example, shall we translate “flesh”
(as in KJV, NIV, NRSV, NASB, ESV, etc.) because this is the
word Paul used, and then leave it to an interpreter to tell us that
“flesh” here does not mean “body”? Or shall we “help” the
reader and translate “sinful nature” (NIV 1984, GNB, NLT, etc.)
or “disordered natural inclinations” (NJB) because these more
closely approximate what Paul’s word really means? We will
take up this matter in greater detail in the next chapter. For now
it is sufficient to point out how the fact of translation in itself
has already involved one in the task of interpretation.
The need to interpret is also found by noting what goes on
around us all the time. A simple look at the contemporary
church, for example, makes it abundantly clear that not all
“plain meanings” are equally plain to all. It is of more than
passing interest that most of those in today’s church who

argue that, despite contrary evidence in 1 Corinthians 11:2 – 3,
women should keep silent in church, on the basis of 1
Corinthians 14:34 – 35, at the same time deny the validity of
speaking in tongues and prophecy, the very context in which
the “silence” passage occurs. And those who affirm, on the
basis of 1 Corinthians 11:2 – 16, that women as well as men
should pray and prophesy, usually deny that women must do
so with some form of head covering. For some, the Bible
“plainly teaches” believers’ baptism by immersion; others
believe they can make a biblical case for infant baptism. Both
“eternal security” and the possibility of “losing one’s
salvation” are preached in today’s churches, though never by
the same person! Yet both are affirmed as the plain meaning of
biblical texts. Even the two authors of this book have some
disagreements as to what certain texts “plainly” mean. Yet all of
us are reading the same Bible, and we all are trying to be
obedient to what the text “plainly” means.
Besides these recognizable differences among Biblebelieving Christians, there are also all kinds of strange things
afloat. One can usually recognize the cults, for example,
because they have an authority in addition to the Bible. But
not all of them do; and in every case they bend the truth by the
way they select texts from the Bible itself. Every imaginable
heresy or practice, from the Arianism (denying Christ’s deity)
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to baptizing for the dead among
Mormons, to snake handling among Appalachian sects, claims
to be “supported” by a biblical text.
Even among more theologically orthodox individuals, many
strange ideas manage to gain acceptance in various quarters.
For example, one of the current rages among American
Protestants, especially charismatics, is the so-called wealth and

health gospel. The “good news” is that God’s will for you is
financial and material prosperity! One of the advocates of this
“gospel” begins his book by arguing for the “plain sense” of
Scripture and claiming that he puts the Word of God first and
foremost throughout his study. He says that it is not what we
think it says but what it actually says that counts. The “plain
meaning” is what he is after. But one begins to wonder what
the “plain meaning” really is when financial prosperity is
argued as the will of God from such a passage as, “Beloved, I
wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in
health, even as thy soul prospereth” (3 John 2, KJV) — a text
that in fact has nothing at all to do with financial prosperity.
Another example takes the plain meaning of the story of the
rich young man (Mark 10:17 – 22) as precisely the opposite of
“what it actually says” and attributes the “interpretation” to
the Holy Spirit. One may rightly question whether the plain
meaning is being sought at all; perhaps, the plain meaning is
simply what such a writer wants the text to mean in order to
support some pet ideas.
Given all this diversity, both inside and outside the church,
and all the differences even among scholars, who supposedly
know “the rules,” it is no wonder that some argue for no
interpretation, just reading. But as we have noted, this is a false
option. The antidote to bad interpretation is not no
interpretation but good interpretation, based on commonsense
The authors of this book labor under no illusions that by
reading and following our guidelines everyone will finally agree
on the “plain meaning,” our meaning! What we do hope to
achieve is to heighten the reader’s sensitivity to specific
problems inherent in each genre, to help the reader know why

different options exist and how to make commonsense
judgments, and especially, to enable the reader to discern
between good and not-so-good interpretations — and to know
what makes them one or the other.

A more significant reason for the need to interpret lies in the
nature of Scripture itself. Historically the church has
understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has
understood the person of Christ — the Bible is at the same time
both human and divine. “The Bible,” it has been correctly said,
“is the Word of God given in human words in history.” It is this
dual nature of the Bible that demands of us the task of
Because the Bible is God’s message, it has eternal
relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every
culture. Because it is the word of God, we must listen — and
obey. But because God chose to speak his word through
human words in history, every book in the Bible also has
historical particularity; each document is conditioned by the
language, time, and culture in which it was originally written
(and in some cases also by the oral history it had before it was
written down). Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the
“tension” that exists between its eternal relevance and its
historical particularity.
There are some, of course, who believe that the Bible is

merely a human book, and that it contains only human words in
history. For these people the task of interpreting is limited to
historical inquiry. Their interest, as with reading Cicero or
Milton, is with the religious ideas of the Jews, Jesus, or the
early church. The task for them, therefore, is purely a historical
one. What did these words mean to the people who wrote
them? What did they think about God? How did they
understand themselves?
On the other hand, there are those who think of the Bible
only in terms of its eternal relevance. Because it is the word of
God, they tend to think of it only as a collection of
propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed —
although invariably there is a great deal of picking and
choosing among the propositions and imperatives. There are,
for example, Christians who, on the basis of Deuteronomy 22:5
(“A woman must not wear men’s clothing”), argue that a
woman should not wear slacks or shorts, because these are
deemed to be “men’s clothing.” But the same people seldom
take literally the other imperatives in this list, which include
building a parapet around the roof of one’s house (v. 8), not
planting two kinds of seeds in a vineyard (v. 9), and making
tassels on the four corners of one’s cloak (v. 12).

The Bible, however, is not a series of propositions and
imperatives; it is not simply a collection of “Sayings from
Chairman God,” as though he looked down on us from heaven
and said: “Hey you down there, learn these truths. Number 1,
There is no God but One, and I am that One. Number 2, I am the
Creator of all things, including humankind” — and so on, all

the way through proposition number 7,777 and imperative
number 777.
These propositions of course are true, and they are found
in the Bible (though not quite in that form). Indeed such a book
might have made some things easier for us. But, fortunately,
that is not how God chose to speak to us. Rather, he chose to
speak his eternal truths within the particular circumstances and
events of human history. This also is what gives us hope.
Precisely because God chose to speak in the context of real
human history, we may take courage that these same words will
speak again and again in our own “real” history, as they have
throughout the history of the church.
The fact that the Bible has a human side is our
encouragement; it is also our challenge, and the reason that we
need to interpret. Two items should be noted in this regard:
1. One of the most important aspects of the human side of
the Bible is that, in order to communicate his word to all human
conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of
communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws
of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles,
riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters,
sermons, and apocalypses.
To interpret properly the “then and there” of the biblical
texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to
all the words of the Bible, but one also needs to learn the
special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres).
The way God communicates the divine word to us in the “here
and now” will often differ from one form to another. For
example, we need to know how a psalm, a form often addressed
to God, functions as God’s word to us, and how certain psalms

differ from others, and how all of them differ from “the laws,”
which were often addressed to people in cultural situations no
longer in existence. How do such “laws” speak to us, and how
do they differ from the moral “laws,” which are always valid in
all circumstances? Such are the questions the dual nature of
the Bible forces on us.
2. In speaking through real persons, in a variety of
circumstances, over a 1,500-year period, God’s Word was
expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of those
persons and conditioned by the culture of those times and
circumstances. That is to say, God’s word to us was first of all
God’s word to them. If they were going to hear it, it could only
have come through events and in language they could have
understood. Our problem is that we are so far removed from
them in time, and sometimes in thought. This is the major
reason one needs to learn to interpret the Bible. If God’s word
about women wearing men’s clothing or people having
parapets around houses is to speak to us, we first need to
know what it said to its original hearers — and why.
Thus the task of interpreting involves the student/reader at
two levels. First, one has to hear the word they heard; we must
try to understand what was said to them back then and there
(exegesis). Second, we must learn to hear that same word in the
here and now (hermeneutics). A few preliminary words are
needed about these two tasks.

