With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

September 4, 2008 at 12:01 pm (Ancient Languages, Church, Theology and the Bible) (, )

Yesterday and today, I read over Doug Mangum’s series of posts comparing the new ESV and NLT study Bibles. Of particular interest to me was the third and final part in the series, where Doug compared the study notes of the two Bibles. In the course of his post, Doug pointed out several notes where he felt that the ESVSB over-theologized based on the Hebrew grammar. I scanned the Book of Jonah, available for viewing online, myself, and felt he was fairly justified in his points of contention with several of these notes.

When Doug ended with the statement, “what I’ve seen so far leads me to think it will be a worthwhile addition to the study bible market,” it started me thinking about whether or not I would say the same thing. I am in agreement with Doug in that I would be interested to see how the rest of the study Bible turns out (and certainly before making any bold judgments on the overall quality of the ESVSB – which I wouldn’t do based on one excerpt). However, considering the notes of the ESVSB brought this thought to my mind: in general (not speaking now of the ESVSB specifically) can a study Bible that makes theological or hermeneutical claims based on the Hebrew grammar, and on closer inspection, it turns out these claims are flat out wrong (or at least highly tenuous), really be considered “worthwhile”?

My problem is this: those of us who know the Biblical languages (or in my case, Hebrew and Aramaic, Greek to be added in this coming school year) have a great responsibility toward those who do not. There is enough self-perpetuated ignorance among lay people as it is, without those who have training in Biblical languages to be spreading more of it around. To me, this is almost unforgivable. Consider the general audience of study Bibles: the average Bible-minded Christian who doesn’t know Hebrew or Greek, and really has no resources to look up something a study Bible says about the language to verify its accuracy.

When it comes to interpretations based on the English, at least the lay person has English resources, if they so chose to utilize them, to look up and see if the information being given has some credence. However, when a claim is made based on the original language, what further resource does the lay person have? They are left with basically two options: trust that the person writing the study notes knows what they are talking about and accept what they say, or try to find someone personally who knows the languages to verify it with them. Since there are, sadly, hardly a glut of people running around in local churches who have a handle on Hebrew and Greek, most are left with option one. There is the option of looking in commentaries by people who know the languages to see if they say something similar, but ultimately it’s the same idea: they can’t know for themselves.

Therefore, I repeat what I said earlier: those who know the languages have a great responsibility. We cannot afford to be careless in our statements based on Hebrew words or grammar. There are hundreds of thousands of people depending on the accuracy, diligence, and scholarship of study tools to get it right. I, of course, realize that we are all human and we all make mistakes, nor do any of us have unlimited knowledge, and some are further down the road of understanding the languages than others. Obviously, there will always be some enterprising person who will make something of nothing regardless of how careful one is. However, to the very best of our ability and knowledge, when we are dealing with educating lay people (which study Bibles, among other tools, ultimately purport to do), we must be very careful in how we use the biblical languages to add theological meaning to the text.

Of course, ultimately, this would all be solved if every Christian would learn the Biblical languages. I am in full agreement with my husband there.



  1. Doug Mangum said,


    Thanks for reading my review. I agree with you that those of us who read the original languages need to approach our work as the great responsibility that it is. If you can only read a translation, you have to trust that the translator understood the source text and is being straight with you in telling you what it means. The same goes for the writers of commentaries and study bible notes.

    However, I kind of cringed when you said the claims of the ESVSB were “flat out wrong.” Granted you added the caveat “highly tenuous.” I’m really conflicted over the issue because technically everything that Futato said about Jonah was a reasonable inference from the text. (I think I might have commented on this in the comments of one of my review posts.) He didn’t say anything that was patently false. The problem is that it’s misleading to hang those types of inferences (which are always necessary when interpreting) on the grammar of the original language. You’re exactly right that the poor reader who can’t check up on it is left with the impression that the inference was based on some sort of hard evidence.

    From what I’ve seen of the ESVSB so far, I think it’s fair to say it looks worthwhile. However, I will be disappointed if I find the entire study bible takes that grammatical theology approach. In that regard, I was much more satisfied with the NLTSB, largely because it lets its inferences be inferences without trying to hang them on something that’s not there.

    I was initially against Calvin’s idea that everyone should learn the biblical languages, but I’m starting to come around to it.

  2. eliana said,


    Thanks for your comment. I do agree that the inferences weren’t *necessarily* wrong in and of themselves; I was specifically speaking of interpretations that are claimed to be based on grammar. (And, just to clarify, I’m not pounding on the ESVSB, I was speaking more about study bibles in general at that point, not about the ESVSB in particular. I have to see more of the ESVSB before I know if I need to pound on it or not!)

    It really comes down to the fact that, sadly, many people reading study Bibles will take as fact pretty much anything the notes say (based on original language or not), even if the interpretation postulated might be contested by the wider scholarly community; this leads to lay people only ever knowing about what other moderate-to-conservative Christians say about the text, rather than the breadth of opinion out there or even the most common opinion out there – the Archaeological Study Bible is a good example of this. Of course, study Bibles only have so much room, I know…but now I’m betraying my bias toward the depth of study I really expect (wish) that Christians should desire.

  3. Doug Mangum said,

    I agree that most Christians settle too easily for a basic level of study. But, a study bible can’t really give the full breadth of opinions out there. That’s what commentaries are for. Some study bibles do a better job than others. Some are clearly written from a particular theological perspective, so giving the most common opinion is often not an option because it’s the product of “liberal” bible scholarship. I was actually surprised and pleased with the fact that the NLTSB actually engaged some of the issues of critical scholarship that study bibles tend to ignore.

  4. Calvin said,

    Mandy, good post! I agree with you, of course. How would you propose to include a greater depth/breadth of ideas in a study Bible which is clearly geared toward an interested laity?

    Doug, I think some kind of engagement with critical scholarship would be nice to see in a study Bible. I use the ESV as my primary English translation, and I’d love an ESV study Bible I could recommend to people. I’m very interested to see how things shape up with the rest of ESVSB, outside of Jonah. But I have to say that making statements such as “Believed is the first word of the Hebrew text of the sentence, and the grammar underscores the immediacy of Nineveh’s repentance,” qualifies as “flat out wrong” in my book. I hear what you’re saying, and I think caution is in order in making any sweeping judgments on the ESVSB quite yet. Here’s to hoping we see less of this in the rest of the study Bible. I’m actually thinking of purchasing the ESVSB, which would be my first study Bible purchase in a long time.

  5. Doug Mangum said,


    You’re right that his saying the grammar underscored the immediacy of the repentance was incorrect. I simply meant that stating the repentance was immediate could be a logical inference since sequentially that’s how it happens. He preaches, they repent and nothing else is given in the narrative in between. So technically, he was making a legitimate inference. Supporting it as he did with an appeal to the grammar was wrong.

    If you’re considering study bibles, you might want to give the NLTSB a look. I’m also waiting for a chance to see more of the ESVSB before making a decision on it.

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