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Choosing a Good Study Bible

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Choosing a Good Study Bible

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

An astonishing wealth of resources for studying the Bible is available today, including what are called “study Bibles.” This article offers some help in choosing a study Bible and is divided into three parts: (1) an overview of study Bible features and the history of study Bibles; (2) an overview of study Bibles currently available; (3) some guidelines and recommendations.

What Are Study Bibles?

A study Bible is a special edition of the Bible that includes supplemental information organized in any number of useful ways to help the reader understand the Bible better. Notes—typically footnotes on specific verses—are the mainstay or primary feature of most study Bibles. Here are some of the other features one might find in a study Bible: 

  • Articles on important persons, places, events, themes, doctrines, or difficult questions
  • Concordance (an alphabetic list of important words and some or all of the verses where those words occur in the Bible)
  • Cross-references (marginal notes directing the reader to other verses of some relevance)
  • Dictionary or glossary (list of terms and brief definitions)
  • Graphs, charts, and tables
  • Harmonies or parallel tables (e.g., a table showing how the contents of the four Gospels compare with each other)
  • Introductions (overviews of each book of the Bible, perhaps including an outline)
  • Maps (including specialized maps pertaining to specific parts of the Bible)
  • Photographs (of specific locations, archaeological artifacts, and so forth) and other types of illustrations (drawings, diagrams)
  • Reading plans (suggested structured plans for reading through part or all of the Bible)
  • Timelines

The history of the modern study Bible began in the United States in the early twentieth century. In 1908, a Methodist pastor in New York named Frank Charles Thompson published the first edition of the Marginal Chain-Reference Bible, later known as the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. This work featured a complex system of cross-references linked in “chains” dealing with numerous topics. Reliable sales figures seem to be difficult to find, but Thompson’s work has sold over four million and probably over ten million copies. In 1909, C. I. Scofield published the Scofield Reference Bible, which included detailed notes explaining the entire Bible according to a system of theology called dispensationalism that had originated in the nineteenth century. Three major subsequent editions were produced and at least ten million copies have been sold. The Scofield Reference Bible did more than any other publication to popularize dispensational theology and is easily one of the most influential Christian publications of the twentieth century.

Study Bibles with a wider range of features began appearing in the 1970s. The Harper Study Bible (1971) was a special edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) with introductions, notes, and marginal references by Harold Lindsell, a respected fundamentalist Christian scholar. The Ryrie Study Bible (1978) contained similar features produced by Charles C. Ryrie, who was probably the leading dispensationalist biblical scholar of the second half of the twentieth century. The Open Bible (1975) featured introductions, “Christian Life Study Outlines,” a harmony of the Gospels, articles, a one-year reading plan, a “guide for Christian workers,” cross-references, a topical index, and maps. It was really the first “study Bible” in the contemporary sense and was also noteworthy as the first study Bible not dominated by the work of one scholar. All three of these study Bibles have sold two million or more copies.

The two most popular full-feature study Bibles were published in the mid-1980s. The NIV Study Bible (1985), based on the popular New International Version that had been released in 1978, has been the most widely used of the contemporary study Bibles, selling about nine million copies. The Life Application Study Bible first appeared in 1986 and was expanded and revised several times up to 2007. Unlike the earlier study Bibles, this one was made available with several different English translations. It is currently the best-selling study Bible.

The past twenty years have seen an explosion of study Bibles in English. What follows is an overview of 37 study Bibles of some significant influence or popularity that are currently on the market. An asterisk (*) marks study Bibles that are standouts in their categories.

General Purpose Evangelical Study Bibles

This category covers general or all-purpose study Bibles produced by teams of scholars.

*ESV Study Bible (2008, English Standard Version). Without a doubt one of the best study Bibles available today, based on what many evangelical scholars now consider the best English version. A related product called the ESV Global Study Bible takes a more international approach and is being made available free in digital form (e.g., as a Kindle book).

HCSB Study Bible (2010, Holman Christian Standard Bible). An excellent study Bible reflecting a conservative, Southern Baptist perspective.

King James Study Bible (2013 [2nd ed.], King James Version). A good study Bible that takes a very conservative or fundamentalist approach.

NIV Study Bible (1985, revised 2011, New International Version). As mentioned above, this is the best-selling study Bible of the past thirty years. It reflects a mainstream, general evangelical theological perspective.

NKJV Study Bible (2008 [2nd ed.], New King James Version). A good study Bible, with a perspective similar to the King James Study Bible.

NLT Study Bible (2010, New Living Translation). An excellent study Bible based on the most literate, readable contemporary English version.