The first task of the interpreter is called exegesis. This involves
the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the
original, intended meaning. This is primarily a historical task. It

is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were
to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the
words of the Bible. This is the task that often calls for the help
of the “expert,” a person trained to know well the language and
circumstances of a text in its original setting. But one does not
have to be an expert to do good exegesis.
In fact, everyone is an exegete of sorts. The only real
question is whether you will be a good one. How many times,
for example, have you heard or said, “What Jesus meant by
that was . . .” or, “Back in those days, they used to . . .”? These
are exegetical expressions. Most often they are employed to
explain the differences between “them” and “us” — why we do
not build parapets around our houses, for example — or to give
a reason for our using a text in a new or different way — why
handshaking has often taken the place of the “holy kiss.” Even
when such ideas are not articulated, they are in fact practiced
all the time in a kind of commonsense way.
The problem with much of this, however, is (1) that such
exegesis is often too selective and (2) that often the sources
consulted are not written by true “experts,” that is, they are
secondary sources that also often use other secondary
sources rather than the primary sources. A few words about
each of these must be given.
1. Although everyone employs exegesis at times, and
although quite often such exegesis is well done, it nonetheless
tends to be employed only when there is an obvious problem
between the biblical texts and modern culture. Whereas it must
indeed be employed for such texts, we insist that it is the first
step in reading EVERY text. At first, this will not be easy to do,
but learning to think exegetically will pay rich dividends in
understanding and will make even the reading, not to mention

the studying, of the Bible a much more exciting experience. But
note well: Learning to think exegetically is not the only task; it
is simply the first task.
The real problem with “selective” exegesis is that one will
often read one’s own, completely foreign, ideas into a text and
thereby make God’s word something other than what God
really said. For example, one of the authors of this book once
received a letter from a well-known evangelical, who argued
that the author should not appear in a conference with another
well-known person, whose orthodoxy on a point was thought
to be suspect. The biblical reason given for avoiding the
conference was the command to: “Abstain from all appearance
of evil” (1 Thess 5:22 KJV). But had our brother learned to read
the Bible exegetically, he would not have used the text in that
way. For this is Paul’s final word in a paragraph to the
Thessalonians regarding Spirit manifestations in the
community. What Paul really says, in current English, is: “Do
not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on
to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (NIV). The
“avoidance of evil” had to do with “prophecies,” which, when
tested, were found not to be of the Spirit. To make this text
mean something God did not intend is to abuse the text, not
use it. To avoid making such mistakes one needs to learn to
think exegetically, that is, to begin back then and there, and to
do so with every text.
2. As we will soon note, one does not begin by consulting
the “experts.” But when it is necessary to do so, one should try
to use the better sources. For example, at the conclusion of the
story of the rich young man in Mark 10:24 (Matt 19:23; Luke
18:24), Jesus says, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of
God!” He then adds: “It is easier for a camel to go through the

eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the
kingdom of God.” You will sometimes hear it said that there was
a gate in Jerusalem known as the “Needle’s Eye,” which camels
could go through only by kneeling, and with great difficulty.
The point of this “interpretation” is that a camel could in fact
go through the “Needle’s Eye.” The trouble with this
“exegesis,” however, is that it is simply not true. There never
was such a gate in Jerusalem at any time in its history. The
earliest known “evidence” for this idea is found in the eleventh
century(!) in a commentary by a Greek churchman named
Theophylact, who had the same difficulty with the text that
many later readers do. After all, it is impossible for a camel to
go through the eye of a needle, and that was precisely Jesus’
point. It is impossible for someone who is rich to enter the
kingdom. It takes a miracle for a rich person to get saved, which
is quite the point of what follows: “All things are possible with

How, then, do we learn to do good exegesis and at the same
time avoid the pitfalls along the way? The first part of most of
the chapters in this book will explain how one goes about this
task for each of the genres in particular. Here we simply want to
overview what is involved in the exegesis of any text.
At its highest level, of course, exegesis requires knowledge
of many things we do not necessarily expect the readers of this

book to know: the biblical languages; the Jewish, Semitic, and
Greco-Roman backgrounds to much of what is written; how to
determine the original text when early copies (produced by
hand) have differing readings; the use of all kinds of primary
sources and tools. But you can learn to do good exegesis even
if you do not have access to all of these skills and tools. To do
so, however, you must learn first what you can do with your
own skills, and second how to use the work of others.
The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more
intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text
carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. One of the
best steps one could do in this regard would be to read
Mortimer J. Adler’s still popular classic How to Read a Book
(1940, revised edition, with Charles Van Doren [New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1972]). Our experience over many years in
college and seminary teaching is that many people simply do
not know how to read well. To read or study the Bible
intelligently demands careful reading, and this includes
learning to ask the right questions of the text.
There are two basic kinds of questions one should ask of
every biblical passage: those that relate to context and those
that relate to content. The questions of context are also of two
kinds: historical and literary. Let us briefly note each of these.

The Historical Context
The historical context, which will differ from book to book, has
to do with several matters: the time and culture of the author
and audience, that is, the geographical, topographical, and
political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting; and
the historical occasion of the book, letter, psalm, prophetic
oracle, or other genre. All such matters are especially important

for understanding.
1. It makes a considerable difference in understanding to
know the eighth-century BC background of Amos, Hosea, or
Isaiah, or that Haggai prophesied after the exile, or to know the
messianic expectations of Israel when John the Baptist and
Jesus appeared on the scene, or to understand the differences
between the cities of Corinth and Philippi and how these
differences affected the churches in each, and thus Paul’s
letters in each case. One’s reading of Jesus’ parables is greatly
enhanced by knowing something about the customs of Jesus’
day. Surely it makes a difference in understanding to know that
the “denarius” (“penny” KJV!) offered to the workers in
Matthew 20:1 – 16 was the equivalent of a full day’s wage.
Even matters of topography are important. Those raised in the
American West — or East for that matter — must be careful not
to think of “the mountains [that] surround Jerusalem” (Ps
125:2) in terms of their own experience of mountains, since they
are actually low hills and plateaus.
To answer most of these kinds of questions, you will need
some outside help. A good Bible dictionary, such as the fourvolume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. G. W.
Bromiley [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995]) or the one-volume
Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary (J. D. Douglas and
Merrill C. Tenney; ed. Moises Silva [Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
2011]) or Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ed. David Noel
Freedman [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000]), will generally
supply the need here. If you wish to pursue a matter further,
the bibliographies at the end of each article in these
dictionaries would be a good place to start.
2. The more important question of historical context,
however, has to do with the occasion and purpose of each

biblical book and/or its various parts. Here one wants to have
an idea of what was going on in Israel or the church that called
forth such a document, or what the situation of the author was
that caused him to speak or write. Again, this will vary from
book to book; it is after all somewhat less crucial for Proverbs,
for example, than for 1 Corinthians.
The answer to this question is usually to be found — when
it can be found — within the book itself. But one needs to learn
to read with their eyes open for such matters. If you want to
corroborate your own findings on these questions, you might
consult your Bible dictionary again or the introduction to a
good commentary on the book (see the appendix on p. 275).
But make your own observations first!

