One new year's resolution that many people make is to read their Bible more in the coming year. Some of the more ambitious folks out there even resolve to read the WHOLE Bible in the upcoming year. With such a resolution in place, and with money from Christmas or end-of-year bonus checks in hand, the resolved reader sets out to the nearest book store (or hops on Amazon.com or Christianbook.com) to purchase a brand new study Bible to help them in their quest for a greater Biblical literacy.
This is a noble endeavor indeed...but the first thing the Bible shopper is bound to notice are how many different study Bibles there are on the shelves (whether physical or of the e-variety). There are dozens and dozens to choose from in many different translations. It can be quite overwhelming for the average person who simply wants a Bible he or she can better read and understand. Which one should they get?
Most people have little idea what the differences are between all the different Bibles on the shelves and often they end up asking a salesperson (who is rarely a trained Biblical scholar...unless you're on a seminary campus bookstore), or picking the one with the nicest cover and/or endorsement by a particular Christian celebrity.
As a result, many people with a hunger for a deeper understanding of God's Word end up paying big bucks for a Bible with mediocre-at-best insights and content. Unfortunately, study Bible publishing is a big business and just as in other aspects of life it's easier to walk away with a less-than-substantial product that looks nice and promises much...but which is actually more like the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.
So what exactly makes a good study Bible "good"?
Whole books could be (and have been!) written on this subject. However, for the purpose of this last Methodist Examiner article of 2013, let me just suggest the following guidelines to keep in mind when looking to buy a study Bible for yourself for someone else:
1. A GOOD study Bible will present multiple views and interpretations on passages where historically Christians have come to different conclusions. In other words, one should avoid a study Bible that is solely based on one particular theological tradition. You may be a lifelong Methodist, but you will benefit from the insights from brothers and sisters of other theological streams presented in a good study Bible. Likewise, you may be a die-hard 5-Point Calvinist with a giant TULIP tattoo on your shoulder, yet you will only stunt your own growth if all you read and study under are Reformed teachers and scholars. A good study Bible is a helpful way to keep in mind that, regardless of our theological tradition of choice, we are still part of the larger connected Body of Christ and He has gifted many within the various denominational and theological traditions with insight and knowledge that the entire Body can benefit from.
2. A GOOD study Bible will contain the most up-to-date scholarship available and give insights into the cultural and historical background of the texts of Scripture. The past century of archeology has turned up a wealth of data about the ancient Near East that often sheds significant light on certain practices or language issues found in the pages of Scripture. A good study Bible will incorporate the excavations from places like Mari and Nuzi or the rhetorical practices known throughout the Greco-Roman world which Paul utilized so frequently, etc.
3. A GOOD study Bible will contain the work of numerous Biblical scholars, historians and linguists rather than simply the teachings of one particular popular Christian teacher or preacher. No matter how good a preacher or teacher the person is, they do not have the expertise to cover the entire breadth of knowledge that a good study Bible should cover. Rule of thumb: if a study Bible has a famous Christian's name as part of its title, don't buy it. Your money is better spent elsewhere, no matter how popular or dynamic the teacher or preacher whose name is plastered across the cover.
4. A GOOD study Bible will focus on helping the reader enter into the text in terms of what it meant to its original audience in its original setting before moving on to questions like "what does this passage mean to us today?" There is a major difference between a DEVOTIONAL Bible and a STUDY Bible. A Study Bible should always seek to communicate "what it meant to them" before leading the reader to reflect on "what it means to you."
5. A GOOD study Bible does not have to have the most expensive cover/binding or the flashiest and most eye-catching color graphics. Print quality and visuals are nice and helpful...but they content of the study notes and the presentation of the material introducing the books themselves are the heart and soul of any good study Bible. There are so many "gimmick" Bibles out there, many of which claim to offer profound new ways for the reader to understand and explore the text. However, rainbow colors or yearly reading plans don't always translate into clear knowledge or Biblical literacy. And unless you REALLY like the feel of duo-tone or genuine leather, it's worth noting that a paperback study Bible covered in clear contact paper will hold up just as well as an expensively bound one...sometimes at a fraction of the cost!
When choosing a study Bible just remember, the purpose is to have access to information and insights from the world of top-notch Biblical scholarship that you would not otherwise have access to if you were simply reading the text itself. Think of it as having a room full of scholars reading along with you and pointing out various aspects of the texts as you read along.
That being said, here are a few study Bibles that I recommend specifically to those who are looking for one...
The Archeology Study Bible (NIV) - By far the most informative study Bible currently on the market in terms of giving the historical and cultural background of the texts. Poetic sections are laid out according to the underlying Hebrew structure and there are hundreds of articles and sidebars on various aspects of the Biblical world that pertain to the text.
Life Application Study Bible (various translations) - Though there is an emphasis on modern "life application," the notes and book introductions are filled with excellent content.
The NLT Study Bible (NLT) - For those who like the way the NLT reads or who are new to reading Scripture, this is a fantastic combination of Biblical scholarship and an easy-to-read translation.
NIV Study Bible (NIV) - This is perhaps the best-selling study Bible on the market for a reason.
The Quest Study Bible (NIV) - Instead of focusing on study notes, the Quest Bible contains thousands of questions which readers were asked to submit along with answers by top Biblical scholars in the margins of each page. This is an excellent study Bible to give to anyone who's new to reading and studying the Bible, but might be intimidated by larger more comprehensive ones.
The NET Bible (NET) - This is the online digital version which can be downloaded to any computer, tablet or smartphone. Print editions are also available.
ESV Study Bible (ESV) - though at times a bit biased toward the Reformed/Calvinist traditions, this is still an excellent resource overall and contains a number of fantastic essays in the back on various aspects of Biblical interpretation.
There are other good study Bibles out there, of course...along with many that aren't so good! However, these are a few in particular that I frequently recommend.
[For more on this choosing and using a good study Bible, see the author's DVD course "The Bible for the Rest of Us."]