If you walk into your local Christian bookstore and head over to the Bibles section, you’re sure to be inundated with the selection of study Bibles. They’re so popular that just about every famous pastor and theologian has worked on or endorsed one. And a new study Bible is hitting the market every few months.
With so many to choose from and sometimes with a hefty price tag to boot, how do you know which study Bible is right for you? That’s a good question and one we will answer in this Bible study tip.
This week we will look at the history of study Bibles, the components of a good study Bible, and how they might be dangerous for your spiritual growth. I’ll even share some of my favorites. So, let’s dive in.
A (Somewhat) Brief History of Study Bibles
Many Christians tend to think study Bibles are a modern invention in Christendom. In one sense they are correct. What we know today as study Bibles have their genesis in the early 1900’s. But, what if I told you the first study Bible was actually published over 450 years ago?! Would you believe me? Well, it’s true! So, let’s take a look at a history of the study Bible.
The Geneva Bible
For our first study Bible we need to travel to Europe in the early and mid-1500’s. During this time England’s Queen Mary I wanted to thwart the English Reformation and restore Roman Catholicism’s religious supremacy in her country. To escape the queen’s tyranny, many protestant pastors and scholars fled to Geneva, Switzerland. It was in Geneva that these pastors and scholars began their life work of creating a new English Bible for the people. This Bible would be called the Geneva Bible.
The translation of the Geneva Bible was based on the scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures. Many of the English renderings leaned heavily on the work of William Tyndale’s earlier translation work. Yet, all of its Old Testament translation was done from the original Hebrew. This made it the first English Bible to have the entire Old Testament translated from the Hebrew, instead of the Greek Septuagint or Latin Vulgate.
Numerous features make the Geneva Bible special and set it apart. As mentioned in a previous tip, this Bible is the first complete modern Bible to utilize both chapter and verse divisions. This was also accompanied by plentiful study aids including woodcut illustrations, book introductions, maps, charts, cross-references, and indexes. But all of those pale in comparison to the marginal notes that the Geneva Bible is famous for. These marginal notes were commentary on the text of Scripture that were very Calvinist & Puritan in their doctrinal leanings, combating the teachings of Roman Catholicism.
The Geneva Bible was the first of its kind. Not only was it the first true study Bible, but it was the first mass-produced Bible made available to the general public. It became the Bible of choice in English Protestantism & for the likes of William Shakespeare and John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress). The first edition was printed in 1560, predating the King James (Authorized Version) by 51 years (1611). Even today you can buy a modernized version of the 1599 Geneva Bible from Tolle Lege Press.
Scofield Reference Bible
Even though the Geneva Bible was a remarkable achievement for its day, its format was not widely replicated for hundreds of years. Christianity didn’t see another popular study Bible until 1909 when Cyrus Scofield published his Scofield Reference Bible, later revised in 1917.
The Scofield Reference Bible is what we would call the first modern study Bible and what others have mimicked since. Along with the Bible text of the KJV, Scofield included study notes, which amounted to a mini commentary on Scripture. It also included a cross-referencing system that tied passages together and walked readers through various biblical themes from Genesis to Revelation.
This study Bible was quite successful and led to the popularization of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a system of interpreting the Bible that sees God working with his chosen people through distinct “dispensations” throughout the course of human history. Its key distinction is its separation of ethnic Israel and the Church, one being an earthly people & the other a heavenly people in God’s plan. Dispensationalists hold that all promises for the Church are heavenly, but promises to Abraham’s offspring are earthly, especially their promise of land, which will be ultimately fulfilled at Christ’s return.
Scofield’s Bible became popular during a time of post World War I cultural depression. People were looking for optimism, and his interpretation of Scripture provided. As such, his study notes appeared quite prophetic when the nation of Israel was created after World War II. Taken together, Scofield’s teachings had quite the influence on fundamental Christianity. Until the 1980’s the Scofield Reference Bible was the study Bible of the masses.
Even today, a revised version of the Scofield Reference Bible is still published and widely available, although it has been supplanted by other dispensational study Bibles such as the Ryrie Study Bible.
NIV Study Bible
In the mid-1980’s the study Bible market changed again when Zondervan published the NIV Study Bible. This study Bible set out to do something different. While the Geneva and Scofield Reference Bibles were popular in their own rights, they both had one problem: they favored one theological interpretation to the detriment of all others. Recognizing this, Zondervan assembled a trans-denominational team of scholars to produce a study Bible representing a broad evangelical consensus.
This approach has allowed the NIV Study Bible to become the best selling study Bible as of this writing. Many study Bibles have also taken this approach, making them marketable to the vast majority of Christians.