The Literary Context
The literary context is what most people mean when they talk
about reading something in its context. Indeed this is the
crucial task in exegesis, and fortunately it is something one can
learn to do well without necessarily having to consult the
“experts.” Essentially, literary context means first that words
only have meaning in sentences, and second that biblical
sentences for the most part have full and clear meaning only in
relation to preceding and succeeding sentences.
The most important contextual question you will ever ask
— and it must be asked over and over of every sentence and
every paragraph — is: What’s the point? We must try to trace
the author’s train of thought. What is the author saying, and
why does he say it right here? Having made that point, what is
he saying next, and why?
This question will vary from genre to genre, but it is always
the crucial question. The goal of exegesis, you remember, is to

find out what the original author intended. To do this task well,
it is imperative that one use a translation that recognizes poetry
and paragraphs. One of the major causes of inadequate
exegesis by readers of the King James Version and, to a lesser
degree, of the New American Standard Bible, is that every
verse has been printed as a paragraph. Such an arrangement
tends to obscure the author’s own logic. Above all else,
therefore, one must learn to recognize units of thought,
whether paragraphs (for prose) or lines and sections (for
poetry). And, with the aid of an adequate translation, this is
something any good reader can do with practice.

The Questions of Content
The second major category of questions one needs to ask of
any text relates to the author’s actual content. “Content” has
to do with the meanings of words, their grammatical
relationships in sentences, and the choice of the original text
where the manuscripts (handwritten copies) differ from one
another (see next chapter). It also includes a number of the
items mentioned above under “historical context,” for example,
the meaning of a denarius, or a Sabbath day’s journey, or high
places, etc.
For the most part, these are the questions of meaning that
people ordinarily ask of the biblical text. When Paul writes to
the believers in Corinth, “Even though we have known Christ
according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no
longer” (2 Cor 5:16, NASB), you should want to know who is
“according to the flesh” — Christ or the one knowing him? It
makes a considerable difference in meaning to learn that “we”
know Christ no longer “from a worldly point of view” (NIV) is
what Paul intends, not that we know Christ no longer “in his

earthly life.”
To answer these kinds of questions a reader will ordinarily
need to seek outside help. Again, the quality of one’s answers
to such questions will usually depend on the quality of the
sources being used. This is the place where you will finally
want to consult a good exegetical commentary. But note that
from our view, consulting a commentary, as essential as this
will be at times, is the last task you perform.

The Tools
For the most part, then, you can do good exegesis with a
minimum amount of outside help, provided that the help is of
the highest quality. We have mentioned three such tools: a
good translation, a good Bible dictionary, and good
commentaries. There are other kinds of tools, of course,
especially for topical or thematic kinds of study. But for reading
or studying the Bible book by book, these are the essential
Because a good translation (or better, several good
translations) is the absolutely basic tool for one who does not
know the original languages, the next chapter is devoted to this
matter. Learning to choose a good commentary is also
important, but because this is the last task one does, an
appendix on commentaries concludes the book.

Although the word “hermeneutics” ordinarily covers the whole
field of interpretation, including exegesis, it is also used in the
narrower sense of seeking the contemporary relevance of
ancient texts. In this book we will use it exclusively in this way

— to ask questions about the Bible’s meaning in the “here and
now” — even though we know this is not the most common
meaning of the term.
This matter of the here and now, after all, is what brings us
to the Bible in the first place. So why not start here? Why
worry about exegesis? Surely the same Spirit who inspired the
writing of the Bible can equally inspire one’s reading of it. In a
sense this is true, and we do not by this book intend to take
from anyone the joy of devotional reading of the Bible and the
sense of direct communication involved in such reading. But
devotional reading is not the only kind one should do. One
must also read for learning and understanding. In short, you
must also learn to study the Bible, which in turn must inform
your devotional reading. And this brings us back to our
insistence that proper “hermeneutics” begins with solid
The reason you must not begin with the here and now is
that the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in
the original intent of the biblical text. As noted earlier in this
chapter, this is the “plain meaning” one is after. Otherwise
biblical texts can be made to mean whatever they might mean to
any given reader. But such hermeneutics becomes total
subjectivity, and who then is to say that one person’s
interpretation is right and another’s is wrong? Anything goes.
In contrast to such subjectivity, we insist that the original
meaning of the text — as much as it is in our power to discern it
— is the objective point of control. We are convinced that the
Mormons’ baptizing for the dead on the basis of 1 Corinthians
15:29, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rejection of the deity of
Christ, or the snake handlers’ use of Mark 16:18, or the
prosperity evangelists’ advocating of the American dream as a

Christian right on the basis of 3 John 2 are all improper
interpretations. In each case the error is in their hermeneutics,
precisely because their hermeneutics is not controlled by good
exegesis. They have started with the here and now and have
read into the texts “meanings” that were not originally
intended. And what is to keep one from killing one’s daughter
because of a foolish vow, as did Jephthah (Judg 11:29 – 40), or
to argue, as one preacher is reported to have done, that women
should never wear their hair up in a topknot (“bun”) because
the Bible says “topknot go down” (“Let him that is on the
housetop not go down” [Mark 13:15 KJV])?
It will be argued, of course, that common sense will keep
one from such foolishness. Unfortunately common sense is not
always so common. We want to know what the Bible means for
us — legitimately so. But we cannot make it mean anything that
pleases us and then give the Holy Spirit “credit” for it. The
Holy Spirit cannot be brought into the process to contradict
what is said, since the Spirit is the one who inspired the
original intent. Therefore, the Spirit’s help for us will come in
our discovering that original intent and in guiding us as we try
faithfully to apply that meaning to our own situations.
The questions of hermeneutics are not at all easy, which is
probably why so few books are written on this aspect of our
subject. Nor will all agree on how one goes about this task. But
this is the crucial area, and believers need to learn to talk to one
another about these questions — and to listen. On this one
statement, however, there must surely be agreement: A text
cannot mean what it could never have meant for its original
readers/hearers. Or to put it in a positive way, the true meaning
of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to
mean when it was first spoken or written. This is the starting

point. How we work it out from that point is what this book is
basically all about.
Someone will surely ask, “But is it not possible for a text to
have an additional [or fuller or deeper] meaning beyond its
original intent? After all, this happens in the New Testament
itself in the way it sometimes uses the Old Testament.” In the
case of prophecy, we would not close the door to such a
possibility, and we would argue that, with careful controls, a
second, or ultimate, intended meaning is possible. But how
does one justify it at other points? Our problem is a simple one:
Who speaks for God? Roman Catholicism has less of a problem
here; the magisterium, the authority vested in the official
teaching of the church, determines for all the fuller sense of the
text. Protestants, however, have no magisterium and we should
be properly concerned whenever anyone says they have God’s
deeper meaning to a text — especially if the text never meant
what it is now made to mean. Of such interpretations are all the
cults born, and innumerable lesser heresies.
It is difficult to give rules for hermeneutics. What we offer
throughout the following chapters, therefore, are guidelines.
You may not agree with our guidelines. We do hope that your
disagreements will be bathed in Christian charity, and perhaps
our guidelines will serve to stimulate your own thinking on
these matters.


