Q124 : Recommended Study Bibles

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Q124 : Recommended Study Bibles

I would like to know which Study Bibles are the most theological accurate in your opinion and why? I am considering purchasing a Study Bible and I want to buy a good one.

A124 : by Tony Garland

First a disclaimer: what follows are my own personal observations, preferences, and recommendations about how to choose a good study Bible. Other interpreters and Bible teachers are sure to disagree on some points (although many will be in substantial agreement too). Rather than restrict my response to your specific question (theological accuracy), I've chosen to discuss a number of aspects to consider when choosing a study Bible. I address the specific question you asked about in the final item in the list below.

It seems to me that there are several important aspects you want to consider when purchasing an English study Bible for a potential lifetime of use. I see them in the following priority:

  1. Quality of Translation - One should prefer a reliable translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text. Ideally, this will be a word-for-word rather than thought-for-thought translation which visually designates interpolated words and phrases, usually by italics. Within these limitations, my preference is for the NKJV (and KJV) and NASB. While the ESV is also an excellent word-for-word translation, it does not mark interpolations by italics. While this may not be very important in general, there are situations where knowing what is an interpolation (the thin ice) and what is not (something you can be firm about) can be important. The HCSB may also be a reliable translation, but I am not very familiar with it and it doesn’t seem to be widely used to date. As popular as it may be, the NIV does not really qualify as a word-for-word rendering and although very readable, is not as reliable in the details. (The NIV was my favorite translation as a new Christian but I eventually weened myself off of it because I encountered situations where it did not track the underlying original text as closely as I came to prefer.) It is my opinion that popular versions such as the NLT, TNIV, and The Message are unsuitable for careful study since they stray too far from the original text trading away accuracy in an effort to appeal to modern phraseology.

  2. Textual Family - The next fork in the road is in regard to which underlying Greek textual family is favored by a particular translation. My preference here is for a translation which favors the Textus Receptus (TR) and Majority Text (MT) rather than the Critical Text (CT). The problem, in my mind, with the CT is that it places too great an emphasis on a few manuscripts which, although being the oldest known so far, are not necessarily that consistent with one another and were not as widely in circulation. Furthermore, it does not necessary follow that simply because a text is older that it is better. If archaeologists long after our day found numerous copies of the NASB, but only a few—but older—copies of the New World Translation (a Jehovah’s Witness production), would it follow that the New World Translation was the superior text? This is the primary reason I prefer the NKJV over the NASB. Yet I also pay close attention to the NASB (which follows the CT) and consult it frequently during study as it has been my experience that the NASB often does a superior job of rendering individual Greek words and phrases into English. In regard to the Old Testament, the difference between the word-for-word translations is reduced considerably since they all favor the Masoretic Text. One of the features I particularly rely upon in the NKJV is that it provides footnotes indicating alternate readings from the CT and MT families. This can be particularly helpful in a group Bible study where some of the people have a translation which follows one of these families—as you are aware of places where the English text is likely to vary in small ways.

  3. Cross References - For study, you really must have a Bible which contains cross-references to related passages. In my view, the more the better. It has been my experience that the Bible is its own best interpreter. In other words, by studying related (parallel) passages, one can often come to an understanding of a passage which is undeniable and yet differs significantly from the lion’s share of commentaries. For example, consider the correlation between Revelation 12:1 and various passages in the Old Testament (Genesis 37:9; Psalm 89:35-37; Jer. 31:35-37; 33:20-26). By simply reading the related passages we can instantly do away with volumes of conjecture regarding the identity of the womana mentioned in the verse. Although almost all good study Bibles provide extensive cross-references, some are better than others depending upon the emphasis of your study. For example, in relation to topic study, the chains of topic references within the Thompson Chain Study Bible are very helpful. Unfortunately, this same Bible is a very poor choice for understanding prophecy due to its tendency to read the Church into passages relating to Israel besides being very weak in regard to eschatology (the study of last things) in general. What I prefer—rather than cross-references pertaining to topical chains—is a large set of simple cross-references between passages which allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.