The Reformation Study Bible
The next major shift in the study Bible market came not too long after. This shift, instead of reaching evangelicalism at large, saw denominations and theological schools of thought creating their own study Bibles. These study Bibles arose in direct response to the popularity of both the NIV Study Bible and Scofield Reference Bible. With dispensationalism on the rise in the 1980’s, these study Bibles sought to serve proponents of their respective views and denominations.
One such Bible was the New Geneva Study Bible (1995) which later became the Reformation Study Bible, edited by the late R. C. Sproul. This study Bible marked a return to the Reformed tradition, which had not been seen in study Bible form since the Geneva Bible (hence the name). Its study notes emphasized the teachings and biblical understandings recovered in the Reformation era.
Many other denominations, such as the Orthodox, Lutherans, Charismatics, and Wesleyans, have done similarly in producing their own study Bibles.
The present day finds study Bibles at the height of their popularity. Today you would be hard pressed to find a Bible in your Christian bookstore that’s not a study Bible. We have plenty more study Bibles like the ones listed above from various publishers. But now we have study Bibles from popular pastors & teachers like John MacArthur, Charles Swindoll, Joyce Meyer, and David Jeremiah, to name a few. There are even study Bibles using notes & writings from historic figures like Charles Spurgeon, Matthew Henry, and A. W. Tozer. Not to mention all the themed Bibles on the market for niche, gender, and age.
These days there is literally a study Bible for everyone.
What Makes for a Good Study Bible?
While it’s great to have so many study Bibles to choose from, it makes it more difficult to find the right one. Back in the 1980’s you only had a handful of choices. Now that choice has multiplied exponentially. So, how do you choose the right study Bible? I’m glad you asked.
Over the years, I’ve used many study Bibles. I’ve even created digital versions of them as part of my job at Olive Tree. Therefore, I have quite the experience with study Bibles, at least more than most people. So, let me share what I think makes up a good study Bible.
A Great All-in-One Resource
You should be able to use your study Bible for the majority of your study needs and have it be your first line of defense in answering questions about Scripture. So, a good study Bible needs to be well-rounded and do a lot of things well. It should be an all-in-one resource for Bible study.
People made fun of the ESV Study Bible when it was first published because it was massive. Carrying it around was a workout. Yet, its size can be attributed to it being a comprehensive Bible study tool. If it was the only tool a person owned, Crossway wanted to make sure it was a good one. And that it was and still is!
Now let’s talk about what exactly makes for a well-rounded study Bible.
Study Notes and Commentary
Aside from the Bible text, study notes (also called commentary) are the most important element of a study Bible. If the goal is to understand the Bible, you need to make sure the notes are going to help you toward that end. So, look for a Bible with extensive notes that explain the passage. Flip throughout the Bible and see how in-depth (or sparse) the notes are. The more elaborate the notes the better.
Take a look at these pages from my ESV Study Bible. This is what you should be looking for.
When studying a new book of the Bible, you must get acquainted with it. Like meeting a new friend, you need to make proper introductions. You need to do the same when you study the Bible. This typically involves finding out lots of background information. Book introductions go a long way in helping with this.
Good book introductions will provide the following:
- A summary of the book
- The genre(s)
- The author & date
- Key themes, people, and places
Additionally, you may also find information such as: how the book fits into the Bible’s overarching narrative, literary features, key passages, the purpose & occasion for the book, a timeline, and so on.
By time you’re done reading the introduction, you should have a broad understanding of the book of the Bible you’re about to study.
The book’s introduction will often include an outline showing the book’s structure. These are invaluable. At a glance you can see: 1) how long the book is, 2) major divisions in the text, and 3) the flow of the narrative or topic. The outline is like an aerial view of the entire forest before walking through it.
Outlines can also be helpful when planning your strategy. With an outline you can decide how large of a portion of Scripture you want to tackle at a given time and gauge how long it will take to study a book or section. After reading the introduction, outlines are the next stop on the study train. And my philosophy is this: the more detailed the outline the better.
Any study Bible worth its weight should have maps. The Bible narrative involves lots of movement and place names. If you’re not familiar with the geography it’s easy to find yourself confused, not knowing what’s happening in the text. Maps help you figure out what’s going on and where everything is.
Sure, most Bibles have five or six maps in the back, but a good study Bible will have maps throughout the study notes. For example, Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land is quite involved. To keep yourself properly oriented to all the activity, the ESV Study Bible inserts several maps throughout the book to illustrate what’s happening and where, along with arrows showing routes of travel.
Maps are key when studying the Old Testament history books or the Gospels & Acts. Often overlooked, the number & quality of the maps should play an important part in your decision making process when purchasing a study Bible.