The Basic Tool:
A Good
The sixty-six books

of the Protestant Bible were originally
written in three different languages: Hebrew (most of the Old
Testament), Aramaic (a sister language to Hebrew used in half
of Daniel and two passages in Ezra), and Greek (all of the New
Testament). We assume that most of the readers of this book
do not know these languages. This means, therefore, that one’s
basic tool for reading and studying the Bible is a contemporary
English translation or, as will be argued in this chapter, several
such translations.
As we noted in the last chapter, the very fact that you are
reading God’s Word in translation means that you are already
involved in interpretation — and this is so whether one likes it
or not. To read in translation is not a bad thing, of course; it is
simply the only thing available and therefore the necessary
thing. What this means further, however, is that, in a certain
sense, the person who reads the Bible only in English is at the
mercy of the translator(s), and translators have often had to
make choices as to what in fact the original Hebrew or Greek

author was really intending to express.
The trouble, then, with using only one translation, be it
ever so good, is that you are thereby committed to the
particular exegetical choices of that translation as the Word of
God. The translation you are using will, of course, be correct
most of the time; but at times it also may not be.
Let’s take, for example, the following four translations of 1
Corinthians 7:36:

“ If any man thinks that he is behaving improperly toward his virgin
. . .”
“ If any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin
daughter . . .”
“ If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward
the virgin he is engaged to . . .”
“ If a man has a partner in celibacy and feels that he is not behaving
properly towards her . . .”

The NKJV is very literal but not very helpful, since it leaves the
term “virgin” and the relationship between the “man” and “his
virgin” quite ambiguous. Of one item, however, you may be
absolutely certain: Paul did not intend to be ambiguous. He
intended one of the other three options, and the Corinthians,
who had raised the problem in their letter, knew which one;
indeed they knew nothing of the other two.
It should be noted here that none of these other three is a bad
translation, since any of them is a legitimate option as to Paul’s
intent. However, only one of them can be the correct
translation. The problem is which one? For a number of
reasons, the NIV reflects the best exegetical option here (in fact
the NEB reading is now a marginal note in the newer REB).
However, if you regularly read only the NASB (which also has

a less likely option here), then you are committed to an
interpretation of the text that is quite unlikely to be what Paul
intended. And this kind of example can be illustrated hundreds
of times over. So, what to do?
First, it is probably a good practice to regularly read one
main translation, provided it really is a good one. This will aid
in memorization as well as give you consistency. Also, if you
are using one of the better translations, it will have notes in the
margin at many of the places where there are difficulties.
However, for the study of the Bible, you should use several
well-chosen translations. The best option is to use translations
that one knows in advance will tend to differ. This will
highlight where many of the difficult problems of interpretation
lie. To resolve these matters you will usually want to consult
one or more commentaries.
But which translation should you use, and which of the
several should you study from? No one can really speak for
someone else on this matter. But your choice should not be
simply because “I like it” or “This one is so readable.” You
should indeed like your translation, and if it is a really good
one, it will be readable. However, to make an intelligent choice,
you need to know something about the science of translation
itself as well as about some of the various English translations.

There are two kinds of choices that translators must make:
textual and linguistic. The first kind has to do with the actual
wording of the original text. The second has to do with the
translators’ theory of translation that underlies their rendering
of the text into English.

The Question of Text
The first concern of translators is to be sure that the Hebrew or
Greek text they are using is as close as possible to the original
wording as it left the author’s hands (or the hands of the scribe
taking it down by dictation). Is this what the psalmist actually
wrote? Are these the very words of Mark or Paul? Indeed, why
should anyone think otherwise?
Although the details of the problem of text in the Old and
New Testaments differ, the basic concerns are the same. (1)
Unlike Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence,” for
example, whose handwritten original is preserved in America’s
national archives, no such handwritten “original” exists for any
biblical book. (2) What does exist are thousands of copies
produced by hand (thus called “manuscripts”) and copied
repeatedly over a period of about 1,400 years (for the NT; even
longer for the OT). (3) Although the vast majority of
manuscripts, which for both Testaments come from the later
medieval period, are very much alike, for the New Testament
these later manuscripts differ significantly from the earlier
copies and translations. In fact, there are over five thousand
Greek manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament, as well
as thousands in Latin; and because these hand copies were
made before the invention of the printing press (which helped
guarantee uniformity), no two of them anywhere in existence
are exactly alike.
The problem, therefore, is to sift through all the available
material, compare the places where the manuscripts differ
(these are called “variants”), and determine which of the
variants represent errors and which one most likely represents
the original text. Although this may seem like an imposing task

— and in some ways it is — translators do not despair,
because they also know something about textual criticism, the
science that attempts to discover the original texts of ancient
It is not our purpose here to give the reader a primer in
textual criticism. This you may find in convenient form in the
articles by Bruce Waltke (Old Testament) and Gordon Fee (New
Testament) in volume 1 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
(ed. Frank Gaebelein [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979], pp. 211
– 22, 419 – 33). Our purpose here is to give some basic
information about what is involved in textual criticism so that
you will know why translators must do it and so that you can
make better sense of the marginal notes in your translation that
say, “Other ancient authorities add . . .” or, “Some manuscripts
do not have . . .”
For the purposes of this chapter, you need to be aware of
two items:
1. Textual criticism is a science that works with careful
controls. There are two kinds of evidence that translators
consider in making textual choices: external evidence (the
character and quality of the manuscripts) and the internal
evidence (the kinds of mistakes to which copyists were
susceptible). Scholars sometimes differ as to how much weight
they give either of these strands of evidence, but all are agreed
that the combination of strong external and strong internal
evidence together makes the vast majority of choices
somewhat routine. But for the remainder, where these two lines
of evidence seem to collide, the choices are more difficult.
The external evidence has to do with the quality and age of
the manuscripts that support a given variant. For the Old
Testament this often amounts to a choice among the Hebrew

manuscripts preserved in the Masoretic Text (MT), primarily
medieval copies (based on a very careful copying tradition),
earlier Hebrew manuscripts that have been preserved, in part,
in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS; dated before the first Christian
century), and manuscripts of ancient translations such as the
Greek Septuagint (LXX; produced in Egypt around 250 – 150
BC). A well-preserved copy of Isaiah found among the Dead
Sea Scrolls has demonstrated that the Masoretic tradition has
carefully preserved a very ancient text; nonetheless, it often
needs emendation from the Septuagint. Sometimes neither the
Hebrew nor Greek yields a tolerable sense, at which times
conjectures are necessary.
For the New Testament, the better external evidence was
preserved in Egypt, where again, a very reliable copying
tradition existed. When this early evidence is also supported
by equally early evidence from other sectors of the Roman
Empire, such evidence is usually seen to be conclusive.
The internal evidence has to do with the copyists and
authors. When translators are faced with a choice between two
or more variants, they usually can detect which readings are
the mistakes because scribal habits and tendencies have been
carefully analyzed by scholars and are now well-known.
Usually the variant that best explains how all the others came
about is the one presumed to be the original text. It is also
important for the translator to know a given biblical author’s
style and vocabulary, because these, too, play a role in making
textual choices.
As already noted, for the vast majority of variants found
among the manuscripts, the best (or good) external evidence
combined with the best internal evidence yields us an
extraordinarily high degree of certainty about the original text.

