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Studying the Bible for Yourself

By Gary F. Zeolla


The following e-mail is commenting on the items listed at Bible Versions Controversy. The e-mailers’ comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

>Dear Gary,

What resources should one use to study the Bible for yourself? I have noticed too many people look at the footnotes in study Bibles as being as authoritative as the Bible itself. Wouldn't it be better to just read the Bible without such notes?

God Bless,

Yes it would be a problem for people to look at study notes as being as authoritative as the Bible itself. But there are some good references one can use for help in studying the Bible. The first type of reference I would recommend is for one to get a good Bible dictionary. It can provide background information on the books of the Bible, and the historical/ cultural background of the Biblical time-period.

The two best Bible dictionaries I know of are Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary (available from most Christian sources) and The Classic Bible Dictionary (available from Christian Literature Word: see my Christian Books and Software page for links).

Next I recommend a person get a "complete" or "exhaustive" concordance" for whatever their favorite Bible version is. Such a tool would be similar to the mini-concordance found in the back of reference Bibles but more thorough. Such a concordance lists every verse occurrence of every word covered ("complete") or every occurrence of every word in the Bible ("exhaustive).

Then I recommend the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. It is simply cross-references like seen in a reference Bible, but far more (about 500,000 vs. 100,000). These aids together will help one to study and interpret the Bible for themselves. However, I also make sure to let people know to be sure to get the original Treasury, not the one marked The NEW Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. The latter not only has cross-references, but it adds much commentary that is, IMO, very poor.

Of course, a really good way to get all of the above together would be with a Bible program. In fact, most Bible programs would provide even more flexibility than hardcopy references can provide. For instance, the concordance functions in a software program enable complex word searches and phrase searches, rather than just single word lists as a hardcopy reference works do.

So I strongly recommend any Christian with a computer to get a Bible program. There is really no excuse not to given that inexpensive and even free ones are available. A freeware program I recommend on my site is the Bible Search Utility (BSU). It has, right now, two Bible texts available for it (although the developer has plans to add more in the near future) and enables one to do simple and complex searches.

A very inexpensive Bible program is the Online Bible. It has many Bible versions, enables complex searches, and has cross references, along with various commentaries. And of course, there are many others depending on how much one wants to spend. In addition to the above two, I also use BibleSoft's PC Study Bible and Hermenutica's BibleWorks.

And finally, for when I am away from my desktop PC I now have the PalmBible, NKJV version on my handheld PC (H/PC). It also enables one to do simple and complex word searches. In fact, given that my H/PC is really no bigger than a hardcopy Bible, I basically have stop using hardcopy Bible versions. I just use my PalmBible instead. I even have a black, leather carrying case for it that looks just like a standard Bible cover. (see under "Bible Software" on my Bibles Online page for links to sites with info about the above programs).

So the point of all of the above is, yes I agree: one should try to interpret the Bible for themselves as much as possible. And reading the Bible text while using various concordances, cross-reference sources, and Bible programs helps one to do this.

But still, the Bible does contain things that are hard to understand (2Peter 3:16). And given the volume and intricacies of the Bible, the average person will often "miss" important things if they are not pointed out to them. So for both of these reason, I do recommend at some point a person utilize a good study Bible(s) and/ or commentary for reference.

And I must point out, using such aids is really no different than attending church or a Bible study. When one listens to a sermon or Bible teacher one is allowing another person to help them to understand the Bible text. So if someone wants to say a Christian should not use study Bibles or commentaries then, to be consistent, he would also have to say one should not go to church (or at least leave before the sermon) and not attend Bible studies. But such a recommendation would conflict with Scripture (Heb 10:25).

Moreover, the Bible teaches God has given some as teachers (1Cor 12:28,29). And when someone writes the notes for a study Bible or a commentary, or preaches a sermon, that person is simply exercising this spiritual gift. So it cannot be said it is wrong for a person to listen to or read such teachings.

Furthermore, reading through a study Bible, or listening to a sermon, forces someone to do exactly what you say you did: read the notes or listen to the sermon and then read the Bible text and decide for yourself if the note or preacher is correctly interpreting the verse. So the study notes or preacher forces a person to "dig" into the Scriptures to decide if these things are so (Acts 17:11).

To conclude, I do agree with the basic thrust of your e-mail. But I also want to be sure you do not discount the very Scriptural role of teachers. And teachers exercise their gifts through the spoken and the written word, in the form of preaching, teaching, writing study notes, commentaries, reference books, and yes, even articles such as you see on my site.

All of these are aids that can and should be used to help a person to study the Bible. But still, as you said, the most valuable thing is for someone to learn how to interpret the Scriptures for themselves.

And a reliable Bible version or versions, along with a concordance, cross references, and a good Bible dictionary, either in hardcopy or software format, are the primary tools for Bible readers to use to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Study Bibles, commentaries, and the like then would be secondary sources to use.

>Hi Again, Gary:

Thank you for your extensive and as always, well articulated response. I agree wholeheartedly with your points. Let me say again, I am not against Study Bibles per se, just the assumption (as indicated by responses in Bibles classes such as, "but my notes say...") that study notes are authoritative in themselves; particularly in the murky area of eschatology.

It seems that many believers are dispensational in their eschatology not because they have done a personal study of the Word, but because their favorite Bible teacher or study Bible teaches pre-tribulational dispensationalism. But again, I agree with your response. Please feel free to post this exchange.

God Bless,

Thank you for your response and for the clarification. It is well noted. I know what you mean about people looking at study notes as being "authoritative." I recently had a discussion with a KJV-Onlyist in regards to changes in the 1611 KJV vs. the 1769 edition that is in common use today.

In 1Cor 12:28, the 1611 KJV had "helps in governments" while the 1769 edition has "helps, governments." He said this was not a "substantial" change as the notes in the original Geneva Bible says, "both helps and governments are referring to the roles of deacons and elders in the church."

I responded that I had to respectively disagree with the Geneva Bible notes. IMO, "helps" would be referring to the role of deacons whereas "governments" would be the role of elders. So it is significant change: from referring to one role to two roles.

The point is, he quoted the Geneva Bible notes as if they gave the "final word" on the question. But you and I are in agreement that study notes can be helpful; but they must never be considered "authoritative" as you put it. They can aid the reader; but the reader must always decide for himself if they are correct or not.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

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