Study Bibles: Which one(s) do I choose?
This blog is practical in nature. As I frequent both digital and traditional box book stores I am amazed at the number of Bibles available for purchase. Indeed, publishers keep publishing the word of God, in various English translations and formats, all the time. One can easily get lost in all the bibles wondering which one they should buy.
One of my hobbies is bible collecting. Many bibles, in many English translations have passed through my hands over the years. Many of these are study bibles. Study bibles are bibles meant to assist the student in the study of God’s word by systematic grouping of bible topics or, they provide a commentary, usually at the bottom of the page, designed to help the student quickly grasp the meaning of the text and sometimes even offers a bit of a suggestion for application.
I recommend study bibles. Quite honestly, as a pastor writing sermons, they are one of the first places I go. Presently I own 17 different study bibles in either electronic or printed format. So, I guess I have a little to share about study bibles and the best ones to zero in on.
First, realize that all study bibles come from some sort of theological persuasion. There seems to be at least as many study bibles as there are denominations of churches. Even the “broadly based” “evangelical” bibles, which would claim more to be “non-denominational” are still sharing a theological perspective. In some places, they might even present several interpretive options for a passage, just to play it safe.
Second, realize that the publishing houses, that have their own English translation, tend to also produce their own study bible. There is big business in study bibles and they are all, in some way trying to out-do the other. And since all modern English translations are copywritten one either produces their own or has to pay another to use their text. So, one may be locked into a certain translation when a certain study bible is chosen.
Third, the notes of study bibles are usually prepared by some sort of committee. Even the study bibles that carry a person’s name such as the MacArthur Study Bible, or the Jeremiah Study bible were compiled with the help of a team including both content writers and editors.
What do I select?
First, choose a translation. This is not as simple as one might expect. There is a veritable alphabet soup with letters standing for names: KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, NIV84, NIV2011, ASV, CEB, NLT, MSG. And on and on in goes.
I believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of God. A reading of Psalm 119 quickly reveals that the very words of the Bible are inspired. Not simply the thoughts. Indeed, thoughts are made of with words, and the Bible conveys the mind of God, but God gave us actual words. These are inspired.
There are two schools of thought in English bible translation. It’s a little more complex that this, but let’s suffice it to say one is word for word, the other is thought for thought. Word for word tries to find, as best as English would allow, the exact word that conveys the meaning of the Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Thought for thought chooses words and syntax to try and smooth out the reading and perhaps better render the meaning.
I tend to favor the word for word translation. The more a translator tries to convey through thoughts what the text says the more likely they are to insert interpretation. I don’t want somebody’s interpretation in the text itself. That is where a study bible comes in. I want to be able to point to the text and be able to proclaim “This is the word of God.”. That cannot always be as easily accomplished in a thought for thought translation.
I have only scratched the surface of the issue. The amount of ink being spilled on debating the two approaches as well as the number of new English translations produced all the time could fill one of the Great Lakes. Simply put, if one subscribes to the belief that God gave us words, then there are a few translations that rise to the top.
I prefer the following word for word translations, King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version), New King James Version, English Standard Version, New American Standard Version.
Translations that I don’t prefer, but are quite popular in the word for word camp. They are the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT). These are easy to read. But, keep in mind that easier is not always better. When a translator starts to choose several words to convey meaning of the though and not the actual word, interpretation inevitably creeps in. This can be an accurate interpretive meaning or show a bias. But, you won’t know as you don’t have the transparency to the text.
You will notice in the King James and New King James translations that there are italicized words. That is not done for emphasis. These are words the translators added to convey the meaning of the text. The only other modern translation that I am aware of that does this is the New American Standard Bible. None of the others to that. So, who does one know which words are God’s words and which words are man’s words. I don’t want to get pedantic here. But, just think about that for a minute. We are, after all, dealing with the veritable Word of God.
All of these translations have study bibles.
But, before we go on, there is another issue that most Christians never hear of. It is the issue of which New Testament Greek text is used to translate and English translation. We can get into the weeds here pretty fast, so I’m going to summarize the issue. Perhaps I may write another Blog delving into the issue further. There are many helpful articles on the issue available at www.tbsbibles.org. Yes, it really is an issue. One we should be aware of.
If you were to take a modern translation such as the English Standard Version, a fine word for word translation, and start reading the New Testament you would notice that there are many times it directs you to a footnote. It will say things like “some manuscripts say”. Or, even suggesting that verses 9 to 20 of the last chapter of Mark do not belong in the bible.
Notes such as these do not appear in the King James Version.
What is going on?
There are two standard Greek New Testament texts. One is called the Textus Receptus. This is Greek standing for the “Received Text”. This has been the standard for at least 1500 years. It is the most plentiful in number of texts in existence literally in the hundreds. It was the text used by the church without any consideration that there might be another until the 19th century.
