The complexity of the Bible can be exacerbated by the book’s translation into many different languages. It can be extremely difficult understanding cultural and historical contexts of different ers and versions of the Bible, especially if you are moving back and forth between translations, or switching from one translation for another permanently.

Below you will find advice that helps you gain better, more transferable knowledge of these cultural and historical contexts. These tips come with examples to make your understanding of the different biblical translations grow deeper and more rewarding, while giving you an opportunity to explain what makes these unique versions more interesting.

Old Bible
A collection of older religious texts

1. Compare Key Information

Comparing major events or concepts in different versions can help you to see how the meanings have changed over time. The Bible’s core concepts and stories haven’t changed, but how they have been interpreted by different translations and denominations has.

Example: The word “baptism” was originally translated as “washing” in English, but it is now more commonly translated as “immersion.” This change in translation reflects the fact that our understanding of baptism has evolved over time.

2. Use Language Examples

Where necessary, give examples of archaic or obsolete language that has been updated in modern translations. This can help you to understand how the language of the Bible has developed over a long period.

Example: The word “thou” was once commonly used in English to address someone directly, but it is now considered archaic. Modern translations of the Bible typically use the word “you” instead.

3. Word-for-Word Versus Thought-for-Thought Translation Philosophies

A great tip, especially for giving deeper context to newer biblical versions, is contrasting more literal word-for-word versus thought-for-thought translation philosophies. Literal translations attempt to preserve the original word choices of the Bible, while thought-for-thought translations focus on communicating the ideas (and emotions) of the Bible in a way that are easily understood by modern readers.

Example: The literal translation of the Bible would use the word “sacrifice” to refer to the practice of offering animals to God. However, a thought-for-thought translation might use the word “gift” instead, since this is a more familiar concept to modern readers.

4. Sources for Courses

It’s a good idea to discuss manuscripts and source materials used as the basis for different translations. Translations are based on different original manuscripts and source documents, along with the different viewpoints of religious scholars involved in using their expertise to write the translation.

Example: The King James Version of the Bible is based on the Masoretic Text, which is a Hebrew text of the Old Testament that was compiled in the 10th century CE. However, the New International Version of the Bible is based on a number of different manuscripts, including the Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other ancient texts.

Bible Study Notes

5. The Culture at Time of Translation

Explain relevant cultural practices that shaped the Bible building their original audience. The Bible features many cultural contexts we may not recognize, or may not be practiced in our society. These may need to be explained or studied in more depth to create a better understanding.

Example: The Bible mentions the practice of animal sacrifice, which was a common practice in ancient Israel. However, this practice is no longer practiced by most Christians today.

6. The Influence of Religious Tradition

A necessary component when interpreting different Bible translations is citing influence from religious traditions and doctrines. Different denominations – and even general subsets of belief – can have vastly different interpretations that often heavily influence the way that the Bible is translated.

Example: The Catholic Church often interprets the Bible in a literal way. This tradition has influenced the way that the Catholic Church’s official translation of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims Bible, is translated.

7. Changing Places

Compare how meaning and significance of biblical places like Jerusalem or Bethlehem change over time. Places mentioned in the Bible can have different meanings and significance to different individuals, groups, and entire cultures .

Example: The city of Jerusalem is a holy city to both Christians and Muslims, but in different ways. To Christians, Jerusalem is the city where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. To Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.

8. The Role of Historical Events

Reference significant historical events that shaped the translation process. The translation of the Bibleis consistently by significant historical events occurring alongside.

Example: The Holocaust had a profound impact on the way that the Bible was translated in the 20th century, as many translators were more sensitive to the use of anti-Semitic language in the Bible.


By following these tips, you can gain a better understanding of the cultural and historical context of different versions of the Bible. This understanding will help you to appreciate the richness and complexity of the Bible, and it will also help you to interpret the Bible in a more informed way.

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