This may be illustrated thousands of times over simply by
comparing the NKJV (which is based on poor, late manuscripts)
with almost all other contemporary translations, such as the
NRSV or NIV. We will note three variants as illustrations of the
work of textual criticism:
1 Samuel 8:16

“ he will take . . . your finest young men and your donkeys”


“ he will take . . . the best of your cattle and donkeys”

The text of the NRSV/NIV (“your cattle”) comes from the
Septuagint, the usually reliable Greek translation of the Old
Testament. The NKJV/NASB follows the Masoretic Text,
reading “young men,” a rather unlikely term to be used in
parallel to “donkeys.” The origin of the miscopy in the Hebrew
text, which the NKJV followed, is easy to understand. The
expression for “your young men” in Hebrew is b wrykm, while
“your cattle” is bqrykm (they are as much alike as “television”
and “telephone” — i.e., the error could not have been oral).
The incorrect copying of a single character by a scribe resulted
in a change of meaning. The Septuagint was translated some
time before the miscopy was made, so it preserved the original
“your cattle.” The accidental change to “your young men” was
made later, affecting medieval Hebrew manuscripts, but too late
to affect the premedieval Septuagint.
Mark 1:2

“ As it is written in the Prophets . . .”


“ as it is written in Isaiah the prophet . . .”

The text of the NIV is found in all the best early Greek

manuscripts. It is also the only text found in all the earliest
(second-century) translations (Latin, Coptic, and Syriac) and is
the only text known among all but one of the church fathers
before the ninth century. It is easy to see what happened in the
later Greek manuscripts. Since the citation that follows is a
combination of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, a later copyist
“corrected” Mark’s original text to make it more precise.
1 Corinthians 6:20

“ therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are
“ Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

This example was chosen to illustrate that, on occasion,
changes to the original text were made by copyists for
theological reasons. The words “and in your spirit, which are
God’s,” though found in most of the late-medieval Greek
manuscripts, do not appear in any early Greek evidence or in
the Latin-speaking church in the West. Had they been in Paul’s
original letter, it is nearly impossible to explain either how or
why copyists would have left them out so early and so often.
But their late appearance in Greek manuscripts can be easily
explained. All such manuscripts were copied in monasteries at
a time when Greek philosophy, with its low view of the body,
had made inroads into Christian theology. So, some monks
added “in your spirit” and then concluded that both body and
spirit “are God’s.” While this is true, these additional words
deflect Paul’s obvious concern with the body in this passage
and are thus no part of the Spirit’s inspiration of the apostle.
It should be noted here that, for the most part, translators
work from Greek and Hebrew texts edited by careful, rigorous

scholarship. For the New Testament this means that the “best
text” has been edited and published by scholars who are
experts in this field. But it also means, for both Testaments, that
the translators themselves have access to an “apparatus”
(textual information in footnotes) that includes the significant
variants along with their manuscript support.
2. Although textual criticism is a science, it is not an exact
science, because it deals with many human variables.
Occasionally, especially when the translation is the work of a
committee, the translators will themselves be divided as to
which variant represents the original text and which is (are) the
scribal error(s). Usually at such times the majority choice will
be found in the actual translation, while the minority choice will
be in the margin.
The reason for the uncertainty may be either that the best
manuscript evidence conflicts with the best explanation of how
the error came about, or that the manuscript evidence is evenly
divided and either variant can explain how the other came to
be. We can illustrate this from 1 Corinthians 13:3, which in the
1984 NIV looks like this:
NIV text 1984:

“ surrender my body to the flames”

NIV note:

“ surrender my body that I may boast”

But in the 2011 NIV, the verse now looks like this (cf. NRSV,
NIV text 2011:

“ give over my body to hardship that I may boast

NIV note:

“ give over my body to the flames”









kauthēsōmai/kauchēsōmai. The word “boast” has the best
and earliest Greek support; the word “flames” appeared first in
Latin translation (at a time when Christians were being burned
at the stake). In this case both readings have some inherent
difficulties: “Flames” represents a form that is ungrammatical in
Greek; moreover, Paul’s letter was written well before Christians
were martyred by burning — and no one ever voluntarily
“gave over their bodies” to be burned at the stake! On the
other hand, while supported by what is easily the best
evidence, it has been difficult to find an adequate meaning for
“that I may boast.” Here is one of those places where a good
commentary will probably be necessary in order for you to
make up your own mind.
The preceding example is a good place for us also to refer
you back to the last chapter. You will note that the choice of
the correct text is one of the content questions. A good exegete
must know, if it is possible to know, which of these words Paul
actually wrote. On the other hand, it should also be noted that
Paul’s final point here is little affected by that choice. In either
case, he means that if one gives the body over to some extreme
sacrifice, or the like, but lacks love, it is all for nothing.
This, then, is what it means to say that translators must
make textual choices, and it also explains one of the reasons
why translations will sometimes differ — and also why
translators are themselves interpreters. Before we go on to the
second reason why translations differ, we need to make a note
here about the King James Version and its most recent revision,
the New King James Version.
The KJV for a long time was the most widely used
translation in the world; it also served for several centuries as
the classic expression of the English language. Indeed, its

translators coined phrases that will be forever embedded in our
language (“coals of fire,” “the skin of my teeth,” “tongues of
fire”). However, for the New Testament, the only Greek text
available to the translators of the 1611 edition was based on
late manuscripts, which had accumulated the mistakes of over a
thousand years of copying. Few of these mistakes — and we
must note that there are many of them — make any difference
to us doctrinally, but they often do make a difference in the
meaning of certain specific texts. Recognizing that the English
of the KJV was no longer a living language — and thoroughly
dissatisfied with its modern revision (RSV/NRSV) — it was
decided by some to “update” the KJV by ridding it of its
“archaic” way of speaking. But in so doing, the NKJV revisers
eliminated the best feature of the KJV (its marvelous expression
of the English language) and kept the worst (its flawed Greek
This is why for study you should use almost any modern
translation other than the KJV or the NKJV. But how to
choose between modern translations takes us to the next kinds
of choices translators have to make.

The Questions of Language
The next two kinds of choices — verbal and grammatical —
bring us to the actual science of translation. The difficulty has
to do with the transferring of words and ideas from one
language to another. To understand what various theories
underlie our modern translations, you will need to become
acquainted with the following technical terms:
Original language: the language that one is translating
from; in our case, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. For convenience,
we will usually say just “Hebrew or Greek.”

