A quick perusal of my library before I started writing this piece revealed that I have 19 different study Bibles. Yes, you read that correctly. I have 19 different actual physical study Bibles on my bookshelves.
I suppose that’s a lot. Probably more than I need. It’s definitely more than I regularly and consistently use nowadays. I’ve had more study Bibles over the years and have given several away or donated them to Better World Books or Goodwill.
Why so many you ask?
Ten years of being a full-time pastor that wrote and delivered a weekly sermon and taught the Bible regularly in various other contexts, as well as being a student that earned multiple graduate degrees in theology are a couple of reasons.
A good study Bible provides a mini-library of sorts within one book, making it a very helpful resource. Study Bibles are indispensable tools for students of Scripture.
I realize, of course, that in our technological age there’s no shortage of free web-based Bible study resources, apps, and Bible software programs that can replace cumbersome books. Websites like Blue Letter Bible and Bible Gateway, along with software such as Logos are amazing tools.
I’ve used them all. But I typically prefer to have an actual hard copy of Scripture and I enjoy reading and searching through the various study Bibles I have.
What can I say? I’m old school that way.
Another reason I’ve acquired so many different study Bibles is that they’re a quick and easy way to become informed about and digest diverse approaches and perspectives to Scripture.
For example, my Catholic Study Bible offers a terrific and distinctly Roman Catholic reading and interpretation of Scripture, while my NIV Study Bible provides excellent evangelical insights and perspectives. Both are informed by scholarship, yet are also slanted towards their respective traditions.
Both of these are different from the more academic Oxford Annotated NRSV Study Bible which tends to present the consensus of contemporary biblical scholarship in its notes, book introductions, and articles while paying little heed to confessional Christian faith.
Unique from all of those are The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford) and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV (Oxford), which provide incredibly informative notes, book introductions, and articles from a distinctly confessional and scholarly Jewish perspective. (Side note: If you’re a Christian that’s curious about how our Jewish brothers and sisters read the Bible, I cannot recommend these two resources highly enough!)
In other words, different study Bibles present different perspectives and meet different needs.
An Essential Tool For Growth
I’m convinced that a good study Bible is an essential tool and resource for any thoughtful Christian that desires to grow in their faith, deepen their knowledge, and read the Bible responsibly.
Lucky for us (or perhaps confusingly!), the Bible publishing industry has about a bazillion choices of study Bibles. Some of them are a little too narrowly niche-marketed in my view to be of much substantive help to the serious student and inquirer of Scripture.
Nevertheless, there are also lots of great choices. I tend to stick to study Bibles that are informed by serious and rigorous biblical and theological scholarship, while also keeping aware of whatever theological bias and slant the committee of contributors espouses and that will inevitably be reflected in the notes, articles, and other study aids.
Here are some practical tips and suggestions to consider when deciding how to choose a study Bible. I hope you find this helpful and informative.
A Very Personal Choice
The first thing to keep in mind is that choosing a study Bible is a deeply personal choice. What works for your best friend, family member, or even your pastor, may not be what works and is right for you. Just because someone else swears that this is the greatest study Bible ever, doesn’t mean that it will meet your needs and desires.
Also, you may outgrow a certain study Bible. For example, my NIV Student Study Bible was awesome when I was a pre-teen and teen. I even still read it in my early 20s. But eventually, I needed something more substantive and relevant to my season of life as I grew older, matured, and my life circumstances, questions, interests, and struggles became different.
Similarly, the Quest Study Bible was a tremendous resource when I was in my early-to-mid-20s and going through a very inquisitive phase. Ditto the slightly later Apologetics Study Bible, which I wore out during this same inquisitive, questioning phase of my faith journey.
Back then I found solace in discovering assured and prescribed answers to my questions and doubts. These study Bibles provided both permission to question and the certainty of answers.
Eventually, however, these resources lost their luster for me and I “graduated” as it were on to other things. Many of the assured answers began striking me as simplistic and contrived. Sometimes they didn’t square with what I was learning about biblical scholarship or the complexity of life experiences.
That’s okay. Our faith, like our lives, is a journey. It’s not static. We’re constantly changing, evolving (or sometimes devolving) and morphing. What worked for you during one phase of your journey will likely not necessarily work at another.
What’s Your Purpose?
An important question to consider when choosing a study Bible is what’s your purpose or intended use? Presumably, you want a study Bible that will help you understand Scripture better and will deepen and grow your faith and knowledge.
But beyond that general purpose, it’s helpful to think a little more specifically about what you’re planning on using your study Bible for.
Are you looking for a study Bible that is more devotional and/or geared towards practical life application in its notes and study aids?
