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Beyond Devotionals Part 2
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In Part 1 of this series, I explained what I mean by ďspiritual cutleryĒ and why the one piece of spiritual cutlery youíre probably being told not to use is very probably the first one you should get.
This time round Iím going to recommend several new items of cutlery you should get to help you investigate Bible words and verses you find confusing or hard to understand. Iíll also mention another item you should probably avoid as a new Bible reader because it offers short-term gains but can create problems in the long run.
My recommendation is that you get hold of and use several different Bible translations (or versions) to help you understand the Bible better. We tend to think of the translation we read at any given moment as ďthe BibleĒ, but thatís not strictly true. A translation is ďthe BibleĒ only insofar as its words offer readers the actual meaning of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the surviving copies of the original language manuscripts.
Think of the different Bible versions as the bowls and dishes in which the feast of Godís Word is served. No one bowl or dish contains the entire feast, and no single one of them can offer you all the sights, smells, and flavours of the whole feast. You need to learn what each one contains, and how best to sample them.
Technically, I suppose that means the translations are spiritual crockery rather than cutlery, but letís not fuss about that for now. Instead, let me do something much more important by helping you to save a small fortune before you spend it. Iím going to recommend a web site you should mark as a favourite and use as your first port of call whenever you want or need to look at a Bible passage more carefully. Itís called www.biblegateway.com
You might at this point be tempted to ask me a number of questions. Which translations should you get? How different are Bible translations from each other anyway? And how do you know youíll use them? This is where biblegateway.com comes into its own. You see, there is an important difference between buying multiple Bible translations and merely ďgetting hold of and usingĒ them.
The site Iíve just recommended is free to use at time of writing, and I do not receive any kind of payment for mentioning it here. When I trained as a lay minister a few years ago, biblegateway.com was highly recommended by my teachers. I know first-hand that both my former teachers and fellow students still use it a great deal. And now, hereís how the site can help you as a new Bible reader to work out which translations you might want to buy later.
Letís imagine youíve decided to start reading the Bible regularly, and youíre using the King James Version. Youíve got an old copy lying around the house, and you donít feel either confident or rich enough to spend money on a newer translation. As far as youíre concerned, there are too many to choose from and you donít know how you would decide which ones to get. So as youíre reading through the King James Version, you see that in Exodus 28:11(KJV) God commanded the Israelites to make ďouches of goldĒ. Ouches? What are those?
You try to guess from the context of the word, but deep down you know thatís what it is: a guess, and not a very well informed guess if youíre honest with yourself. Some people will tell you to use a dictionary at this point. Seriously? What sort of modern dictionary is going to tell you what a word meant in the early seventeenth century, when the King James Version was first translated? The answer is a highly specialized, very expensive dictionary. Donít bother.
Instead, head on over to biblegateway.com and look up the reference there in the same translation youíre using at home. This will let you check youíve looked up the right verse. Then click on the ďOther versionsĒ option to see the same verse in a wide range of different translations.
This sort of trick may be horrible if youíre trying to memorize Bible verses, but itís great if your goal is to understand what a particular word or verse means. This tip will help you understand your Bible better, and sample different Bible translations free of charge.
Youíll soon find out which translations you generally find easier to read and understand, check how different the translations really are from each other, and also get a feel for which translations might be more literal and which ones try to offer you the gist, the essential idea, of a passage.
Meanwhile, I think youíll agree Iíve just given you a way to find out some very useful information before you even think about buying one or more modern Bible translations for personal reading and study. When you do eventually buy several different Bibles, I suggest you get a mixture of literal and looser translations. Now Iím going to recommend an item of spiritual cutlery to avoid Ė at least for the time being. Theyíre called cross references.
Cross references are usually indicated by offset individual letters which seem to float half-way up the verses of your Bible. They refer to particular Bible verses via either footnotes or centre notes depending on which Bible edition youíre using. If youíre new to the contents of the Bible or youíre trying to get into the habit of reading the Bible regularly, I suggest you avoid using cross references during your readings for three reasons.
First of all, unless youíre using an electronic Bible of some kind, using cross references can be very slow unless you know both the names and the order of the books of the Bible. Most Bible readers, especially new readers, donít know how to navigate around the Bible very well. Whereabouts is Haggai again? Is Jude in the Old Testament or the New Testament?
Unless you already know details like this, using cross references in a hard copy Bible will force you back to the Table of Contents over and over again to find a verse. This might teach you the importance of learning the books of the Bible by heart, but something tells me youíd be better off reading the Bible in the first instance.
Secondly, looking up cross references in the middle of a reading can easily distract you by taking you to a completely different part of the Bible. Iím trying to help you get into the habit of reading the Bible in a structured way. Hopping about from one book to another chasing down scattered Bible verses is not going to help you achieve that goal, especially in the early days. It can be great fun to follow these Bible rabbit trails if youíve got time on your hands, but frustratingly distracting and time consuming if youíve got other things to do.
My final reservation about cross-references is that they are inevitably very selective. They give you what someone else thinks you need to know the Bible says about a verse. But they canít tell you everything the Bible has to say about the multiple subjects often found in just one or two verses. The risk is that new Bible readers may be exposed to the theological opinions governing the selection of a cross reference without even realising that one or more other Bible references may help them understand the verse in a very different way.
Besides, even if somebody wanted to tell you everything the Bible has to say about a verse, it would assume not only that they had enough space to give you all the references, but also that they knew everything every Bible verse says about every other Bible verse. Thatís a huge amount of information, far more than any one Bible scholar or translator can bring to mind. Itís one of the biggest reasons why we will never grow out of reading the Bible, even after we reach the final state of perfection God is waiting to give us.
© 2015 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. Christopher is available to research and write for hire on Christian matters via the Faithwriters.com website.
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