Choosing a Study Bible
I’ve searched for many years for the perfect Study Bible. I’ve tried many of the Bibles on the market and I’ve found things that I like and things that I don’t like in all of them. Through my years of Bible study I have found what does and does not work, and what I do and do not need in a Study Bible. I also have developed opinions as to what every person needs in personal Bible study. Let’s examine some features of Study Bibles and determine what makes a good Bible.
First of all… all Bibles in English are translations. The scriptures were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. No translation can be considered equal with the original languages. A Bible translation should be chosen according to its purpose. Is the Bible for general reading or serious study? Maybe you want a Bible that will perform both tasks well.
There are two basic types of Bible translations: formal equivalent (literal, or word for word) and dynamic equivalent (thought for thought).
Some basic literal translations include KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV.
Thought for thought translations include NIV and NLT.
The KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV versions are well suited for serious study since they are literal translations. The NIV and NLT are better suited to general reading than serious study. Since they are thought for thought translations they will not have the higher level of accuracy that literal translations do.
There is another type of Bible available: the paraphrase. Paraphrases include The Message and TLB. A paraphrase is when someone rewrites a text in their own words. Paraphrases should not be considered the Word of God and should be avoided.
I consider the topic of the best Bible translation to be a personal choice. If you believe that one version is the only version to use- that would be your personal conviction. You should not place that conviction upon others. Many people will tell you to stay away from modern translations. They forget that the KJV is a translation. It is my personal favorite translation, but it is a translation. The KJV is largely based on the work of William Tyndale. Tyndale’s goal was to offer a translation of the scriptures to the common reader of his day. William Tyndale would strive to do the same thing today. He would work to bring an English translation to the modern reader.
My basic guidelines are:
For reading, choose something you can enjoy reading that is as accurate as possible. NIV and NLT are good choices, but I still prefer a more literal translation even for reading. I read the KJV, NKJV, and ESV. I also occasionally read the NIV.
For study, choose the most literal you can feel comfortable with. I use KJV primarily. I also use NKJV and ESV. Many consider the ESV a more accurate rendering. I am simply more comfortable with King James.
Stay away from paraphrases.
For choosing one Bible for reading and study, stick with the literal translations.
I prefer at least a 9 point font. My regular size Thompson has an 8 point font. 8 point is OK, especially if the text is bold enough on the page, but my Thompson’s text is a little too light for me. Red letter is another key area for reading Bibles. My Thompson’s red letters are more pink than red. That’s OK too if you like the text, but red letters make it more difficult to highlight and color code. I prefer red letter for reading and black letter for marking.
Many Bibles have notes already in them. These are the notes of someone else that has already done their Bible study. I do not recommend using these Bibles for personal study as they include the writer’s biases. They can be handy as a commentary if needed, and some of them have some useful dictionaries and word studies. In hard cover editions they are usually much cheaper than buying full volumes, but I still do not recommend them as a personal Study Bible.
Good Bible study comes through the use of good study tools. Tools that I use the most are:
- Topical list
Study Bibles usually include some of these features and a few others:
- Biographical studies
- Harmony of the Gospels
- Essays and articles on doctrinal topics
- Devotional helps
- Self-pronouncing text
- Wide margins
- Ribbon marker (preferably 2)
A good Study Bible is a Bible that will give you the tools you need to do your own study- not gives you someone else’s study. A good Study Bible will give you the tools you need to come to your own conclusions. It will give you the tools you need to compare scripture with scripture.
The Bible you choose should be purchased with the idea that it’s going to get a long of use. For this reason you will want a Bible that will last. Some areas to pay attention to are:
A good binding will be sewn and have good stitching. Smyth sewn is the process of sewing groups of paper together and then sewing the groups together. This allows the Bible to lay flat when open.
The cover should be leather or hard cover. Bonded leather is OK, but do not expect it to last even if the Bible is kept in a Bible case. Bonded leather is very cheap material and will not hold up to heavy use. The higher-end materials are not a requirement for a quality Bible, but the higher quality the cover the longer it will last. Even calfskin will last for many years. Other choices are goatskin and Morocco leather. A good quality hard cover will also last many years, and is far less expensive than leather. Many of my Bibles are hard cover.
