Pastor's Pondering


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Let's Talk Footnotes

by Duane Mabee on February 2, 2023

We are blessed to have access to scores of excellent Bible translations that, with an exception or two, have all been painstakingly developed by teams of Biblical scholars and translation experts.  These teams rely on modern techniques as well as centuries of accumulated knowledge, and each completed translation faces the scrutiny of thousands of Biblical scholars knowledgeable in Biblical history and languages. 


Unless you have an off-beat translation, you can have complete confidence in the Bible in your hand or on your device.  You do not need someone to tell you “What it really means”.  Obviously, there are people who can help you understand it better but be wary of anyone who claims to have special knowledge and can give you the “real truth” the translators missed.


Let’s talk footnotes for a minute.  That sounds dull, I know, but details are important.  Good translations will have footnotes and you can learn a lot from them.  Read the introductory material in your Bible to find out how the footnotes work in that Bible, because it will be different from what you learned writing research papers for school.  All footnotes within a translation are not created equal, either.  It will be helpful to learn how to tell the difference. 


Some footnotes will give you alternative ways of translating a word or phrase.  The translation team always includes what they believe is the best translation in the text.  The alternate reading in the footnote, then, is a less likely or valid translation.  At times, the word in the text and the one in the footnote are equivalent, but, when that’s the case it will usually be identified as such.  Some translations give the reason they prefer the reading in the text, but you will need to be familiar with how to identify the reason. 


A footnote may give the literal meaning of the Hebrew or Greek work.  This is usually done when the literal meaning is confusing or difficult to understand.  All languages have idioms and expressions that are awkward, if not impossible, to translate.  A footnote may indicate that a word is uncertain or obscure, meaning it is unclear from the manuscripts what the word is, or the word is so rare in the original language that it is especially hard to translate, or the meaning of the word has been lost.  Some footnotes give additional information about a word that isn’t clear in English, such as when “you” is plural or singular.  A footnote may give approximate values for units of measurement.  Weights and measures change over time and had different values to different people groups. 


It is important to note that the additional information found in study Bibles was not written by the translation team.  It is a brief commentary supplied by someone else and not should be viewed as the final word on the biblical text.