Old Testament Resources Part 2: Bible, Translation, and LDS Tradition

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This is the second in a series of posts about resources for study and teaching the Old Testament in 2018. If you feel overwhelmed by the information below, I recommend going back to the first post, a shortlist of five books to give you a leg up, without lots of discussion to cut through. Future posts will provide resources on “paradigm changers,” the JST, history/culture of the Old Testament, the early chapters of Genesis, creation/evolution, how to profitably study, take notes, teach, etc.

Before I get into it today, note that Deseret Book is selling one of my short-list volumes for $10. No reason not to pick it up at that price.

We often forget that we are not actually reading the Bible itself, but an English translation. Translation matters. Everyone’s first and primary interaction with scripture is in a language not their own. The Bible, of course, is translated from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, but even D&C is not the American English of 2017. This means that for most people, their understanding of what scripture says depends heavily on what the translation implies. Well, what if it’s not a great English translation? Knowledge of how we got that English, what stands behind it, why translations differ, how the LDS Church came to use the King James Version as its official English Bible, etc. contributes greatly to our understanding and appreciation of the Bible.  For those without much time, I’ve chosen three select resources and bolded them.

Mormons and the Bible

  • Mormon leadership has read the Bible in a variety of ways, as detailed by Phillip Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible (Oxford Press). This is a must-read for understanding different views, interpretations, and usages of the Bible in LDS tradition. It demonstrates that we cannot simply “follow the Brethren” in how we read the Bible, because they haven’t all read it the same way.
  • Barlow has also written on how the King James Version went from the de facto Bible to the official Bible, which happened much more recently than many of us might expect. “Why the King James Version? From the Common to the Official Bible of Mormonism” Dialogue 22:2 (Summer 1986). PDF here, online version here.
  • Grant Hardy looks at how LDS usage of the KJV affects missionary work. While it has some positives, it has some serious negatives as well, e.g. “The KJV is no longer the dominant Bible of the English-speaking world, and the only denominations that still hold exclusively to that four-hundred-year- old translation are Latter-day Saints and a few marginal fringe groups.” There was an early edition of this paper, and a slightly different published edition.
  • Ronan Head responds to Hardy, “Unity and the King James Bible”
  • BYU’s Religious Studies Center put out an entire volume on The King James Bible and the Restoration, with a variety of topics covered well. Amazon link for print, but the whole thing is online from the RSC site.
  • Little has been written (to my knowledge) about non-English LDS usage of the Bible, but Joshua Sears examines the 2009 LDS Bible in Spanish, based on the 1909 Reina-Valera version, with some interesting observations.
  • David Seely put together a useful historical tool available here, “Reading the Old Testament in Light of the Restoration: A Comprehensive Bibliography of LDS Writings on the Old Testament (1830–1997)”

The KJV Itself

Since 2011 was the 400th anniversary of the KJV’s publication, a spate of books and articles appeared on its history and influence. What do we know about it? Lots. For example, the language of the KJV was already archaic when published in 1611. See my post here or this BYU Studies article “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures.” I’ve reproduced my list of resources from that post below. If you want only one, read McGrath.

If you need to do serious academic work on the KJV, David Norton is a name you should know.

Modern Translations

This is the single best tool in your box. I can’t recommend picking up one (or several!) highly enough. That said, all translations are not created equal and there are tons out there. See my article in the next section. I don’t think LDS should feel any reluctance in supplementing our official KJV with individual study of other translations and original languages. Joseph Smith did it.

  • Harper-Collins Study Bible– Based on the New Revised Standard Version (which I recommend as a stand-alone translation), this is often assigned for New Testament 101, or Hebrew Bible 101 at colleges. The publisher is the Society of Biblical Literature, and translation and notes are done by a variety of scholars, so there’s little religious bias.
  • NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible–   This exists in two versions, one with the New King James Version translation, which is basically an update to some of the archaic language of the KJV, but still has many of its problems. It also exists with the New International Version translation, which is highly problematic. The NIV is demonstrably biased; it cheats. So be sure to get the NKJV version.  As you might guess from the title, the notes and essays focus on the cultural backgrounds, those things ancient audiences (likely) knew which moderns don’t. Review here. It’s edited by John Walton, an Evangelical scholar I like, and my understanding is that the notes and essays are derived or shortened from this stand-alone series.
  • Jewish Study Bible– This translation and notes/essays are all written by Jewish scholars, which means it only covers the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. It’s a fantastic resource that will enlighten and challenge (since, for example, Jews are unlikely to interpret Isaiah as messianic prophecies of Jesus.) The JPS is not at all defensive about “weird stuff” in the Old Testament, and draws on some of the best scholarship available.  A New Testament (NRSV) annotated from the same Jewish perspective is available as the The Jewish Annotated New Testament
  • NET Bible-The advantage of the New Electronic Translation is it’s entirely free and online at http://Netbible.org, and in free App form, called Lumina. There are thousands and thousands of footnotes, often about translation or background. Plus, the online reading page allows a lot of nice study options. Try clicking on the Parallel tab, for example. And note the sympathetic highlighting! (Try mousing over a greek or Hebrew word, see all its other occurrences there also highlighted, and sometimes the translation in English.) When it works, it’s great!
  • Faithlife Study Bible.  I recommend this mainly because it’s sometimes free, and designed to expand, integrate with, and maximize use of Logos resources.

Hebrew-focused translations with notes oriented towards literary and language aspects of the text, like allusion, poetry, and wordplay. These are great, but lengthy, multiple volumes each.

Understanding Bible Translations and Languages

So why are there so many translations? Why are they different? Is it just bias? Isn’t the KJV good enough? Are we limited to it, as LDS?

  • I’ve written an article in BYU’s Religious Educator about why translations differ, which includes personal study suggestions on how to use multiple translations and get at underlying Greek and Hebrew (the last bit superseded by my two posts below.) There are four primary factors.
    1. Different textual sources used for the translation.  (Traditional Hebrew text(s), Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint, Vulgate, Targums, etc.)
    2. Different readings of grammar and syntax.  (Hebrew is very different than English.)
    3. Different readings of individual word semantics (Uh, Hebrew is very different than English. This article in the Ensign gets at some relevant data. )
    4. Conscious choices about translation philosophy, style, and register. (Should we translate to 6-th grade English or 12th grade English? Should we be offensive where the text intended to be offensive?)
  • I also cover some of this ground in my article “The Israelite Roots of Atonement Terminology” BYU Studies 55:1 (2016). There I examine what “atone” “redeem” and “save” meant in an Israelite context. They weren’t synonyms.
  • Rather than use paper tools like Strong’s Concordance, there are now good, free electronic tools that do a better job. See my post here and here. If you see someone cite Strong’s Concordance for the meaning of a word, rest assured they do not really know the ancient languages.
  • If you want to learn a little Hebrew, start with the alphabet, found in your King James Version at Psalm 119. It’s an acrostic, so each section begins with succeeding letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Check out Hebrew4Christians for some useful introductions about letters, grammar, etc. (FYI, I’m NOT on board with their sensationalistic “Discover amazing secrets hidden in the Hebrew Bible and even in the very letters of the Hebrew alphabet! Learn how Yeshua is revealed “Aleph to Tav” – from the first Hebrew letter to the last!” Hebrew isn’t magic. It’s just a language.) And if you do know a little Hebrew, this is hilarious.

Deeper Dives into Background

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