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Which Study Bible Should I Choose?

I’m a great advocate of the idea that the best Bible is the one you understand. Perhaps surpassed only by the one you have in your hands. But the I’m also a great advocate of not being taken in by slogans.

So what to do?

First choose a translation. Then choose the Study Bible version you want.

Which Bible translation?

I’d recommend making a short list of translations, then taking to the internet or finding a quiet corner in the christian bookstore to read your favourite psalm (a short one) and a chapter from a gospel or epistle. Compare them and decide which you like best.

How to make a short list?

Understand that translations vary because of the translation philosophy used. On the one side of the scale you have the more literal, word-for-word translations. These try to find the best modern equivalents for the original language while doing their best to preserve the word order. Interpretive judgements are kept to a minimum, even if that sacrifices readability. On the other side of the scale you get the thought-for-thought versions, which try to communicate the thoughts of the original authors in the type of language we would use today. Interpretation here trumps the word order, and can make for a clearer, more readable experience.

On the far opposite end you have the paraphrase versions, where the word order and word-for-word equivalence is trumped by interpretation. In fact, these might not actually be properly called translations, since a translation considers the words, syntax and grammar, while a paraphrase is only restating the idea in a deliberately simplistic manner. These can give an interesting modern perspective on the text and can make for an eminently readable experience, but its usually only someone’s take on the passage rather than the a faithful rendering of the words God gave us, and the potential for foolish teaching sprouting up like weeds from such a “translation” is great.

My advice is if you’re a teacher, preacher or wanting to study the text closely for the meaning of each of verse, go for a more literal translation. If you’re more into reading devotionally, or want a better overview of the whole story and less concerned with the parts that make up it up, go for a thought-to-thought version. If you can’t make up your mind, NIV is generally considered to be in the middle of both sides. Never let a paraphrase be the only version you read, and avoid large consumption of them.

So choose which side of the translation spectrum you prefer from what is available. Perhaps include a mix from both sides to see the contrast.

Which Study Bible version?

The more popular translations may have a variety of types of Study Bible’s while others may only have one. Which you choose really comes down to what your looking for in a Study Bible. I prefer the generic type rather than the targeted ones, i.e. the Teenage Study Bible (which I outgrew), the Men’s Study Bible (which I refused to own because I want to know about more than just issues that concern men), and the Apologetics Study Bible (which I am deathly interested in, but has only short summaries of information that I can’t find in more detail elsewhere).

Other advice on which Study Bible to choose:

  • The internet is better for the topical and word concordances, and you can get by without the book of maps, so forget about them when choosing.
  • Some good commentary is also easily found on the internet, and other books are available for that, so my preference is to avoid those inserted sections that break up the text, ruin the reading experience and spoil the design.
  • Check out the amount of study notes at the bottom of each page. I say the more the better!
  • Check out the length of the introductions to each book. This is valuable information that is difficult to find elsewhere – especially in neat summaries like Study Bible’s have. So again I say the more the better.
  • Beyond that, I think design is important. I think uncluttered, clean simplicity is hard to beat.
  • So altogether I’m really happy with my ESV Study Bible. And the matching ESV mobile app is one of the best.


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