Study Bibles

I received a query about a study Bible, and how to determine whether a study Bible was worthwhile or not.  It’s something that I haven’t given a lot of detailed thought to prior to this request.  So I started giving some detailed thought to it, and decided to post some of what I’ve come up with.

This is a great summary of the evolution of study Bibles.  The author claims to be an expert on the topic, and it would appear that he’s not simply bragging.  Until I hear otherwise, I’m inclined to take his word on much of what the above-linked page talks about.  While the page appears to be rather outdated, the basic information seems solid.  Read this for detailed information on study Bibles, or to answer specific questions about a particular study Bible.  What follows are some general guidelines that I feel are reasonable to focus on when choosing a study Bible.

Translation vs. Adaptation/Interpretation
There are a lot of Bibles out there.  That doesn’t mean that they’re all equivalent, though.  Traditionally, most Bible versions have been translations – the goal is to accurately convey the original language as closely as possible, even though this might make the text somewhat difficult to read.  Other Bibles are adaptations or interpretations – the goal is readability as well as a reasonable adherence to the original texts.  If you want to be sure that the Bible you’re reading is based solidly on the original language documentation available, choose a translation.  If you’re more concerned with understanding what you’re reading, then an adaptation or interpretation might be more appropriate.  I recommend having one of each on hand.  That way, as you’re reading the translation, if you find a passage or verse that is particularly confusing, you can read how the interpretation/adaption phrases it.

Which Translation?
If you’re over 50, odds are good that you’re most familiar with the King James Bible – commissioned by King James I of England and published in the early 17th century.  Due to the expense of translation work, printing & copying, and other logistical issues, this has been the most popular English version of the Bible until the late 20th century.  It’s not necessarily that it’s the best translation, it’s just the one that has been most widely available.  It’s not always easy to read, but it’s beautiful. 

There are other, more accurate translations that have emerged in the last 40 years or so.  The standby for many people today is the New International Version (NIV).  Personally, I’m a fan of  the English Standard Version (ESV), a relatively new translation that I’ve heard some scholars feel is a more accurate translation than the NIV.  

Be aware that some organizations create their own Bibles based on their own translation work.  The benefit of sticking with an NIV or ESV is that the translation work has been done by a relatively broad cross-section of Christian academia.  You’re less likely to run across odd or polemical translation work.  However if you pick up a Bible from, say, a Jehovah’s Witness, you need to realize that they have their own translation of the Bible which supports some of their particular theology.

Denominational/Theological Orientation
Study Bibles often reflect the denominational theology from which they emerge.  They may use a common translation of the Bible (like the NIV or the ESV), but in the notes and other material which is included in the Bible, a denominational bias or theological preference is expressed.  A new Lutheran Study Bible is now available, and the study notes reflect Lutheran theology.  Other study Bibles accentuate non-Conservative or other various interpretative bias’ in the comments and notes that are included to help clarify the Biblical text.  

Remember that it’s not really an issue of finding an unbiased study Bible.  We all have biases.  Those biases may be important or rather trivial, but we all have them.  Anything beyond just the bare Biblical text is likely to express a certain preference or belief about what the text is really trying to say.  The web site I link to above does a pretty good job of indicating the theological bias that different study Bibles reflect.

Additional Resources
Study Bibles usually come with lots of additional information.  In addition to introductory notes to each book of the Bible, they generally have an index of terms or a concordance.  Many have maps and time lines.  Some have devotional material from Christian writers through the ages.  Many will cross reference verses with one another, so you are informed if one verse is quoting another verse.  Sometimes Jesus’ words are highlighted in red type.  

Figure out what sorts of resources are important to you in a Bible, and shop accordingly.  There are also online tools available to assist with Bible study.  One that I like is eSword.  This is a downloadable, free interface for reading and studying the Bible.  The application is simple but robust – and you decide exactly what sorts of tools, translations, and other details you want to be able to access.  You can download many different translations and adaptations for free.  Some others require a small fee.  You can also download outdated versions of traditional commentaries, dictionaries,  and other resources.  Often these versions are from the early 20th century, but they can still be helpful.  You also can download a Greek version of the New Testament, and a Hebrew version of the Old Testament, in case you want to try your hand out with the original languages.  I wouldn’t say that the free original language translations are necessarily the most academically respected (and scholars have their own preferences for different reasons), but they’re good enough to get the hang of, and include auto-linking to downloadable dictionaries of Greek & Hebrew words.  You’re not going to teach yourself Greek or Hebrew this way, but it’s interesting all the same.

I like using this tool because you can highlight a specific link, and then examine how that one verse has been rendered in however many different Bible versions you’ve installed.  How does the NIV translate it compared to the ESV?  What is the Greek word that is being translated that way, and what are some of the basic definitions of that term?  Cool stuff.  There are better packages for studying the Bible on your computer, but you’ll be paying potentially hundreds of dollars for them.  Until you get to the point that you’re willing to do that, eSword is a great resource.

What study Bibles do you use, and why?  


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