Receptor language: the language that one is translating
into; in our case, English.
Historical distance: has to do with the differences that
exist between the original language and the receptor language,
both in matters of words, grammar, and idioms as well as in
matters of culture and history.
Formal equivalence: the attempt to keep as close to the
“form” of the Hebrew or Greek, both words and grammar, as
can be conveniently put into understandable English. The
closer one stays to the Hebrew or Greek idiom, the closer one
moves toward a theory of translation often described as
“literal.” Translations based on formal equivalence will keep
historical distance intact at all points. The problem here,
however, is that “understandable” English is not the goal of
good translation; rather the goal is good “contemporary”
English that is comparable in language and meaning to the
original author’s intent — as much as that can be determined
from the context.
Functional equivalence: the attempt to keep the meaning
of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into
what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in
English. The more one is willing to forego formal equivalence
for functional equivalence, the closer one moves toward a
theory of translation frequently described as “dynamic
equivalent.” Such translations sustain historical distance on all
historical and factual matters but “update” matters of language,
grammar, and style.
Free translation: the attempt to translate the ideas from
one language to another, with less concern about using the
exact words of the original. A free translation, sometimes also

called a paraphrase, tries to eliminate as much of the historical
distance as possible and still be faithful to the intent of the
original text. The danger here is that a free translation can
easily become too free-reflecting how the translator wishes the
concepts would have been conveyed, rather than reflecting
faithfully how they actually are conveyed in the original text.
Theory of translation has basically to do with whether one
puts primary emphasis on formal or on functional equivalency,
that is, the degree to which one is willing to go in order to
bridge the gap between the two languages, either in use of
words and grammar or in bridging the historical distance by
offering a modern equivalent. For example, should “lamp” be
translated “flashlight” or “torch” in cultures where these serve
the purpose a lamp once did? Or should one translate it “lamp,”
and let readers bridge the gap for themselves? Should “holy
kiss” be translated “the handshake of Christian love” in
cultures where public kissing is offensive? Should “coals of
fire” become “burning embers/coals,” since this is more normal
English? Should “endurance inspired by hope” (1 Thess 1:3), a
formal equivalent that is almost meaningless in English, be
rendered “your endurance inspired by hope,” which is what
Paul’s Greek actually means?
Translators are not always consistent, but one of these
theories will govern all translators’ basic approach to their task.
At times the free or literal translations can be excessive, so
much so that Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Version
“translated” Paul’s letter to Rome as to Washington (!), while
Robert Young, in a literal rendering published in 1862,
transformed one Pauline sentence into this impossible English
(?): “Whoredom is actually heard of among you, and such
whoredom as is not even named among the nations — as that

one hath the wife of the father” (1 Cor 5:1). This is not a valid
translation at all.
The several translations of the whole Bible that are most
easily accessible may be placed on a formal or functional
equivalent and historical distance scale, as shown on the
following graph (line 1 represents the original translations, line
2 their various revisions; note that in the case of the RSV, both
the NRSV and ESV move more toward the middle, as does the
NIV2 (2011), while the NJB, REB and NLT [the revision of the
Living Bible] also have moved more toward the middle from
their originals).

Formal Equivalence




















Our view is that the best theory of translation is the one
that remains as faithful as possible to both the original and
receptor languages, but that when something has to “give,” it

should be in favor of the receptor language — without losing
the meaning of the original language, of course — since the
very reason for translation is to make these ancient texts
accessible to the English-speaking person who does not know
the original languages.
But note well: If the best translational theory is functional
equivalence, a translation that adheres to formal equivalence is
often helpful as a second source; it can give the reader some
confidence as to what the Hebrew or Greek actually looked like.
A free translation also can be helpful — to stimulate thinking
about the possible meaning of a text. But the basic translation
for reading and studying should be something in the
NIV/NRSV range.
The problem with a formal-equivalent translation is that it
keeps distance at the wrong places — in language and
grammar. Thus the translator often renders the Greek or Hebrew
into English that currently is never written or spoken that way.
It is like translating maison blanche from French to English as
“house white.” For example, no native English-speaking
person, even in the sixteenth century, would ever have said
“coals of fire” (Rom 12:20 KJV). That is a literal rendering of the
Greek construction, but what it means in English is “burning
coals” (NIV) or “live coals” (REB).
A second problem with a literal translation is that it often
makes the English ambiguous, where the Greek or Hebrew was
quite clear to the original recipients. For example, in 2
Corinthians 5:16 the Greek phrase kata sarka can be translated
literally “[to know] according to the flesh” (as in the NASB).
But this is not an ordinary way of speaking in English.
Furthermore, the phrase is ambiguous. Is it the person who is
being known who is “according to the flesh,” which seems to

be implied in the NASB, and which in this case would mean
something like “by their outward appearance”? Or is the
person who is “knowing” doing so “according to the flesh,”
which would mean “from a worldly point of view”? In this case,
however, the context is clear, which the NIV correctly renders:
“So from now on [since we have been raised to a new life, v. 15]
we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”
The problem with a free translation, on the other hand,
especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the
original author too much. In the second half of the twentieth
century, three “free translations” served succeeding
generations of Christians: Phillips (by J. B. Phillips), the Living
Bible (by Ken Taylor, who “translated” into language for the
young not the Greek Bible but the KJV), and The Message (by
Eugene Peterson). On the one hand, these renditions
sometimes have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing
some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate
contemporary Christians to take a new look at their Bibles. On
the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to
being a commentary, but without other options made available
to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes
be, they are never intended to be one’s only Bible, as even
these translators would be quick to admit. Thus the reader
needs regularly to check these rather eye-catching moments
against another translation or a commentary to make sure that
not too much freedom has been taken.

The way various translations handle the problem of “historical
distance” can best be noted by illustrating several of the kinds

of problems involved.
1. Weights, measures, money. This is a particularly difficult
area. Does one transliterate the Hebrew and Greek terms
(“ephah,” “homer,” etc.), or try to find their English
equivalents? If one chooses to go with equivalents in weights
and measures, does one use the standard “pounds” and “feet”
still in vogue in the United States (but not Canada), or does
one follow the rest of the English-speaking world and translate
“liters” and “meters”? Inflation can make a mockery of
monetary equivalents in a few years. The problem is further
complicated by the fact that exaggerated measures or money
are often used to suggest contrasts or startling results, as in
Matthew 18:24 – 28 or Isaiah 5:10. To transliterate in these
cases would likely cause an English reader to miss the point of
the passages altogether.
The KJV, followed closely by the NKJV and NRSV, was
inconsistent in these matters. For the most part they
transliterated, so that we got “baths,” “ephahs,” “homers,”
“shekels,” and “talents.” Yet the Hebrew ʾammāh was
translated “cubit,” the zeret a “span,” and the Greek mna
(“mina”) became the British “pound,” while the dénarion
became a mere “penny.” For most North Americans all of these
have the effect of being meaningless or misleading.
The NASB uses “cubit” and “span” — both of which,
according to modern dictionaries, represent “an ancient linear
unit” — but otherwise consistently transliterates and then puts
an English equivalent in the margin (except for John 2:6 [where
the NASB had put the transliteration in the margin!]). This is
the way the original NIV also chose to go (except for Genesis 6
– 7, where “cubits” were turned into feet), while the marginal
notes are given both in English standards and in metric