  4. Readability - Next on my list would be how readable the Bible is. I prefer a modern typeface and reasonable size of font. Equally important, in my usage, is that the text is formatted in individual verses rather than paragraphs where verse numbers are reduced to tiny superscript between sentences. Anyone who spends much time teaching and preaching (not to mention studying—which would seem to cover all serious Christians) will be much better served finding their way around and leading others in an understanding of the text if each verse is set forth with an individual verse number in “versified” format. Unfortunately, it seems to be a modern trend to dispense with individual verse format in favor of paragraphs. This is partly motivated by a desire to fit the entire text (plus copious study notes in some situations) into a reasonably-sized volume. But it makes for a text which is much less accessible. Although one can perhaps spend the extra time hunting for individual verses within a paragraph when studying, it can be a practical problem in the pulpit or during group Bible study.

  5. Helps - A good study Bible will have important helps which provide background on each book (e.g., date, author, context) as well as numerous maps, tables, and charts. Most important is a good chronological treatment of history including a list of prophets, kings, and other Biblical figures and the context of their ministries (e.g., which prophets ministered when and to which of the Jewish kingdoms). Although it would be nice if study Bibles were known for excellent maps, this is generally a weak area where you'll need to rely on a separate Bible atlas. A reasonable concordance is also helpful, although it will be no substitute for a separate exhaustive or complete concordanceb. In regard to the study notes and commentary accompanying the Bible text, I would advise against a study Bible which tries to present all views—the proverbial middle ground (perhaps better referred to as the "muddle ground" when it comes to understanding the Bible). The truth is not to be found in a compromise of generally incompatible viewpoints. It is better to find a study Bible which endorses the overall interpretive framework which you feel best represents what the Scriptures are actually trying to say and presents this view in as great a detail as possible within the limits of a study Bible. (I realize that this can present somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem for a new believer in that part of the reason for investing in a study Bible is to try and arrive at a correct understanding of how the various passages fit together.)

  6. Quality - Ideally, you want a study Bible that will last a lifetime. Unfortunately, the reality is that few Bible publishers are producing study Bibles with high quality. A notable exception is the publishers of the Thompson Chain study Bible which can be had in extremely high quality—although for reasons I touched on above I do not recommend it as your main Study bible due to interpretive issues and weaknesses on important themes. Apparently the MacArthur Study Bible (NASB translation) is also available in a high quality edition—but this suffers from another drawback (paragraph rather than versified format). In the case of the NKJV translation, Thomas Nelson publishing seem to have a well-deserved reputation for producing low quality Bibles (this is my personal observation of many years) and it is particularly frustrating to find this translation “captive” as it were to inferior production. (Cambridge now prints two high quality NKJV Bibles licensed from Thomas Nelson, but the font size is quite small and again, it is in paragraph rather than versified format. Nor do they offer a NKJV study Bible.) I became frustrated enough by this that I finally opted to take one of my relatively poor quality NKJV study Bibles which had other good qualities and send it off to Mechling Book Binderyc to have it sewn and rebound in beautiful calfskin. (I've since had several books rebound by Mechling and I highly recommend them.)