Do you want a study Bible whose notes and study aids will be more objectively academic and not really from a particular confessional Christian perspective?
Or are you looking for more of a niche study Bible whose notes, articles, and other study aids will be directed very specifically to a certain topic, like addiction recovery, archeology, or cultural backgrounds?
Perhaps you want a study Bible that is explicitly aligned with whatever Christian tradition you belong to — be it Catholic, Orthodox, Wesleyan, Lutheran, Pentecostal/charismatic, Reformed, etc.
There are study Bibles that specialize in all these things. Determining the purpose and intended use of your study Bible will help you make a more informed choice.
What Version Do You Want?
Unless you can read Hebrew and Greek, you’ll need to read the Bible in an English version/translation. Study Bibles come in a variety of English versions. There are lots of choices out there. In fact, it can be a bit daunting trying to decide a version.
Some of the more popular and widely used include the New International Version (NIV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New Living Translation (NLT), the Common English Bible (CEB), the New English Translation (NET), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the Message.
There are LOTS of other English versions. But these are some of the more widely used and also representative examples of the two basic translation theories that scholars follow to produce our English translations — whether more word-for-word (formal equivalence) or thought-for-thought (dynamic/functional equivalence).
The best and easiest way to determine whether the study Bible you’re considering follows the word-for-word translation philosophy or a more thought-for-thought functional/dynamic equivalence translation philosophy is to read the article at the beginning of the study Bible that may be variously entitled “Introduction”, “Preface”, “To the Reader”, or something similar.
In fact, I strongly encourage you to always read this introductory article in any Bible you purchase or are considering purchasing. It’s full of helpful information, not only regarding its translation philosophy, but also will explain things like when you read “LORD” in all caps in the Biblical text, it’s translating God’s revealed personal name YHWH (Yahweh), and other interesting tidbits that will help you be a more informed reader of Scripture.
What Are Your Personal Convictions?
A final important consideration is your own personal convictions, theological persuasion, and tradition of Christian faith in which you identify. In other words, what Christian tribe to belong to?
And then consider an important related question: Do you want a study Bible that will largely confirm and hopefully deepen your knowledge of what you already believe? Or are you open to being challenged by other perspectives and discovering new insights and nuances?
A practical example may help clarify why this is an important consideration.
In Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, the Apostle Paul provides instructions to Christian households. This is one of the (in)famous places in the Bible where wives are told to submit to their husbands and slaves commanded to obey their masters.
While all good study Bibles point out the very different historical 1st-century context in which Paul lived, they also nevertheless reveal the theological perspectives and presuppositions of the scholars who wrote the study notes and aids for that section.
For example, the ESV Study Bible, which comes from a conservative evangelical and Reformed perspective, takes a decidedly complementarian view in its notes for this passage.
Further, unlike many English versions that view Ephesians 5:21 where Paul says, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”, as a primary heading for this entire household code section, the ESV connects 5:21 with the preceding verses rather than the following household code.
A study note states, “submitting to one another means submitting to others according to the authority and order established by God, as reflected in the examples Paul gives in the following verses.”
In other words, the study notes in the ESV Study Bible for this passage advocate God-ordained hierarchical and patriarchal relationships in which “submission” is required.
In sharp contrast, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV), which comes from a more ecumenical, contemporary scholarly perspective, reflects a decidedly more egalitarian and even liberationist view. Ephesians 5:21 is set off in the NRSV as a heading for the entire section of instructions to Christian households.
An excursus on household codes in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible provides helpful historical and cultural context and concludes, “The passage teaches that all Christians are under Christ’s lordship and are to ‘submit’ to one another for Christ’s sake.”
Same biblical passage. Two very different ways of reading, interpreting, and applying it.
This is both the beauty and challenge of study Bibles. It’s also why it’s important to consider you’re own convictions and theological perspective when choosing a study Bible, and whether or not you want your convictions and theological perspective merely confirmed, or are open to different perspectives.
Now You’re Ready to Choose
Once you’ve considered your purpose and intention for your study Bible, what version you want, and your personal convictions and theological perspective, along with whether or not you want your study Bible to align with your convictions and theological perspective, or if you’re open to others, you’re ready to make a choice.
There are many excellent choices available. Again, remember that choosing a study Bible is a very personal decision. So, regardless of what I or anyone else says, choose the study Bible that you want, that you’ll actually read and use, and that works best for you.
Nevertheless, perhaps some recommendations would be helpful. In my next blog post, I’ll offer some annotated recommendations for different study Bibles that I’ve used over the years, and in many cases, still regularly use today. These are study Bibles that I’ve found informative, helpful, and, most importantly, spiritually formative in my life and Christian faith.
Watch for the next post, and in the meantime, happy studying!