The Bible contains a lot of information and sometimes it’s difficult to make sense of it all. This is why any good study Bible will have charts & tables to make things easier to understand.
What kinds of information am I talking about? Things like: chronologies & timelines, calendars, the kings of Israel & Judah, Jesus’ parables & miracles, the sermons in Acts, and the spiritual gifts, just to name a few. Yes, you could piece all this information together yourself, but chart make it easier to digest information, especially when it’s a large topic or study.
Charts make your Bible study more productive.
We talked about using concordances in a previous Bible study tip, and they are essential for your study Bible. Thankfully, just about every Bible these days has some level of a concordance in the back.
Your concordance is your assistant when searching for a word in the Bible and you don’t know where it’s located. It’s also a great resource when starting a topical or word study.
While it should be a given, make sure your study Bible has one before buying it. If it doesn’t, you’ve been cheated!
Articles & Essays
The last thing to look for in a study Bible is its additional features. Lots of study Bibles now include additional articles and essays to help you understand the Bible and acclimate you to the Faith. While not essential, these can become a vital asset to your spiritual growth.
What kinds of things should you look for? Here’s a sampling of what you can find in a few different study Bibles:
- Disciple’s Study Bible — the back of this study Bible contains articles on discipleship and discipleship groups
- CSB Study Bible — word studies & essays are contained throughout the text, as you encounter words and themes of importance
- CSB Worldview Study Bible — contained throughout the pages of the Bible are essays addressing different aspects of Christianity and culture & how we can defend or respond to them as believers
- Reformation Study Bible — here you will find historic creeds & confessions, catechisms, and articles on Christian living
Again, while not essential, they are certainly handy & useful for study, especially if this is your primary (or only) study tool. You can never go wrong with additional resources for Bible study and maturing in your faith.
The Dangers of Study Bibles
For all the good that study Bibles offer, they can also become a crutch and hindrance in your studies. Here are some possible dangers you should consider before investing in a study Bible.
Losing Focus on the Bible
The biggest problem with study Bibles is how easy it becomes to pay more attention to everything but the Bible. The study notes can be so extensive that they dominate the page, leaving very little room for Bible text. While helpful for understanding a passage, it can also prove distracting. Notes are great when you need them; but, not so much when you don’t.
This is one reason why my primary Bible only has cross-reference and footnotes. Far too often I got distracted by the notes when all I wanted to do was read the Bible.
When then study notes dominate the page it takes away from the Word of God. Another problem I had was constantly looking down at the notes without first “wrestling” with the text on my own, which brings us to our next point.
Study Bibles Can Produce Poor Study Habits
Because it is so easy to glance down at the notes, study Bibles can promote lazy study habits. One thing we need to do in our time of study is wrestle with the text on our own before we turn to outside resources. Yes, we are to use study tools to help us understand the Bible, but only when we’ve exhausted our own mental faculties.
With a study Bible this task becomes difficult. Instead of doing the hard work on your own, shortcuts will stare you in the face. “Why wrestle with the text when the explanation is only a glance away?,” you’ll ask yourself.
Bible study is about getting into God’s Word until his Word gets into you. That’s hard to do if you always let others give you the answer. Don’t fall for the trap of relying too heavily on the study notes that you don’t study and wrestle with the passage yourself.
Study Bibles Can Have a Theological Bias
You need to know what you’re getting into when you buy a study Bible. As noted in the history section, many study Bibles either try to be mainline evangelical or have a denomination or theological emphasis. Thus, as best you can, you need to figure out where any given study Bible lands on that spectrum.
Why is this important? Because you do not want to purchase a study Bible that contradicts what you or your church/denomination believes the Bible to teach. For example, if you do not believe in the continuation of the miraculous spiritual gifts (miracles, speaking in tongues, etc.) then you would not want to purchase the Fire Bible or the New Spirit Filled Life Bible which promote such beliefs. Likewise, if you’re not Reformed you’d want to stay away from the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible.
Thankfully, with most study Bibles it is easy to discern these things. But, here are things to look for that will help you figure out the theological bias.
- Look for catch phrases or key words in the title (i.e. reformation, fire, spirit filled, orthodox, etc.) — these will often indicate theological leaning
- Check the editor, contributors & endorsements — like key words, it’s easy to figure out the theological bias when you know who wrote or promotes it
- Check the publisher — a handful of publishers have a clear doctrinal position based on their history & often publish in that vein
- Finally, without any clear indication, assume it takes a balanced evangelical approach — this is the position of most study Bibles
Not All Study Bibles Are Created Equal
Last, consider that not all study Bibles are created equal. Every study Bible has its strengths & weaknesses and these need to be considered. Many specialized study Bibles can be sparse on notes (or have none at all), but heavy on articles & devotions. For example, the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible is very light on study notes because of its emphasis on word studies. Yet, the ESV Study Bible is quite balanced & does just about everything well.