A good Study Bible will give you good paper to write on and enough room to do that writing. Text from the other side should only be slightly visible. There will be some visibility, but the paper shouldn’t be so thin that the text is distracting. A thicker paper is better for writing. Thin paper will allow your pens and pencils to bleed through and leave indentions in the page.
Reading verses Study
A good reading Bible is a Bible that has a readable text and some basic features such as references, maps, and concordance. A reading Bible can be used in Bible study. Just look for a good quality Bible with good text, good paper, and a little room for writing.
I recommend a wide margin Bible. Ideally it will have plenty of good quality paper for writing and really wide margins. Other helps are nice, but most tools, such as concordances and dictionaries, can be purchased separately.
I’d like to take minor issue with your designation of the NIV as a “thought-for-thought” translation, Randy. The NLT is certainly thought-for-thought; it also contains serious denominational bias. The NIV recently has been given more of a “mediating translation” status. It’s not a formal word-for-word translation, but it’s far more accurate than the typical thought-for-thought translations. In my own mind, I find the NIV almost as accurate as the NASB.
I agree that in study Bibles that have notes you are reading other people’s studies. However, in my own experience this can really illuminate the scriptures and “bring them to life”, and that is something we all want, isn’t it? God clearly uses such study Bibles to work to transform people’s hearts and lives. I have seen it happen in my own life and in the lives of other people I have had in classes. Inductive Bible study is a good thing, and the Bible scholar needs to learn to do that, but we don’t want to “quench the Spirit” by denying His working through the other types of SB.
Hi Gary. Thank you for your comments. I agree that the NIV is not purely a thought-for-thought translation. I see it more as a combination of the two types, placing it in the middle. As far as study Bibles, I do use them and recommend them. I just try to get readers to be cautious because some have a tendency to accept the notes as fact without question simply because they are printed in their Bibles. I will try to be more thorough and explain that a little more in future articles.
Hi Randy, I agree with reply to Gery’s post. I’ve same believe about others notes and view of scriptures. some notes are xtremly wrong in some bibles.
is there such a STUDY BIBLE in ESV that is self pronouncing/red-letter/center column reference/study notes at the bottom/and plenty of scripture references…..it could be indexed if possible, but this is not important
I know of a few study Bibles in ESV, but none of them have self-pronouncing text. Very few have center-column references. Your best bet might be the Hebrew Greek Keyword Study Bible. I don’t remember the layout of the Ryrie (That was an old review. I’ll have to dig it out of storage). Here’s what I’ve reviewed:
Now that it’s the end if 2016, is there an ESV study Bible that’s meets the criteria in this article? I’m having a difficult time finding one that measures up to all the features you listed (which happen to be the features I want).
Hi Wendy. That’s an excellent question. The best I’ve seen are those in the links in the above comment to Rueben. I haven’t seen all of these features in one Bible. The next study Bible coming out in ESV that I’m aware of is the Thompson Chain Reference. I haven’t seen the MacArthur, the Fire Bible (I have seen this in KJV), Reformation, the Literary Study Bible, etc., so I’m not sure of their features.
Another option would be to make your own with a wide margin or journaling edition, but of course the space is limited and it couldn’t have all of these features either.
I’ll keep a look out for what might be coming soon.
Randy, Thanks for this excellent advice on Study Bibles! Might I be permitted to incorporate it (with full acknowledgement to you, and reference to this website), in my forthcoming seminar on Study Bibles?
At present, I have some reservations about Study Bibles! The comments are far too brief, sometimes needlessly biased, and not always picking up important points that need to be aired. Like you, I prefer Study Bibles that include more or less everything other than the commentary!
When we buy a Study Bible, we are very largely buying the text (not always -eg, in the “academic” NRSV Study Bibles- with cross-references), of which we already have one or more separate copies! It would be a good thing if we could have Bible Notes – and Bible Helps, as we had in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries)!
Personally, for commentary, I think we are better served by having alongside our Bible, when we engage in serious study, a one-volume Bible Commentary. Would reviewing of such commentaries be outside the scope of yourvremit?
Feel free to incorporate anything from BBG into your seminars. Thanks for asking! I have reviewed a few commentaries and I plan to review more. If I can ever run BBG full-time, I’ll have time to review a lot more books and tools.
Which commentaries have you reviewed, and do you have links to the reviews, please? Many thanks!
Only a few, but you can find them here: https://biblebuyingguide.com/category/bible-reviews/commentaries/