equivalents. The apparent reason for this is that the “cubit”
was just flexible enough in length so as to preclude precision in
English — especially when translating the measurements of
On the matter of monetary equivalents translations are
sometimes puzzling, but in fairness the difficulties here are
enormous. Take, for example, the first occurrence of talantōn
and dénarion in the New Testament (Matt 18:23 – 34, the
parable of the unmerciful servant). The talantōn was a Greek
monetary unit of a varying, but very large, amount.
Traditionally it was transliterated into English as “talent,”
which you will immediately recognize as quite problematic,
since that word has changed meaning over time in English to
connote “ability.” The dénarion, on the other hand, was a
Roman monetary unit of a modest amount, basically the daily
wage of a day laborer. So what to do with these words? In the
parable they are intentionally not precise amounts but are
purposely hyperbolic contrasts (see ch. 8). The NIV, therefore,
rightly translates “ten thousand talents” as “ten thousand
bags of gold” and “a hundred denarii” as “a hundred silver
coins,” and then explains the words in a footnote.
On the other hand, when a precise amount is in view or the
coin itself is being spoken about, most contemporary formaland functional-equivalent translations have moved toward
transliterating “denarius” but are still ambivalent about the
We would argue that either equivalents or transliterations
with marginal notes are a good procedure with most weights
and measurements. However, the use of equivalents is surely
to be preferred in passages like Isaiah 5:10 and the Matthew
parable noted above. Note, for example, how much more

meaningfully — though with some liberties as to precision —
the GNB renders the purposeful contrasts in Isaiah 5:10 than
does the NKJV (cf. NASB):
Isaiah 5:10

“ For ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and a homer of seed
shall yield one ephah.”
“ The grapevines growing on five acres of land will yield only five
gallons of wine. Ten bushels of seed will produce only one bushel of

2. Euphemisms. Almost all languages have euphemisms for
matters of sex and toilet. A translator has one of three choices
in such matters: (1) translate literally but perhaps leave an
English-speaking reader bewildered or guessing, (2) translate
the formal equivalent but perhaps offend or shock the reader,
or (3) translate with a functionally equivalent euphemism.
Option 3 is probably the best, if there is an appropriate
euphemism. Otherwise it is better to go with option 2,
especially for matters that generally no longer require
euphemisms in English. Thus to have Rachel say, “I am having
my monthly period” (Gen 31:35 GNB; cf. NIV) is to be preferred
to the literal “the manner of women is upon me” (NASB, cf.
KJV, RSV). For the same idiom earlier in Genesis (18:11) the GNB
is consistent (“Sarah had stopped having her monthly
periods”), while the NIV is much freer, having the public
reading of Scripture in mind (“Sarah was past the age of
childbearing”). Similarly, “[he] forced her, and lay with her” (2
Sam 13:14 KJV) becomes simply “he raped her” in the NIV and
There can be dangers in this, however, especially when
translators themselves miss the meaning of the idiom, as can be

seen in the original NIV, GNB, and LB renderings of the first
assertion addressed in 1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man
not to marry,” which unfortunately is both wrong and
misleading. The idiom “to touch a woman” in every other case
in antiquity means to have sexual intercourse with a woman,
and never means anything close to “to marry.” Here the NAB
has found an equivalent euphemism: “A man is better off
having no relations with a woman”; but this has the possibility
of being misunderstood or misconstrued to mean no relations
whatsoever — including friendly ones. So the NIV has
eliminated the euphemism altogether: “ ‘It is good for a man not
to have sexual relations with a woman,’ ” which it also correctly
puts in quotes as something being put forward in Corinth, to
which Paul will eventually answer with both a “yes” and “no,”
qualified by the circumstances.
3. Vocabulary. When most people think of translation, this
is the area they usually have in mind. It seems like such a
simple task: find the English word that means the same as the
Hebrew or Greek word. But finding precisely the right word is
what makes translation so difficult. Part of the difficulty is not
only in the choosing of an appropriate English word but also in
the choosing of a word that will not already be filled with
connotations that are foreign to the original language.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that some
Hebrew or Greek words have ranges of meaning different from
anything available in English. In addition, some words can
have several shades of meaning, as well as two or more
considerably different meanings. And a deliberate play on
words borders on being nearly impossible to translate from one
language to another.
We have already noted how various translations have

chosen to interpret “virgin” in 1 Corinthians 7:36. In chapter 1
we also noted the difficulty in rendering Paul’s use of the word
sarx (“flesh”). In most cases, almost anything is better than the
literal “flesh.” The NIV handles this word especially well:
“sinful nature” when Paul is contrasting “flesh” and “spirit”;
“human nature” in Romans 1:3 where it refers to Jesus’ Davidic
descent; “from a worldly point of view” in 2 Corinthians 5:16
noted above (cf. 1 Cor 1:26 “by human standards”); and
“body” when it means that, as in Colossians 1:22.
This kind of example can be illustrated many times over and
is one of the reasons why a translation by functional
equivalence is much to be preferred to a more literal one, since
the latter has the frequent possibility of misleading the Englishspeaking reader, and thus misses the reason for translation.
4. Wordplays. Wordplays tend to abound in most
languages, but they are always unique to the original language
and can seldom, if ever, be translated into a receptor language.
The same is true with wordplays in the Bible, which abound in
the poetry of the Old Testament and can be found throughout
the New Testament as well. So what does the translator do?
Take, for example, the play on the sounds for the words
“summer” and “end” in Amos 8:1 – 2, where even though the
Hebrew consonants are qy and q respectively, the two
words themselves were pronounced virtually alike in Amos’s
day. Translations that tend toward formal equivalence translate
in a straightforward manner:

“ [God] said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of
summer [qy ] fruit.’ Then the LORD said to me, ‘The end [q ] has
come upon my people Israel.’ ”

Translations that move toward functional equivalence try to
work with the wordplay, even when doing so may alter the
meaning somewhat:

“ ‘What do you see, Amos,’ [God] asked. ‘A basket of ripe [qy ]
fruit,’ I answered. Then the LORD said to me, ‘The time is ripe [q ] for
my people Israel.’ ”