Open Bible (1975, KJV, NKJV). An older but classic study Bible (described earlier in this article).

Evangelical Leaders’ Study Bibles

These are study Bibles based on the notes and teachings of individual, popular evangelical pastors and theologians.

Jeremiah Study Bible (2013, NKJV). This recent study Bible is based on the work of David Jeremiah, a popular megachurch pastor, and is focused on evangelical doctrine and practical teaching.

*MacArthur Study Bible (1997, NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV). The most popular and probably the best done of any study Bible based on the work of one individual. John MacArthur is one of the most popular Baptist pastors and teachers in America.

Ryrie Study Bible (1978, KJV, NASB, NIV). Mentioned above, this study Bible by a renowned professor at Dallas Theological Seminary features extensive notes interpreting the Bible from a middle-of-the-road dispensational perspective.

Scofield Reference Bible (1909, 1917; New Scofield, 1986; Scofield III, 2005; KJV). Described above, this is the highly influential work of dispensationalist pastor C. I. Scofield. The later revisions attempted to soften some of Scofield’s most controversial notes.

Thompson Chain-Reference Bible (1908, 1915, KJV). Described above, this is a still-popular reference, not so much a full study Bible as a system of complex cross-references linked in sometimes long “chains” of thematically related verses.

Specialized Evangelical Study Bibles

This category covers study Bibles dealing with specialized concerns of varying kinds.

*Apologetics Study Bible (2007, HCSB). Easily the best of the apologetics-oriented study Bibles, featuring extensive notes defending the accuracy of the Bible and numerous articles addressing common questions and objections to the Bible.

Archaeological Study Bible (2005, NIV). Generally excellent study Bible focused on illuminating the Bible with information on archaeological sites, artifacts, and the like.

Case for Christ Study Bible (2010, NIV). Edited by Lee Strobel as a spin-off from his enormously successful book The Case for Christ, a popular-level book on apologetics. Generally good but it does not have the extensive notes typical of most study Bibles.

Chronological Life Application Study Bible (2012, NLT, KJV). A very good study Bible based on the popular Life Application Study Bible (see below), but that rearranges the Bible in ten chronological sections so that readers can understand the texts in the flow of biblical history.

Chronological Study Bible (2008, NKJV, NIV). A very well done study Bible that divides the Bible into nine “epochs” and arranges readings from the Bible within those epochs according to chronological order.

Evidence Bible (2011, NKJV, KJV). The official Bible of Ray Comfort’s “The Way of the Master” TV show (hosted with Kirk Cameron) and ministry, focused on providing evidence or arguments in defense of Christianity. In short, like the Apologetics Study Bible but rather poorly done by comparison.

Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (1990, KJV, NASB [1977], NIV [1984], ESV, NKJV). 
A still somewhat popular reference, edited by Spiros Zodhiates and Warren P. Baker, that tags key words in each verse with numbers from the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries from Strong’s century-old concordance, with those dictionaries printed in the back of the Bible. Grammatical codes in the New Testament also provide information on the forms of the word. Those who know the biblical languages don’t need this kind of work, and unfortunately it can be misleading to those who don’t know the languages.

*Life Application Study Bible (2007, NIV, NLT, NKJV, KJV). An excellent study Bible, and currently the most popular one on the market, with its notes, introductions, and some of its other features geared toward guiding readers to understand how the Bible applies to their lives.

Literary Study Bible (2007, ESV). An excellent study Bible featuring introductions, notes, and other resources focusing on the genres and literary structures of each book, and deliberately omitting cross-references so as to encourage readers to read whole passages and books instead of jumping around the Bible.

Lutheran Study Bible (2009, ESV). Good study Bible produced by and for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, a conservative Lutheran denomination, and emphasizing traditional Lutheran theology and perspectives.

Quest Study Bible (1994, 2011, NIV). Very good study Bible that is described as “the question and answer study Bible,” with its notes and other features oriented toward answering people’s questions about the Bible.

Reformation Study Bible (2015, ESV). Very good study Bible edited by R. C. Sproul and featuring commentary by Sproul and other Reformed theologians, emphasizing understanding the Bible’s teachings from a Reformed perspective.

Study Bible for Women (2014/2015, HCSB, NKJV). Very good study Bible with features oriented to women readers (e.g., in its profiles of biblical figures, answers to questions, and so on); reflects a conservative, Southern Baptist perspective.

Pentecostal Study Bibles

Dake Annotated Reference Bible (1963, KJV). The work of Finis Jennings Dake, an aberrant Pentecostal pastor convicted in 1936 of a sex crime involving a teenager; the notes teach aberrant or heretical views about the Trinity and other subjects.