But, during the mid to late 19th century other manuscripts started being discovered. These were found to be in relative good condition. One was found at the Vatican in Rome, the other at a Monastery at Sinai. As these were studied it was noted that there were textual variants. That is, they changed some words, left out some words, or even entire sections of the bible (Mark 9 for instance) when compared to the Received Text. But, they appeared more ancient than the Received Text manuscripts.
In the world of antiquities, particularly in texts, we tend to think older is better. But, that is not always the case.
Enter in scholars that are schooled in what is called textual criticism. This simply means they are trying to discern what a text should say.
The long and short if it is that over the last 100+ years editors have produced a New Testament Greek text that is, in their scholarly opinion, what the text should say. If you will look inside your modern translations such as the ESV, NIV, and NLT you will see that the text use is the 27th edition of a Nestle-Aland text. Yes, that is right, the 27th edition. As supposed new discoveries in texts come about the text of the New Testament is slightly altered.
One has to ask – “Did the church not really have the word of God for 1900 years until these editors came along and pieced it together?”
The Bible says:
Psalm 12:6–7 (NKJV) 6 The words of the Lord are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times. 7 You shall keep them, O Lord, You shall preserve them from this generation forever.
God preserved his words. It is not a farfetched claim to believe that the preserved word is found in the Received Text of the New Testament. And there are only two English translations that use the Received Text of the New Testament as the basis for translation.
Therefore, I urge folks to have as their primary English bible either the King James Version, or New King James Version (or both if money allows). The KJV can be hard to understand as vocabulary and the meaning of the words used have changed over time. There are helps in this area. But, with that in mind I often recommend the New King James.
Secondarily, have a bible on hand from another word for word translation based on the edited NT text like the English Standard Version, New American Standard Version, or the Holman Christian Standard Bible. The language in these translations is quite accessible.
Thirdly, have a modern thought for thought for the express purpose of commentary. I suggest either the New International Version, or New Living Translation.
I strongly urge people not to have only one bible from the second and third list. Use these as supplements. There is no good reason to believe that parts of the NT do not belong there. The sheer number of Greek New Testaments in the Received Text Tradition far outweighs the obscure number texts used to somehow “recreate” the Biblical New Testament text. You can point to the New Testament of, for instance, the old King James and say “This is the word of God.” I question whether one can really do that with other edited text editions.
If you are still reading by now you are one who perseveres. Let me get to the point of the title.
Here is a list of Study Bibles I recommend in order of preference.
The Thompson Chain Reference Bible
This is a 100- year old classic. Its intent is to guide the student to seek out Biblical truth for themselves with the aid of a chain reference system based on a large variety of topics. This allows the most basic rule of biblical understanding, scripture interprets scripture, to be put on full display. There are not study notes. That’s the point. The bible student should work the scripture and mine the truths. This Bible will help you do that. It is available in the KJV, NKJV, and most recently the ESV.
The Holman Study Bible
Written from a conservative evangelical viewpoint it has plenty of notes, charts, and is multi- color. It is available in several translations including the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB.
The Reformation Heritage Study Bible
This is written from a conservative reformed perspective. However, the intent of this bible is to move the reader to deeper devotion not to convert them to Calvinism. The notes are not argumentative but simply points the reader to a historic protestant understanding of the text. It is only available in the KJV. But, one of the beauties of this bible is that it provides definitions of older words right in the notes. You can understand your KJV with this bible.
The Jeremiah Study Bible
This is the bible produced by the ministry of David Jeremiah. He is well known for his radio broadcast “Turning Point”. The style found in his pulpit ministry translates over well into the notes of this bible. Scholars from Dallas Seminary helped compile the notes. It is Baptist in orientation. It also is meant to move the student from mere head knowledge to application. It is available in the NKJV and NIV.
The ESV Study Bible
This is a big book. It is probably the thickest among all of them. It is packed with material. I opted for the kindle version as it is large. It represents the best of scholarship found in conservative and more reformed circles. It has some of the best charts available. The notes are explanatory in nature, not necessarily devotional. If there is a second study bible you should have, this is the one.
Henry Morris Study Bible.
This is just about as large as the ESV study bible. The late Henry Morris was the curator of the Institute for Creation Research. This bible comes from the perspective of a creationist that was also a bible scholar. The notes on Genesis alone are worth the price of the book. But, it also does a fine job in all areas of the bible. His insight is pastoral and defends the accuracy and veracity of scripture. It is only available in the King James Version.
NLT Illustrated Study Bible
Last on my short list is the NLT illustrated study Bible. It truly is a beautiful bible. It is multi-color with color maps, pictures, charts. The notes are broadly based conservative evangelical. The only drawback is it is only available (as its name indicates) in the NLT. This is makes it supplemental to another study bible you may own.
As I mentioned I own 17. I could go on. But, perhaps this will help you as you seek out the best bible.
One last thing. If your budget allows, and you are only purchasing one bible, get it in genuine leather. It will last longer. Its use will take on the character of all the time you have spent communing with God. It will become a close friend in your journey.
Happy bible shopping.