An example of the same difficulty can be found in some
instances of Paul’s use of the word “flesh,” noted above and in
the previous chapter (p. 23). This happens especially in
Galatians 3:3, where Paul says (NASB): “Having begun by the
Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Lying behind
this rhetoric is the issue of Gentile believers yielding to JewishChristian pressure to submit to circumcision (of the literal
flesh!). But it is clear from the full argument of Galatians that
Paul here means more than just circumcision when referring to
“by the flesh.” In Galatians 5 the “flesh” has to do with living
in a self-centered, ungodly way as opposed to living “by the
Spirit.” So what does the functional-equivalent translator do in
3:3? The 1984 NIV renders it “by human effort” (cf. NLT) and
the GNB “by your own power”; but in doing so they must lose
the “Spirit/flesh” contrast that is picked up again later (4:28 and
5:13 – 26). Both ways of translating are “right,” of course, in
keeping with the respective theories of translation; but in both
cases something is lost, simply because these particular
wordplays are not available in English. And this is yet another
reason why you should frequently use more than one
translation, especially when “reading” borders on “studying.”
5. Grammar and Syntax. Even though most Indo-European
languages have a great many similarities, each language has its

own preferred structures as to how words and ideas are related
to each other in sentences. It is at these points especially
where translation by functional equivalence is to be preferred.
A formal-equivalent translation tends to abuse or override the
ordinary structures of the receptor language by directly
transferring into it the syntax and grammar of the original
language. Such direct transfers are often possible in the
receptor language, but they are seldom preferable. From
hundreds of examples, we choose two as illustrations, one from
Greek and one from Hebrew.
a. One of the characteristics of Greek is its fondness for
what are known as genitive constructions. The genitive is the
ordinary case of possession, as in “my book.” Such a true
possessive can also, but only very awkwardly, be rendered
“the book of me.” However, other possessives in English, such
as “God’s grace,” do not so much mean, for example, that God
owns the grace as that he gives it, or that it comes from him.
Such “non-true” possessives can always be translated into
English as “the grace of God.”
The Greek language has a great profusion of these latter
kinds of genitives, which are used, for example, as descriptive
adjectives to express source or to connote special relationships
between two nouns. A “literal” translation almost invariably
transfers these into English with an “of” phrase, but frequently
with strange results, such as the “coals of fire” noted above, or
“the word of His power” (Heb 1:3 NKJV). Both of these are
clearly adjectival or descriptive genitives, which in the NIV are
more accurately rendered “burning coals” and “his powerful
word.” Similarly the NASB’s “steadfastness of hope” (1 Thess
1:3) and “joy of the Holy Spirit” (1:6) are translated in the NIV
as “endurance inspired by hope” and “joy given by the Holy

Spirit.” These are not only to be preferred; they are, in fact,
more accurate because they give a genuine English equivalent
rather than a literal, Greek way of expressing things that in
English would be nearly meaningless.
Interestingly enough, in one of the few places where the
KJV (followed by the RSV but not the NASB) offered
something of an equivalent (1 Cor 3:9), the translators missed
the meaning of the genitive altogether. Apparently they were
led astray by the word “fellow-workers” and thus translated,
“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s
husbandry, ye are God’s building.” But in Paul’s sentence each
occurrence of “God” is clearly a possessive genitive, with an
emphasis on both we (Paul and Apollos) and you (the church
as God’s field and building) as belonging to him. This is
correctly translated in the 2011 NIV as, “For we are God’s
coworkers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Paul’s point is
made even more clearly in the NAB, where they have rendered
“field” as “cultivation.”
But the still greater problem exists with the first of these
Greek sentences, which is regularly rendered “God’s
coworkers.” In almost anyone’s understanding of English this
would mean coworkers with God, as it has in fact been so often
understood. But Paul’s genitive is almost certainly intended as
a “possessive,” meaning “coworkers in God’s service” as the
2011 NIV renders it, not working “alongside God,” as the
standard rendering seems to imply and is thus frequently
misunderstood and misused
b. Thousands of times in the Old Testament the KJV
translators woodenly followed the Hebrew word order in a way
that does not produce normal idiomatic English. One common
example is how often verses (with each verse a paragraph!)

begin with the word “and.” For example, in Genesis 1 every
verse, without exception, begins with “and” — a total of thirty
times. Even the NKJV translators had difficulty with this idiom;
nonetheless they still rendered the Hebrew “and” in almost
every case (using “and,” “then,” “so,” etc.). Now compare the
NIV. It reduces the number of occurrences of “and” to fifteen,
while at the same time improving the flow of the language so
that it sounds more natural to the ear.
The NIV translators produced an improved English version
by taking seriously the fact that the vast majority of prose
sentences in Old Testament Hebrew begin with one of the two
Hebrew forms for the word “and.” The word for “and” appears
even when there is absolutely nothing preceding it to which
the sentence logically connects. In fact, six books of the Old
Testament (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, Ezra, Ruth, and Esther)
begin in Hebrew with the word “and,” though these obviously
do not follow any previous statement. Accordingly, it is now
recognized by Hebrew grammarians that “and” at the
beginning of a sentence is virtually the equivalent of the use of
capitalization at the beginning of English sentences. This does
not mean that the Hebrew “and” should never be translated by
the English “and”; it simply means that “and” is only
sometimes, and certainly not a majority of the time, the best
rendering in English. A simple English sentence beginning with
a capital letter will do nicely in most cases.
Another example is the KJV’s repeated “and it came to
pass,” which is frequently retained in the NKJV, even though
this is never used in normal English anymore. Indeed, it was
rare even in the seventeenth century when the KJV was
undertaken. Because the Hebrew narrative verb form that lies
behind it was followed literally and woodenly, the resulting

translation, “and it came to pass,” occupied a prominent
position in Old Testament style but nowhere else in English
speech. We once heard a sermon on the concept that all things
are temporary and shall eventually pass away (cf. 1 Cor 13:8 –
10) based on the frequency of the clause “and it came to pass,”
which the preacher misunderstood to mean, “And it came in
order to pass away.” In fact, the NIV translators (rightly) do
not give expression to the Hebrew clause as such. Judiciously
rendering Hebrew into English requires an equivalent meaning,
not an equivalent word or clause pattern.
6. Matters of Gender. When this book first appeared in
1981, the problem of using masculine language where women
are included or are in view was just beginning to become an
issue for translators. By the time the second edition appeared
in 1993, one revision (NRSV) of a well-established translation
(RSV) had already appeared, which became deliberately
inclusive in all such instances in both the Old and New
Testaments. In the following decade all the other leading
translations have followed suit to a greater or lesser degree,
while at least one revision (ESV) came into existence to “stem
this tide,” as it were, so that in effect it is deliberately exclusive
of women in many places where it is quite unnecessary to do
so. Indeed, there can be no question that standard usage in
both Great Britain and North America has now shifted strongly
toward inclusiveness when both men and women are being
addressed or are in view. Recent surveys show that a majority
of people up to age seventy (!) will consider a statement like
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” to refer only to
men or boys, not to women or girls.
But this also presents some agonizing decisions on the part
of translators. There is very little difficulty, for example, in

translating Paul’s vocative “brothers” as “brothers and
sisters,” since in almost all cases it is clear that women are also
in view — and in any case some Christian traditions
(Pentecostals, for example) have been using this inclusive
vocative for several generations. But other cases are more
problematic. Two examples will suffice.
In order to avoid excluding women from passages that are
spoken to or about people in general, it has been deemed
necessary by some to make certain clauses plural that are
expressed in the singular (although this usually does not have
significance in itself). Psalm 1:1 (“Blessed is the man” [RSV]) is
an example, where many revisions of existing translations have
moved to the plural in order to avoid unnecessarily excluding
women from this psalm, since the generic use of “man” as a
way of saying “person” has generally fallen out of current
usage. To render this as “person” here would require the
translator to follow up with either masculine pronouns (v. 2
“his delight”) or with some kind of awkwardness (“his or her”)
that would distort the poetry.
Although there have been a variety of attempts to resolve
this problem in contemporary English versions, the present
NIV seems to have done so quite successfully, by recasting to
“one” in verse 1, to “the person” in verse 3, and simply “the
wicked” and