  7. Theological Accuracy - You will find, if you stick with one of the reliable word-for-word translations, that there is very little variation between the English text among these versions. If the word-for-word translations of the Bible say substantially the same thing, why is there such a variation in the study notes accompanying the various study Bibles? The difference comes about from different approaches to interpreting (reading and understanding) the text. This is a huge topic—which is discussed in Steve Lewis’ excellent introductory course on Bible Interpretationd. What it comes down to is this: are we to read and understand the text in the same way we typically read most things day-to-day? Or do we take a different approach because the Bible is special or because a book or passage is thought to be presented in a special genre or literary style? My advice is this: read the Bible the same way you read the back of the cereal box when eating your breakfast! In other words, we are to read it primarily in its literal sense recognizing figures of speech and symbols where such clearly occur. Sounds simple enough until you realize that the Bible is not just any book. It purports to be the very Words of God — the specific instructions that God has given to mankind. Therein lies the problem: it is incessantly under attack, not only in an attempt to discredit the text, but also to try and skew our understanding of it where it is accepted. The reality is that a wide diversity of interpretive ideas wind up surfacing on secondary issues—especially in relation to prophetic themes which have not yet found fulfillment. Having said that, it is my view that a straight-forward reading of the text will lead the careful reader to conclude that the Bible teaches a viewpoint which has come to be described by a string of theological terms: dispensational (God does not always deal with people in the same way at all times and places, Israel and the body of Christ are distinct peoples of God), premillennial (upon the return of Jesus there follows a literal kingdom upon the Earth for 1,000 years centered in Jerusalem), and pretribulational (the body of Christ begin with the Day of Pentecost and ends with the Rapture when it is taken up to meet Christ in the air prior to the tribulation), and moderately Calvinistic (four of the five "petals" of Calvinism’s TULIP are clearly taught, salvation is a work of God without which no man would choose God, God predestines some to salvation such that those chosen are never lost). Since the Bible is self-consistent, when you mess with one of the theological “dominoes” others will fall. While it is certainly helpful to be aware of alternate interpretive views (ignorance is never bliss), it will prove difficult to grow in one’s depth of understanding by continually straddling disparate systems of interpretation.

Having enumerated the above considerations, what is the bottom line—what study Bibles available today would I most highly recommend?

  • Holy Bible - Baptist Study Editione - Readable font size, versified format, excellent cross-references, good concordance and helps, dispensational/premillennial interpretation, poor quality, presently out of print. This is my primary study Bible which I had rebound in quality leather by Mechling Book Binderyf.

  • Nelson’s NKJV Study Bibleg - Medium font size, paragraph format, excellent cross-references (latest revised version), good concordance and helps, dispensational/premillennial interpretation, NKJV translation, mediocre quality. The Bible is also available in a large print version. Unlike other large print editions, it retains the full set of cross-references.

  • Ryrie Study Bibleh - Readable font size, versified format excellent cross-references, good concordance and helps, dispensational/premillennial interpretation, NASB or KJV version. Also available in NIV but not recommended (see above). Unfortunately, this study Bible has not been available in the NKJV version for some time. [NOTE: readers report the 2012 NASB revision has changed from versified to paragraph format.]

  • King James Version Study Biblei - Readable font size, versified format, excellent cross-references, good concordance and helps, dispensational/premillennial interpretation, KJV version only.

  • MacArthur Study Biblej - Tiny font, paragraph format, excellent cross-references, good concordance (updated version) and helps, dispensational/premillennial interpretation. MacArthur is not as solidly dispensational in his interpretation as others (e.g., a careful and thorough treatment of the different covenants of the Old Testament is lacking) but the general reliability, quantity, and quality of the study notes is very good. Depending upon how good your vision is, the relatively small font in combination with paragraph format make this a more difficult Bible to use from the pulpit and during group Bible study.

  • Scofield Study Biblek - Readable font, versified format, weak on cross-references, excellent concordance, good topical helps, dispensational/premillennial interpretation. Some prefer the original version and some prefer the revised (3rd) version. I have both and would recommend considering the updated version for a new purchase. This is a timeless classic which made a tremendous contribution toward Biblical literacy among everyday Christians and served to preserve a straight-forward interpretation of the Biblical text (amidst a growing academic liberalism which continues in our day). One of its strengths is its topical treatment of dispensational themes—a trademark of Scofield’s Bible. But this comes at the cost of a lack of extensive cross-references (which the other study Bibles mentioned above provide).

Among the (too) many study Bibles I've collected over the years, these are the ones I've found to be the most helpful and reliable.

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