Learning to understand the Bible

Bible Study


By Spencer D Gear

Is it possible for a person who has no knowledge of the original languages of the Bible to have an accurate knowledge of the biblical text? If that were not so, it would leave a lot of people down through human history with a deficient biblical understanding.

Let’s examine some of the issues here. I was reading a person’s post on Christian Forums. She wrote:

I agree there are many watered down [Bible] versions today, but if we are really living by the Spirit, God gives us discernment on which ones really do portray everything that He wanted to get across. But, what did you mean when you said life more abundantly? Because many people believe in the prosperity gospel and I was hoping that wasn’t what you meant by it.[1]

My response was:

So do you know Greek and Hebrew so that you can say with confidence that translations of Scripture are among the “many watered down versions”?
We need to understand that it is the role of a Bible teacher to bring out the exegesis of a text from the original languages. Translations can’t do that because they are meant to be read by the populace. That does not make them watered down. It causes translators to translate with a fundamental, basic understanding of the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words and grammar.

By the way, could you give me some examples of modern translations that are “watered down”?[2]

Another person responded to me:

I’m wondering, OzSpen: I don’t know Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic.

What I have done is learn about the various translations (who did them; whether they have a specific theological bent; whether they’re paraphrasing, literal, thought for thought; what time period they were written in; etc.), and then I compare several translations to one another so as to try and come up with the best rendering and such. At times I’ll use the lexicons over at blueletterbible.org, and the few concordances I have on my shelves at home. Anyway, I was wondering, is this a good way to do exegesis?

I’m asking you, specifically, because I truly do value your opinion (don’t blush now! just kidding…). But yeah, besides becoming masters of the original languages, is this also a good way to go about it?[3]

How to understand the Bible

If a person does not have knowledge of the Bible’s original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, how is it possible to exegete and understand the Bible? My response to beforHim was as follows:[4]

I would say that there are (1) better, and (2) best ways of doing exegesis of a text. I am able to approach the best for the NT because I read, exegete and have taught NT Greek. So I know how to use the Greek tools of grammars, lexicons and word studies.

However, I was short-sighted in my days of training in theological college and seminary and did not take Hebrew. So I have to use the better approach in the OT. This means ….

(a) using a number of different translations to compare. I use the ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV and NRSV. This will give me a fairly reasonable understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew & Aramaic texts of the OT.

(b) However, I’m handicapped by not knowing the grammar of the Hebrew. This is where I call on my son for help. He has completed his MDiv and reads both Greek and Hebrew. However, most people don’t have this help of a son who knows his Hebrew. When I finish my PhD next year, I’ll take a couple courses in Hebrew at a Bible college here in Brisbane. My son learned his Hebrew from an excellent Hebrew exegete at Brisbane School of Theology.

(c) However, translating Hebrew and Greek does not provide the only challenge. Knowing culture is important and for that I use various Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. There are some reasonable sites on the Internet.

(d) All Bible texts must be read in context. Many well-meaning Christians do not understand that and can come to some divergent answers to a verse when they don’t understand what came before and after that verse and in line with the main emphases of the OT or NT writer.

For those who do not read the original languages, I’d recommend a read of Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart 1993. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (2nd edn). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. There are so many excellent guides, especially for the lay person, here. Chapter 2 is titled, “The Basic Tool: A Good Translation”. They highlight the problem with using only one translation by using 1 Cor. 7:36 as an example:

KJV: But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry.
NASB: But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry.
NIV: If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong[a] and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married.
REB [NEB]: But if a man has a partner in celibacy and feels that he is not behaving properly towards her, if, that is, his instincts are too strong for him, and something must be done, he may do as he pleases; there is nothing wrong in it; let them marry.


Most people throughout history have not had access to the exegetical skills made possible with an understanding of NT Greek and OT Hebrew and Aramaic. Therefore, any Christian is able to reach an understanding of the biblical text by:

  • Comparing several translations. This is beneficial for people who speak English, but not so helpful for the people who speak the Buru language in East Timor as the SIL translators have now translated their first Bible into Buru (two of my SIL translator friends have been involved in the project). Those who don’t have a translation in the native language rely on missionary Bible teachers to teach the Bible.
  • Obtain an understanding of the culture of the day when that portion of the Bible was written.
  • Always read the Bible in context (read the verses around it) to obtain a meaning when understanding the intent of the passage.
  • It is the role of Bible teachers to help people understand the meaning of a biblical text.

In English there are many useful tools to help with understanding the culture of the day. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are good starters. There are books of Bible archaeology that may throw additional light on a text. InterVarsity Press (USA) has published a whole series of dictionaries on OT and NT background. This is but one example: T Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker (eds) 2003. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, Illinois / Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press.

book cover

Courtesy InterVarsity Press


[1] Allykelly #331, 14 October 2012. Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Do infants deserve hell since they are born in a sinful nature’. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7689287-34/ (Accessed 14 October 2012).

[2] OzSpen #339, ibid.

[3] beforHim #340, ibid.

[4] Ozspen #141, ibid.


Copyright (c) 2013 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 14 October 2015.