Principles of Interpretation: Original Languages
I believe that the Bible is God's word (II Tim. 3:16,17). I believe that the Scriptures contain everything we need to know about life and godly living (II Pet. 1:3). It is my hope that you believe both of these truths also. However, to affirm these truths is no guarantee that a person will properly understand the word of God. You see, there is a big difference between: (1) believing in the Bible as an inspired guide that is applicable to life, and (2) actually being able to understand it.

Today, we are beginning a series of lessons on hermeneutics--that is, the science of Bible interpretation. The purpose of this study is to examine some scriptural principles that are extremely important in properly understanding the Bible. These principles, if applied properly, will enable a person to carefully analyze and correctly interpret the Scriptures.

The importance of this study cannot be overestimated. If a person does not know how to properly understand the Scriptures, then he will not be able to know--with any degree of certainty--how he should live in this life and what is required in order to bring glory to God. With that being said, let us consider our first principle of Bible interpretation:

We must remember that the Old Testament was given by God in the Hebrew language, and the New Testament was given by God in the Greek language.

Some might wonder why it is important to be mindful of these facts as they interpret the Scriptures. The reason is simply this: the original languages are the ultimate authority, not the various translations. God inspired the original writers, but not the manuscript copiers or translators. This is not to say that the word of God has not been preserved and translated accurately for all practical purposes. I strongly believe that it has. Nevertheless, when questions arise regarding what a certain biblical word or phrase means, the translations of men should not be our authority. We should consult the original languages.

For many passages, considering the original Hebrew or Greek words is unnecessary. In fact, the basic thrust of most verses or passages should be ascertainable to anyone who carefully studies a reliable translation of the Bible (and applies the principles of interpretation we will consider in this series).

However, there are some passages that are difficult to understand (cf. II Pet. 3:16). Sometimes this is the case because of a flawed translation. When one is studying the Bible, it is wise to consult several reliable translations for each passage being considered. If I study a passage in one translation and come to an understanding of it, it is beneficial for me to read that passage in some other translations also. If I really understand the true meaning of the passage, then my view of it should not be changed by considering the unique wording of other translations. If my view on a particular passage can only be sustained based on the wording in one translation, the understanding might very well be flawed. In such a case, one should consult the original languages to understand which rendering is best or preferred.

My two favorite translations--both of which are faithful to the original text--are the New King James Version (NKJV) and English Standard Version (ESV). The NKJV is approximately twenty-five years old and the ESV is now five years old. Some other reliable, though much older, versions include the King James Version (KJV) and American Standard Version (ASV).

It should be noted that there are a few portions of the Old Testament that were originally written in Aramaic (i.e., Ezra 4:8 - 6:18; 7:12-26; Jer. 10:11; Dan. 2:46 - 7:28; and two words in Gen. 31:47). However, over 99% of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.

In a future lesson, Lord willing, we will analyze the primary difference in modern translations (i.e., whether they translate via complete equivalence or dynamic equivalence). Tomorrow, however, we will consider another important principle of Bible interpretation.

In the meantime, let us close by reflecting upon Nehemiah 8:8 - "So they read distinctly from the book, in the law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading." May we strive not only to read God's word but to understand it, that we might be able to apply it in our lives daily and faithfully teach it to others!