Everyday Life Bible (2006, Amplified Bible). Produced by Joyce Meyer, an extremely popular teacher whose teachings consist of watered down and even occasionally aberrant explanations of Christian doctrine.

Hope for Today Bible (2009, NLT). This work features notes by megachurch pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen, Word of Faith teachers who teach self-esteem and prosperity with a thin veneer of the gospel.

New Spirit-Filled Life Bible (2002, NKJV, NIV, NLT). Edited by Jack Hayford, a popular Pentecostal pastor, and featuring notes and other resources from a Pentecostal perspective. Better than the other study Bibles in this category, but still drawing to a great extent on the teaching of aberrant teachers, especially those advocating the Word of Faith doctrine.

Study Bibles from Other Perspectives

Catholic Study Bible, 3rd ed. (2016). A study Bible based on moderate and liberal Catholic scholarship, based on the NAB rev. ed. (which includes the Apocrypha).

HarperCollins Study Bible: Student Edition (2006). A study Bible produced by the Society of Biblical Literature and based on secular and liberal scholarship, using the NRSV with the Apocrypha.

Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament (2010). A conservative Roman Catholic study Bible, based on the RSV Second Catholic Edition. Portions of the Old Testament are also available.

Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011). Not exactly a full study Bible, but the New Testament (in the NRSV) with notes reflecting the perspective of frankly non-Christian, mainstream Jewish scholarship (garnering respect from some evangelicals for its “outsider” insights).

Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed. (2014). Based on the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and presenting mainstream Jewish scholarship.

*New Interpreter’s Study Bible, rev. ed. (2003, NRSV with Apocrypha). A mainline Protestant study Bible, generally reputable in scholarship though its critical views on the Bible can be at variance with traditional and evangelical views.

NIV First-Century Study Bible (2014, NIV). Study Bible featuring notes by Kent Dobson (son of the more famous Ed Dobson), ostensibly emphasizing helpful historical and cultural background information on the Bible but also reflecting Dobson’s progressive beliefs.

Orthodox Study Bible (2008). This study Bible presents a new translation of the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) based partly on the NKJV, along with the NKJV translation of the New Testament. It is the work of the St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Not to be confused with an earlier and less successful work called The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms (1993).

Choosing a Study Bible 

So, how should you go about choosing a study Bible? The following issues should be taken into consideration:

  • What version is available with this study Bible? You will want a study Bible that is based on an English version that you find suitable for use in your regular reading and study of the Bible. Thus, if you have not done so already, you should decide what version you prefer to use. You might find our article on choosing a Bible translation helpful. We especially recommend the ESV, though the NASB and HCSB are also excellent.
  • Who produced the study Bible notes and other features? Although there is nothing wrong with learning a lot from one pastor or scholar, all things being equal the best study Bibles are likely to be the work of a large team of scholars, each of whom is an expert in a specific part of the Bible.
  • When was the study Bible produced? The more recent the notes and other features were written, the more up-to-date they will be in terms of such matters as referring to relevant archaeological finds or making use of the most recent good scholarship.
  • What is the study Bible’s theological perspective? Study Bibles from non-evangelical perspectives can bring their own good insights, but frankly evangelical publishers are producing by far the best study Bibles today. The best evangelical study Bibles actually engage non-evangelical views (particularly those of liberal and secular scholarship) more than non-evangelical study Bibles do. While study Bibles promoting a specific theological point of view (say, Baptist or Reformed) may have their place, we would recommend considering a study Bible that is not denominationally specific but that upholds a broadly evangelical perspective.
  • Where is this study Bible available in digital forms? While most of us are still carrying printed Bibles, more and more of us are also taking advantage of Bible apps on our mobile devices and Bible software programs on our computers. A study Bible that is available in multiple electronic platforms as well as in print is increasingly the ideal.

Based on these factors, we especially and highly recommend the ESV Study Bible. It is a recent (though not brand new) study Bible produced by a large team of respected scholars and reflects a strong evangelical perspective that is not denominationally specific. It is available in several software programs and apps, including the online ESV Bible app. Moreover, the basic ESV Bible app is free, as is the Kindle edition of the ESV Global Study Bible. A close second is the Life Application Study Bible, which has much the same admirable qualities of the ESV Study Bible and is available with several different versions. With today’s technology, it is also now quite practical to obtain access to two or more study Bibles through an app such as the Olive Tree Bible Software app Bible+ (which has most of the study Bibles mentioned in this article) or Logos Bible Software (which has 13 of these study Bibles).