With all these problems considered, I believe the benefits of study Bibles outweigh the bad. That said, if you are susceptible to any of these dangers, I would urge you to use a regular Bible and then refer to your study Bible as you would any other study tool.
Bonus Tip: Go Digital
With all this talk about study Bibles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bible software.
I own lots of study Bibles and use them liberally in my studies. They are often my preferred resource before pulling out a thick commentary. Yet, for all the study Bibles I own, only one of them is physical, my personal size ESV Study Bible. Every other study Bible I own is electronic.
Here are a few reasons why you should consider going digital with your study Bibles:
- It saves space & reduces clutter
- You can take all of them with you wherever you go
- Use your preferred Bible translation, even if the study notes are coupled with a different translation (i.e. reading the CSB while using the NIV Cultural Background Study Bible)
- Easily use & compare multiple study Bibles
If you’re like me and love study Bibles, digital is definitely the way to go.
My Favorite Study Bibles
Now that we’ve covered the history and ins & outs of study Bibles you’re probably wondering which ones I prefer.
As I said in the previous section, I use lots of study Bibles and use each for a specific purpose. Here are some of my favorites and why I prefer them.
ESV Study Bible
The ESV Study Bible is my preferred and go to study Bible. It is the only one I own a physical copy of. It’s also the one I turn to first in my Bible apps. The study notes are thorough and Crossway tried to be as comprehensive as possible with everything they packed in here. There’s a chart or table for just about anything you can think of. And the maps are probably the best you’ll find in any study Bible. They are full color & extremely detailed.
When it comes to explaining the Bible text, the ESV Study Bible provides everything I need and then some.
Gospel Transformation Study Bible
As the great urban theologian shai linne says, “Y’all should be mindful of this devout thesis: all of the Bible is about Jesus.” The Gospel Transformation Study Bible is about making this plain in Scripture. Its unique focus is providing study notes that point to Christ and the gospel. This is a great study Bible to use in tandem with any other study Bible because of its focus on gospel application.
In whatever we study the gospel should never be lost, which is why I love referencing these study notes.
Biblical Theology Study Bible / NIV Zondervan Study Bible
If I didn’t have the ESV Study Bible, the Biblical Theology Study Bible (formerly titled the NIV Zondervan Study Bible) would be my go to. It hits all the sweet spots that a study Bible ought to hit. Additionally, the notes are focused on biblical theology, which is how themes work their way through Scripture to point to Christ. And, like the ESV there are many great essays in the back from some great pastors & theologians.
All in all, it’s a great alternative to the ESV Study Bible. I reference it when I’m not fully satisfied with what I find in the other study Bibles.
Reformation Study Bible
The Reformation Study Bible is another great study Bible, but one with a clear theological view. All the notes interpret Scripture from a Reformed framework. The study notes are what you would expect from any study Bible. But, what I appreciate most are the additional features. The theological notes throughout the text are helpful in explaining key themes. Topical articles explain the importance of Scripture and how to rightly interpret it. And the historic creeds and confessions in the back are a valuable addition for learning the faith from great Christians who have come before us.
Life Application Study Bible
I have friends that laugh at me for using this study Bible, but it has a firm place in my studies. You see, personal application is one of my weak points in Bible study. Sometimes I need help seeing how I should apply a passage in my life, beyond the obvious. The Life Application Study Bible does just what its name suggests: it helps me apply the Bible to my life & it does a good job at it. With that said, I take it all with a grain of salt & test it against Scripture.
The Life Application Study Bible is another one I’d use in tandem with another, but I believe it’s worth owning.
Disciple’s Study Bible
The Disciple’s Study Bible is one I reviewed on this site. For the new Christian or those walking in a discipleship relationship, this is a great study Bible. The notes focus on how the passages relate to various Bible doctrines. The reader focuses on the things that matter, without getting lost in the weeds. The discipleship articles in the back are priceless, as well as the integration with the H.E.A.R. journaling method.
I keep this one nearby and it’s the one I now recommend to new Christians.
Go Buy Your Study Bible
You now have all the tools you need to purchase the right study Bible. Now go out and buy one that’s going to help you in your studies!
Leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear what some of your favorite study Bibles are and why.
Weekly Study Prompts
This week, meditate and journal on the following passages:
- Monday – 1 Kings 16:29-34; 17
- Tuesday – 1 Kings 18-19
- Wednesday – 1 Kings 21-22
- Thursday – 2 Kings 2
- Friday – 2 Kings 5; 6:1-23
- Memory Verses: Psalm 17:15; 63:1
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