Chapter 4

Bibles and Bible study

The first question we need to ask is which Bible to use. For there are many different translations of the Bible.

Most of us are not Hebrew or Greek scholars, so we rely on biblical translators to do this work faithfully for us.

Can we rely on them? It may come as a surprise to discover that Bible versions differ, and that some are not suited to serious study.

Translators and editors have different priorities in mind when preparing their own particular version for publication.

Some versions are created for ease of reading or for use in worship; others concentrate on accuracy of meaning, with the translators working hard to provide the best approximation to what the original writer was actually saying.

Sometimes this is an almost impossible task, and the best study Bibles will explain the specific problem and what the translators think is the most likely meaning.

One thing that I find difficult to understand is that some Bible translations seem to be biased towards a particular theological viewpoint. And sadly, one particular favourite is unintentionally flawed.

How, then, can we find out which versions are reliable for study?

Read the introduction

When considering a particular study Bible, always look carefully at the preface and/or introduction to ensure that it is suitable for serious study. Try to find answers to the following questions:

* who initiated the particular version under consideration, and for what reason?

*who were the translators, and what were their backgrounds?

* what was the primary aim? Was it accuracy of translation, readability, or suitability for worship or drama? Is it a paraphrase, for example?

* what methods were employed to obtain the best translation and eliminate bias, whether sectarian or theological?

* where translation problems occur, how are they handled? Are they indicated by means of footnotes or some other means?

* is the version supported by inter-nationally respected Bible societies?

Versions that I use for study

While there are doubtless other suitable Bibles, there are three versions that I personally use for study, having considered them in relation to the criteria given above:

+Revised Standard Version (RSV);

+New Revised Standard Version (NRSV);

+Good News Bible (GNB)

The GNB is designed to read more easily than the RSV and NRSV, but all three have been created with accuracy of meaning as a major criterion.

All are produced by teams of scholars, working with each other and with other responsible bodies in such a way as to eliminate bias and achieve accuracy of meaning as far as it is possible to do so.

They talk honestly about the problems of translation, and provide footnotes where there are difficulties or uncertainties that remain. All three have the imprimatur of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Nevertheless no version however reliably translated, (and none are totally reliable), can do our work for us. We have to study widely and think hard to find sound Biblical answers to our questions, especially when developing knowledge throws new light on a matter, as is the case on the question we are examining.

Versions used for comparison purposes

There are two other versions of the Bible that I use, mainly for comparison purposes, as their prefaces suggest a particular theological viewpoint:

+New International Version (NIV)

The NIV is evangelical in origin, but I have not noticed any particular bias on the issue of homosexuality. This version has the imprimatur of the International Bible Society (formerly the New York Bible Society).

However, I would raise a cautionary point regarding the notes included in the NIV Study Version, as these seem to display an inadequate understanding of the issue in question here.

+Jerusalem Bible (JB)

This version is Roman Catholic in origin. Though it has been translated by 27 scholars, the final result was the responsibility of one man: Alexander Jones. It has the imprimatur of the late Cardinal Heenan, former Archbishop of Westminster, and the Study Version notes take account of Vatican 2 decisions.

Some versions unsuitable for critical study

Paraphrases inevitably reflect the theological views of the writers, and if used, they should be used with the utmost care (the same is true of many, if not most, Bible commentaries).

This applies to the widely used Living Bible, which is a paraphrase. It is also written from the rigid conservative evangelical tradition (this is declared in the preface to the early edition, but is sadly omitted in later editions). The Living Bible does not have the imprimatur of any Bible society, and like any paraphrase it should never be used for serious study.

Finally, what about the much-loved King James Version (KJV)?

Sadly, it contains many inaccuracies, and many of the words and phrases no longer mean what they did when it was translated. It has also been a principal contributor to misunderstanding on the issue of homosexuality - as you will discover.

Also, the codices of the scriptures, upon which those early translators based their work honourably and well, are now known to have contained flaws - mistakes made over many centuries by those copying the scriptures from manuscript to manuscript.

The overall result is a version that suffers from accumulated errors. It is a salutary exercise to read the preface to the RSV, which explains why it was necessary to replace the King James Version!

I still continue to use the KJV version,among others, for its intrinsic beauty of expression - but never for study.

The tools for Bible study

When studying, make sure you use suitable, reliable versions, with good reference aids where possible.

I personally use the RSV, NRSV and GNB, and for comparison I use the NIV and JB to see if they add to understanding.

Other very useful tools are an Analytical concordance, a Bible dictionary and Reference books on such subjects as culture, beliefs of the people at that time etc. (see also the bibliography at the end).

But above all it is vital that you bring to your study an open, enquiring mind, ready to ask God about what you have found - a mind ready to receive the truth that God wants to give you.

Remember, too, that this will only be a small part - perhaps only the beginning - of God's revelation. We never cease learning about our amazing God and his love.

The scriptures were written by God-inspired messengers who wrote in the context of their times, their understanding of the world, their culture.

We usually need to know about these to unlock the meaning that the writer is trying to convey. So we have to work hard at obtaining a good general knowledge of the customs, culture, beliefs, times and history in which the scriptures were written. These are vital to our understanding of why things were written as they were. The more we know about these things, the better we will understand the scriptures - they will come alive! - and the more likely we are to discover the 'kernel' of God's word.

Some words of reassurance

Before we embark on this voyage of discovery, I should like to add just a few words of reassurance.

I didn't just look up the particular Bible passages that we shall be examining in the chapters that follow. I first read the Bible all the way through (in the RSV translation) in order to gain a balanced view, in the context of the whole, of what it its writers were saying on sexual matters, and especially about sexual sinfulness.

It was only then that I began to concentrate on the references that relate to - or at least appear to relate to - the study, all of which we shall go on to examine. In this way I tried to make sure as far as possible that I had missed nothing of any significance.

I shall start this biblical journey by giving an overview of what I found, and then go into the detail about the specific references considered by many to relate to homosexuality and to condemn it.

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